The Best Our Species Can Do

lambda=hmv

Duality
by Georges Whitesides, from No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale

We’re burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest — perhaps the greatest — of  art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.

We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby’s crib. We panic.

An equation can be a thing of such beauty and subtlety that only a poem can equal it. As an evocation of reality — as the shortest of descriptions, but describing worlds — it is hard to beat the most artful of poems and, equally, of equations. They are the best our species can do.

Equations are the poetry that we use to describe the behavior of electrons and atoms, just as we use poems to describe ourselves. Equations may be all we have: sometimes word fail, since words best describe what we have experienced, and behaviors at the smallest scale are forever beyond our direct experience.

Consider Margaret Atwood:

You fit into me
Like a hook in an eye

A fish hook
An open eye

Consider Louis de Broglie (a twentieth-century physicist, and an architect of quantum mechanics):

λ = h/mv

Read the equation as if it were poetry — a condensed description of a reality we can only see from the corner of our eye. The “equals” sign is the equivalent of “is,” and makes the equation a sentence: “A moving object is a wave.” Huh? What did you just say? How can that be?

It’s an idea worth trying on for size. Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a reality beyond the reach of words. Playing a fugue, and tasting fresh summer tomatoes, and writing poetry, and falling in love all ultimately devolve into molecules and electrons, but we cannot yet (and perhaps, ever) trace that path from one end (from molecules) to other (us). Not with poetry, nor with equations. But each guides us part way.

Of course, not all equations are things of beauty: some are porcupines, some are plumber’s helpers, and some are tarantulas.

*     *     *     *

I’m a chemist. My universe is nuclei and electrons, and the almost endless ways they can assemble. Atoms are just at the border between ordinary, macroscopic matter and matter dominated by the Alice-in-Wonderland rules of quantum mechanics. Electrons, in particular, have the unnerving property of having mass and charge but no extent — no size. There’s no tiny BB down in their core, as there is a nucleus sitting at the center of an atom. “Ah,” you say, “that’s strange. If there’s nothing there, what is it that has a mass? And what’s charged?” Good question…

…As a chemist, I’ve come to uneasy terms with the weirdness of electrons and photons, and with their ability to meld into the ordinariness of macroscopic things. But sometimes, lying awake in a strange hotel room at 4 a.m., considering what I might say that I really understand about anything, I fret that the answer is: almost nothing.