Uncertainty and Old Age


In his old age, Einstein was perplexed by quantum theory and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  “God does not play dice with the universe,” exclaimed the great genius.  Bohr, another great genius, answered (less famously) “It’s not our place to tell Him how to run the world.”  We want to believe that life is not subject to blind chance, that the world is reasonable and just.  If we live long enough, we learn otherwise.

I recently finished When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (highly recommended).  This somewhat strange book explores the scientists of the twentieth century and the consequences of their science.  It filled a gaping void in my education by detailing the development of quantum theory up to the point of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Scientific advances have done wonderful things like cleaning our water and delivering us from polio, but science was also responsible for the atom bomb.  One of the first stories in the book concerns Fritz Haber, who both invented a way to fix nitrogen out of the air (making chemical fertilizer possible and warding off global famine) and also engineered Germany’s gas attacks during the first World War. 

Labatut eventually moves on to Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle – the theory that the underpinnings of the universe are based on chance, on odds, on probabilities.  How that threatens us!  How it threatened Einstein!

Labatut writes:

For Einstein, physics must speak of causes and effects, and not only of probabilities.  He refused to believe that the facts of the world obeyed a logic so contrary to common sense.  Chance could not be enthroned at the expense of the notion of natural laws.  There had to be something deeper.  Something not yet known.  A hidden variable that could dissipate the fog of Copenhagen [this refers to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Heisenberg and Bohr relating to quantum mechanics] and reveal the order that undergirded the randomness of the subatomic world. (167)

Einstein struggled with this proposed randomness for the rest of his life.

Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in 1932.  In 1939 the Nazis asked him about the feasibility of an atom bomb – he said it was not possible within the duration of the war and was apparently surprised when one was dropped on Hiroshima.  One might hope he was lying to Hitler to stop him; my guess was that he was just wrong.

The reader should be aware that Labatut’s book is a mixture of fact and fiction, and I don’t know enough about the subject matter to differentiate.  But it is a good read.  And it forces us to think again about technology and science and what we know to be true.  And how much of life is pure chance.

Although our parents acknowledged that “life is not fair” (after our cries of “it’s not fair”), the subliminal message was always that life is not random, that we have some significant level of control. People who fared badly did something wrong (didn’t finish college, didn’t work hard enough, ate too much, etc.) – if we will only get that degree, get that job, find that husband, have that baby – everything will be okay.  And yet everyone has had the experience of watching bad things happen to good people.  Lung cancer sometimes comes to those who never smoked, husbands leave loving wives, and one wild child in a wonderful family causes endless grief.  Uncertainty principle indeed.  Shakespeare has the poor Earl of Gloucester acknowledge that “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport.” 

The world has never liked to think that the human life is based on probability, chance.  When in the 17th century “bills of mortality” were first used to create actuarial tables for such things as life insurance, people bridled at replacing individual providence with en masse reckonings.  Fate in the hands of mathematics is quite different from providence in the control of a deity.  Identical numbers/probabilities would be used for you or your neighbor or the sinner down the street; there is nothing individual or ethical about such calculations.   It might have been a scientific approach, an enlightened approach, but it was not comforting.

No one wants to hear about wanton boys and flies.  No one wants to think that life is random on some basic level.  No one wants to believe that technology gets away from us and has repercussions that we cannot predict.  But, those who have lived long, know that this is true.   

2 thoughts on “Uncertainty and Old Age

  1. Yup. Suffering exists and the resistance to suffering causes more suffering. So at least one reaction to the random is predictable. I guess Einstein would be comforted?


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