By Max RossJanuary 26, 2015
The physicist thus finds himself in a world from which the bottom has dropped clean out; as he penetrates deeper and deeper it eludes him and fades away by the highly unsportsmanlike device of just becoming meaningless […] The world is not a world of reason, understandable by the intellect of man, but as we penetrate ever deeper, the very law of cause and effect, which we had thought to be a formula to which we could force God Himself to subscribe, ceases to have meaning.
— Percy Bridgman, “The New Vision of Science”
TEN YEARS AGO, my father had achieved a superposition (to misuse a term from quantum mechanics). That is, at least mentally, he occupied two opposing states — healthy and unhealthy — both of which were equally real to him.
Shortly after turning 50, he was informed that he had in his blood abnormally high levels of a protein called prostate-specific antigen, which suggested he might have prostate cancer. His father and brother had both survived the disease, and so the news upset but did not surprise him. A biopsy was required for a definitive diagnosis, but my father refused — from his brother’s experience he knew incontinence and impotence were likely side effects. “And I didn’t want to go around in diapers,” he told me earlier this year. “That isn’t me.”
My father’s visit to the doctor coincided with his revelation to my family that he was “essentially a gay person,” a realization that entailed he divorce my mother and remove himself from our household. I suspect that the prospect of impotence, coming so shortly after this upheaval, represented a limitation on his new identity so stifling, and which would have rendered all the hurt he’d inflicted on himself and on my mother so meaningless, that he was willing to assume a bit of ignorance concerning his health if it meant he could, even for a short time, continue on.
Over the next several years he monitored his antigen levels closely with a specialist and subscribed to a biannual newsletter from Johns Hopkins University that detailed advances in prostate cancer research. Meanwhile he didn’t tell anyone of his possible condition. In this time he met and moved in with an art gallery director named Thomas, perhaps by accident killed his cat, and broke up with him; after devising a lucrative settlement in a lawsuit between two large banks (an attorney, my father specializes in corporate securities fraud), he opened his own practice. Quickly he developed a client roster consisting of investment banks, hedge funds, and allegedly wronged millionaires and billionaires, and became wealthy, began to have his sport coats custom-tailored, bought two horses that he named Diva and Martini, amassed a great deal of Wallace Stevens paraphernalia, and seemed generally intent on isolating himself within his interests. Except for his regular appointments with his prostate specialist, and the irregular arrival of the Johns Hopkins newsletter, he claims to have thought little about his potential illness.
“It was there and it wasn’t,” he told me recently. “I suppose that’s how these things go.”
In physics, superposition refers to a quantum entity’s ability to inhabit two mutually exclusive conditions — light, for example, can simultaneously exist as a particle and a wave. As Rivka Galchen wrote in The New Yorker, “If one reads quantum-mechanical equations literally, superposition is ontological, not epistemological; it’s not that we don’t know which state the [entity] is in, but that the [entity] really is in both states at once.” At the time of its discovery, this phenomenon flabbergasted scientists. Our capacity to describe the world was proven inadequate — we couldn’t measure light’s particle-ness without destroying its wave-ness, and so we couldn’t ever fully know all the characteristics of a quantum of light. The implications were vexing: scientists had demonstrated there’s a hard cap limiting what can be known.
That quantum mechanics should be mentioned in The New Yorker, and by a writer best known for her fiction (though Galchen has an MD), is the type of phenomenon Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber investigate in The Quantum Moment, a new book tracing the infiltration of quantum concepts into the language of popular culture, and which I happened to be reading when, a few months ago, my father divulged to me the news about his antigen levels and what they might mean. It had been recommended by a friend, a science writer, who’d read an advance copy. The topic was up my alley, he’d said. I didn’t believe him. I cared little about quantum physics, understood less, and generally classified sciences under the same category Camus did, “matter[s] of profound indifference.” But I owed this friend many favors (at moderate reputational risk, he’d introduced me to a group of chemists I’d wanted to interview for an article), and when the book arrived in the mail (Amazon) I opened it, reluctantly, up. Quickly, the book’s subject matter conflated with the events occurring outside its pages.
Professors at Stony Brook University, Crease and Goldhaber detail in mostly demotic terms and chipper tones the history of quantum physics, its main concepts, its discoverers, its prominent detractors (Einstein among them), and its subsequent jargonization — how and why phrases like quantum leap and uncertainty principle have escaped the highly technical shackles of the scientific lexicon to become metaphors within literature, philosophy, and self-help.
The book draws on examples of quantum language that appear in the work of David Foster Wallace, John Updike, Alison Bechdel, Jorge Luis Borges, Valerie Laws, Playboy, D.H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy, Teju Cole, Kurt Vonnegut, Lewis Carroll, Barack Obama, and Shirley MacLaine. Despite their approachable style, Crease and Goldhaber exhibit some fussiness, harboring a patient, professorly disdain for those who misappropriate the concepts (“calling [modern confusion] a quantum condition may be scientifically incorrect, but to Updike […] it was metaphorically apt”), and a slightly sharper disdain for those who question science’s status as the apogee of knowledge. (“[David Foster] Wallace is wrong, of course,” they counterpunch at one point. “In its domain and context, science describes what happens in the world nicely.”)
Although it’s not their main objective, the authors are at their most entertaining when they expose the hollow understanding of physics that many who use its terms possess. “If you’re a charlatan and you link something you are promoting to physics,” they write, “you imply that it’s deep.” Explaining the popularity of Schrödinger’s cat — a superpositioned cat that, sealed in a box, is both dead and alive — they conclude its metaphorical allure derives from the fact that “the image involves a cat,” and that “it involves an amusing absurdity, like the Zen koan of the sound of one hand clapping. We love paradoxes. Supposedly they make us think, but in reality they tell us we don’t have to bother.”
But, with one’s quill in one’s hand, one finds it difficult to resist experimenting with the book’s concepts. As Crease and Goldhaber themselves remark (a few times), scientific theories often bear immense linguistic utility, providing terminology to explain the previously inexplicable. It follows that the development of new scientific theories will always have a semantic corollary: a more precise understanding of the world begets a more precise way of describing it. Precision being, in both science and writing, a big part of the goal, the intent of the kick. And the associative possibilities of superposition — for those of us descended from the accidentally duplicitous — are attractive. What better way to characterize the husband who’s drawn equally to his wife and to men and then, having chosen men, the admixture of excitement and shame he feels in pursuing his desires; the ex-wife who must be at once accepting and disbelieving of her ex-husband’s departure; the son who is as inclined to remain oblivious to his parents’ troubles as he is to learn all; and then, beginning again, the man who both does and does not have cancer spreading inside him, who intentionally keeps his understanding unresolved. There is no tool sensitive enough to measure our psychological wave-particles accurately.
Rosh Hashanah dinner had ended. The plates and silverware had been cleared, and all that remained on the tablecloth were crumbs of challah here and there and two candles burning down to cubist iterations of their original selves. The grandchildren were in the basement playing and my aunt, Janet, was occupied in the kitchen with her new espresso machine. My mother, a nervous, black-haired woman, waited to be asked to slice the apple tart she’d baked. “Maybe I should get the dessert plates,” she said; when no one answered, she asked, “Is it a good idea to get the dessert plates?” Again no one answered, and she looked down sadly at her tart, as if it had an illness she could not cure. At an end of the table my father and his brother, Joseph, discussed the new mattresses they were purchasing for the cabin they jointly owned in western Wisconsin. Joseph, who is five years older than my father and jealous of his sudden wealth, insisted on paying for half, but also insisted on finding the best deal. Now one of Joseph’s granddaughters emerged from the basement to whisper something in his ear; now my father checked his cell phone — he was waiting for my sister, in New Jersey, to respond to his l’shanah tovah. “Mom, let’s do the tart,” I said. For this is my role — the one I have continued willfully into my 30s: to play the son, a promiscuous son, anyone’s son. Her chair nearly fell to the floor when my mother stood up, too quickly. “I’ll get the dessert plates first,” she said.
The conversation, guided by protean momentum, alighted on the topic of assisted suicide and drew everybody in. The progression had gone something like this: my grandparents were absent from dinner because my grandfather had been hospitalized earlier in the day with an irregular heartbeat. This had prompted Joseph, at some point during matzah ball soup, to recount the death of my great-uncle, who at the end of his life refused to eat or drink, thus starving himself to death. From there the conversation had turned to what my second-cousins were learning in dance class; the ability of Tesla’s electric cars to truly change the auto industry; whether soccer would ever achieve mainstream popularity and marketability in the United States; and then, after the children had gone downstairs and Janet had filled her espresso maker with filtered water, we spoke of my great-aunt, who’d suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly 15 years before dying in an assisted-care home in California. (Discussing Teju Cole’s Open City, Crease and Goldhaber note that the narrator’s “thoughts flit discontinuously from one subject to another: what the city must look like to a flock of geese, the history of the slave trade in New York, the causes and effects of 9/11, various works of music and literature. His voice […] jumps about in a kind of quantized mental phase space, without any ruminations or meditations knitting the jumps into a smooth fabric, or discomfort that it lacks a smooth fabric.” They remark that these “gaps and inconsistencies are integral to the whole story,” implying that similar inconsistencies within the quantum realm should be integral to our understanding of nature; in my experience, such inconsistencies are integral to the conversational flow of family dinners.) My great-aunt’s illness had perniciously taxed my grandmother, who’d visited California every other month even though her sister no longer recognized her, and called her every night, ending every conversation with “I love you,” because she believed, or needed to believe, that it had an ameliorative effect.
“Gosh, was she relieved when Bettian finally died,” my father said.
“I wouldn’t want to be seen like that,” said Joseph, who is 65, and bald, and has an uncanny ability to make the obvious sound controversial. “Don’t get me wrong, I think medicine is a wonderful thing,” he said. “It has — I really believe this — it’s come a long way, even just in my lifetime. Our lifetimes. But the way Bettian ended up, all tubes and respirators, that’s not how I want to be. I’d end it first.”
My aunt, setting an espresso in front of him, slapped her husband on the shoulder. “Dinner table,” she said.
“What? It’s what we’re talking about. And I wouldn’t — what Mom went through, I wouldn’t want you to go through.”
“And I bet you think you’re certain of this,” my father said.
“Of course I’m certain.”
“My point is how can you know. It’s such a cross-that-bridge situation.”
“Because I know,” Joseph said.
My mother distributed her tart and preemptive apologies. (“It’s a new recipe. I hope it’s okay.”)
“Do you just sense it, Gail?” Janet had taken her first bite. “Can you taste the batter and know something’s missing, and know what it is? I can’t bake. That’s why I don’t bake.”
“Sometimes I can tell,” said my mother. And then, unwilling to admit expertise: “but sometimes I can’t.”
“It’s a lovely tart, as always,” said my father. “Not identical to any tart you’ve made before, but identical in the degree of its excellence.”
(In the year or two when they saw little of each other, I would secretly ferry Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover desserts from my mother’s kitchen to my father’s, a block away, late at night.)
We directed a series of compliments my mother’s way, which she deflected expertly. (“I just followed the recipe.”) Forks and demitasses clinked against little plates, and then Joseph said, “I was talking to Saul Rosenberg. He’s a good friend of mine, and a surgeon — a very respected surgeon, if any of you saw the piece in the Pioneer Press. And he said that if a person begins to refuse food, like Philip did, the best thing to do, the most humane thing, he said, is to let them starve. It’s relatively fast, and painless.”
“And I suppose that’s your way out,” my father said.
“I don’t know if that’s my way out. I’m not saying that. I just know I want a way out.”
“We’re learning, as we get older, that Last Man Standing is not the name of the game,” my father said, addressing me. “But there’s a million different shades of gray on this, which your uncle, characteristically, seems not to understand.”
“I start to go and I’m gone.”
My mother, brandishing a pie-spade, now offered seconds, and I accepted another slice, though I did not want it.
The Nobel-winning physicist Percy Bridgman believed in assisted suicide. His rationale, write Crease and Goldhaber, was “that human beings were not meant to live without potential for dignity.” In 1961 he was diagnosed with cancer and tried to enlist a doctor to help him end his life. None would, so he shot himself in the head with a pistol. “It isn’t decent for society to make a man do this thing himself,” he wrote in his suicide note.
Bridgman emerges as the most potent character in The Quantum Moment, and is perhaps a sort of stand-in for the authors’ own views. He appears for a few pages near the book’s center, speaks truth, and then vanishes. A “shy, diligent, and careful man who strictly regimented his exterior and inner self,” Bridgman was the first to understand the philosophical ramifications of quantum mechanics — the first to realize that, once its concepts seeped into the mainstream, its codification of uncertainty into nature’s laws would “let loose a veritable intellectual spree of licentiousness.” Some would, he wrote in Harper’s, seize on the findings as proof of God’s existence (“there is something beyond the ken of the scientist”) while others could now authoritatively state that “chance rules the universe,” that “the very law of cause and effect […] ceases to have meaning.” To Bridgman this was so many one-hands-clapping. An underlying meaninglessness had been revealed, and it was the real deal, existence’s arrhythmically beating heart. This idea of the fractured nature of nature was not an idea at all — it demanded no religious interpretation, but to be reckoned with in its own right. “A certain courageous nobility is needed to look a situation like this in the face,” he went on. “And in the end, when man has fully partaken of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, there will be this difference between the First Eden and the last, that man will not become as a god, but will remain forever humble.”
Earlier this year, a non-invasive technique to test for prostate cancer using magnetic resonance imaging was developed, and my father had arranged to be screened in early September. The morning after Rosh Hashanah he called to say he’d received his results — the first I’d heard of his possible illness. He quickly explained that he’d kept it to himself because he didn’t want to worry my mother, my sister, or me until he was certain there was (or wasn’t) something to worry about; from the metronomical steadiness of his tone I sensed he’d rehearsed this quick explanation, as a preemptive, effective defense.
Although he’d waited a decade for his diagnosis, it was evident he’d lately become impatient. “I was supposed to get the results last week. About six or seven days ago, actually,” he said.
“So you’ve been stewing,” I said.
“I’ve been stewing,” he said. “Yes, I guess I have.”
Although I am slow to connect things, the previous evening’s conversation was twisted almost immediately by my father’s news. His comments about known, imminent death being a “cross-that-bridge situation” took on a new authority. But I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear of his MRI. I had, a couple times, spied copies of the Johns Hopkins newsletters in his home — perhaps he’d wanted me to — and had done my part to conceal my suspicions that he might be sick. (It seemed my filial duty not to confront him.) And now his disclosure struck me, most of all, as a reaffirmation of his ability to conceal his innermost self — a tendency less attributable to the workings of Schrödinger than to those of Chekhov. (“Every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night.”)
He attributed the lateness of his results to the notion that “doctors are idiots” (another Chekhovian trope), and said he “hadn’t worried too-too much”; if his results were positive, he’d figured, his doctors would have been legally obligated to tell him. But these justifications, he admitted, were tempered with concern — he’d begun to smoke cigarettes in the last 10 years, and was afraid of their carcinogenic effects (“certainly it’s not helping matters”) and over the summer he’d experienced sharper-than-usual pains while riding his bike.
He did not have cancer but he did not not have cancer; the MRI had revealed cancerous cells, but so few of them that his doctor assured my father he would most probably die of something else first. They would continue to monitor his condition as they’d been doing for a decade; my father, I suspected, would continue to pretend not to worry. We stayed on the line longer than usual, and he spoke of how well his own father was doing — he’d been released from the hospital that morning — and of the previous night’s meal, and of the new mattresses he was buying for the cabin.
We hung up. A moment later I called him back, though I had — and he had — nothing to say.
Max’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker Page-Turner, The Paris Review Daily, and The New York Times. He lives in Minneapolis.
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