NEILS BOHR: ‘There is no quantum world. There’s only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics is what we can say about nature.’
A surprising overlap in thinking: What Neils Bohr and Henry Miller both say about the creative process
SERENDIPITY LANDED IT ON MY LAP.
In a dusty, sun-caked patio of a lending library in Phnom Penh, the worn volume tossed towards me by a longtime friend, with the abrupt grunt, and a halfhearted recommendation. ‘This one, maybe. You might like it, A.’
Henry Miller. The Colossus of Maroussi.
I still haven’t returned it. One day, eventually, but it is too nice to read and reread the dense packets of prose that answer life’s big questions: what is our purpose, how can we reconcile our callings towards the esoteric (live artfully, miraculously) when the world is ravaging itself in global warming, apathy, fragmentation, and war. I lately read classics more and more. They seem to have some of these things organized and carefully, beautifully, and quite convincingly spelled out.
What we are, how we are meant to live, and what we might yet become are super giant metaphysical questions. When I talk about metaphysics, people get kind of all distant and a little weirded out. Science is hard, I get the rebuttal. I spent a lot of time in a part of America with the highest concentration of PhDs (this would be Raleigh-Durham), and often, more often than I care to admit, ran up against the celebration of logic over all.
Logic is a mess. Logic is killing us. And logic isn’t working. When we have the world upping in temperature inch by inch, the empire of Disney comes along and tries to put it out of our mind with a pretty little distracting animation about a world of cold and ice. A movie glorifying war comes out at just exactly the time as, guess what? Real war’s on. This is weird, but this is the world we are in. I was in this bungalow in a hippie outlay in a rural part of Cambodia one day, just hanging out on a hammock, and this older guy gets it that I’m getting him, and just tells me point blank, it’s all over. ‘The truth will be buried in a sea of irrelevance. You should read Aldous Huxley.’ ‘Tell me more.’
CAN’T SAY THAT I AM A BIG READER. I like talking, though. Correspondence in the written form is cool, too. What matters is the quality of exchange. The dialogue. Value is the awareness of something new, an input that is beginning to plant somewhere, and inform the old learnings. I am reading for the sake of curating a magazine. I don’t have much else to read, except what will engage the people I care about. The ones who ask questions.
Miller, describing his thoughts at being taken to an astronomical observatory in Athens along with his friend Lawrence Durrell:
The image I shall always retain is that of Chartres, an effulgent rose window shattered by a hand grenade. I mean it in a double or triple sense—of awesome, indestructible beauty, of cosmic violation, of world ruin suspended in the sky like a fatal omen, of the eternality of beauty even when blasted and desecrated. ‘As above, so below,’ runs the famous saying of Hermes Trismegistus. To see the Pleiades through a powerful telescope is to sense the sublime and awesome truth of these words. In his highest flights,musical and architectural above all, for they are one, man gives the illusion of rivaling the order, the majesty and the splendor of the heavens; in his fits of destruction the evil and the desolation which he spreads seems incomparable until we reflect on the greate stellar shake-ups brought on by the mental aberations of the unknown Wizard. Our hosts seemed impervious to such reflections; they spoke knowingly of weights, distances, substances, etc. They were removed from the normal activities of their fellow-men in quite a different way from ourselves. For them beauty was incidental, for us everything. For them the phsyicomathematical world palped, calibred, weighted and transmitted by their instruments was reality itself, the stars and planets mere proof of their exeellent and infallible reasong. For Durell and myself reality lay wholly beyond the reach of their puny instruments which in themselves were nothing more than clumsy reflections of their circumsribed imagination locked forever inthe hypothetical prison of logic.
Their astronomical figures and calculations, intended to impress and overawe us, only caused us to smiole indulgently or to very impolitely laugh outright at them. Speaking for myself, facts and figures have always left me unimpressed.’ —Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, published in New Directions Books: New York, 1941
Neils Bohr takes it further
THE WEIRD PART IS this. Henry Miller’s ideas about precision and logic and the people who profess that this is the prime tier of thinking itself is right in line with the physicist who gave us the model of the atom, Neils Bohr.
Now, I have been writing quite a bit here lately about my rambles in DENMARK. And the Neils Bohr Institute visit in particular, for example, features in a strong, central way in the new book I am writing (more on that some other time). Mainly, I wanted to get back to Phnom Penh and find a different library, one that has textbooks and not just novels, so I foudn the ___ university on the second floor above a moto parking lot and went on in, and got to the physics section, which I already knew about because of some old research on Bohm and qualia, and discovered, quite happily, a biography of Neils Bohr.
The man who became so well-loved in Copenhagen that taxi drivers taking physicists invited to study there took no money for their clients when they heard the destination was the Neils Bohr Institute has given us, as Miller, a lot of meaty and comprehensive thought on our collective work in life to be the best humans we can. Like Miller, he gets easily irritated with people who profess to know things, absolutely. What I learned from being in Denmark, as the biographer also comments, is that one must suspend his conditioning that directs us to speak and act as though we are ‘correct.’
There is no quantum world. There’s only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics is what we can say about nature.