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Lines of Thinking - April 2017: "Cascade Experiment"

“Lines of Thinking” is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley.  

April, 2017

Meeting the Universe Halfway

First, let me assure you, there is a poem in the winding path that follows. It is one I return to often, especially these days when the undermining of art and science, the dangerous posturing around national agendas, and the flouting of even minimal rules of ethical conduct increase the threat to our already imperiled planet. 

Over seventy years ago, the advent of atomic warfare caused Albert Einstein to question his contributions to the science that enabled it. He famously said, “Everything has changed, but our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I would have become a watch maker.” (Less well known than this after-the-fact statement is that Einstein, encouraged by a number of other scientists, wrote a personal appeal to President Roosevelt to abandon the attempt to develop atomic weapons altogether. We know how that turned out: the threat of nuclear attack is a greater risk now than it has been for decades).

That aside, I wonder what Einstein would make of our progress since his famous remark. He would certainly marvel at how science has evolved to push the bounds of knowledge and understanding of the complex, quantum web of planet, universe and reality. Yet I suspect he would lament how little these seismic discoveries have informed our thinking about how to live wisely; how little they have penetrated our thinking on the shared governance and conduct of human actions. Which of our nations, religions, social systems, or communities is not implicated in this state of affairs? Which of our institutions have we sought to reshape in light of our knowledge of a quantum world?  As someone who has worked in higher education for nearly four decades, I am pained to say our colleges and universities, while they have supported breakthrough research in every serious field of inquiry, have remained largely constant to the structural and ideological paradigms that hold back the new, more holistic thinking Einstein had in mind.

The physicist Basarab Nicolescu looked to address the problem in A Manifesto for Transdisciplinarity (2002), which sets principles for aligning the development and use of knowledge in ways that more fully promote and value cultural variance and diversity, social cohesion and the importance of an inner life. (These principles might be the starting points for the formation of a new kind of place of learning—a quantum college, if you will. Recently at Antioch, I have begun discussing this intriguing possibility with a few students, faculty and friends. As we evolve our vision for the College, I am looking forward to broadening and deepening that investigation.) But the question of how to make the leap from an old to a new way of thinking remains. The costs of not changing are so apparent, the evidence so incontrovertible, the toll on the environment and the quality of lives so morally unsupportable. If our best educational systems and most progressive policy makers have failed to make the case, then what is our recourse?

Scientists, scholars, activists, religious leaders and others, some perhaps taking their cue from E.O. Wilson’s beautiful book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), have pointed to the powerful synthesis, or reframing of understanding, that occurs when seemingly disparate strands of knowledge and ways of knowing are interwoven and consequently form something new—such as through the process of consilience. David Edwards (The Lab, 2010, and ARTSCIENCE, 2008), who teaches the Practice of Ideas at Harvard University, has made the notion central to his collaborative laboratory spaces in Boston and Paris, where any borders between creative and scientific exploration, if they exist at all, are permeable, unfixed and, therefore, undetermined. Problem solving and applications of all sorts are produced through these efforts, with the results being exhibited in galleries open to the public. Shifting understanding often does not require new research or more evidence, but can be achieved by reframing the knowledge that already exists. The exhibit “Strange Weather,” a visual translation interpretation of climate change data curated in Dublin by Zach Zenfled and Cat Kramer at the Science Lab Dublin, was filled with examples of how artists and designers dramatically showed rather than explained the present and future dangers of inaction around climate change. Marina Zurkow’s smart and frightening mannequins of children wearing neon green HazMat suits, evocative of the duckling yellow rain coats we are used to seeing, was but one example.

A movement towards trans-disciplinary thinking and collaborative action does not require abandonment or watering down of intellectual rigor—in fact, according to Nicolescu, it cannot. Rather, it must move us to embrace the realities of a quantum universe, and not allow them to be willfully ignored or oversimplified in service to intolerant structures and closed systems that would blunt their insight. In a work every bit as astounding (and beautiful) as Wilson’s, the physicist and feminist, Karen Barad, insists that her reader follow with her through the core thought-experiments that brought us quantum mechanics. Not an easy journey for the untutored (that would definitely include me), and yet Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007) is a book that many artists I know—Ann Hamilton for one—refer to with great respect.  It is definitely on my quantum college reading list.

But where, you ask, is the poem?

“Cascade Experiment,” from the Alice Fulton collection Powers of Congress, is reproduced at the end of Barad’s book, which takes its title from a line in the poem. Here again is an example of art’s ability to render complex ideas, ambiguities, and new ways of thinking that might change not just our minds, but also our hearts.

Cascade Experiment   

Because faith creates its verification

and reaching you will be no harder than believing

in a planet’s caul of plasma,

or interacting with a comet

in its perihelion passage, no harder

than considering what sparking of the vacuum, cosmological

impromptu flung me here, a paraphrase, perhaps,

for some denser, more difficult being,

a subsidiary instance, easier to grasp

than the span I foreshadow, of which I am a variable,

my stance is passional towards the universe and you.

 

Because faith in fact can help create those facts,

the way electrons exist only when they’re measured,

or shy people stand alone at parties,

attract no one, then go home and feel more shy,

I begin by supposing our attrition’s no quicker

than a star’s, that like electrons

vanishing on one side

of a wall and appearing on the other

without leaving any holes or being

somewhere in between, the soul’s decoupling

is an oscillation so inward nothing outward

as the eye can see it.

The childhood catechisms all had heaven,

an excitation of mist.

Grown, I thought a vacancy awaited me.

Now I find myself discarding and enlarging

both these views, an infidel of amplitude.

 

Because truths we don’t suspect have a hard time

making themselves felt, as when thirteen species

of whiptail lizards composed entirely of females

stay undiscovered due to bias

against such things existing,

we have to meet the universe halfway.

Nothing will unfold for us unless we move toward what

looks to us like nothing: faith is a cascade.

The sky’s high solid is anything

but, the sun going under hasn’t

budged, and if death divests the self

it’s the sole event in nature

that’s exactly what it seems.

 

Because believing a thing’s true

can bring about that truth,

and you might be the shy one, lizard or electron,

known only through advances

presuming your existence, let my glance be passional

toward the universe and you.

 

Barad ends Meeting the Universe Halfway with a paragraph resonant of Einstein’s concern, but with greater conviction of a way through:

“A delicate tissue of ethicality runs through the marrow of being. There is no getting away from ethics—mattering is an integral part of the ontology of the world in its dynamic presencing. Not even a moment exists on its own. “This” and “that”, “here” and “now”, don’t preexist what happens but come alive with each meeting. The world and its possibilities for becoming are remade with each moment. If we hold on to the belief that the world is made of individual entities, it is hard to see how even our best, most well-intentioned calculations for right action can avoid tearing holes in the delicate tissue structure of entanglements that the lifeblood of the world runs through. Intra-acting responsibly as part of the world means taking account of the entangled phenomena that are intrinsic to the world’s vitality and being responsive to the possibilities that might help us flourish. Meeting each moment, being alive to the possibilities of becoming, is an ethical call, an invitation that is written into the very matter of all being and becoming. We need to meet the universe halfway, to take responsibility for the role that we play in the world’s differential becoming.”