'In truth the subtle web of thought / is like the weaver's fabric wrought'

Image from a 1987 French-English Visual Dictionary, courtesy of Matthew Baird
Image from a 1987 French-English Visual Dictionary, courtesy of Matthew Baird

“Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote parts of reality, and the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles of art are different words or groups of words in this language.” – Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (1958)

Poetry and quantum mechanics do indeed seem to speak to the more remote parts of reality as Werner Heisenberg suggests, and, as a result, both systems invite new ways of speaking, furthering what language is capable of within and outside of human experience. Specifically, both poetry and quantum mechanics are modes of thinking that invite complex forms of abstraction. Quantum mechanics was criticized by Heisenberg’s contemporaries as being too abstract, but, like some poetry, it is abstraction that makes it a system capable of breaking down perceived axioms of reality. Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933 for the creation of quantum mechanics, and, at the end of his acceptance lecture, he said that there is hope that the “abstractor atomic physics developing at present,” his quantum mechanics,  “will one day fit more harmoniously into the great edifice of Science.” While quantum mechanics is now the predominant Western physics of our time, its claims are still largely ignored, misunderstood, and, most predictably, ignorantly feared.

How would human culture function if we lived within a context where we, like the atoms of which we are composed, move not by cause and effect but by quantum jump, simultaneously appearing in multiple states of time and space? What kinds of humans would we be if we considered that we cannot predict the future with certainty because we cannot know the present without ambiguity? How would belief systems be dismantled if we assumed that any observations and measurements of nature, of which we are a part, are influenced by the observer and the means of how we observe? Quantum mechanics, if ’pataphysically applied to consensus reality at eye level, subverts objective reality. And this is no accident. Heisenberg, unlike many of his contemporaries, was a theoretical physicist educated in the nuances of Western philosophy, and often in his writings he refers to how we must get beyond Cartesian axioms where the senses are proscriptive and reality is expressed in the relationship between the subject and object.

…we have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. –Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy

Poetry is capable of being a novel form of questioning, and often debates in poetics are centered upon which questions are the most urgent. If poetry is a novel form of questioning, what we observe in nature as poets—and nature includes human culture—is nature exposed to the methods of our poetry, which makes the poet not a transparent eyeball as Ralph Waldo Emerson might have it and not a translator of the senses as René Descartes might espouse but a practitioner of questions or what Alfred Jarry calls “imaginary solutions.” This is one way that poetry can deflect the dogmatic absolutisms of consensus reality, too often repressively expressed in acts of aggression, including individual and political violence against other humans and the planet. 

Heisenberg’s breakthrough principle of indeterminacy ushered in a physics, a method of articulating physical reality, that dismantles the Newtonian classical mechanics upon which our ordinary senses and language often rely. One consequence is that this physics invites us to explore extraordinary senses and languages such as poetry as methods of questioning, which makes the questions of poetry and other forms of artistic inquiry relevant to the questions that contemporary physicists are asking. Why aren’t more poets using their language to explore what quantum gravity is, for example? I say this because I think poets need to consciously ask these questions not only to make poetry more expansive but to contribute to the dialogues happening at scales outside of our too-often narrow milieu. Breakthrough movements in poetry have all done this to some extent. The success of these movements, often operating as outsider communities within established traditions, is owed to not only the unique questions they pose but the momentum they establish that often, on the one hand, encourages discourse, and, on the other hand, resists critique. 

Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics, unlike some poetics, is a system of thinking that is not predicated on axioms and does not argue an ideology, whether that ideology values the expression of human experience and identity or enacts a Marxist critique of language or performs exercises in appropriation within the context of the information age. Quantum mechanics, as a theoretical physics, is not concerned with aesthetics but instead functions as a mathematical and epistemological explanation of physical systems at subatomic scales. What distinguishes it from other theoretical physics is that the answers it provides asks more questions. Can we say the same about poetry?

Heisenberg was a student of poetry, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust in his book, Physics and Philosophy, as a way to talk about the role of the imagination in epistemological endeavors and in his breakthrough Principle of Indeterminancy in quantum mechanics. He also took into account the philosophy of language in his questions of physics, writing an essay, “Language and Reality in Modern Physics,” where he talks about how we do not have the correct language to speak about the new physics. Which poetries take into account the role of rationality in poetry and the philosophy of science? Which poetries ask more questions than they answer? Can poetry be the new language of the new physics?

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Heisenberg was recruited by the Nazis to formulate an atomic bomb during World War II, but unlike J. Robert Oppenheimer and others associated with the Allies’ Manhattan project, Heisenberg did not or could not provide this technology. Many speculate that Heisenberg could have given the Nazis the atomic bomb but sabotaged those efforts; at the same time, there are reports that Niels Bohr, Heisenberg’s mentor, was alarmed at some of Heisenberg’s comments in a conversation they had about atomic weapons at the beginning of WWII. While scientific breakthroughs have too often been used by human culture for weaponry, they are also capable of enacting shifts in how humans interact with and forge reality. Innovations in science and art can inspire artists to more consciously respond to innovations in science; likewise, these innovations can also inspire scientists to take into account the multiple ways how—and why—artists attempt to say or not say the unsayable.