Excerpt from "A Private History of Awe"

Regarding Science & Physics... (pages 197-198)

…"What I found unsettled me. For the more I studied, the more I realized that uncertainty is woven into the very fabric of the universe.

I knew that Einstein had dissolved the distinction between energy and matter, showing them to be transmutations of the same fundamental reality, like steam and ice. But now I learned from quantum mechanics that we can never know what the ultimate reality is, because in the act of observing it we change it. Down at the smallest scale that science can reach, there is no essential "stuff," no underlying substance, only waves of probability shimmering in a field of potentiality. Beneath the last veil, it turns out, there are no solid particles, nothing like the billiard balls of classical physics, but only events, flashing in and out of existence like evanescent thoughts.

Newtonian physics presented the universe as a grand machine, made up of durable cogs and wheels interacting by measurable forces, as predictable in its movements as a well-made clock. A scientist could stand apart from this machine and know it objectively. But now I learned that such objectivity was an illusion, or at best an approximation that held up reasonably well in the everyday world. Classical physics was adequate for calculating the shape of an airplane wing or the orbit of a satellite, but it couldn't explain the curving of light from distant stars or the gambols of subatomic particles. At very large and very small scales, modern physics offered more accurate descriptions, yet only by admitting that what we're describing isn't nature in itself but the response of nature to our way of questioning. Our consciousness is entangled with the phenomena that we study.

Einstein himself taught us there is no privileged spot from which reality can be observed. Space has no center, time has no regular beat. According to relativity theory, nothing is fixed and firm except the speed of light, and some physicists, my teachers announced, were proposing that even light speed might be fickle. In rejecting quantum mechanics, Einstein famously said he didn't believe God played dice with the universe. But all the evidence suggest that, at the finest grain of things - a grain unimaginably finer than the biblical mustard seed - dice are indeed being rolled, if not by God then by the impersonal, implacable scheme we call nature. Down at the quantum level, the behavior of reality is random, and therefore unpredictable, not just in practice but in principle. We can describe those events mathematically, yet between our symbols and the events themselves there is an unbridgeable gap. Some of Einstein's own equations in support of the theory of relativity led to singularities, points where the laws of physics break down. He spent the latter decades of his career trying to erase those singularities and refute the implications of quantum mechanics, and he failed.

Over the course of my second year in college I was forced to accept that the language of science, no matter how precise and confident it seems, is no more capable of capturing reality than is the wayward language of poems and stories. No matter how many formulas we devise, no matter how many words we add to the dictionary, nature slips through our finest nets. As far as they go, our various languages are useful; they simply cannot go all the way to the source. They can only point to an unfathomable potency, a torrent of forms arising and perishing ever newly arising.

With the reluctance of one stepping away from shore into a flood, I let go of my faith in the clockwork universe. Modern physics convinced me to see the universe as an ebullient flow of energy, radiating outward from the Big Bang, casting into existence myriad forms - protons, galaxies, cicadas and persons - then dissolving them back into the flow.

Copyright © by Scott Russel Sanders
North Point Press, 2006