Keats & Quanta: The Cat Is Dead

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For the past century, no truths have been more bizarre, or more infamously difficult to conceptualize, than those of quantum mechanics. Its predictions have been verified to an accuracy that far exceeds any other physical theory ever developed, and yet, some of the greatest thinkers ever to have lived—even Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger, pioneers of the theory—had difficulty accepting the phenomenal implications of interpreting the theory’s mathematical formalism. Richard Feynman, the charismatic second generation quantum physicist, famously quipped, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” It is no easy task, then, for the writer without a considerable scientific background to intelligently and meaningfully engage with it.

The most explicit attempt to address QM in literature can be found in Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen,” which imagines and reimagines the enigmatic meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the Nazi-occupied Denmark of 1941. Heisenberg was working on the Nazi nuclear project (either on a bomb or a reactor—we still don’t know); Bohr was a Dane, and would later flee due to his Jewish ancestry. The meeting ended badly, and the two, once the best of friends, never spoke again.

The play is an admirable attempt to integrate science and literature, but it quickly descends into an endless pun about uncertainty—as in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—which the play itself never quite cognizes. The work suffers from an overabundance of mere observations of the ways human behavior can correspond with anthropomorphic interpretations of QM. This method is inherently problematic; the physics can really only tell us the outcomes of experiments concerning the quantum world. At best it allows room to imagine what subatomic particles do, but that has nothing to do with what humans do.

The art world more successfully engaged with relativity, QM’s better-behaved older brother. While concepts like warped space-time are hardly possible to visualize, its effects are easier to understand. When the theory became famous in 1919, it had a significant effect on the art world (see Kandinsky circa the 1920s). The way the theory forced us to reconsider our everyday concepts of space and time radically altered our renderings of them through art.

QM, on the other hand, firstly is impossible to visualize, and secondly doesn’t really alter our conceptions of such everyday things. What it talks about are things that have nothing to do with our everyday experience. Relativity explains why apples fall from trees onto physicists’ heads, why the year divides into warmth and cold—perennial questions. QM resolves relatively esoteric problems, and its subject matter is neither planets nor ballistics, but rather subatomic particles. It admittedly alters our conception of causality, though not as significantly as an artist might desire. All in all, it describes a world that has nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with our everyday experiences.

What QM does have, however, is the word, “uncertainty.” Uncertainty is a mathematical relation between certain pairs of measurable qualities, like position and momentum. It says that if you can measure X to within a degree of certitude, then the maximum certitude you can get for Y is a function of the certitude for X. As a consequence of wave-particle duality, you can’t measure both quantities as accurately as you want to. What this means epistemologically and metaphysically is perpetually up for debate.

Uncertainty, in its more general usage, is something with which literature is far more intimate. We’re all aware of our own incomplete knowledge and inability to divine the future. This is the very motivation for physics in the first place. And the word forms the core of perhaps the most accurate and beautiful conception of poetics—John Keats’s “Negative Capability”: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” I believe that herein rests the trap of “quantum literature”: the purposeful conflation of Keats’s and Heisenberg’s uncertainties.

This is exactly where Frayn’s play (which, for the record, I enjoyed) fails. “Copenhagen” outlines an “irritable reaching after fact & reason” as Bohr and Heisenberg search to accurately reconstruct their fateful meeting. But every time they get one part of the story down, another part becomes immeasurable—pseudo-uncertainty relations. The play ends with nothing resolved, the characters having accepted the “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.” But it’s a stretch.

Negative capability has nothing to do with the Uncertainty Principle. Uncertainty is the product of a great deal of the most “irritable reaching after fact & reason” the world has ever seen, and has contributed to our most accurate physical theory to date. Heisenberg’s uncertainty, both the consequence and the cause of much “reaching after fact & reason,” is antithetical to Keats’s.

I’m not saying that QM doesn’t have a place in literature. On the contrary, I’m afraid that literature has not yet adequately engaged with some of our strangest and most delightful mysteries. Instead, it’s gone remarkably astray in the hopes creating spaces from which to exercise negative capability.

In Jorie Graham’s poem “Europe,” the speaker wanders present-day Omaha Beach watching children make sand castles when her thoughts turn to subatomic particles. Yet she renders the scientific images in themselves, with no pretension to metaphor or conceit, even issuing a warning: “Don’t seek. It is not open to seeking.” The ambiguity of the scientific fact’s actual connection with one’s life resonates the poem into a deeper emotional plane. This is negative capability. The beauty of science lies in and of itself, and the artist’s job is to present it as is, a strange result of reason and perception, and how we are unsure of just what it means to us that the world is as it is.