uncertainty principles

A photo posted by sarah mccarry (@sarahmccarry) on

This is a joke! The joke is that the circled equation is wrong to a silly degree. That's why Fermi is smirking at the photographer. I know, it's a pretty obscure joke. Physicists like it.

Hi, it's been a while. I was hot and sad, and then I went to particle physics camp, and then I was hot and sad again. It's still hot and I am still sad, but in a different way now, a way that lets me get more done, and think about fall, and write again, and imagine adventures for myself. Grief Desert keeps going, monotonous to the horizon, but for now I found some shade.

I didn't read much at physics camp because my brain was too full and at night I fell asleep like a rock dropping into a pond, thunk. I had a lot of strange dreams. I cried on the train on the way there, and on the way home; the world felt like moving underwater, cloudy and oppressive, my sweat-soaked clothes sticking to my skin. When does it get better? I don't know. You keep going.

The scientists at physics camp had a kind of joy it's hard to describe: clean and fierce, silly jokes, old eye-rolling arguments with each other about the finer points of theories very few people in the world understand well enough to argue about. I learned enough to realize how much more there is that I don't know than I realized before. Also that particle physicists don't mind so much dopey metaphors about entanglement and many-worlds--the road untaken, the lovers joined across continents, et cetera--as they do quacks and hucksters insisting the quantum allows us to control our destinies and manifest high-yield portfolios and romance, clear our systems of cancers and end up in jobs we like. An observer is anything that interacts with a system to produce a measurable effect: other particles, the wind in the trees, water wearing down stone. Don't mistake science for the divine. A lot of physicists, it turns out, are religious, but they do not mingle uncertainty principles and god. All the writers were worried about fucking up the science in their books but the physicists were quite nice about it. It's more important to give pleasure to your readers, one of the physicists said. I was so impressed I wrote that down. There were published physics papers tacked to a bulletin board in a hallway. I tried to read one, but I have to admit I didn't get very far.

At physics camp I talked to people who had worked on LIGO and people who went to the South Pole to look for neutrinos and people building computers out of particles that exist and don't exist at the same time. The world is so big! And so miraculously tiny! There's so much we know about it! And so much we don't! On the last evening of physics camp a physicist--Nobel laureate, actually, so rather a fancy one--came to talk to us about matter, antimatter, baryogenesis, which is a fancy-science way of saying the origins of matter. (Nobody knows!!!) All theories of quantum measurement are inadequate. All the physicists used the word story. We know the results of experiments; what we don't know, what nobody knows for sure, is the story that goes before the ending. Which is the opposite, I suppose, of living in the world.

Outside while the physicist talked two birds fluttered back and forth under the eaves with bits of sticks and grass, building a nest. You can wander through this burning world with a broken heart and still know that human beings are flinging themselves into the air on the wings of the biggest questions imaginable. A bird is raising chicks to flight. This is love, I thought suddenly as the physicist told us jokes about contested theories of quantum dynamics that no one in the room understood except the other physicists, who chuckled softly among themselves. This is love. When does it get better? I don't know. How do we keep going? I don't know. But here we are, facing down the gathering storm. Here we are, writing stories. Here we are, making poems and learning the language of light. Here we are, in the streets. We do none of these things without the faith somewhere in us that another world is possible. We do none of these things lightly. We do none of these things without love. Maybe there is no ending. Maybe all that matters, in science, in the breathing world, is the story that shapes the way we get there.

A postdoc told me in the spring no science gets done because the physicists' offices overlook the agricultural department and from April to June the fields are lively with new lambs stumbling through the grass. All the scientists gather at the windows for weeks, their data abandoned until summer settles in. As anyone who's seen Jurassic Park can tell you, life finds a way. A different Nobel laureate gave me a little plastic card with the fundamental constants of physics and chemistry. Here are the things we know for sure. They fit in your wallet. You can carry them around in case of emergency. So I do.

I told you I was going to write about Blair Braverman's book and I will, I swear. You should read it now because it might take me a while to get to writing about it. I went mostly for comfort, this last month: I reread The Secret History, and some silly mystery novels, and now I'm rereading The Little Friend, which I only just now realized is a grown-up Harriet the Spy with meth labs. And I am watching Fortitude which is a bit wacky but so far no ladies have gotten raped or tortured, with the special bonus of it being filmed in Iceland. Snow everywhere and tall mountains and remember how lovely it is to be cold. Leather jackets and wool sweaters and big clompy boots. I'll get my brain in order when the temperature drops. Every summer I forget it's like this every summer. Take care of yourselves, dear hearts. I think there will be another Schrödinger Sessions next year and you should definitely go.

Keep loving, keep fighting--