New Book Connects Quantum and Culture, Finds Deep Meaning and Lots of Laughs
Stony Brook Professors Tell a Tale of Physics and Life
STONY BROOK, N.Y., September 26, 2014 – Quantum mechanics is not for the faint of heart—or mind, and yet the notion has been embraced by modern culture. A new book by two Stony Brook University professors, THE QUANTUM MOMENT: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty, tells the story of how the quantum passed from physics into everyday life.
“It’s about how the quantum went mainstream; how it affected human culture, not just science,” says Robert P. Crease, professor and former chairman in the Stony Brook University Department of Philosophy. “How did a dozen or so terms and images of a remote corner of physics make it on to T-shirts and coffee cups, and into novels and philosophical tomes?”
Crease co-authored the book—to be published October 13 by W.W. Norton—with physicist Alfred Scharff Goldhaber, a professor in the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Stony Brook University Department of Physics and Astronomy. Says Goldhaber, “Rather than look at the many devices whose workings are applications of quantum mechanics, we explore the influence of quantum mechanics on culture, including art and literature. We find a lot of evidence that quantum ideas have penetrated widely; poets and painters make use of these images, and rightly assume that readers and viewers will recognize them.”
Quantum—from the Latin quantus, meaning how much—is the name given to the fact that energy comes in finite packages and is not infinitely divisible. The term was coined in 1900 to explain puzzling results regarding how light is emitted and absorbed. After Werner Heisenberg introduced his famous Uncertainty Principle in 1927, scientists began describing quantum mechanics to nonscientists. Artists, painters, philosophers, and others took note.
Quantum images and terminology became metaphors in the public imagination. Today, Schrödinger’s Cat and the equation for Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle are on book covers, tattoos, and wine bottle labels. “It’s the Heisenberg principle,” President Barack Obama said in a Vanity Fair interview, of the way he interacts with advisors in gathering information. Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, referred to “quantum leaps in connection technologies,” when discussing how she can conduct foreign policy. Quantum imagery and language appear in books like Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home and Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem.
Crease and Goldhaber got the idea for the book from a course of the same name they have co-taught for past six years. “Seven years ago a freshman
student, Maaneli Derakhshani, was seeking a philosopher and a physicist to teach a course in the philosophy of quantum mechanics,” Crease recalls (Derakhshani went on to get his BS in Physics at Stony Brook, and is now a Teaching Assistant at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska in the Department of Physics and Astronomy). “It seemed a wacky topic, and Fred and I were the only ones who bit.”
The professors provide readings on the history of classical and quantum mechanics, and the art and literature they have generated. Students—a mix of physics and philosophy majors, and others with varied concentrations, “discover things that are new to them, and they respond enthusiastically and creatively,” Goldhaber says. “We felt that writing a book would give us a chance to share this rewarding experience with a much wider audience.”
In the book, Crease and Goldhaber look at how and why the idea of the quantum took hold. They expose the pretentious and goofy—quantum language in popular discourse, full of buzzwords designed to impress or dazzle—and the genuine insights, which signal a cultural shift. They explore the missteps and mistranslations, the jokes and gibberish, as well as the quantum’s manifestations in art, sculpture, and the prose of John Updike and David Foster Wallace, and its implications for knowledge, metaphor, intellectual exchange, and the contemporary world.
Crease believes that quantum imagery arrived at just the right time to provide vivid imagery that captures the modern experience. Or, as he and Goldhaber say in the book, “By heightening our sensitivity to the gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles of experience, quantum language and imagery has made the world itself different.”
The authors do the world and the educational community a service—amid the debate about the relative merits of a sciences versus humanities education—by entwining the two disciplines.
“Philosophy and physics meet just about everywhere,” Crease says. “Science isn’t just a set of tools; it implies meanings about the nature of the world and our relation to it.” Says Goldhaber, referring to the Greek origins of the word philosophy—philo+sophia, love of wisdom—“As the name indicates, all scholarly disciplines originated with philosophy. As recently as the early twentieth century, a prominent British physics journal was called ‘The Philosophical Magazine.’”
The two authors will host an exhibition of quantum-inspired art at the Simons Center gallery on the Stony Brook University campus. The event will open on Thursday, December 4, with an introductory lecture by the Harvard University physicist and artist Eric J. Heller, whose digital abstract art is inspired by the quantum realm of electrons, atoms, and molecules.
“The exhibit will illustrate art that illuminates many different manifestations of quantum mechanics,” Goldhaber says. “Some of the art is based directly on the science; in other work, the relation is more inspiration than application.” Adds Crease, “This kind of interdisciplinary collaboration is exactly the kind of engagement that Stony Brook’s special environment fosters.”
The collaboration of philosopher Crease and physicist Goldhaber speak to the importance of that interdisciplinary approach—not only at the university, but in each individual’s intellectual life.
The book says it best.
“Understanding and appreciating quantum language and imagery—along with the ability to recognize fruitloopery [the use of scientific terminology without comprehension for effect]—is part of what it means to be an educated person in the twenty-first century. It is an education that requires learning elements of both science and the humanities. Such an education requires crossing many traditional disciplinary boundaries, but that is the entangled state of literacy today. Facing the Quantum Moment requires a new framework for the humanities of the twenty-first century.”
TITLE: THE QUANTUM MOMENT
SUBTITLE: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty
AUTHORS: Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber
PUBLICATION DATE: October 13, 2014
PUBLISHER: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.