Quantum Theory, Copenhagen, Grendel (Feb.11.2019)

In Meeting the Universe Halfway, Karen Barad supposes that our world reacts to us, extending the principles of quantum measurement up to the macroscopic level.  One of the core tenets of quantum theory is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which, as Heisenberg concedes, actually proves indeterminacy rather than uncertainty.  While commonly understood to mean that we cannot know or measure the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously, when taken with Bohr’s complementarity principle it more accurately affirms that particles do not have position and momentum simultaneously.  One of the issues hard physicists have with current quantum theory is the implication of this principle: that measurement—that perception—is in a sense an act of creation.  From there it becomes a question of what qualifies as a measurement, giving rise to different “collapse” theories—theories that incorporate the so-called collapse of the wave function, which effectively is what happens to a particle when we measure one of its properties.  Some collapse theories wind up debating sentience—who counts as an observer? A baby? A dog? A worm?—and others would rather just leave it to the math (the GRW/Random Collapse Theory).  Coming at the “measurement problem” from a hard science point of view may get muddy, but from a softer perspective, the world we can extrapolate from indeterminacy is an interesting place to be, and one with which we are always engaged, even in acts of “disengaging.”

Barad references Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, which structures itself around Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and applies it to a famous conversation between Bohr and Heisenberg, which was not recorded, and on whose details neither party agrees.  From Copenhagen, Barad extracts that intent and action are, similarly to position and momentum, complementary variables which cannot be determinate simultaneously.  Late in the play, when Heisenberg does what he perhaps intended to do, he measures his intent through Bohr’s reaction, needing an external apparatus.  Having performed the action, the intent is indeterminate until he measures it through Bohr; the creation of intent is what Barad terms an intra-action, the interface of multiple bodies and apparatuses—Bohr, Bohr’s horror, Bohr’s face, Heisenberg, Heisenberg seeing Bohr’s face, Heisenberg understanding Bohr’s horror.

This concept of intra-acting is the most interesting to me; Barad extrapolates a participatory existence wherein we are creating our world with every perception, and in which perception is the only way of being sure of existence.  Such a world would bother Einstein immensely, for we might not be able to know the moon exists unless we perceive it, or its affects. (He could be consoled, perhaps, by the tides, solid, often perceived evidence of the moon’s existence.)  It is a world dependent on how we affect it, how we affect one another and how we are affected.  It is a world that leaps into organization when we point a finger; an assortment of carbon jumps to attention as we perceive a chair, or a person, or a book.  It is certainly an interesting idea to explore in media and has probably been explored already—The Matrix does not go quite this far, but it does play around with perception and the malleability of what is real-as-perceived.

In my conference work for my quantum theory course I wrote a short story which explores a world dependent on perception, and a person who is dependent on being perceived.  In this story, whenever you falter in perceiving a variable of the world it becomes indeterminate, only coming into being when you register it again, and often not returning to the same state it was in before.  When the protagonist ceases to pay attention to the path under her feet, it shifts out from under her or the shape and color of the stones change.

In John Gardner’s Grendel, when the hero Beowulf confronts Grendel at the end of the book, he says very clearly that Grendel “[makes] the world by whispers, second by second” (p171).  Beowulf implies that Grendel’s interaction with the world is a part of its creation; the way Grendel says the world is to himself has some bearing on what the world is.  Grendel tries, desperate, to impose the world he wishes to perceive on himself as he deliriously falls to his death—he repeats that Beowulf’s advantage was an accident, hoping to make it true by sheer will.


Barad, Karen. Meeting the Unvierse Halfway.

Frayn, Michael. Copenhagen.

Gardner, John. Grendel.

Wachowskis. The Matrix.