April 16, 2011

totally un-understandable

I thought it was Werner Heisenberg who didn’t like what he saw. Turns out it was Max Planck. Those pesky 20th century physicists who changed our fundamental conception of the universe. One became so uncomfortably uncertain and one became so comfortable with ultimate uncertainty. Yin and yang indeed. Where to begin?

The pages of my beloved old book, Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, wear an almost woody golden tint around their edges now. So many of them glow with the whispers of an ancient and voracious Hi-Liter. What was once so bright and glaringly inquisitive is presently so faded and soft, barely perceptible even as it all quietly smiles back at me over the years. Less loud, less strident and more beautiful. Like those many years spent trying so hard to understand everything appear to me now as well.

Let us start with a discovery made in 1900 by Max Planck. This year generally is considered the birthday of quantum mechanics. In December of that year, Planck reluctantly presented to the scientific community a paper which was to make him famous. He himself was displeased with the implications of his paper, and he hoped that his colleagues could do what he could not do: explain its contents in terms of Newtonian physics. He knew in his heart, however, that they could not, and that neither could anyone else. He also sensed, and correctly so, that his paper would shift the very foundations of science.

This passage, even as I attributed it to the wrong protagonist, oddly comforted me for many years. Everything I learned from this book radically altered my conception of what “truth” is, on every level. But, long before its insights really made sense or offered any sense of intellectual security—much less spiritual equanimity—it was this story of a man’s profound insecurity in the face of profound realization that really touched me and stayed with me.

Poor Planck really didn’t like realizing that what he had seen with his own eyes intimated a completely new, and radically different, understanding of everything he had ever seen or would ever see. And, even more destabilizing was the fact that he didn’t even have a clue what form this new understanding could possibly take. Sound familiar, all ye who are realizing that the religions of our families, the religious forms that speak to our fiber and blood and memory, do not speak to our present and unfolding understanding?

Niels Bohr, Heisenberg’s mentor and articulator of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, once said, “…Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.” In 1989, I was shocked and still didn’t understand it. But, thanks to Gary Zukav, I understood its implications, even if he did use the word “psychedelic” at least seven times. Also, and somewhat unfortunately—and even though theoretically Buddhism advocates no missionary impulse—I see now that Mr. Zukav clearly was on a mission to sell Eastern religions in general, and Buddhism in particular, as the smartest spiritual traditions on earth.

Still, for me it was a good sell. The beginning of my path toward something, rather than just away from something else, began with this book. For just one example, Zukav explains:

Vacuum diagrams are the serious product of a well-intentioned physical science. However, they are also wonderful reminders that we can intellectually create our “reality.” It is not possible, according to our usual conceptions, for “something” to come out of “empty space”; but, at the subatomic level, it does

He then goes on to illustrate this scientifically observed magic and connect it to The Heart Sutra, which “contains one of the most important ideas of Mahayana Buddhism: ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’” Without any explanation, Buddhist concepts like that leave most Westerners with nothing but a “Huh?” But, concepts like this are meant to be beyond our usual understanding, to break us through to a wisdom beyond our usual understanding. And the explanations in The Dancing Wu Li Masters got me beyond all sorts of things.

Twenty-seven years after Max Planck wished that what he saw wasn’t what he understood it to be, Werner Heisenberg was very pragmatic, and ultimately very mystical, about what he saw and what he realized he could never understand.

Heisenberg’s remarkable discovery was that there are limits beyond which we cannot measure accurately, at the same time, the processes of nature. These limits are not imposed by the clumsy nature of our measuring devices or the extremely small size of the entities that we attempt to measure, but rather by the very way that nature presents itself to us. In other words, there exists an ambiguity barrier beyond which we never can pass without venturing into the realm of uncertainty.

So, Not-Knowing became Knowing. Understanding has simply become the way we understand things before we really comprehend them. But, again, Not-Knowing is not Nothing-To-Know. Even Max Planck got his game back on. Later in life, he wrote, “Science … means unresting endeavor and continually progressing development toward an aim which the poetic intuition may apprehend, but which the intellect can never fully grasp.” And he was fine with this! “The” truth of Newtonian physics was toast, but a continual progression of ever more truth has been unfolding quite nicely ever since.

These ideas are so often hard to explain, much less understand. Let us all now not completely understand these things together and smile with brilliant minds that don’t entirely understand them as well, like the young physicist who once asked the famous Hungarian mathematician, John von Neumann, for help understanding a vexing problem.

“Simple,” he said. “This can be solved by using the method of characteristics.”

After the explanation the physicist said, “I’m afraid I don’t understand the method of characteristics.”

“Young man,” said von Neumann, “in mathematics you don’t understand things, you just get used to them.”

Categories: Books, The Dancing Wu Li Masters