Opinion » John Rember

Heisenberg's Legacy

We neither confirm nor deny


In December 1999, Julie and I acted in a play at the Duchess Theatre in London's West End. The play was Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. It staged a 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. This meeting of those two physicists--first collaborators, then enemies--may have kept the Nazis from developing the atomic bomb.

One of the conceits of Copenhagen is that posterity gets to pass judgment on the guilt or innocence of its forebears. To represent that judgment, a jury box formed the back of the stage.

Julie and I ended up in the jury box. We had shown up at the last moment for standing-room-only tickets, and posterity was in short supply. We faced the audience. Six feet below us, actors representing Bohr and Heisenberg and Bohr's wife Margrethe debated their future and our lives.

The seats were the best we've ever had, a little public perhaps, but once the house lights came down, the audience was invisible. We put on our best judgmental faces, and listened to Frayn's lines as he explored the moral questions of conceiving, producing and using atomic weapons.

Copenhagen is a play about uncertainty, and sure enough, we left the theatre without a verdict. Werner Heisenberg may or may not have sabotaged the Nazi effort to build the Bomb. But since that night in 1999, I have come to a solid judgment. Heisenberg's most diabolical invention would never have been the Bomb even if he had managed to produce 20 of them for Hitler.

Instead, it would have remained his Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg demonstrated that the more you know about the position of a subatomic particle, the less you know about its momentum, and vice versa. Put that way, it looks innocuous enough. But the Uncertainty Principle has become an out-of-control metaphor that has permeated humanity's thinking to the point that all knowledge has become suspect, all data has become conditional.

So: The more you know about where you are, the less you know about where you're going. Truth exists only in a community that agrees on the questions it answers. The tiniest bit of contrary evidence can destroy a scientific theory that has held sway for centuries. Multiple universes exist for a single self. Reality does not exist apart from its measurers and measurements. Reality does not exist apart from language.

Heisenberg didn't come up with all these ideas. Most of them came from people who were trying to find a way around his Uncertainty Principle, yet the effect of their efforts was to make the world more uncertain. I like to imagine Heisenberg knew his principle would turn the world into a hall of mirrors. The tangible would become imaginary, the imaginary would become the real, the real would become metaphor and metaphor would become the tangible.

I'm describing evolution, not solipsism here, and it's an evolution more rapid and more brutal than the kind Darwin had in mind. It's taken us into whole universes of metaphor, and there's nothing we can do to get back home.

Scientific instruments have extended human senses across the universe and into invisible wavelengths and subatomic dimensions and to the edge of black-hole singularities. We've come to have a deep faith in phenomena we're not physically equipped to apprehend, and made leaps of faith comparable to the ones that once let us believe in utopias, triune gods, spirits in trees and an endless unspoiled planet.

Faith-based derivative finances have abstracted wealth and its evil twin, debt, beyond any human event horizon. TV advertisements target areas of our brain that don't have language, and we react on the level of fight or flight, ecstasy or horror, compulsion or conditioned aversion. If we check weather reports, we ignore their authors' subtexts of disbelief. Medical science has disconnected age from death, transforming our bodies from spirit-infused flesh to landscaping projects.

It has become easier to conclude that contemporary humans are what's left over from a thought experiment: animal-imagination chimeras, the result of a weird selection taking place since Plato started messing about between the real and the ideal. The extent of that selection can be seen, not just in the fantastical, anthropomorphized creatures we call politicians, but in any face reflected in the glass of a computer screen.

Even when evidence of a real world still persists, its nature is nonetheless obscured by issues of confirmation bias, who owns what, what borders are permeable to whom and what, what animals to legally protect, what politician to vote for, what game to put on the Wii, what plane to get on to interview for what job which will establish what identity residing at what address.

These things make the past unreachable, and it's only with great effort that you can peer through the trademarked hallucination, the groomed surface, the pixels and mechanical actuators and massaged video images and the ones and zeroes in a server somewhere—to a distant future where humanity is no more, to a world where crystals in windblown bedrock glint in undimmed starlight. That world is real. Not much else is.

From John Rember's short-story collection 100 Little Pieces on the End of the World.