22 May 2006

Mystical connections

I’ve been reading this intriguing book lately – it’s about, how should I put this, the mystical elements inherent in quantum theory and the nature of the subatomic particle physics. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Anyway, most of you are probably familiar with Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, meaning that the inherent energy in something is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared. Now the speed of light is a huge number already – about at 186,000 miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour. So squared, that’s really big. What that means is that even the smallest atom has a huge amount of potential energy in it, if you can figure out how to convert the matter into pure energy. That’s the basic physics behind nuclear power, and nuclear bombs. The other thing that this means is that there are two kinds of stuff in the universe, matter, and energy, and that the one can be converted into the other and vice versa.

Well, what this book argues is that matter, the stuff we see and can touch and bump into, the stuff that actually comprises our bodies, is kind of illusory. Because you see, the distinction between what’s matter and what’s not isn’t like we usually think about it. We tend to think, I’m here, and I’m made of matter, and this desk, for example, is made of other stuff, and between me and the desk is more stuff that we call air, but I can move through the air because it’s not as dense, but I can’t move through the desk. But what are we made of? Mostly water – about 35 liters in the average human body. Our bodies can be broken down into the chemical elements also – we’re about 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, and another 10% hydrogen. But then what are oxygen and carbon and hydrogen molecules made of? They’re all made of atoms, which in turn are made of subatomic particles like electrons and protons and neutrons (for that matter, protons and neutrons are composite particles made of quarks). OK, you get the picture. I’m made of these subatomic particles, but so is this desk, and so is the air. Everything that is, is made up of the same subatomic particles. The only difference is how these particles are organized, put together, and which molecules they wind up forming.

Feeling dizzy yet? So here’s the really wacky part of the argument. At their most basic, all of these particles are really just energy. So then, this stuff that we call matter, the stuff that comprises me and you and this desk and the air, is really just energy organized in different ways. But it’s all tied together in this one big underlying field. It’s like I’m a cluster of energy, and you’re another cluster of this same energy, and so is this desk, and so is the air, and so is everything that we see and perceive as matter. This all sounds like something out of Star Wars, or perhaps something Buddhist, and I’m not sure I entirely buy into the whole argument. But, I do like the truth it’s getting at, namely that we’re all interconnected, whether we see it or not. Maybe we can’t always perceive it, but we are. We’re connected to people we know and like, and to folks we know and don’t much care for. Democrats are connected to Republicans. Christians are connected to Muslims. You, wherever you are, most likely in some relatively comfortable setting at the moment, are connected to the millions of people suffering and dying in Darfur.

Isn’t that what we really all long for, to be connected? E.M. Forster said it well in his novel Howard’s End; you might know it from the film version starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. Forster, who happened to be gay, which in his Victorian and Edwardian England no doubt added to his feelings of disconnect, wrote about:

…the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire…Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

No comments: