Adam Gopnik makes a couple of wonderful literary allusions in an essay review of George Musser’s Spooky at a Distance, which is about the history of quantum entanglement theory. Entanglement, also known as non-locality and described by Einstein as “spooky at a distance,” is the ideas that two particles of a single wave function can influence each other, even though they are separated by millions of light years. Gopnik uses Musser’s book to reflect on the strange roundabout ways that scientists come to believe the theories they believe.
Once one starts to see how ideas ridiculed in one era become articles of belief in another, science appears more fluid than one would have thought. Gopnik draws on Musser’s account to think about the thin line between magic and science, and his article leads me to reflect upon the difference between fantasy and science fiction. I also have new ideas about how to use Shakespeare’s The Tempest in my upcoming British Fantasy course.
The idea that science is somehow the work of dispassionate truth seekers guided by the scientific method is a myth, Gopnik says. Instead, what we see is
a social activity…vulnerable to all the comedy inherent in any social activity: group thinking, self-pleasing, and running down the competition in order to get the customer’s (or, in this case, the government’s) cash. Books about the history of science should therefore be about both science and scientists, about the things they found and the way they found them. A good science writer has to show us the fallible men and women who made the theory, and then show us why, after the human foibles are boiled off, the theory remains reliable.
This isn’t news. In fact, the human dimensions of science were made dramatically clear in 1968 with the publication of Watson and Crick’s The Double Helix. The book created a sensation in part because it upended the stereotype of white-coated, no-nonsense, “just the facts, mam” individuals, giving us instead jealous, egotistical, Nobel Prize-obsessed men. (It maintained the stereotype of scientists as male, however, as the authors didn’t acknowledge the vital contributions of Rosalind Franklin.)
But Gopnik’s article then does something interesting with scientific discovery. How is it that theories that are sometimes on the mystical fringe in one age become accepted fact in another? Galileo may have upended the Ptolemaic solar system, but he himself was skeptical of the idea that the moon influenced the tides. (As Gopnik describes his opinion, “the moon working an occult influence on the oceans was obviously magical nonsense.”) Newton’s theories of gravity turned the mystical nonsense into fact.
Up until recently, non-locality has seemed to be similarly mystical. In fact, Einstein’s phrase “spooky at a distance” was not a theory but a question and a challenge directed to younger physicists. No one, however, took non-locality seriously, and Musser notes that the reasons why have little to do with science. As Gopnik observes,
The reasons, unfolding through generations of physicists, have several notable social aspects, worthy of Trollope’s studies of how private feuds affect public decisions.
Musser quotes Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads to explain why we are only now coming around to accepting entanglement. Wordsworth description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” is exemplified most famously in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” when Wordsworth recalls, while sitting in his living room, an earlier encounter with daffodils:
Indeed, Musser, though committed to empirical explanation, suggests that the revival of “non-locality” as a topic in physics may be due to our finding the metaphor of non-locality ever more palatable: “Modern communications technology may not technically be non-local but it sure feels that it is.” Living among distant connections, where what happens in Bangalore happens in Boston, we are more receptive to the idea of such a strange order in the universe. Musser sums it up in an enviable aphorism: “If poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, then science is tranquility recollected in emotion.” The seemingly neutral order of the natural world becomes the sounding board for every passionate feeling the physicist possesses.
In other words, scientists are, like the rest of us, passionate humans. And speaking of passion, Gopnik alludes to one of literature’s great love poems when explaining entanglement theory. Just as two photons influence each other even though far apart, so John Donne, in “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” describes having a spiritual connection with his wife when he is traveling. Gopnik writes,
John Donne, thou shouldst be living at this hour!* One can only imagine what the science-loving Metaphysical poet would have made of a metaphor that had two lovers spinning in unison no matter how far apart they were. But Musser has a nice, if less exalted, analogy for the event: it is as if two magic coins, flipped at different corners of the cosmos, always came up heads or tails together. (The spooky action takes place only in the context of simultaneous measurement. The particles share states, but they don’t send signals.)
In “Valediction,” Donne uses two concrete analogies to capture his connection to his wife. One is a golden thread, beaten so finely that it can’t be seen by the naked eye:
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
The other is a compass used to draw circles:
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Gopnik is right that Donne would have loved notions of entanglement, which would provided an even better analogy for his spiritual connection with his wife.
In my British Fantasy class, I talk about the thin line between science and magic that we see in The Tempest. If science fiction emphasizes the natural and fantasy the supernatural—well, the 17th century didn’t make a clear distinction between the two. Prospero consults his books and manipulates nature, but the age didn’t distinguish between whether he was doing science or magic. (It was, however, fascinated by the distinction between white magic and black magic.)
Gopnik quotes from David Wooton’s The Invention of Science to explain how our current distinction between magic and science arose:
What killed alchemy was the insistence that experiments must be openly reported in publications which presented a clear account of what had happened, and they must then be replicated, preferably before independent witnesses. The alchemists had pursued a secret learning, convinced that only a few were fit to have knowledge of divine secrets and that the social order would collapse if gold ceased to be in short supply. . . . Esoteric knowledge was replaced by a new form of knowledge, which depended both on publication and on public or semi-public performance. A closed society was replaced by an open one.
Modern fantasy came into its own with the scientific revolution of the 18th century. Although much of what people had once believed were now regarded as superstition, those fantasies expressed dimensions of the Real that science cannot do justice to, including the emotional and the spiritual realms. Science, for instance, comes up short when it comes to Love.
As Donne will testify, however, it can provide useful analogies.
*The allusion here is to Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton, which opens, “Milton! Thou should’st be living at this hour.”