Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Tony Soprano and Quantum Thinking

When I moved to Hawaii almost two years ago, my neighbors turned me on to The Sopranos. Once I'd caught up to them, which meant watching three seasons in two weeks or so, we'd spend evenings putting down two or three episodes until we had exhausted every one. This year season six began. Neither of us has HBO, so I turned to Netflix for my Soprano fix. This past weekend, I made my way through the sixth episode. Up to this point, one of the more obvious themes of the show has been the line between good and evil. One minute Tony is in his psychiatrist's office talking about his issues with his mother or his troubles with his kids, real life scenarios that most of us can empathize with. Soon after, he's ordering a murder from the back office of a stripclub. And then he makes decisions that blur the line, like when he orders a hit on one of his own men after the senseless abuse and murder of an innocent stripper.

But this season, Tony spent two episodes in a coma after being shot by his borderline senile uncle. Waking up, he finds himself in a room next to a rocket scientist (Tony's epithet), really, a quantum physicist. Tony, after the obligatory white light, is already searching for something, leaving him receptive to his new neighbor's ideas. This is where the good vs. evil conflict of which Tony himself seems to contemplate often, if indirectly, in his psychiatrist's office and his dreams/nightmares, gets examined directly. Tony is surprised and maybe impressed with the stoic reaction of his neighbor after a prognosis of a short, futile fight against an aggressive, long-undetected cancer. He learns that it's the physicist's view of the world that keeps perspective for him. He explains that he doesn't see good-bad, good-evil, he just recognizes the world as a collection of particles swirling around, bumping into each other, reacting, and that the forms (people, places) we perceive are our own interpretation of the dance of these particles. In other words, everything is interconnected. I'm not sure yet how Tony will use this information...

So I decided to get back to a text that I read and taught in my Identity and Culture course last year: The Dancing Wu Li Master by Gary Zukav. Here's an excerpt explaining what Tony learns in season six:

According to this philosophy [Newtonian (old) Physics], we may seem to have a will of our own and the ability to alter the course of events in our lives, but we do not. Everything, from the beginning of time, has been predetermined, including our illusion of having a free will. The universe is a prerecorded tape playing itself out in the only way that it can. The status of men is immeasurably more dismal than it was before the advent of science. The Great Machine runs blindly on, and all things in it are but cogs.
According to quantum mechanics, however, it is not possible, even in principle, to know enough about the present to make a complete prediction about the future. Even if we have the best possible measuring devices, it is not possible. It is not a matter of the size of the task or the inefficiency of detectors. The very nature of things is such that we must choose which aspect of them we wish to know best, for we can know only one of them with precision (28).

Tony's new friend uses the analogy of winds and other weather systems moving around the globe to illustrate the basic principles of interconnectedness. In Dancing Wu Li Masters, the definition is expounded and the previous excerpt speaks to what the interconnectedness implies, that we can only know or estimate a little information. We don't see how it connects with everything else, therefore, we can't ever predict anything with any certainty. Zukav explains further:

There is another fundamental difference between the old physics and the new physics. The old physics assumes that there is an external world which exists apart from us. It further assumes that we can observe, measure, and speculate about the external world without changing it. According to the old physics, the external world is indifferent to us and to our needs (31).

According to quantum mechanics there is no such thing as objectivity. We cannot eliminate ourselves from the picture. We are a part of nature, and when we study nature there is no way around the fact that nature is studying itself. Physics has become a branch of psychology, or perhaps the other way round (33).

I'm not really sure what all this has to do with being a teacher, but I have some suspicions. A lot of what we ask students to do is done within an academic bubble-world. There's an omnipresent echo of "in the real world..." Although there's not as much of that here at Punahou, I think it's still a student perception. And I also think that blogs are an access point for quantum thinking, where the act of thinking and writing changes thinking and writing. Thoughts?

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