Friday, January 20, 2017

Inner and Outer Space

I'll be around another 40 years if my lifespan is as long as my father’s and eleven years if I match my mother's time on this earth.  It gets me thinking about what I want to do with the rest of my life. My frustration is that time is too short to pursue all of my ideas for research projects and that I will never understand all the paradoxes that have been gnawing at me over the years.

Contrary to the common misconception that physics is cold and impersonal, I have found it to be the ideal tool for answering the deepest questions.  Some may yearn for the meaning of life, but an understanding of reality as physics delivers makes it clear that this is a nonsensical question.  It’s like asking if a table feels cold, and seeking an answer through surveys of opinions on the topic or engaging in philosophical debates about the possibility of a soul entering the table from its woodlands progenitor.  An understanding of what constitutes life makes irrational the notion that a hunk of wood has the capacity for feeling.  The fact that the complexities of life are not fully understood is irrelevant.  We know enough to eliminate the absurd.

I would like to spend my remaining days, months, years or decades gaining a deeper understanding of my trade, which gives me the tools to answer the grandest questions.  For starters, there are many things that I’ve learned that don’t sit well.  For example, physicists use sleight of hand to sweep away ignorance of details.  Statistical Mechanics is a field that is based on such broad strokes of chicanery.  However, it makes exquisitely accurate predictions that are consistent with reality, so must be an excellent approximation, but it can’t be totally correct.  My objection is that it glosses over the most interesting phenomena, such as quantum entanglement.

Why is entanglement so interesting? If the universe operates by the rules of quantum mechanics, and all indications are that it does, then we are all interconnected and always will be.  There is no escape from this bondage, even if trying to escape by hopping on a ship and taking it through a wormhole to the far reaches of the universe.  It is likely that the universe as a whole is in a state of entanglement and Statistical Mechanics governs how our conscious minds perceive it from within.  I so much would like to understand that fuzzy transition from the quantum realm to human perception.

I’ve been hampered by a dampening of enthusiasm, which drains the precious energy that is needed to single-mindedly attack difficult problems. Since my father’s passing just before Christmas in 2014, I’ve been in a general state of malaise that makes it difficult to concentrate and make progress.  In part, this melancholy is due to his absence, but much of it stems from the realization that the currents of time have caught up with me and I am now the patriarch – the last one of my line, as he was for so many years.  I hope that taking the torch from him does not oblige me to inherit the pessimism that took hold of him later in life.

These realizations have motivated me to take stock of my life, and to anticipate every possible regret in the making; should I have written that book, more intensely pursued an idea for a research project, spent less time writing proposals and more time actually thinking; or, concentrating more on family?  There is still time to correct shortcomings before hindsight’s souring influence.  Sadly, every time I say to myself “screw it,” intending to drop unproductive activities such administrative burdens, a pang of guilt pushes me to write the next proposal – bringing me to an eternal seesawing between regret and guilt.

An antidote for my malaise has been a book-writing project with my wife that brings unbridled joy and fulfillment.  Like a course of antibiotics, writing must be regular to be a long-term cure.  A published book is not the goal; we rather enjoy the process.  We have outlined several milestones in our lives, some from our childhood, and others after we came together. Then we write about each from our own perspectives, going back in time to observe the threads of our intertwining lives from a fresh perspective.

After a nightly session, we return from our parallel universes to share our stories.  Pat reads each of our pieces in her dramatic story-telling style, arousing our memories of the past and kindling an appreciation of its connection to the present.  The earliest memories of family gives us a glimpse of the important figures in our lives and what they mean to us long after significant events have passed and loved ones are gone.  The holes that their absences have created are filled with their love and priorities, which we honor by carrying them forward in our own ways – then passing the baton to the next generation by example and through our writings.

One story line chronicles a serious illness that hospitalized each of us in early grade school, setting chronological markers that give insights about our character and the deep connection with family they forged when confronted with the frailty of our lives.  As we saunter to the more recent past, our timelines move together haphazardly. Our writings eventually merge, touching the same events from vastly differing perspectives that brings a poignancy to our memories that would otherwise have been forgotten.

First contact came on a muggy August day when my family shows up on Scott Lane in 1968 across the street from my future wife.  She is greatly disappointed that the new resident is a ten year old boy.  The cooties-infested neighborhood swarmed like locusts on our front lawn, the girls taking perches on our new mimosa tree to re-affirm their claim bestowed upon them by the previous owners.  Coming from Sun Hill, Chester’s tough working-class neighborhood, I thought Wallingford to be a wonderfully strange place where girls grow on trees.  The stories continue beyond that fateful day almost a decade later when we were re-introduced to each other on a commuter train; Pat, to study for a final exam at the Temple University library, and me to take data at my University of Pennsylvania lab.

My life will not be complete unless I use the tools of physics to pursue the universe’s mysteries while nurturing my inner self with shared writing.  The two are inexorably entwined; one will have no meaning without the other. Sadly, neither Pat nor I have written a single word together for many months because of time demands of work and Pat’s barrier to write.  It is especially sad to be deprived of Pat’s writing, which is concise yet rich; embeds subtle irony in the mundane, drops unexpected twists, and expresses her emotions indirectly though prose about her actions.  More important to me, I feel a sadness that memories that are struggling to be released will slip away before she will reveal them to me, a precious loss.

I am committed to strike a better balance in my life, placing our cherished passions first, then prioritizing the rest.  With a growing pile of obligations on my desk, I have taken the first step by writing this therapeutic piece to convince myself to get back on track and to reaffirm my support to Pat so that she will once again fight to overcome her writer’s block, which deprives us all.  Write on!

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