A Tool for Physics Education: Language And Literature As A Pedagogic Metaphor For Quantum Mechanics

By Deniz Postaci

Since the last century, Quantum Mechanics is getting much more popular, as we see in the media, popular science magazines and books. But can Quantum Mechanics be fully or partially comprehended by man in the street? Sure, it is safe to say that nobody- even the most talented physicians – understands quantum mechanics as Feynman mentioned earlier or Quantum Mechanics makes absolutely no sense, as Roger Penrose said or if you are not completely confused by Quantum Mechanics, you do not understand it, as John Wheeler said. Do we the people really need more effective and newer metaphors to learn more about Quantum Mechanics, only if we really like to learn more about it? I think most of the college students and teachers really like to learn more about it with more effective and newer pedagogic metaphors or tools but how?

At this point, to understand it much better, we can make use of language and literature. So, looking at some relations and matchings between some aspects of language and some aspects of Quantum Mechanics would be a little more useful to understand it to some extent.

First let us remember single and double split experiment for wave and particle concepts in Quantum Mechanics: The wave of probability in Quantum Mechanics is the cause of dark and white columns of photons or electrons which are thrown by an electron or photon gun onto the detector screen after the double split plate which is located between the gun and the detector.  The pattern of dark and white columns on the detector screen shows wavy nature of matter. We can call it simply,  in a sense, Dionysian nature of matter. When we do the same experiment with single split plate, we get only one white column in the middle of the detector screen, it is exactly how particles of matter are expected to behave. This is the particle nature of matter. And we can also call it simply, in a sense, Apollonian nature of matter.

In the experiment with double split plate, the pattern on the detector screen is described by complex numbers showing interfering probabilities which create the interference pattern on the detector screen. The complex numbers of quantum probabilities are shown on a circle but not on a line between 1 and 0 as in real numbers of classical probabilities. In this sense, quantum’s circular culture of probabilities is apart from Newton’s linear culture of probabilities.

Let us come to the similar aspects between language and Quantum Mechanics: An electron or photon is everywhere in the universe until it is read by a measuring instrument. When the action of reading as one of the most important actions of language happens, the wave function of that electron or photon collapses and measuring or reading has the part collapse from many places to only one place in the universe. So, the act of reading causes the electron or photon to become a particle apart from a wave. Reading reduces the infinite realities of electron or photon into one single reality.

In this context superposition in Quantum Mechanics is another interesting aspect for language. For example, the verb “get” has many definitions in the dictionary. That is to say, it has many probabilities in the dictionary.  “get” can be in more than one location through its definitions in the dictionary simultaneously.  And we can say the meanings of “get” are super-positioned or overlapped under the initial entry of “get” in dictionary.  But when we put “get” into a sentence, the vast range of its definitions collapses and reduces radically into one meaning. I can “get” this better now! In terms of semantics, a virus will be meaningful or alive in a cell, secondly in a body and finally the world of bodies like a word is in a sentence and then in a text and then in all the texts.

Another interesting and popular aspect of quantum mechanics is entanglement. As we know, if two electrons or photons are generated from the same source, those two electrons or photons will be entangled like they are physically touching each other from every distance. No matter how far they are from each other, they can simultaneously interact together as if they were two different faces of the same thing. Entanglement in language can be easily seen in texts. All the words of a text are entangled. Any change in anywhere in a text affects the whole text immediately without losing any time. For instance, what would happen, if we changed the original text of Hamlet and put into the text something like “Hamlet’s opened his LCD TV set and watched a horror movie!”. Probably, the whole meaning of the original text would radically change without losing even the tiniest fraction of time because everything in the text is deeply entangled. On the other hand, thanks to this interconnectedness of things like that of words in a text, quantum entanglement heralds a telecommunication revolution for future Internet of things through utility fog technologies. It seems that quantum entanglement is going to replace the kingdom of electromagnetic type of communication in our daily lives. Of course, we will keep in mind Brain Greene’s counter argument about the issue related with the speed of light.

Another important aspect is quantum tunneling. As we know from our physics textbooks, a micro object like an electron or photon can tunnel through a barrier that any macro object like a soccer ball cannot penetrate. When it comes to micro world, this would happen without any damage to the barrier. In literature, fiction that can be created by signs of some sorts of language can tunnel through reality, the enclosing unbreakable walls around us. We can create and share completely imaginary, fictional worlds through different kinds of signs of languages. Thanks to this feature of language, we can tunnel through the massive wall of reality. Didn’t Plato, Thomas More and Tommaso Campanella create utopias in this way and tunnel the massive walls of their ages?

Another front-page aspect of quantum mechanics is its indeterminism:  Again, as we remember quantum indeterminism from our textbooks, we cannot determine the location and the momentum of an electron or a photon at the same moment. When we look at language, we see something quite similar to quantum indeterminism as in quantum superposition. The meaning of a word in a dictionary is undetermined because it has many meanings in the dictionary. When we put a word into a sentence in a meaningful way, that word will have only one meaning as a photon or electron turns out to be a particle. The line between dictionary and sentence is the borderline between indeterminism and determinism. This line between dictionary and sentence is a sort of Planck level of language. This is something like “The Spectrum of Possible Meanings of an Expression = Dictionary / the Expression”. This means that when the expression is larger than the dictionary level, it gets smaller spectrum of possible meanings of that expression. When the expression is smaller than sentence level, it means that it will be at the dictionary level and it will get larger spectrum of possible  meanings of that expression which makes the expression stand in many definition entries under its main entry of the word. In fact, smaller spectrum means collapsing from many places of possible meanings of the expression to a single location of meaning in the dictionary.  This is some sort of transformation from the wave of probabilities of meanings in dictionary to a particle of  a single reality like a word in a meaningful sentence. Naturally, a sentence has a  much clearer meaning in a text which has a much more clearer meaning in a local library which has a much much more clearer meaning in a global library, a textosphere which is actually a sort of dictionary. Every item in this dictionary refers to each other. Therefore, no particular item has any mass or meaning in this dictionary but every item has many references and those references or connections can interpreted as fluency or velocity of those items, providing meaning or mass to those items as in quantum probability wave length = Planck constant  / mass * velocity. For this, let’s remember Einstein’s famous formula: E=m*c2. M is mass here and m is directly related to the speed, c, that is the rate of change of location of something like velocity. We can move from one location to another location at the unit of time while we look up the meaning of a word in the dictionary. So, only connections or references between items make items emerge from the dictionary of words to the dictionary of texts.

Drilling down the language layers from a textosphere to a word, the degree of indeterminism as in the quantum probability wave gets larger and larger to the infinity but arriving at the level of letters, waves of probabilities  in meanings disappear all of a sudden and collapse to only one location. So, one letter matches only one meaning that we can define as a location. Letter K is only in one location where the sound K stands, although K usually has a longer and more different definition in the dictionary than “K is K”. But if we considered K was just K in the dictionary, then K was nothing but K. L was nothing but L. T was nothing but T…  According to this, a letter would be just a location without a meaningful object or body. Without references and connections, we would have had zero mass and velocity and which would also mean zero momentum or zero fluency that gave an exact right now and right here location without an meaningful existence or a body.

For example, in English language, we see an amazing correlation among Present Perfect Tense, Simple Past Tense and quantum’s particle and wave characteristics. In Present Perfect Tense, the exact point of the event that is shown by the verb is undetermined in the time line. That is not a point in the time line but it is a wave of probability on the time line actually. In Simple Past Tense, the exact point of the event that is shown by the verb is determined in the time line. That is not a wave of probability on the time line but it is a point in the time line actually.

In Marcia Ascher’s “Ethnomathematics: a multicultural view of mathematical ideas”, we see another striking aspect of language for quantum physics: The importance of verbs. Verbs are said to be flows like rivers that symbolize Dionysian wave nature of matter in Quantum Mechanics, whereas nouns are said to be stationary like lakes that symbolize Apollonian particle nature of matter in Quantum Mechanics. In Navajo language, we see hundred and thousands different forms of a verb to express nearly as much and varied information as an entire sentence can express in English through derivations and inflections. In the book, native symbolism and western symbolism are compared and claimed that endless circle is a very important symbol for Navajo people. Navajo say there is no border in nature unlike borders encircling their reservation camp set by the white men. According to them, everything is deeply interconnected with each other. In this river of life, each wave and eddy like nouns in the dictionary are fundamentally connected to each other through the water of the river. They say nature is never ending flow. Things are the abstracted aspects or nouns of this flow like vortice, waves and ripples which are actually just forms of water in a river. Additionally David Bohm, a prominent quantum physicist, adds to the argument for his theory of language and physical universe, rheomode(flow mode), in this way:

“Each particle is only an abstraction of a relatively invariant form of movement in the whole field of the  universe. So it would be more appropriate to say, ‘Elementary particles are on-going movements that are mutually dependent because ultimately they merge and interpenetrate.’ However, the same sort of description holds also on the larger-scale level. Thus, instead of saying, ‘An observer looks at an object’, we can more appropriately say, ‘Observation is going on, in an undivided movement involving those abstractions customarily

called “the human being” and “the object he is looking at”.’ These considerations on the overall implications of sentence structures suggest another question. Is it not possible for the

syntax and grammatical form of language to be changed so as to give a basic role to the verb rather than to the noun? “

Another interesting aspect of language for quantum mechanics is about what language is. Our daily life macro objects work in an order as in an expensive swiss watch because Newton physics prevails over this realm. Everything has rational, explainable, analytical and methodical cause and effect patterns. We may call this state Apollo of sunshine. No matter how much of rational, explainable, analytical and methodical mind like Apollo of sunshine the language has, it has the power to change this concrete reality under the Sun through its nocturnal dreaming capacity. We can create brand new things that partially exist or completely non-exist in life through language. Imagination through language is an effective way to create new worlds that don’t exist.

Language can create infinite expressions through finite set of rules(Chomsky, Generative Grammar).

In this sense language rules are finite. Although finite language rules are rational, explainable, analytical and methodical mind like Apollo of sunshine, infinite capacity of lingual expressions has still a nocturnal dreaming potential to change reality like Dionysus, the irrational and unpredictable mind of wine, music and dance. In Freud, the enlightenment of Apollo is consciousness; the drunk nocturnal imagination of Dionysus is subconsciousness.

One is the analytical mind and the another is the synthetically creative imaginative mind. Quantum Mechanics is similar to this surreal drunk nocturnal dreaming. In his book “The birth of tragedy”, Nietzsche claimed that creativity comes from the subtle harmonies of Apollonian mind and Dionysian heart. In this sense, language as a creation of nature fits this definition. Language is a product of a Dionysian heart of quantum wave domain and an Apollonian mind of quantum particle domain in which we see some sort of accord whose Latin root is ad cordis that means “to the heart and mind” and incidentally, this accordance that has created language with infinities(wave feature) with boundaries(particle feature) has a vital importance for today’s ecological problems as well in terms of communicating with nature in resonance.

As for literature, the mother of literature is language and thanks to this literature has many interesting aspects of Quantum Mechanics. For Russian Formalist Roman Jacobson, two figures of speech is very important in terms of literary theory: Metaphor and metonymy!However, these two figures can be important tools for Quantum Mechanics education. The most important feature for differentiating these two is chronological order of narration.

In metaphor, the time order of narration is nonlinear and therefore achronological but in metonymy the time order of narration is linear and serial and therefore chronological. In metaphor, time is circular, whereas in metonymy time is linear. The metonymy is how our attentive conscious mind works in a serial and linear way of narration like Apollonian mind.   This is , in some sense, the reflection of particle nature of quantum world. The metaphor is how our unconscious mind or heart works in nonlinear or circular way like Dionysian heart. This is somehow the reflection of probability wave nature of quantum world.

In terms of domains of usage of words and phrases, metonymy and metaphor are compelling for quantum world.

Metonymy is quite holographic thanks to contiguity in which the part has the capacity of representing the whole and vice versa. For instance, a crown is a part of the king but it can represent the king. The White House is a concrete part of the government but the White House is used instead of government. When somebody says the White House, s/he makes us think about every objects and their relationships the government has. This is a good example for the entanglement of quantum objects. The Albatross in the following two lines of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “The Albatross fell off, and sank”, is the part of nature but the Albatross has the capacity of representing the whole nature killed by the rational but heartless machinery of imperial industrial society. This is another appealing example from literature in terms of domain of usage.

Metaphor “picks a target set of meanings or qualities and transfers them to another referent in a new domain of usage.” For this, an impressive example from today’s literature is “I mean, everybody is so obsessed with growth, but when you think about it, for a mature organism, a growth is basically a cancer, right? If you have a growth in your mouth, or a growth in your colon, it’s bad news, right?” by Johnathan Franzen from his ecological novel “Freedom” in which it is implied that individual human freedom should be limited to local ecological carrying capacities for the well being of our planet, when we say “The moving moon went up the sky, -And no where did abide: -Softly she was going up, – And a star or two beside.”* in order to see “O happy living things! no tongue – Their beauty might declare:- A spring of love gushed from my heart, – And I blessed them unaware: Sure my kind saint took pity on me,- And I blessed them unaware”(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge).  In this sense, growth here is transferred from the economical domain of usage to biological domain of usage. So this transfer gives us very good example of metaphor which is important for quantum mechanics in terms of non-locality. Growth can be anything as a referent. It can be both life as richness and death as cancer!

In metaphor, words are able to replace each other without losing their core meanings. Metaphorically we can use many words replacing many other words. All of a sudden, again we feel Derrida’s model here in a very strong way. So, looking up any given word in a dictionary is an infinite and endless process in which you will have to look up the other words in the definition of the given word. Derrida’s model for general language is quite true for metaphorical language. This model describes very well how metaphorical language works. At the same time, it explains how there is a similarity between a metaphor and waves of probabilities in Quantum Mechanics. The meaning of a word in the text will be in the meanings of other words in the dictionary if we use it as a metaphor.

Incidentally metaphor is also important for a more sustainable social context in which we are biospheral signifiers that signify all the other signifiers of nature, which signify the signifier “I”.  In fact, we signify all in nature. All also signify us in the same context. That is to say, all for one and one for all! It is just like “I and I” in Rastafari with Patois language instead of “I and you” in causal English. In terms of Quantum Mechanics, one signifies particle and all signifies wave. One can be all and/or all can be one for quantum mechanics! This makes the one compassionate and merciful for all! And that one makes  all compassionate and merciful to oneself with this recursive empathy which is very “ital” in Patois, a quite inspiring language of sustainability and quantum mechanics, for the emergence of much more peaceful nonviolent society. Also It would be useful to remember that in Patois of Rastafari Movement, “Ital” that comes from vital in English means the unity with the whole nature as “I of nature”: Here “I” can be read as a particle of a collapsed single reality of nature, “nature” as wave of probabilities.

Language and literature can be very useful tools and models for understanding complicated quantum mechanics. These are very helpful for proactive physics education as well. Incidentally, the protagonist “Quark” of quantum mechanics comes from the expression “Three quarks for Muster Mark” from “Finnegan’s Wake” by James Joyce in the 20th century. I mean the very conceptual term of quarks has already come from literature. Additionally, for quantum physics and especially its wavy nature this book is very important not only due to the expression “Three quarks for Muster Mark” but also due to the form and content of the entire book.

  • Star the Sun is a metaphor of civilized, rational, heartless, scientific and technological Apollonian mind of cities, while moon is, in some sense, Dionysian heart of conscience which can truly recognize and appreciate the ontological roots of its ecology on  Earth: The Mariner’s recognition of self as a part of the living ecological network is a kind of revelation for the purgation to get rid of the sin committed against the nature.  As a consequence of this sin, the Mariner under the influence of Apollonian solar methodical mind lost his ability to pray to sublimity in nature. When the Dionysian moon reaches the Apollonian star, something like ad cordis happens to the Mariner then. The togetherness of Dionysian moon/heart/abstract wave form of probabilities of matter and Apollonian star/mind/concrete particle form of matter reveal the beauties of creativity of nature as in Nietzsche. “A star or two beside the moon” is another interesting transformation of Apollonian heartless rational “Sun” mind into two stars like the appearance of culturally very important Sirius A and Sirius B heralding the end of human centric world view for our ecological sustainability. In the ancient cultures and also new age cultures of today, Sirius A and Sirius B is very important source for moral and ethical inspirations from extraterrestrial worlds. When we take culture for granted, the story of Sirius A and Sirius B can be considered as a metaphor for ethical inspiration. As we can see, to give meanings to metaphoric words in a poem is like looking up any given word in a dictionary is an infinite and endless process in which you will have to look up the other words in the definition of the given word. This process is really quite circular. We can’t determine, as a location, the meaning of any metaphorical word in the space of meanings. This reflects the wave of infinite possible meanings of metaphoric expression. Incidentally, the sound is very significant physical aspect of poetry. So, this aspect resembles Apollonian logical machinery of matter. Derrida’s kind of infinite circularity in meanings of metaphoric expressions on the Dionysian wave domain goes and matches well with rhythmic circular patterns of physical sounds on Apollonian particle domain in poetry’s metaphoric language like “a star or two beside the moon”.