Donne’s Lovers, Spooky at a Distance

James Archer, "Longing"

James Archer, “Longing”


Adam Gopnik makes some nice literary allusions in a recent New Yorker 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,” claims 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 roundabout ways that scientists come up with their theories.

Once one sees how ideas ridiculed in one era become articles of belief in another, science appears more fluid than it is often characterized. 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 differences 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 strictly 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, noting the process by which theories that are on the mystical fringe in one era can become accepted belief 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 mystical nonsense into scientific 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. These physicists, dismissing non-locality, refused to take up the question, and Musser notes that among the reasons were “fashion, temperament, zeitgeist, and sheer tenacity.” Neils Bohr and the new generation of physicists looked down on Einstein, Gopnik says, in a way that is

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 and non-locality. Wordsworth’s 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 that is so fine 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 the theory 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. Science fiction may privilege the natural while fantasy tends to the supernatural, but the 17th century was only beginning to distinguish between the two. Prospero consults his books and manipulates nature, but its not entirely clear whether he is doing science or magic. (The age was actually more interested in whether he is doing white magic or 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.

Ironically, modern fantasy came into its own with the scientific revolution of the 18th century, when “superstition” was pushed into the shadows. Because scientific language failed to express many aspects of the human experience, people turned to gothic romances and mystical poetry to find them. Science comes up short when it comes to human mystery..

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.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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