An uncertain consolation

Comic books are an excellent medium for non-fiction. This is not a novel insight—during the Second World War instruction manuals for US soldiers were often provided in precisely that format. Visual explication can be far easier to retain and recall, but even so, comics are primarily associated with narrative fiction. My first encounter with non-fiction comics came in the early 90s, when I read Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics, and Gilbert Hernandez’s biography of Frida Kahlo, and since then I’ve sought them out, more for unique reading experience they afford than for the intrinsic interest of their topics. Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat’s Mysteries of the Quantum Universe is on a topic that interests me, and that I have read about in prose, however: in this case it was a good read as a comic, and it explained some difficult ideas more clearly than I have previously had them explained.

It also got me thinking about epistemology, a pet topic of mine which is heavily implicated in quantum mechanics, although I’ve usually approached it from a linguistic and social perspective. That perspective has taught me that we should generally be a lot less certain about what we think we know, and quantum physics tends to confirm that. Several of the findings of quantum mechanics are frequently held up as ‘spooky’ (Einstein’s term), as counterintuitive, as contradicting the ways that a reasonable person would think about the world. It would be interesting to read a methodical post-structural analysis of the epistemological implications of these features of the field, but over a few years thinking about this stuff while I walk the dog, very few of them really feel that counterintuitive to me now.

What they contradict is classical physics, not daily experience—in fact, they seem to me to conform to daily experience rather more clearly than many of the insights of Einstein’s theories of relativity, for example. One of the ‘paradoxes’ that emerges is that it is impossible to calculate both the position and velocity of a particle—the more certain we are about one, the more imprecise the cloud of probabilities becomes around the other. This is more or less the way things are with the moving objects we encounter in our daily lives. If we measure something’s velocity then we may be able to precisely determine its position at the moment at which we take the measurement, but as we experience it—well, it will have moved by the time we have a feel for how fast it’s moving, and if we can say with any certainty where it is, then it probably isn’t moving at all. In fact, in the experiential domain there is really no isolated moment in which such things could be said to be true—by the time we’ve experienced the movement or location of an object, it’s just a memory. Taken more broadly, it’s easy to argue that a focus on how things change is harder to hold onto if we try to examine precisely what they are—being and becoming…

The idea that causes lead to probabilities rather than to singular, determined outcomes also seems to conform to lived experience—Schrödinger’s infamous cat is a good example. The supposedly absurd suggestion that until we measure its state the cat in the experiment is both alive and dead is more or less the way we are compelled to experience the anticipation of any uncertain outcome. All possibilities exist for us until we narrow them down to one, by observing the actual conditions—or, as scientists would have it, by taking a measurement. Even a very simple system with an entirely graspable deterministic outcome, such as a Sudoku game, bears witness to this, with its superposition of solutions gradually decreasing in number as their certainty increases. The spooky aspect of Schrödinger’s cat is not that it isn’t what we’d expect to experience, but that it seems to elevate our subjective experience to objective reality.

Mysteries of the Quantum Universe gives a clearer explanation of Schrödinger’s legendary thought experiment than I’ve read elsewhere—it’s not simply a philosophical postulate that until all the outcome is known, all possible outcomes must be considered equally real, but that the wave function Ψ that mathematically describes the system in question (the cat in the box with the geiger counter, the deadly gas and the radioactive isotope) must describe both outcomes as integral parts of that system. This has never really been made clear to me in all the simplified descriptions of quantum mechanics that I’ve read.

The book goes on to explain how this mathematical description of a quantum system relates to Hugh Everett’s well-known many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics—again, the misleading impression one might get from much popular science writing on the subject is that because of the uncertainty involved in the system, Everett thought it would be easier in some way to treat all possibilities as having occurred in parallel universes. As described in this comic, he was in fact finding a way to treat the Schrödinger equation (by which Ψ is calculated) as a description of objective reality. Besides providing an army of science-fiction writers with the terminology for their pseudo-science, I’m unsure how to assess the impact of the many-worlds interpretation, but it is clearly favoured by the authors over the competing Copenhagen interpretation (in which the uncertainties of a system are taken as irresolvable).

Those authors are Mathieu Burniat, a Belgian comics artist, who drew it, and Thibault Damour, a French physicist, who wrote it. I imagine the writing was somewhat collaborative, as it takes a good deal of experience to effectively script a narrative in comics (or any other) form, and the text has of course been translated, by Sarah-Louise Raillard, to whom I am grateful for its clarity and precision. The story they tell—wait, did I start by implying that this was a non-fiction comic? I was lying. Mysteries of the Quantum Universe is a fiction, an adventure story, in which Bob, a short, plucky, intrepid Tintin figure (albeit with a much larger head) and his deceased talking dog Rick set out on a quest to uncover the eponymous arcana—although it is possible that it’s all a dream Bob has when he nods off at the 2011 Solvay Conference, the people in Bob’s dream speak a good deal more coherently on technical subjects than any eidolon I’ve ever conjured in my sleep!

Bob and Rick’s peregrinations bring them anachronistically (and in chronological order) into contact with some of the most significant figures from the history and development of quantum theory, who explain their contributions to the field, with the aid of models and visual aids which magically appear like diagrams in a book. These explanations are clear and accessible, but seem to simplify or omit much less than other layperson’s accounts that I’ve read. There is no requirement that you should be able to grasp the maths, but the narrative doesn’t avoid it, and a number of equations are present in their full, glorious incomprehensibility in the glossary. Given that the entire field of quantum physics springs from Max Planck’s attempts to find a mathematics that could model the frequency-energy relationships of a black body, the whole edifice makes much more sense to me as a result.

Clearly I am utterly unqualified to assess the degree to which Burniat and Damour do justice to their topic, and I’m well aware that there are many physicists out there who still regard their favoured many-worlds interpretation as absurd, but what they offer is a coherent and thought provoking account. The clarity of explanation that they achieve is a function of their chosen medium, which is extremely effective at squeezing difficult ideas into comprehensible forms. I mean specifically that comics are good at this, as (extremely) distinct from illustrated books, which this is not. It is not a series of monologues accompanied by explanatory diagrams and extraneous narrative interludes. It employs the qualities and affordances of the medium to communicate ideas in a language which is emergent at the superposition of drawing and speech. Colour (along with all the other formal elements) is deployed to embody particular quantum physical meanings, not to decorate the pages. The narrative sequence is at once Bob and Rick’s adventure, and the history of the field in question, and with its tongue somewhat in its cheek, it proffers Everett’s many-worlds as something of a consolation for the harsh existential consequences of thermodynamics.

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