Quantum leaps

Samuel CoaleConnecting physics and literature, setting off intellectual fireworks

In my many years of experience as a professor, there is nothing like the excitement of a new idea or insight—that leap of thought that suddenly sends you off in search of new territories and discoveries. I’m reminded of that each time I prepare to teach “Sex, Lies and Quantum Leaps,” and I recall how it all began.

In 2005, after I finished writing my book, Paradigms of Paranoia: The Culture of Conspiracy in Contemporary American Fiction, which dealt with the fractured, fragmented structure and vision of postmodern novels written by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Joan Didion and others, I drifted into reading books on quantum theory written by scientists for the general public. The uncertainties of such a theory seemed to be mirrored in postmodern fiction: could there be a connection? I wondered.

For students, conspiracy theory had provided a nice way into novels by such writers. In one course I asked students to go online and discover a conspiracy theory, then report it to the class as if they were true believers and supporters. They then each wrote a paper analyzing the theory, looking for the weird leaps and holes in the argument, as they searched for inconsistencies and faulty assumptions.

I began to recognize that conspiracy is a fundamentalist reaction to the contemporary world that can appear disconnected, shattered, threatening and violent. Conspiracy provides the comfort that human agency lies behind the mess of things, that secret cabals are somehow in charge behind the scenes, that someone can be blamed for things not working well. So conspiracy provides an antidote to our postmodern situation—a world of confusion, like finding yourself in a bar that has been dressed up as a Hawaiian hut in Mumbai while a man plays the theme from Star Wars with one finger on a piano in waltz rhythm.

What else contributes to this postmodern malaise, this confusion? Since science is the “meta-narrative” of our age—Einstein was named the most important figure of the 20th century by Time magazine—shouldn’t it be influencing our perspective, shaping our perceptions and underwriting our way of seeing the cosmos around us? Darwin certainly changed our vision of the world. What about Einstein and his cohorts—and the explosive repercussions of quantum theory that erupted in the 1920s and have only recently begun to infiltrate the public mind?

There’s an academic angle here, too, of course, where research hits the road and gets incorporated into our courses. Research and teaching are not separate areas; each infects the other. Since 2003, when the idea of “Connections” became a part of Wheaton’s curriculum, every student must connect one field to another, such as the influence of evolution in Victorian literature and the theory of evolution in biology. Take a course in Victorian fiction, take a course in biology, have the instructors pool their resources to find some common ground and interpenetrating ideas, and allow the students to experience these connections. The point is to suggest that the humanities and natural sciences (as well as the social sciences) are not enemies, not separate spheres cut off from one another like remote planets in space, but are involved in similar pursuits from different perspectives. Einstein had his moments of inspiration; so did Shelley. Their vocabularies differ, but the “aha moments” seem strangely similar.

So why not quantum theory, physics and postmodern fiction? Any connections there? There should be, given the world we live in as we e-mail and tweet and Facebook and YouTube one another, operating in the realm of Chatroulette and Skype.

Descent into the quantum realm

So I read on—and on. Dissatisfaction with one explanation led me to another. Were there really parallel universes out there? Did string theory tie all loose ends together? Are pions and antineutrinos, quarks and gluons, positrons and muons real (supposedly fundamental particles, each has an arcane description that includes spin, mass, the lack of mass, color, and such that can be found in any list of particle physics, which continues to grow), or are these just code names for invisible “things?” Do these “things” actually exist? Are there “things” at all? If matter and antimatter create and annihilate each other over and over again, are they separate “entities” at all? How can we measure such things? Is there any difference between a particle, a wave and an energy field? And if all of this is merely an attempt to illuminate the parts of the universe that we can see—dark matter and dark energy lie totally outside of this theory and may comprise up to 96 percent of the universe altogether—where does that leave us?

I discovered that the quantum realm, buried deeply in the subatomic strata of existence, itself the “matter” of that subatomic realm, remains inaccessible, invisible, indefinable and, at the moment at least, unknowable. It may be some kind of flux or flow, a swarm, a fog, but none of it has ever been seen. Scientists can trace and track the trails of light that, depending on how they are measured, can be described as waves and/or particles. They are both. But how can that be? And what does it do to our language with its ability to describe logically what cannot be described logically?

Nineteenth-century physics clearly separated matter (particles in quantum theory) from energy (waves of light, electromagnetism). In 1905 Einstein proved that light was as much a particle as it was a wave. In fact,  he went on to prove that matter and energy were interchangeable, manifestations of the same forces and forms at different times and in different situations.

Quantum theorists in their experiments could see light either as a particle or a wave, depending upon what equipment they used to measure it. They were mutually exclusive, since they could not be seen simultaneously, but they were mutually inclusive, since both described light, and both were right.

But how could that be? It defied all normal logic, all cause-and-effect theory, and since our language is built logically upon cause and effect—a subject, a verb, the action upon an object—how could we ever get a grip on what was clearly nonrational, random and unprecedented?

“Sex, Lies and Quantum Theory”

I pushed on, exhilarated and stupefied. Everything at the subatomic level is “quantized,” both particle and wave. Everything is fragmented, scattered, disconnected. Everything is entangled with everything else. Space and time as we conceive of them are eradicated. Aha! That is also the case in postmodern fiction, which is episodic, disconnected, quantized into particles of insights and events. Everything is random, accidental. No one can predict how, when, where or why quantum leaps and transitions will occur. They emerge from some unseen “foam” out of which we, in our language with its grammatical rules and regulations, try to create and insist upon some kind of understandable form. Foam to form: How is this possible?

Where and how does such a quantized realm result in the three-dimensional, physically visible world that we live and roam around in? Are there borders? Where does the quantum world end and our own recognizable world begin? But if everything is quantized, how can there be a border at all? Is there some yet undetected twilight zone?

Because of quantum theory and its relation to postmodern fiction, the “Connections” curriculum, and the expressed interest of several students in my work, I decided to teach an experimental course on quantum theory and postmodern fiction. During the fall 2005 semester, the students read some theory, then selected facets of it to apply to their critical analyses of individual novels, after we discussed them for several weeks, and drew up charts and geometrical shapes and levels and arrows.

The students led discussions on each novel, weaving together some aspects of quantum theory with the fictional text we had just read. How do they compare? Do they compare? What specific influences can you detect? What happens when conventional customs and values break down—or open up—and leave characters stranded in a new “quantized” world of bits and pieces, bursts and babblings, coincidences and chance encounters? The students were on their own. There’s virtually nothing out there to guide them.

I called the course, “Sex, Lies and Quantum Theory,” hoping to attract a few students. About 35 showed up—and stayed. I had to admit that the “lie” was that there was no sex in the course. They still stayed.

During that first heady semester, Professor Bill Goldbloom Bloch from the math department came into our class to discuss quantum theory and give us excellent examples of how it might work, using rubber bands and his own wit. Professor Timothy Barker joined us from astronomy. We decided to have a panel discussion along with John Collins from the physics department one night in a dorm. It was to last an hour. Seventy students showed up.

The discussion lasted nearly three hours as we grappled with Einstein’s discovery that light was a series of particles, not the simple wave previous scientists had thought; his theory of relativity and the bending of both space and time; Niels Bohr’s idea that waves and particles, though never visible at the same time, complemented one another; Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in which you cannot measure a particle’s position and velocity at the same time. Measure one, and the other’s lost. Each incident is discrete, indivisible and irreducible.

Only statistical probabilities can tell us where a particle will eventually end up. In the face of such weird concepts, classical, three-dimensional physics falls apart, language collapses into strange metaphors in trying to imagine and make visible what isn’t. Cause and effect don’t operate in quantum theory, but they must in the language and logic we use to try to explain it.

Nobody has ever seen a moving quantum object, only the trail and track it leaves as it leaps from one stationary state to another as atoms randomly emit radiation. We can track the trail but never see the object. So then “electrons” and “protons” and “neutrons” are all metaphors, images that we’ve created as if we had really seen them. They become a kind of poetry, images of particle physics, creating an unfathomable chasm between the world that we know and the quantum world that we don’t. And if we can create by means of high-velocity collisions a new “particle” that doesn’t exist in nature and only lasts two-millionths of a second, is it really a “particle” at all?

Postmodern fiction wrestles with the unknowability of other people and of ourselves. Human motive becomes a quantum realm, a blur, invisible and inaccessible. Traditional linear plots, chronological and straightforward as created in most 19th-century novels, no longer mirror the world as we are coming to experience it. We can find no origin, no essence, no foundation, for everything happens by chance and is volatile and suddenly changeable. The self becomes an unstable and vaporous thing, as identity becomes a kind of crapshoot, an ongoing, percolating process and performance that can shift at any time into some other mode or dynamic. A radical skepticism questions all things, all structures, all the codes that we live by. We become entangled but not enlightened.

Take a look at the opening sentences of DeLillo’s The Body Artist, which is about a young woman’s grief after the suicide of her film-director husband:

“Time seems to pass. The world happens, unrolling into moments… . There is a quickness of light… and streaks of running luster…”

Here is a “quantized” style, moments broken down into particles of perception before the story even starts. Only to humans does time seem to pass. It’s our psychological perception of it that makes it seem that way. “The world happens”: where had I heard that before? It was a physicist’s remark. Things just happen without cause and effect, by chance, randomly. DeLillo seems to be zeroing in on a particular present moment in time before anything, including narration, can unroll into moments and begin a tale.

Mellon, Texas and Joyce Carol Oates

At a workshop about faculty grants, Professor of Sociology Kersti Yllo suggested I apply for a stipend from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. I’d read in The New Yorker that DeLillo had sold his notes and manuscripts to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. I called the center. “Come on down,” they suggested. So I got the Mellon Summer Research Award: “A New Initiative to Transform Teaching and Research,” flew to Texas—and discovered several of DeLillo’s notebooks in which he, too, was grappling with quantum theory as a basis for his novels, Underworld and The Body Artist. Pay dirt! Eureka! There were his interpretations of and quotations from articles on Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger and others.

I wrote an article on Joyce Carol Oates, “Psychic Visions and Quantum Physics: Oates’s Big Bang as the Limits of Language,” from the point of view of quantum theory that was published in Studies in the Novel (Winter 2006). This provided a perfect place to go public with the connection. Oates e-mailed me: “What a brilliant, fascinating essay you have written on my novels… . I have been interested in the themes you elucidate and I am particularly grateful that any reader/critic has taken the time to examine the style of my fiction.” I wanted to print T-shirts with her response writ large! But instead I began to write a book tentatively titled Quirks of the Quantum: Postmodernism and Contemporary American Fiction. The first draft of the book is now intact.

Such research—obsession?—spilled over directly into my course, “Quantum Theory and Contemporary American Fiction.” It has now become English 346 (“Contemporary American Fiction: Quirks, Quarks and Quests, or Sex, Lies and Quantum Leaps”) and has been connected to Physics 225 (“Modern Physics”) and Astronomy 130 (“The Universe”). Physics majors turned up in the class: they knew the equations. I certainly don’t—but had never stepped back to consider the theory behind and within them. Students lit up like lightning bugs. Most of their papers were so good I copied them to use in a special section in the forthcoming book, so their research will complement mine and at times perceptively contradict it.

I thought: why not try it as a first-year writing course? Would it work? It did, this last semester in English 101 (“Writing About Postmodern Fiction”). The students ate it up, pushing themselves beyond the usual assumptions and conventional perspectives.

So what started as a problem to solve on my part turned into an ongoing research project, which continues, that led to an experimental course in American fiction, which led to a Connection in the Wheaton curriculum once the course became permanently established, which led to a manuscript (which already publishers are nibbling at) and which filtered down to the first-year level, where it still packs a philosophical and metaphysical punch.

You never know where research will take you or how it will work its way into your courses and your students’ own research and writing, but it does, keeping both students and instructors on their toes, exploring things together, in cahoots with one another. This may be one of the essential glories of the small liberal arts college. Not only do we think about doing it, we do it. And then we do it again.

Bohr, the Nobel Prize–winning Danish physicist who was one of the founders of quantum theory, concluded that “those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.” Philip Kuberski, an associate professor of English at Wake Forest University, suggested that “the discrepancies between perceived reality and scientific knowledge had become irreconcilable except through a radical reconceptualization of the whole enterprise of representation.” N. Katherine Hayles, a professor in the program in literature at Duke University, would agree. “Quantum theory… has helped create postmodern consciousness… . Postmodern texts by such writers as Pynchon… and DeLillo finally do alter our culture’s relationship to reality,” she wrote in The Cosmic Web.

Way to go, N. Katherine. And the way for Wheaton students to go as well. Watch out for them sly, spinning quarks; they’ll derail you every time!Q

Sam Coale is an English professor whose main interests are American literature, particularly contemporary and pre–Civil War, and contemporary American culture and society. He frequently writes book reviews and has published several books, including The Mystery of Mysteries: Cultural Differences and Designs (2000), and Mesmerism and Hawthorne: Mediums of American Romance (1998). He is currently writing a book about critics of Hawthorne from 1840 to 2005, The Entanglements of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Quirks of the Quantum.

Glossary of terms

Postmodern fiction: Novels by such writers as Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Joan Didion and others that deconstruct and fragment normal linear narratives, create styles and episodes that appear scattered and disconnected, and try to reflect the confusion, disconnections and disruptions experienced in contemporary times.

Quantum theory: The philosophical basis for quantum physics, which explores the subatomic world, where everything, both matter and energy, exists in the form of little packets or quanta, and therefore are ultimately one and the same. It is based on the discovery that light exists both as particles and as waves, depending upon how these are measured. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, deals with actual mathematical formulae and experiments.

Meta-narrative: An ultimate narrative that underlies all others, such as the narrative of progress and self-reliance in American culture. Darwin’s evolution, for example, can be considered such a “master” narrative that appears as the major trajectory in the fiction of such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and others.

String theory: A theory uniting both particles and waves as different facets of strings, depending on how they are viewed. No physical proof yet exists.

“Quantized”: A word coined by Samuel Coale to describe the reduction of style to several separate moments and the fragmentation and episodic nature of the structure of much postmodern fiction.

Reading list

Do you want to catch up on your quantum theory and postmodern fiction? Here’s Samuel Coale’s suggested reading list:

Don DeLillo. The Body Artist (Scribner’s, 2001); Underworld (Scribner’s, 1997).
Timothy Ferris. The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report (Simon and Schuster, 1997).
Kenneth W. Ford. The Quantum World (Harvard University Press, 2004).
N. Katherine Hayles. Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science (The University of Chicago Press, 1991); The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century (Cornell University Press, 1984).
Werner Heisenberg. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (Harper Perennial, 1958).
Philip Kuberski. Chaosmos: Literature, Science and Theory (State University of New York Press, 1994).
Manjit Kumar. Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality (Norton, 2010).
Robert Laughlin. A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (Basic Books, 2005).
David Lindley. Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science (Doubleday, 2007).
Robert Oerter. The Theory of Almost Everything: The Standard Model, the Unsung Triumph of Modern Physics (Pi Press, 2006).