Writing, Physics, Inspiration, and Life

One of Amanda Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter quotes him numerous times and describes the impact that Wheeler had on her life. What made Wheeler different from other physicists, what entranced Gefter with his work, was his often poetic way of describing the universe and interpreting what the mathematics of the universe told us. In a world of complex physics, daunting mathematics, and mind bending conclusions, Wheeler’s voice cut through with simplicity and his poetic style was elegant yet clear and inviting.


One part of Gefter’s book describes a trip she took with her father to Philadelphia to look over Wheeler’s old notebooks after he passed away in 2008. At the American Philosophical Society, Gefter and her father poured over his old notebooks, studying his thoughts, the progression of his studies, and analyzing the conclusions he reached along the way. One of his annotations in a notebook was included in Gefter’s book, and I think it does an excellent job illuminating Wheeler’s poetic style and what it was that drew Gefter to his writing, speaking, and way of describing science.


“Still,” Gefter writes, “Wheeler was lost. ‘Not seeing a dramatic clear path ahead,’ he wrote. ‘Now have concluded just have to push in through the undergrowth. ‘Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.’”


In his personal notebook, describing what appeared to be a dead end in his research, Wheeler turned to a phrase we have probably heard before, but probably not in our science classes. Wheeler was pushing the edge of scientific thought, and he had come to a point where he could no longer rely on the research of others to show him the path forward. The quote was used to describe propositions, yes/no or true/false statements about some reality. Wheeler, like Gefter years later, was searching for some truth to the universe that was not observer dependent, that did not need to change or adjust based on a observer’s position, speed, or quantum composition. Propositions seemed to be a place to start, but even there, the dreaded sentence, “this sentence is false” seemed to break even propositions and seemed to pull apart any basic form of reality.


Altogether this short section from Gefter, the lessons she shared about Wheeler, and the scientific challenge which served as the genesis for Wheeler’s note teach us a few things. Often times we want a dramatically clear choice in our life, but for each of us, the path has not been made. We must push through the undergrowth of life, creating our own  path as we go. We must abandon expectations of how things should be and how things ought to turn out for us, because there is no solid truth that we march toward. We are not pushing forward in the universe and in our lives to an inherently perfect and true destiny. The reality we find as we cut through the undergrowth is as observer dependent as gravity and time. How we choose to see it depends on our reference frame, and our reference frame is something we have some choice in. And while we are using that choice, we can be boring, stuffy, and self pitying, or we can be inventive, flourishing, and excited for the new discoveries that know will lie ahead of us.

Cutting Through

The truly great thing about physics is that it is universal. Literally. What we discover about physics here in the United States is true in South Africa, and what is discovered in South Africa can be learned just as well in Vietnam, and it all holds true on Jupiter or in the Andromeda Galexy. Physics is based in mathematics and repeatable experiments and it can be understood anywhere. It takes our perceptions and it boils them down into their most simplistic forms, tests them, repeats the test, and then determines what is real and what is unsupported. This means that physics has the ability to help us understand things in incredible new ways. We can better understand the universe and how it is held together, but only if we can study the physics and step beyond ourselves to understand what the tests, experiments, and math are trying to explain to us.

For Amanda Gefter, this is one of the best parts of physics. It takes our expectations, our assumptions, and what we want to be true, and completely ignores it. A good scientist, during their search for what is real and what is not, is able to cut through the noise of our expectations, beliefs, and desires to see the science underneath, holding things together.

Gefter writes, “That was what I loved about physics—that moment of pure surprise when you suddenly realize that what you had thought was one thing is really something else, or that two things that seemed so different are really two ways of looking at the very same thing. It was the perennial comfort that comes from discovering that the world is not remotely what it seems.”

By cutting through the noise of humanity, physics helps us to see the world more thoroughly. The world and the universe are not the way they simply appears to us from our perspective on Earth. Much of how we interpret and understand the universe is through what we see, but so much of the universe does not emit electromagnetic radiation or react with light in any way. How we perceive the universe depends on our point of view, and of our experience as human beings living on our planet. What physics does, is move beyond our experience of the universe to tell us how things are at any point in the universe, not just on planet Earth today. If we accept the world as it appears to us, then we somehow cease to move forward, and we begin to live in a story that never completely captures the reality we experience around us. We begin to live in ways that don’t add up, that put us at the center and don’t allow for the types of evolution and adaptation that we need to live in this universe responsibly. Physics takes the stories that we tell and re-writes them, adjusting the language to be the language of mathematics, giving us a new perspective from which to tell our story.

What Reality Ought To Be

The universe is filled with paradoxes, but often times those paradoxes seem to be the result of how our brains and thinking work. Amanda Gefter addresses this in her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. In the book Gefter describes how she found her way to a career as a science journalist, something she never set out to do directly, and at many points never believed would be possible for her. Her descriptions of science and physics are as much a description about the progression of human life that we all share, and it is a perfect opportunity to reflect on paradoxes within our personal lives and within areas like science.


Gefter describes the challenges of quantum mechanics and the reality that we can measure some parts of the universe one way, but get a different result if we measure them a different way or at a different time. Also, with quantum particles, we seem to be a able to measure with incredible precision a particle’s position or its momentum, but not both. We can accurately look at where a particle is, but in doing so we can’t describe where it is going. Alternatively, we can look at where a particle is going and how it is moving through space, but we can’t actually then pinpoint where in space it is. This measurement paradox is challenging and creates a lot of problems and further questions for scientists. Describing the way we are challenged by measurements and observations and our inability to separate ourselves from the measurements and observations we make, Gefter writes the following:


“There’s no normal reality lurking behind the quantum scene, no objective Einsteinian world that sits idly by regardless of who’s looking. There’s just the stuff we measure. The whole thing reeked of paradox, but as Feynman said, ‘The ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ‘ought to be.’”


I think this idea extends well beyond physics throughout our lives. A paradox is something that sounds like it would be correct and obvious, but leads to a conclusion or reality that could not possibly exist. Paradoxes are contradictions that break our expectations and are outcomes that run counter to our intentions. With this framework, we can begin to see that Feynman’s description of paradoxes extends beyond the world of science into any aspect of our lives today.


The physical universe and the ever confusing and challenging world of particle physics is under no obligation to act in ways that our limited brains and current extent of mathematical and scientific understanding would expect. We make predictions based on observations, but we are never playing with all the data and never have a complete set of all possible observations when we make our predictions. Our ideas of what should and should not be possible are shaped by our experiences and by all the information we can hold in our head, and that information is astoundingly limited compared to the vastness of possibilities within the universe.


Looking at our actual day-to-day lives, we can see that this concept translates into the expectations, generalizations, and predictions we make about our futures and desires. I live in Reno, Nevada, and at the moment housing prices in Reno have increased dramatically as the number of homes and quality apartments has remained level while economic development and population growth have occurred. One result of a stronger economy and a lagging housing infrastructure is increased home costs, and fewer living accommodations for those who want to live on their own. I was recently running with a friend of mine who stated that an individual graduating from college should be able to afford a starter home if they are in an introductory position and have a solid and stable job. My friend is not wrong to say this, but his statement is simply a value judgement based on the experiences of his family and expectations that have been shaped by where he has lived and what he has been told he should do to be successful. Whenever we begin talking in terms of how things should be, we need to recognize that we are making value judgements, and that we are expressing only our ideas of what reality ought to be. The conflicts this creates and the paradoxes it leads us to are not paradoxes that actually exist in the universe, they are just situations where the real world does not align with the way that our brains comprehend our experiences.


The set of possibilities within the universe is virtually infinite as far as the human mind is concerned, and thinking that we know how things should be is to some extent arrogant and irrational. The world and universe in physical terms and in terms of our social ordering can have many forms, and if we try to force the universe to be the way that makes sense from our perspective, we will simply be frustrated and confused in a spiral of paradox. When we take away our opinion and think through our expectations, we can begin to see the world more clearly and better react to and adjust to the actual realities of our world. When we take away the expectations of how the world ought to be, we can live in the world we actually have and learn and adapt with greater skill.


One of the things we often do in life is take shortcuts to understand the world, our place in the world, and how everything relates. These heuristics allow us to develop mental models of how we think things should interact, helping us build narratives of meaning, moral frameworks, and pathways toward success. The problem thought, if we let these heuristics run amuck without constraining them through self-awareness, is that we begin to cast people, situations, and reality into buckets defined by things we have experienced in the past or seen on TV. In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright encourages us to go beyond archetypes in our relationships to understand others as full people and not as character types from TV shows or stories.


In his book he writes, “Don’t try to force a person to be someone they’re not. … Let’s start with self-archetyping. We’re given examples of people to emulate from a young age, an this generally means being presented with role models who represent a certain ideal to our parents, educators, older siblings, or someone else with influence over our growth. The result is that we grow up with a notion about the “correct” way to act, and this carries over into how we behave in the context of a relationship.”


In this passage, Wright is encouraging us to understand our selves and not force ourselves to be a character that we believe others want us to be. He is also encouraging us to allow other people to be original versions of themselves, rather than trying to force people into boxes that describe them based on other people that we know. This means that you don’t try to assign roles to yourself and your friends to see who matches who from shows like Friends or the Big Bang Theory, and it means you approach each person as if they are themselves, and not as if they are like a character from a movie or even a person from your past.


What we can do when we avoid archetypes is avoid conflicts that arise from hidden expectations of what we want ourselves or another person to be. We can be honest and open about our roles in our relationship, and build a constructive partnership or friendship based on who we truly are as people. Archetypes and shortcuts help us learn lessons about the world and build models, but they are necessarily constrained versions of reality that limit our lives when we enact them in the real world. Avoiding archetypes means that you can be the person that makes you happy, that lives life in your regular resonance, not in the image of someone else. You can allow your spouse to be the spouse that fits with their lifestyle, and makes you happy, rather than the idealized spouse from story or fiction. Driving beyond these narratives of people and roles allows us to interact with people in the world in a much more authentic manner, thought it requires that we take more time to understand those around us.

More on Perception

Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, looks at the ways we think about and approach the world around us, and offers suggestions and ideas for how we can become more adaptive and better suited for the challenges of life’s journey. A common theme in his book is the power of perception and the importance of being able to step back and expand our perspective. Holiday writes, “It’s our preconceptions that are the problem. They tell us that things should or need to be a certain way, so when they’re not, we naturally assume that we are at a disadvantage or that we’d be wasting our time to pursue an alternate course. When really, it’s all fair game, and every situation is an opportunity for us to act.”


Holiday’s quote has two parts for me. The first part is the idea that we are constantly approaching the world with certain perspectives, and as we do so, we have preconceived ideas about how things should be. Our expectations become powerful guides dictating the experiences we expect, and how we interpret those experiences. If we can begin to better recognize our perspective we can hopefully get to a point where these preconceived ideas are no longer hidden from us, but rather are clear for us to see and leave behind. When we can get rid of ideas for how the world should be, how we should feel, and what is the right way for  the world to organize itself around us, we can be more complete and true versions of ourselves. Our emotions cease to drive our behavior and we can remain more level in our emotions as we are not wrought by the failure of the world to reach our expectations.


The second part of Holiday’s quote focuses on an idea of taking action and thinking about ourselves relative to others. It is challenging not to think of the world as a constant contest, and it is hard to avoid comparing ourselves with others who come from different backgrounds, have different interests, and have different skills. Constantly expecting a certain outcome because we have confidence in our ability can only lead us to frustrations when the outcomes we want fail to materialize. What is even worse, we may fail to act at all because our preconceived ideas about what will result from our action do not line up with what we would want. The true problem when we dictate our world based on hidden preconceived ideas is that we are giving up our focus on the present for our imagination of what the future provides. Our preconceptions are driven by the past and keep our attention fixed to an uncertain future. Remaining present in the moment grounds us to our current actions and eliminates our preconceived ideas for what we want and expect, allowing us to be the best version of our selves and to put our best effort into what is currently in front of us.

Collected and Serious

In his book The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we can use stoicism to overcome the challenges and negative situations that we face throughout our lives. When we are challenged we have control over how we react to the situation, partly through the manner in which we decide to interpret our situation. Our perceptions give us the ability to predict the ultimate outcome of events long before they manifest. What we are able to see is not the actual way that things will end up, but rather avenues of possibilities full of choices, decisions, success, and struggle.


Holiday writes about preparing ourselves for the journey ahead by understanding that the challenges we face will not be fair, but that we can always keep our nerve and decide if we will overcome or succumb.  Building a calm demeanor that can withstand our challenges requires an acceptance of the situation, the acceptance of our lack of control over situations, and acceptance of the effort required to persevere.  Through this process we can begin to look at our reality and find our way by maintaining control over our mindset, and knowing that our conscious and rational thought is the only tool we can possibly have sovereign control over.  Holiday writes, “This means preparing for the realities of our situation, steadying our nerves so we can throw our best at it. Steeling ourselves. Shaking off  the bad stuff as it happens and soldiering on — staring straight ahead as though nothing has happened.”


In this section Holiday explains that our mind is the determining factor as to whether something good or something bad has happened to us. It is our mind that ultimately decides whether we have been defeated or if we are still campaigning to reach our end goal. If we react to a negative situation in a way that gives up our mental control then we have failed, but if we respond by accepting another challenge and carrying forward, then truly nothing has affected us.


In some ways Holiday’s quote reminds me of Richard Wiseman and the book he wrote, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. Wiseman explains a common trait found amongst those who successfully follow a roadmap and work toward their goals. Those who look at the future and write down or think about the challenges they will face along the way seem to perform better than those who only think of the end goal and the rewards they will find. Preparing yourself and expecting obstacles gives one foresight into which way to take around and through the challenges that pop up. Expecting obstacles and imaging ways to overcome them before your start your journey will help you shake off the challenges you actually face and will prepare your mind for those moments when nerves become overwhelming.

Stoic Self-Awareness

The last couple of years for me have been a journey to better understand my thoughts, motivations, desires, beliefs, and assumptions. I began working on self-awareness after I realized that I did not fully understand the world and what was happening around me. Podcasts helped open my eyes and helped me see that there were many things that I was ignorant of and viewed from only one perspective. From that realization I began to see the importance of self-awareness.  I have continued to make self-awareness a major focus in my life, and Marcus Aurelius echoes and guides my thoughts and feelings of reflection in his collection of writings Meditations.


“Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in regards to self-awareness.  By not focusing on ourselves and by not looking inwards, we are allowing ourselves to move through life without guidance and direction.  The way we think about the world and our position in the world is something we can change and control, but it is also something that can move and fluctuate on its own if we  are not careful. Aurelius is encouraging us to master our thoughts and explore those parts of us which make us who we are.


A powerful metaphor that I came across to better explain the importance of self-awareness and reflection came from a young author named Paul Jun. In his book Connect the Dots, Jun described the following metaphor. Think of self-awareness and focus like a flashlight in a dark room.  Your flashlight can illuminate a certain space, and the more narrow the focus of your flashlight the clearer the item you shine it at becomes.  But while you are focused in one area, everything else is obscured. When you begin to take a step back and shine that flashlight at a greater area you will see things that were hidden before.


For me, this idea of self-awareness and shining a flashlight of focus on areas that had been dark to my conscious helped me better understand many of the expectations and pressures that I lived with. I thought deeply about what my ideas were regarding success, and where those ideas came from.  I thought about what I expected myself to do as part of the identity I had developed for myself, and I thought about why I had those expectations.  Through a journey of self-awareness I was better able to understand my own morals, values, and principles which gave me the ability to see what things fit in with who I wanted to be and allowed me to act accordingly.