Our Mind Seems Counterproductive

I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and really love the discoveries, new ways of thinking about the world, and better understandings of the world that we gain from science. Science is a process that strives to be rational and to build on previous knowledge to better understand an objective reality. What is also interesting about science, is that it operates against the way our brains want to work. As much as I love science and as much as I want to be scientific in my thinking and approaches to the world, I understand that a great deal that shapes human beings and the world we build is not rational and seems counterproductive when viewed through a rational lens.

 

Part of the explanation for our minds being so irrational might be explained by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. The authors describe one reason for why our brains evolved to be as complex and irrational as they are: we evolved to be political and deceptive creatures, not to be rational and objective creatures with a comprehensive view of reality. “Here’s the puzzle:” write Simler and Hanson, “we don’t just deceive others; we also deceive ourselves. Our minds habitually distort or ignore critical information in ways that seem, on the face of it, counterproductive. Our mental processes act in bad faith, perverting or degrading our picture of the world.”

 

We act so irrationally and have such an incorrect view of the world according to Simler and Hanson because it helped our ancestors to be more deceptive and to survive. If you wish to tell a white lie to someone or if you really want to appear sincere in your thoughts and actions, it is much easier if you believe the things you are lying about. If you know you are lying and acting in bad faith, you have to be a really good actor or poker player to convince everyone else. We actually benefit if our brains fail to recognize exactly what is driving us and help us systematically not recognize inconvenient truths.

 

For example, I use Strava, a social media platform geared toward runners and cyclists. The app allows us to upload our GPS data from our runs and bike rides and to compare our routes and see who went the fastest along a particular street or who ran up a trail the fastest. At a base level I know that I am using the app because it allows me show off to other people just how good of a runner I am. But if you asked me at any given point why I upload all my workouts to Strava, I would tell you a story about wanting to keep up with friends, wanting to discover new places to go running, and about the data that I can get to analyze my performance. The first story doesn’t look so great for me, but the second one makes me sound social and intelligent. I am inclined to tell myself that is why I use the app and to deny, even to myself, that I use it because I want to prove that I am a better runner than someone else or to show off to my casual running friends who might log-in and see that I went on a long run.

 

Our brains are not the scientifically rational things I wish they were, but in many ways that is important for us as we try to build coalitions and social groups to get things done. We connect in ways that are beyond rationality, and sometimes we need the generous (though often false) view of ourselves as good actors to help us get through the day. We can strive for more rationality in our thoughts and actions, but we should accept that we will only get so far, and we shouldn’t hate ourselves or anyone else for not always having the nice and pure motives that we present.

Observation

A couple years ago, one of my good friends wrote a book called Vector Rising under the pen name Cole Carver. The book is a science fiction thriller about a character who is able to see a little bit ahead of normal people. The idea for Carver stemmed from the science behind the way the brain processes motion and images. By the time an image has made its way from the source, through our eyes, and into our head, we are seeing a little bit into the past. We see just a fraction into the past, not a huge amount but a real amount, and our brains make up for this by predicting what is going on around us, especially with any movement, and using that prediction to create what we see.

 

A line from the book reads, “While science depends on experimentation, I’m here today to talk to you about a different core element: observation. If you recall, it’s the first step in our most sacred methodology. Before we make our guesses and r un our tests, we must first figure out what it is we see.” This was dialogue from one character to another, but I think it is actually a great point for all of us in our lives. We assume we know what it is we see around us and we believe the things we observe about the world, but frequently what we see really isn’t really what is happening. Biases can creep into the way we interpret certain events, we can mis-remember things that took place (or didn’t take place), and we can see a dress as a different color than what it really is. Our observations are not always as good as we would believe, and it is important that we think critically about what we see and try to gain as many perspectives on important things as possible.

 

If we start running through the world too quickly and are in too much of a hurry to trust our observations, we risk making mistakes that can have real world consequences. We may see ourselves as infallible and as deserving a new car, a promotion, or a super hot spouse. Our observation is only on the amazing parts of who we are because we have chosen to be blind to reality by hiding away our faults. The guesses we derive from our false sense of self can lead us to make arrogant decisions and to behave in ways that put down other people. This is dangerous not just for ourselves, but for the people we may interact with as well.

 

Ultimately, we should spend less time assuming that we know the world based on what we see, and more time trying to understand if what we see is an accurate reflection of the world. We should be quicker to assume that we don’t see the whole picture, and spend more time trying to broaden our field of view and less time trying to perform experiments that confirm our guesses. Instead of being so certain that we see the world the right way, we should ask others how our views fall short, and we should adjust them to have better observations of what is really taking place in the world.

To More Fully Understand Reality

I really love science. Most of the shows on my podcast feed are science shows, and even though I am not a scientist myself, I love listening to new discoveries and trying to think about the world in the way a scientist would. Even though he is not a scientist himself, Colin Wright, in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, has a whole chapter dedicated to experimentation and what we are doing when use the scientific method to understand the world around us. This entire chapter resonated with me since I like to think about the world scientifically.

 

I spend a lot of time trying to approach the world in a rational and empirical way, continuously doubting the stories I tell myself and wanting objective confirmation of the things I experience. I forget how foreign this way of thinking can actually be for much of humanity. Many people do not truly approach the world following the scientific method and have not been trained to think in truly scientific ways. Our ancestors for thousands of years evolved in small groups where we could understand reality and bond at the same time by telling stories that explained how the world operated and how humans should exist within it. It is only relatively recently in human history that we found out how to interrogate the world through experimentation to truly see what was happening in front of us.

 

Wright writes, “Our understanding of the world, the galaxy, the universe in which we live, is increased through a scientific model, which allows us to posit ideas and then test them systematically.” A challenge for humanity is recognizing that we further our understanding by developing testable hypothesis and designing experiments that set out to prove those hypothesis false. It is too easy to prove what you want to believe is true and approaching science and the universe in this way presents us with too many opportunities to nudge the data and methods to get the results we hope for. Setting out to rigorously try to disprove your theory leaves you in a place where you never quite confirm what you believe, but as you eliminate different alternatives that would prove your thoughts false, you gain more confident that your idea is an accurate reflection of  the world. “We observe, we experiment, we refine and experiment some more, and we eventually learn something that we can express and act upon.”

 

Wright suggests that part of why this is so hard for so many people is because, “this is in part a consequence of having been told since birth that our opinions are just as good as anyone else’s.” We live in a world today where we feel as though we are supposed to have an opinion about everything. It feels like we should come up with the answer for every problem, even if we have no reasonable basis for having an opinion. I believe that is part of why we operate unscientifically, but I also think that human nature does not favor believing in something because we have systematically tested it and ruled out alternatives in a legitimate manner. It is far easier, and often more comforting, to believe the world is a certain way because it feels intuitively correct. Striving to use the scientific method in our lives, however, has incredible payoffs as we step away from the false narratives and stories we create in our head and learn to live with more accurate information that better reflects the reality of the universe without preconceived expectations of what that reality should be.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of my Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform and shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and at best develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks as physicists try to understand quantum mechanics within the framework of physics laid out by Einstein and relativity. Throughout her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts within their own physics studies. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring this idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea is exactly the idea of social construction that I touched on in the opening note, but Gefter quotes a note in one of wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics,” which sounds a bit like social construction to me as someone who studies public policy.

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions in physics described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions such as how gravity works.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs the way we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspectives matter, when it comes to politics, science, and even physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to model, study, and experiment with our lives and the universe.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of a Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform ad shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks preventing us from linking Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Throughout her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts on their own. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring an idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea exactly the idea of social construction in politics and governance that I touched on in the opening note. Gefter quotes a note in one of Wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics.”

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from  the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our problem solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions about the workings of the universe.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs how we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspective matters, when it comes to science and physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to study and experiment with the universe. Keeping social constructionism in mind also helps us understand why we choose to study certain aspects of science and why we present our findings in the ways that we do. We may never be able to get to a purely rational place in either science or politics (though science is certainly much closer), but understanding and knowing where social construction plays a part will help us be more observant and honest about what we say, study, believe, and discover.

Writing, Physics, Inspiration, and Life

One of Amanda Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter quotes him numerous times and describes the impact that Wheeler had on her life. What made Wheeler different from other physicists, what entranced Gefter with his work, was his often poetic way of describing the universe and interpreting what the mathematics of the universe told us. In a world of complex physics, daunting mathematics, and mind bending conclusions, Wheeler’s voice cut through with simplicity and his poetic style was elegant yet clear and inviting.

 

One part of Gefter’s book describes a trip she took with her father to Philadelphia to look over Wheeler’s old notebooks after he passed away in 2008. At the American Philosophical Society, Gefter and her father poured over his old notebooks, studying his thoughts, the progression of his studies, and analyzing the conclusions he reached along the way. One of his annotations in a notebook was included in Gefter’s book, and I think it does an excellent job illuminating Wheeler’s poetic style and what it was that drew Gefter to his writing, speaking, and way of describing science.

 

“Still,” Gefter writes, “Wheeler was lost. ‘Not seeing a dramatic clear path ahead,’ he wrote. ‘Now have concluded just have to push in through the undergrowth. ‘Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.’”

 

In his personal notebook, describing what appeared to be a dead end in his research, Wheeler turned to a phrase we have probably heard before, but probably not in our science classes. Wheeler was pushing the edge of scientific thought, and he had come to a point where he could no longer rely on the research of others to show him the path forward. The quote was used to describe propositions, yes/no or true/false statements about some reality. Wheeler, like Gefter years later, was searching for some truth to the universe that was not observer dependent, that did not need to change or adjust based on a observer’s position, speed, or quantum composition. Propositions seemed to be a place to start, but even there, the dreaded sentence, “this sentence is false” seemed to break even propositions and seemed to pull apart any basic form of reality.

 

Altogether this short section from Gefter, the lessons she shared about Wheeler, and the scientific challenge which served as the genesis for Wheeler’s note teach us a few things. Often times we want a dramatically clear choice in our life, but for each of us, the path has not been made. We must push through the undergrowth of life, creating our own  path as we go. We must abandon expectations of how things should be and how things ought to turn out for us, because there is no solid truth that we march toward. We are not pushing forward in the universe and in our lives to an inherently perfect and true destiny. The reality we find as we cut through the undergrowth is as observer dependent as gravity and time. How we choose to see it depends on our reference frame, and our reference frame is something we have some choice in. And while we are using that choice, we can be boring, stuffy, and self pitying, or we can be inventive, flourishing, and excited for the new discoveries that know will lie ahead of us.

Finding Your Voice in Writing

Amanda Gefter’s book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, mostly focuses on physics and the complex state of how our leading physicists were thinking about the universe in 2014. The book also, however, focuses on Gefter’s journey into science journalism, about her life and experiences, about our quest for knowledge, and about the ways in which we try to express and share what it is we know and learn. A little over halfway through the book, Gefter writes about her first attempt at writing a book, and endeavor she undertook with her father.

 

Gefter struggled to write a book with her father that would be more than a repository for the knowledge that she and her father had gained over the years as they delved ever deeper into the complex physics of spacetime, relativity, and quantum mechanics. She describes her efforts to write a book and how her publisher described her final product as lacking her true voice. All her life, writing for a bridal magazine, writing academic papers, and trying to break into science journalism, Gefter had felt that she needed to write with a voice that was distinctly not her own. She had adopted the voice of a stuffy, old, British man for the academic papers she wrote in college, mimicking the style she saw in the academic papers around her, and her bridal magazine days early in her career seemed to lack any voice at all. To be able to write successfully, Gefter was challenged to find her true voice, and to use her voice to describe the science she loved and wanted so passionately to understand and be a part of.

 

She wrote about the feedback that her first editor, Katinka Matson, gave her regarding her first attempt at a book, “Matson felt it was the co-authorship that had muted my voice. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was Safe and Screwed, like their confusing co-authorship structure. You violate the laws of physics when you try to speak from two observer’s points of view simultaneously. Maybe you violate the laws of publishing, too. Maybe our book had been an impossible object from the start. Maybe it didn’t make sense to try to write a book using both our voices, since it would add up to no voice at all.” In trying to fit her voice in with her father’s voice, Gefter left something out of her writing. She felt that she could not write as herself, and as a result she adopted a different persona for her writing, a persona that lacked her energy and spark and that failed to authentically convey her own excitement and interest in the puzzling and sometimes paradoxical science of the universe.

 

The answer for Gefter was not necessarily to give up the idea of publishing a book with her father, her copilot on her journey though physics. The challenge and answer for Gefter was to figure out what she needed to do to write as herself, and early on in her writing career this meant developing her writing voice independently, and then learning to incorporate others people and elements.

 

In the passage above, Safe and Screwed are two characters that she introduces in Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn when talking about black holes and the experiences that two people would have if one crossed the event horizon of a black hole and the other did not. Safe would be outside the even horizon, alive and presumably happily floating along in space. Screwed, on the other hand, would be burned apart by Hawking radiation and the part of him not devoured by quantum particles would be pulled and stretched by the gravitational force of the black hole. Screwed and Safe are how Gefter came to understand what our experience of black holes would be like, and sharing their stories and perspectives was the type of innovative science writing that Gefter needed to cultivate to express her own voice. Throughout the book, Gefter references Screwed and Safe, and she brings in other characters to help us see what is taking place at the edges of our understanding of the universe. This was the voice that Gefter needed to develop. She needed to step beyond the safeness of stuffy academic writing and passionless editorial writing to be an authentic, yet possibly screwed, science writer.

 

In our own lives and activities we must do the same. We cannot simply write, think, or do the things that we have seen before us. We cannot adopt styles and personalities because we think that is what other people expect. To be authentic to ourselves, to be innovative, and to make an impact and a difference, we must be ourselves, cultivate our own voice, and we must not be afraid to show who we are. We are not all stuffy old British men, so we should not write, speak, or behave as if we are, simply because most people in our jobs act that way or because that is the model of success we have seen before. I don’t think we literally all act like stuffy old British men, but in our lives we adopt certain personalities not because those personalities express who we are, but rather what we think we want to be, and because those personalities signal to others that we are part of a tribe (or at list think we are/want to be) and that we can use the same words and hold the same virtues as others in the tribe. Moving forward, for society to grow, become more inclusive, and develop new innovations, we must find ways to be ourselves and be more creative in the way we interact with and relate to the world. Otherwise we will never be able to communicate our excitement about the corner of the universe that fascinates us, and we will never create the meaningful societal connections that form the cornerstone of society.

Cutting Through

The truly great thing about physics is that it is universal. Literally. What we discover about physics here in the United States is true in South Africa, and what is discovered in South Africa can be learned just as well in Vietnam, and it all holds true on Jupiter or in the Andromeda Galexy. Physics is based in mathematics and repeatable experiments and it can be understood anywhere. It takes our perceptions and it boils them down into their most simplistic forms, tests them, repeats the test, and then determines what is real and what is unsupported. This means that physics has the ability to help us understand things in incredible new ways. We can better understand the universe and how it is held together, but only if we can study the physics and step beyond ourselves to understand what the tests, experiments, and math are trying to explain to us.

For Amanda Gefter, this is one of the best parts of physics. It takes our expectations, our assumptions, and what we want to be true, and completely ignores it. A good scientist, during their search for what is real and what is not, is able to cut through the noise of our expectations, beliefs, and desires to see the science underneath, holding things together.

Gefter writes, “That was what I loved about physics—that moment of pure surprise when you suddenly realize that what you had thought was one thing is really something else, or that two things that seemed so different are really two ways of looking at the very same thing. It was the perennial comfort that comes from discovering that the world is not remotely what it seems.”

By cutting through the noise of humanity, physics helps us to see the world more thoroughly. The world and the universe are not the way they simply appears to us from our perspective on Earth. Much of how we interpret and understand the universe is through what we see, but so much of the universe does not emit electromagnetic radiation or react with light in any way. How we perceive the universe depends on our point of view, and of our experience as human beings living on our planet. What physics does, is move beyond our experience of the universe to tell us how things are at any point in the universe, not just on planet Earth today. If we accept the world as it appears to us, then we somehow cease to move forward, and we begin to live in a story that never completely captures the reality we experience around us. We begin to live in ways that don’t add up, that put us at the center and don’t allow for the types of evolution and adaptation that we need to live in this universe responsibly. Physics takes the stories that we tell and re-writes them, adjusting the language to be the language of mathematics, giving us a new perspective from which to tell our story.

Expressing Your Mind Through Writing

Writing is a great skill that helps open our own thoughts to ourselves and gives readers access to the mind of another person. When we are writing something, we take thoughts that are whirling around in our mind at a million miles per hour and give them shape and structure. We take those thoughts and organize them. We combine them and build logical steps between them, and we make sense of the sometimes random, sometimes disconnected, and sometimes vague thoughts that pass through our mind.

 

When we read, we get to peer behind the curtain at another person’s thoughts. Writing allows us to open a door into our mind for other people, to give them an idea of what is going on in our mind. Reading is a chance to think more deeply about something that another person has spent time organizing their thoughts around, and it is a chance to learn more about the universe from another person.

 

This is what Amanda Gefter loves about writing and reading. Gefter is a science journalist, but she did not set out to cover science initially. She knew she wanted to write, but writing about science seemed so dense, challenging, and in some sense far off, away from the world that she knew and could write about. But as she pursued science for her own hobby, she had opportunities to write about science that she never expected, and she began to see the importance of writing about science and serving as a door that could open complex physics to more people.

 

About writing, Gefter writes in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, “Writing, for me, was about muddling through ideas, turning them over, viewing them from every angle to see where they led, even if they only led back to themselves.” Gefter’s ideas are important because writing does not always need to be revelatory, novel, and ingenious. Sometimes writing can meander and not really take you any place. Sometimes writing can be circuitous and double back on itself. Writing helps the mind order itself, so even if your writing does not shape the world, it can still shape your mind. Even if you don’t plan on sharing your writing, getting thoughts down on the Word Doc or in a journal will help your mind.

 

Gefter continues, “My favorite stories and poems shined a spotlight on the writer’s thought process, exposing all of its cracks and contradictions. But the writing I did as a journalist was just the opposite. Its light revealed only the end products of thought, the conclusions.” Our writing can be a tool to help other people see our development of thoughts and ideas. It can help us show others that there are complex realities in this world that we ourselves are still working through. For Gefter, this was important to bring to the world of science, “Science journalism’s express goal was to hang over the writer’s mind a veil so opaque that the reader would mistake the writer’s thoughts about the world for the world itself—the world as seen from an impossible God’s-eye view, a paradigm of objectivity and at the same time a lie.” In the last part of the quote, Gefter criticizes science journalism for making everything seem as thought it has been solved and put together. When we approach science journalism from a point of finality, it makes it seem as though the science is not as riddled with challenges and contradictions as it truly is. Objectivity takes away the mystery and confusion of science and presents a fake reality. I believe that Gefter would argue that we need to show our thought process and honestly discuss what we do understand and what is still out there making scientists scratch their head. When we present science as just facts to remember and know, as if the puzzle of the universe has been solved, we turn people away, presenting science as just math and facts to memorize. Gefter would suggest that real science writing show people how to think critically and inquisitively about what they see around them, and invite them to think scientifically about the challenges still ahead of us.

 

The last part of Gefter’s quote that I will share is this, “For me, hiding the writer’s thoughts strips writing of its greatest gift: its ability to grant us access to other minds.” What we get when we write more openly about science, or any subject, is a greater dialogue between author and reader. Revealing our thought process, and taking the time to step back from objectivity at points, allows the reader to connect with us more thoroughly and see how our mind works. For a reader this process allows them to see the challenges in the area in which we write, and it gives them the chance to take the first step toward the debates and investigations taking place within our mind, and within a given field more broadly. How we do this will always depend on our subject, but I think the first step is to understand that people have different perspectives and that there is often no simple answer to anything. We can address other ideas and points of view, and we can provide evidence to support our own view. We cannot, however, simply present one point of view or one experiment in isolation and use our writing to say that we have found the one truth and the one answer, without demonstrating that other ways of thinking are possible.

Creating History

Physics often times does not align with what we expect. But really, there is no reason that the physics we experience here on our planet with our limited senses should lead us to perfectly predict how physics and reality play out across the universe. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is an excellent physics book because it takes readers with little scientific background through the complex paradoxes and challenges of physics to explore the furthest reaches of our scientific thought. Author Amanda Gefter herself is not a physicist, and learned to understand physics first as a hobby, and later (as detailed in her book) as a bit of an obsessive search for the universe’s ultimate building block.

Along her journey, Gefter introduces us to John Wheeler, a physicist who wrote with an almost poetic style when describing the complex science that he worked on. Wheeler helps us understand that one of the things within human experience that is so fundamental to how we view reality, is not quite as solid as we would expect. He is quoted  by Gefter writing, “We used to think that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us.” When we study physics we are actually adjusting and changing the past. We are not looking at an independent system that existed before us a certain way. When we measure and observe the past, we actually can change it from the present. This is explained by Gefter with further help from Wheeler by describing experiments with photons to measure how sub-atomic particles travel. Light is made of photons, but it acts as a wave, with probabilities based on the wave function determining where the photons of the light will be. Once, however, we make an observation of a single photon, the probabilistic wave function ceases to exist, and the photon acts as a particle, and not as a wave. Up until we make our measurement however, the photon is a series of probabilities and behaves as a wave, the same way a wave behaves in the open ocean, and not as a particle on a direct path.

Gefter writes, “Delayed-choice experiments have been carried out in laboratories, and each time they’ve worked just as wheeler suggested. It’s an established scientific fact: measurements in the present can rewrite history. No, not rewrite. Just write. Prior to observation, there is no history, just a haze of possibility, a past waiting to be born. ‘There is no more remarkable feature of this quantum world than the strange coupling it brings about between future and past,’ Wheeler wrote. If observations we make today can create a billion-year-old past, so, too, can observations made in the future help build the universe we see today.”

In the quote above Gefter is describing the same experiments with photons, but looking at photos billions of light years away from us that had to travel across the universe and split on one side or another of a black hole, universe, or other star to reach one of our telescopes. The path taken by a given photon is best described by the probabilistic wave function with all the features, such as frequency and amplitude, of physical waves that we can observe on earth. But once we make an observation in a telescope to measure the path the photon took around a galaxy, black hole, or star, the wave function no longer describes the photon, and the photon has to have followed a set pathway, a pathway that was not determined until it reached our planet, billions of years after it was emitted from its original source.

The physics is beyond my ability to describe, but the key point is that we are human and have limited brain space and experiential ability. We can only experience first hand so many sensations and realities. More possibilities exist than we can experience and understand. Thinking that we can ever describe reality in the most comprehensive manner is a great dream for scientists and physicists to work toward, but we will always be limited by the fact that we are human and can only experience the world in so many ways. Things that we take to be so certain, like history and the passage of time, seem to be interconnected with the present and the future in ways that we can’t quite explain right now.