Due complement

If we have an undoing, it will have to do with quantum physics. Everything does. These are the tiny tiny machinations underlying boxes and springs and tea leaves and eagles’ wings. If you control them, you can turn mountains into chocolate pudding. The high priests control them.

Like all mysteries shrouding real power, quantum physics now has a magical story and a popular legend. My son announced to me the other day, ‘things don’t exist until we perceive them.’

A glorious fallacy, indeed, urged on us in the marketplace for talkative telephones and cars that drive themselves. You’ve probably heard it yourself: somewhere in the convoluted science of the very small, you’ll encounter the bizarre difficulty of not being able to measure the speed of something while at once knowing where it is. This is because we measure things with light, and when you’re very small, the light ‘thing’ arriving to ‘see’ you actually pushes you out of the way. Tricky stuff. Confusing.

There’s a wonderful story about how people first described this stuff, when their eyes opened wide enough to start seeing it, about a century ago. A handful of brilliant physicists and mathematicians literally reformulated the foundations of the universe – and argued like crazy for twenty-five years while they did so.

One of the brightest of these was a man named Niels Bohr, who came up with his own way of describing how the seemingly impossible can really be true. He changed the definition of the word, ‘phenomenon.’ The problem is: things quite small can be described as waves, and all the mathematics work. They can be described as particles, and all the mathematics work. But those mathematics definitely don’t work with each other.

So Niels said, a ‘phenomenon’ isn’t just a thing you see – it includes the tools you use to see it with. Everybody knows that today, but somebody had to make it up. So both ways of looking are accurate – entirely correct. But incomplete. Niels coined the term ‘complementarity’ for this seeming paradox resolved. To understand very small things, you need to understand two mutually exclusive ways of thinking. Mutually exclusive, but not opposed. In fact, complementary.

Niels was a wise man, and people thought him wise. He acquired honors and awards and distinguishments by the cartload. He was deemed something of an oracle. He observed ‘complementarity’ might usefully apply to other realms of experience and thought. Someone asked, ‘what’s the complement of truth?’

Niels replied, ‘clarity.’


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