Galaxies & Photons
I have not fully understood the problem of galaxies being
living things. I have more fully understood the surreal nature of the
universe. These understandings and misunderstandings may be spoken
of as active limits on the imagination, as though they have some kind of
reality. The upper limit is the immense universe of galaxies, and the
lower is the tiny universe of subatomic particles. In some way they
coincide: light from immense, distant galaxies is composed of photons
and other particles. But to communicate the life of this coincidence -
this is a serious problem.
Immensity and subatomia are both kinds of surrealism. I speak
advisedly, here: immensity and subatomia are abstract, in the nature of
principles rather than concretions. Some things are too big to see,
others are too small. As a result they must be imagined, and further,
they must be discussed in terms of what they are like rather than in
terms of what they are. A tree, for example, may be spoken of as it is: it
has a trunk, roots, branches, leaves, bark, sap, blossoms, seeds,
photosyn-thesis, respiration. These things may all be spoken of directly
(more or less), as specific objects and processes in their own context.
Subatomic particles, on the other hand, cannot be spoken of directly
because they are invisible, or visible only by indication, for various
reasons such as their sizes, their velocities, their locations, their life
spans, all of which are miniscule beyond comprehension.
The key phrase is "beyond comprehension" because when we speak of
subatomic particles it is not the particles themselves we comprehend.
Rather, it is the mathematical representation of the behavior of the
particles that we comprehend. We do not even know what the particles
look like, except as streaks on film, and the streaks are only indications
of the particles' existence, no more the particles themselves than a
photograph of your brother's shadow is your brother himself. So talk
about the particles is talk about what the particles are like: it is all
metaphorical. Neils Bohr's model of electrons orbiting around a central
nucleus is a metaphor for apparent behavior, not a representation of an
actual structure in the way a toy car is a representation of the actual
structure of a real car. What we comprehend is the metaphor, not the
atom. A metaphor is a picture of what an atom is like, and so when we
comprehend the metaphor we understand the something that is similar
to an atom, but not the atom. The metaphor, or what we might in this
case call the signifier, is not the unknown thing it signifies.
The most fundamental problems of seeing the world, I'm saying, are
largely problems of what words we use to talk about what we see. When
the world is too big or too small to see directly, we use words to make
analogies and metaphors that bring those immense and tiny worlds into
perspective. Words seem to generate reality, somehow. The result is a
foamy, dreamy reality that seems both real and unreal.
In the case of subatomic particles, which are "the signified" in quantum
physics, reality, whatever it may be, is too small to see and too unlike
ourselves to imagine directly. Things that cannot be directly seen or
directly correlated (or imagined) to everyday experience are not
deemed to be "real," in common parlance. Yet they nonetheless have a
reality in the mind, the way a dream has a reality. And like dreams,
words operate in an overlapping zone between what we conventionally
take for "real" and what we take for "unreal." Words exist regularly in
everyday reality, and yet as contemporary philosophy paradoxically
observes, over and over, a word--a signifieris not what it signifies; it is
not, in this sense, real because it is a representation rather than a thing
itself. A word, like a model of an atom, gives a picture or sense of the
removed thing it pictures.
The ambiguous condition of being both real and not real might be
termed the condition of being surreal. Dreams constitute real
experiences, and yet we commonly think of them as "not real." They are,
so to say, surreal. The same for words.
Subatomic particles are surreal because we speak of them
metaphorically (that is, we use words or mathematics -- materials other
than the particles themselves -- to create images that do not correlate
directly to reality), and yet simultaneously speak as if they concretely
exist. The word "electron," in other words, does not bear the same
relation to an electron that the word "tree" bears to a tree: "tree"
provides a literal image, while "electron" provides a figure for something
whose existence is indicated by a mathematical expression. It is not
even clear whether the something is something, though we speak of it as
something, the same way we speak of dreams as something, even though
they are nothing.
The something of subatomic particles may be only the behavior of the
universe. There may be no "substance" to subatomic particles, though
we speak of them as having "mass." Subatomic particles seem to have
"mass" and "velocity," but these are only convenient words to describe
different aspects of the particles' behavior. No one has ever laid a meson
and a lepton on scales and weighed them, and seen directly that mesons
are heavier than leptons.* To say that a meson is heavier than a lepton
is simply a convenient and mathematically workable way of describing
how mesons and leptons behave. It is an accurate figurative description
of observed phenomena.
The terminology of subatomic physics "preserves the phenomena" (in
Plato's phrase) of an observation, but it does not state directly the
actual events in the subatomic world, the way words like "bark" and
"leaves" state directly the actual components of a tree. The terminology
of subatomic physics is a lot like the terminology of the old
Earth-centered cosmologies. Aristotle and Ptolemy, and even
Copernicus himself, were much less interested in what was "actually"
happening in the sky than they were in "accurately describing" what was
observed. The terms eccentric, deferent, planet and orbit in the ancient
world were in kind no different from the terms position, velocity,
electron and orbit in twentieth century quantum physics. That is,
Ptolemy did not necessarily believe that the planets actually moved
along epicycles; but epicycles were a fairly accurate way of describing
the motions that were observed. Ancient cosmologists, like most
quantum physicists, were quite happy to speak in metaphors, as long as
phenomenal observations were adhered to. In the same way that
physicists do not believe anyone can ever know what a meson actually
looks like and does, Aristotle, Ptolemy and Copernicus did not believe
that anyone could ever know what a planet actually looks like and does.
Metaphors. Understanding by indirect means.
In the early 1600s Kepler, Galileo and others changed the expectations
of science by trying to speak of the phenomena directly, rather than
through metaphors. They were able to do this for two reasons. One was
that Tycho Brahe had made an enormous catalog of superhumanly
detailed astronomical observations which Kepler could use. With so
much detail, Kepler could think outside the indirectness(and therefore,
in a sense, the inaccuracy) of metaphor to preserve all the phenomena.
The other reason was that Galileo had laid hands on one of the first
telescopes and looked at Jupiter, the Moon and the Sun. His direct
observations undermined the ancient idea that no one could ever know
what a planet actually looks like. Instead of speaking of the sky in
metaphors, Galileo and Kepler began to speak of the sky directly.
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