Stills from The Uncertainty Lectures, a film about neutrinos, dark matter and uncertainty.
[a work in progress for 2016].
I’ve started working on my final year MFA project – a series of works in different media looking at the history of the concepts of uncertainty, progress and crisis – across physics, epistemology, political theory and literature – and how this history informs present understandings of the three concepts.
I’ve been thinking of a way to bring Lucan’s Pharsalia, which was the text I studied for my DPhil., into the fold of this project partly because I love it, but also because I think it works well as a starting point for a loose conceptual history of “crisis”.
There’s something about contemporary rhetoric, particularly in a news context, in relation to the use of the word crisis which I find deeply unsettling and extremely ahistorical. Housing crisis, oil crisis, environmental crisis, terror crisis, suicide pilot crash crisis, Eurozone crisis. The word becomes almost meaningless in its constant overuse. My reading of the present moment as one beholden to the idea of crisis stems from what seems to be an underlying cultural anxiety about information overload (coupled, perhaps, with a lack of “real” knowledge), the media’s need to make profit by the selling of constant catastrophe, decision-making fatigue, and the digital present’s lack of a filter. All of these factors, plus others no doubt, aid us in our collective efforts to privilege the present as an urgent time of crisis, viewing the past as a far more benign period of crisis-free living. They never had to deal with housing shortages, global warming or airplane hijackings. Never mind that the render ghosts of the past had to deal with famine, enclosure, plague, war, nuclear bombs, etc.
One of the reasons I love the Pharsalia in the context of undercutting assumptions about contemporary notions of crisis is because, not only does it take as its subject an important historical moment of crisis (nearly 20 years of civil wars) – when Rome lost its so-called freedom – but because it also takes a no-mercy approach to apportioning blame. In his inimitably vitriolic style, Lucan chastises the major actors – Pompey, Caesar and Cato – for their part in the crisis, but he reserves his harshest judgement for the Roman people, who he holds primarily responsible for the loss of the freedom of Rome.
The following passage describes the scene as Caesar enters Rome with his troops, after crossing the Rubicon.
Sic fatur, et urbem
Adtonitam terrore subit. Namque ignibus atris
Creditur, ut captae, rapturus moenia Romae,
Sparsurusque deos. Fuit haec mensura timoris:
Velle putant, quaecumque potest. Non omina festa,
Non fictas laeto voces simulare tumultu:
Vix odisse vacat Phoebea palatia complet
Turba Patrum, nullo cogendi iure senatus,
E latebris educta suis. Non consule sacrae
Fulserunt sedes: non proxima lege potestas
Praetor adest: vacuaeque loco cessere curules,
Omnia Caesar erat. Privatae curia vocis
Testis adest. Sedere Patres censere parati,
Si regnum, si templa sibi, iugulumque senatus,
Exsiliumque petat. Melius, quod plura iubere
Erubuit, quam Roma pati.
Pharsalia, Book 3: 97-112
So he descends to a city thunderstruck by terror.
For they believe he will torch the walls of Rome,
scotch it like a captured city, scattering her gods.
This was the extent of their dread: they think his will
is equal to his power. No one has time to invent
good omens, or to feign a shout of acclamation,
let alone dissent. A mob of patricians
packs the Palatine temple of Phoebus, and a Senate –
convened without authority – is brought out of hiding.
No sacred benches shine with consul’s cluster,
and the praetors, next in lawful power, are absent,
their empty ivory chairs are moved from their places.
Everything was Caesar. The Senate assembles as witness
to one man’s private interests. The fathers were prepared
to sit and vote, should he seek monarchy, or a temple,
or even the throats and exile of the Senate. Good thing
he blushed as demanding more than Rome would endure.
From Matthew Fox’s 2012 Penguin Classics translation.
“Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!”
His brother used to say that thought is always of the heights, Wittgenstein says. Of the mountains. The thinker must soar above everything. Close to the truth. Close to eternal things.
His brother dreamt of a celestial logic, Wittgenstein says. A system of logic that blazed in the sky. A logical system at one with the order of things, that might be divined in the order of things. A logic that God Himself must have studied, before embarking on the Creation.
It is a terrible thing for the thinker to be sent down from the heights, his brother told him – to be forced to return to the world.
But what if thought is low, and not high?, Wittgenstein says. What if the thinker’s place is below things, or with things, rather than above it all?
What if to think is to sink, not to rise?, Wittgenstein stays. What if thinking is falling, failing, defeat? What if thought is the eclipse, not the sun? What if thought is mist, not clarity? What if thought is getting lost, not discovering? What if thought is waylessness, and not the way?
Wittgenstein Jr., Lars Iyer (149)
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of progress, particularly a critique of the idea of linear or cumulative progress in contemporary society/culture. I’ve also been reading a lot of texts/papers/letters by the founders of quantum mechanics. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the two have fused together in my mind in a strange, not altogether unsympathetic fashion.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking of Heisenberg’s intuition that the particle tracks visible in Wilson’s cloud chamber images did not represent the trajectory of the particle. The particle did not have a path which could be directly observed. Thus, for Heisenberg, the idea of electron paths should not even appear in the theory. The apparent continuity of the paths is produced by many, discrete (i.e. not connected), particle collisions and ionisations. And because each random collision changes the motion of the particle in an unpredictable way, it is not possible to assign a definite location and speed at each and every point along the path.
I like this as a metaphor for a different reading of the concept of progress. Here, progress is no longer a clear trajectory moving towards some sort of perfection of behaviour or being. Rather, it’s progress understood as a series of discrete historical points, where random events cause unpredictable changes in society. Progress with its own uncertainty principle built in seems infinitely more interesting, challenging and intriguing than one which hubristically assumes human society is travelling ever-closer to the perfection of its own society/science/technology/etc.
“For the first time, therefore, I now had the opportunity to talk with Einstein himself. On the way home, he questioned me about my background, my studies with Sommerfeld. But on arrival, he at once began with a central question about the philosophical foundation of the new quantum mechanics. He pointed out to me that in my mathematical description the notion of “electron path” did not occur at all, but that in a cloud chamber the track of the electron can of course be observed directly. It seemed to him absurd to claim that there was indeed an electron path in the cloud chamber, but none in the interior of the atom. The notion of a path could not be dependent, after all, on the size of the space in which the electron’s movements were occuring. I defended myself to begin with by justifying in detail the necessity for abandoning the path concept within the interior of the atom. I pointed out that we cannot, in fact, observe such a path; what we actually record are frequencies of the light radiated by the atom, intensities and transition probabilities, but no actual path. And since it is but rational to introduce into a theory only such quantities as can be directly observed, the concept of electron paths ought not, in fact, to figure in the theory.
To my astonishment, Einstein was not at all satisfied with this argument. He thought that every theory in fact contains unobservable quantities. The principle of employing only observable quantities simply cannot be consistently carried out. And when I objected that in this I had merely been applying the type of philosophy that he, too, has made the basis of his special theory of relativity, he answered simply: “Perhaps I did use such philosophy earlier, and also wrote of it, but it is nonsense all the same.”… …He pointed out to me that the very concept of observation was itself already problematic. Every observation, so he argued, presupposes that there is an unambiguous connection known to us, between the phenomenon to be observed and the sensation which eventually penetrates into our consciousness. But we can only be sure of this connection, if we know the natural laws by which it is determined. If, however, as is obviously the case in modern atomic physics, these laws have to be called into question, then even the concept of “observation” loses its clear meaning. In that case, it is the theory which first determines what can be observed.”
– from Heisenberg’s Encounters with Einstein, published in 1983.
Research visit to ONKALO, one of the very few nearly active long-term nuclear waste storage sites in the world. Onkalo is 430 metres below ground, taking advantage of Finland’s naturally stable gneiss bedrock. Final disposal is scheduled to begin in 2020 with the repository scheduled to be sealed in 2120.
ONKALO is situated on the site of the Olkiluoto power plants in the west of Finland, and I was also able to visit the Olkiluoto 3 power plant, currently under construction, to see the as yet unfinished reactor hall.
I brought a field camera on the trip. Some of the images from the 4×5.
“If everyone defined what was beautiful and wise in the same way,
There would be no quarrelling or strife among men.
As things are, nothing is similar or equal among mortals
save their use of words; the reality they refer to is not the same.”