Perspectives on a work in progress


I’m been reading a Niels Bohr biography, carrying it in my gym bag and dipping in while doing penance on the elliptical. Bohr was a pathfinder of early 20th century physics and a Nobel laureate for his ground-laying work on the structure of the atom and Quantum physics.

As theories around Quantum mechanics were being explored in the mid-1920’s, physicists were struggling with a paradox: are electrons, light, and similar entities particles or waves? Bohr proposed the principle of complementarity, the idea that observing electrons in one experimental setup will demonstrate wave behavior, and in a different experiment they’re observable as particles. His idea, at its most basic, was that they can have wave-particle duality, that it’s impossible to observe both at the same time because of the way each behavior is measured, but taken together the two views enable a more complete understanding of the phenomenon than either experiment can by itself. This might not seem like a radical concept now,

but it was contentious among physicists of the time. In fact, the idea was central to a famous debate between Bohr and Albert Einstein, pitting Quantum physics against Einstein’s Relativity theory, a debate that continues to this day… but that’s another story.* (And F. Scott Fitzgerald could have had Bohr in mind when he described a first rate intelligence as the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.)

While I’m reading about Bohr and his ideas, I’m working on another flag piece, one of a series driven by the angst that’s been building inside about the fracturing of democracy—the sense, the fear, that we’re so politically polarized we’re coming apart at the seams. And it occurs to me that there’s a complementarity at work in our civic lives. In this work, I’m tackling the idea that what you see depends on your point of view. That “reality,” i.e., your perception of reality, depends entirely on where you’re standing. Do you see common sense gun laws or infringement on your rights? You’re taxed too much, or we don’t spend enough. Give me your poor or send them back. Pampered narcissist or righteous savior. Us vs. them. Right vs. wrong. Right vs. left.

We all have opinions; some are more entrenched, some less. We commonly see one side or the other, but it’s harder to see both at the same time. It takes effort to work your way around to understand multiple points of view. And let’s be honest: most of us don’t care enough to exert ourselves that way. We experience cognitive dissonance. It’s uncomfortable to be confronted with information that conflicts with our beliefs, or to reconcile contradictory opinions or values.

I respect artists who take a stand for their point of view (and I’ve previously written on my appreciation of “protest art”). Activist artists (or artivists, according to some like Eve Ensler) are many, and visible. But I can’t immediately name any artists who overtly explore multiple points of view through their practice—not that I’m aware of. A quick search turned up just a couple of unfamiliar names. One was Jenny Balisle, who, in response to the many mass shootings in the U.S., took instruction on using a gun, exploring both the use and the consequences of firearms; then she highlighted marks made by gunshots in her work.

The importance of seeing different points of view on serious issues arises for me because the concept is so completely AWOL in the other Washington; compromise is now a dirty word and the time-tested practice of making laws that way appears to be starved for air. So while I earnestly believe in progressive ideals, I don’t think jamming them down others’ throats is the way to achieve progress.

Which brings me full circle to complementarity and the wavy flag piece I’m working on. (In this piece, whether you see red, white and blue, or black, white and grey, depends on where you stand.) Our views on diverse sides of an issue, taken together, enable a more complete understanding of a problem than any one perspective can by itself. The drive behind my work-in-progress is that if we don’t have the courage to respect the humanity in people who hold views opposed to our own, we’ll never get anywhere we want to go. And we’ll lose, if we haven’t already, the essence of our uncommonly pluralist society. We’re already on track for plutocracy instead.

One more by-the-way: I admire Bohr because he seemed to embody a bit of his own complementarity principle. He was brilliant, as you’d expect of Einstein’s

equal, and he was well known in the early physics world as a humanist. He established the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, where generations of young physicists could propose and test fresh ideas in a lively, informal environment. He risked his life getting many scientists and Jews out of Europe ahead of the Nazis; then refused to leave the Institute during the war because it would have dealt a blow to the morale of his fellow Danes. Most of all, I admire him for his broad view of his obligations as a physicist, including a sense of responsibility for the consequences of his work on society. When physics discoveries led to the development of atomic bombs, he was a forceful advocate for arms control and the peaceful application of the science, and he was awarded the first ever Atoms for Peace Award in 1957.

*Niels Bohr proposed the quantized electron orbital theory of the atom, which said that electrons could only occupy specific energy levels around an atomic nucleus; this became the foundation of Quantum mechanics and revolutionized chemistry and physics. Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect, and put forward the theories of general and special relativity. Einstein received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, Bohr in 1922.The two carried on a long debate on a key element of Quantum physics until Einstein’s death in 1955. The science here is over my head, but as I understand it, the disagreement is this: Bohr said the very act of measuring alters reality, i.e., in order to measure an event, an element must interact with a measuring instrument, which by definition changes its behavior. Whereas Einstein insisted that reality exists, independent of the act of measurement. This fundamental inconsistency between the Relativity and Quantum theories continues to be one of the big mysteries in theoretical physics today. Read a much better explanation of all this here: wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohr–Einstein_debates.

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