For a brief moment, quantum physics was cool. College intro physics classes rebranded themselves with such titles as “physics for poets” and taught a mostly mathless version of a science that remains our best way to explain how and why things work.
The courses inspired a tiny philosophical renaissance among those who, like me, weren’t quite satisfied with reality and the way things had worked out so far. When the professor described how light could be a particle, if you designed an experiment looking for particulate phenomena, or a wave, if you wanted to find a wave, those of us who preferred to sit in the back row of the lecture halls would universalize that as a relativism: life is a matter of attitude! If you accentuate the positive (as the song goes) you find the positive. If you look for the negative, you end up with…dark matter?! Gee whiz! The stuff I’ve always wanted to believe is true! Science says so!
Well, not quite. Just because we have rudimentary explanations for what happens at the sub-atomic level does not mean that these explanations apply to, or somehow supersede, the dependable, boring and unforgiving drudge of Newtonian physics, which is still the best explanation for why that alarm clocks ring, cars start, toilets flush, coffee gradually cools and a fan can catch a fly ball at a baseball game.
My favorite bit of gee-whiz quantum mechanics was non-locality, a rather complicated paradox that is often over-simplified as a psuedo-Newtonian law: two particles that interact with each other will continue to interact no matter how far apart they may be. This has actually been established experimentally, but only at the sub-atomic level.
Apply that to a relationship gone sour and you get a powerful rationalization to keep holding the torch for that lover who jilted you so long ago. You can imagine that, somewhere in a distant city, during a private moment, the one for whom you yearn just may be yearning for you.
So I carried a torch for my high school sweetheart and found out, after too many years, that it was true. I never got over her. She never got over me. We found each other again and married.
My once and current sweetheart teaches physics, She is the first to say that people aren’t subatomic particles. She easily draws a metaphysical line between quantum physics and the perceived world of everyday reality. Not only that, but she feels that dark matter isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
So how was it when I was in Miami, Hong Kong, Jerusalem and Oberlin, Ohio (where I attended college and did not take the Physics for Poets course) and she was in Tucson, San Francisco, Colorado Springs and Edgewater Park, New Jersey, we were missing each other?
How is it possible that though a friend and I see each other every two or three years, the conversation we’ve had going since we graduated high school has not ended? Life has brought many changes, but the things that matter to us not only remain vital, but continue?
The word “science” means too much. It once meant a way of knowing, and may derive from a root word that means to split, divide or distinguish. The scientific method is a procedure that tests an assumption by abstracting or isolating a phenomenon, observing that phenomenon, using the observation to confirm or discredit the assumption and then documenting everything with the hope that others will duplicate your results and that some consensus will result. Though this consensus has been wrong occasionally (dietary cholesterol is no longer considered a direct cause of heart disease, so it’s okay to eat bacon and eggs and use real butter on your bread!), it has been correct so often that it must be respected.
Science can discredit superstition. Its methodology is rational, rather than emotional.
Science is not, as some would wish, an enemy of religion, or a fraud perpetuated by an academic elite. A great deal of contemporary scientific study is sponsored by organizations connected to religious institutions. Though science continues to change our understanding of ourselves and where we are in the universe (sometimes to the annoyance of doctrinalists and traditionalists who resist points of view that challenge their certainty), it will never remove all the mystery, uncertainty and the miraculous from our lives.
I can’t speak for subatomic particles. But, as for my wife and I, miracles happen and love matters very, very much.