Werner Heisenberg, whose development of matrix mechanics yielded the uncertainty principle, said that one challenge of quantum theory is that it does not have an adequate language beyond mathematics to describe it. Heisenberg comes close to proposing that poetry is that language in Physics and Philosophy when, after making this statement, he immediately references Goethe’s Faust to describe his understanding of the structure of language. Mephistopheles says that while formal education instructs that logic braces the mind “in Spanish boots so tightly laced,” and that even spontaneous acts require a sequential process (“one, two, three!”):
In truth the subtle web of thought
Is like the weaver’s fabric wrought:
One treadle moves a thousand lines,
Swift dart the shuttles to and fro,
Unseen the threads together flow,
A thousand knots one stroke combines.
Heisenberg, while arguing that science must be as attentive to imagination as to logic, also seems to be suggesting that novel sciences must be described by novel languages. Creative endeavors like poetry have the ability to not only describe novel theories and expressions of physical reality, but also to invent them through its shorthand, “one treadle” moving “a thousand lines,” where a “thousand knots one stroke combines.” As I learned in kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s rhapsodomancy, the alphabets of the future are wormholes. Since the primary concern in theoretical physics today is reconciling quantum mechanics with relativity through proposals such as string theory, poetry can be thought of as an experiment in physics and physics as a field test for poetry.
Physics is the study of physical reality, which, to my mind, includes spacetime, language, poems, people, consciousness, and agency. In literary terms, string theory could be considered to be a critical theory; it not only describes physical elements, including elementary elements, within spacetime, it attempts to describe spacetime itself. Following in the tradition of Western atomic science from Thales to Democritus, physicists consider the multiverse’s subatomic, vibrating membranes of energy—the open and closed strings of string theory—to be elementary constituents of matter.
What is the significance of these open and closed strings in relation to clinamen occurring in not just artistic contexts but in physical reality, as demonstrated by how probability functions in subatomic phenomena of mechanical systems? Poetry, which could be considered a mutation on physical and conceptual reality, replicates through the ricochet of pattern (periodicity, symmetry, order) and swerve (deviation from pattern, chance) toward novelty, or what might be thought of as the poem itself. Along with the expanding and accelerating multiverse, our understanding and experience of physical reality expands and accelerates at varying scales (subatomic, eye level, astronomical). We create and use technology like our microscopes and telescopes to interact more deeply with these scales, and as such technological advances proliferate so do our capacities to perceive, perform, and create through other mediums. Poetry that is attentive to its multiversal form as a novel technology also operates within and beyond these varying scales through the known and unknown dimensions of physical reality.
Dr. Lisa Randall, the particle physicist I saw lecturing on CERN just before the Large Hadron Collider went operational, called herself a model builder. Apologizing for the lack of realism, and asking us to use our imaginations, she presented crude graphs of open and closed strings—in other words, she presented two-dimensional portrayals of eleven-dimensional concepts—to illustrate the hypothesis that our universe is a low-gravity universe while other dimensions in the multiverse, called “branes,” are high-gravity universes. Considering the homophonic relevance of the word “brane,” and taking into account Heisenberg’s notion that an eleven-dimensional science might require an eleven-dimensional language like poetry, I have decided that I, too, am a model builder. Like Christian Bök's Xenotext—a poem encoded into a radio-resistant bacterium that will write poems—I write poems that write me.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle proposes that at the subatomic scale of physical reality, the future position and momentum of a particle cannot be predicted because it is impossible to accurately describe the particle’s present state without ambiguity. Applied to scales at eye level, the notion that the future cannot be predicted with any certainty because it is impossible to describe the present without ambiguity reinforces the idea that time operates outside of conventional notions of linearity. Within the context of a poem, where ambiguity can operate on multiple levels—in meaning, sight, and sound—time as a linear or nonlinear experience can occur or not occur in a recognizable pattern.
According to physicist Gino Segrè’s Faust in Copenhagen, while the mathematics used by Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics was not new, the theory itself was original for developing what Max Born called “symbolic multiplication,” which resulted in illustrating that the commutative law of arithmetic (AB, equals BA, i.e. 4X3 is the same as 3X4) is not valid in subatomic systems. Heisenberg’s symbolic multiplication proposed that in quantum mechanics a particle’s position multiplied by its momentum is not equal to a particle’s momentum multiplied by its position. In other words, a particle’s position multiplied by its momentum (AB) minus a particle’s momentum multiplied by its position (BA) was not zero, as it would be if the product of position and momentum commuted. Instead, in matrix mechanics, a particle’s position multiplied by its momentum minus a particle’s momentum multiplied by its position was proportional to Planck’s constant, a physical constant of subatomic quanta that is nonzero. Since Planck’s constant is always nonzero, uncertainty is at play in measuring observable subatomic phenomenon of the present. By invalidating causality as well as attempts at measuring non-observable subatomic phenomenon, Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics illustrated that the future position and momentum of subatomic particles cannot be calculated because the “determining elements” of the present cannot be known with certainty. This is one way that quantum mechanics conceives of time—and logic—in a novel way. In quantum poetics, such breakthroughs in physics can be applied to physical reality at all of its scales, visible and invisible, including cultural and creative scales, and, more specifically, to language and what I might call its matrix mechanics, poetry.
Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics conceived of space in a novel way, too, offering a new model for how electrons moved within atoms. In contrast to notions that electrons in atoms moved in orbits like planets, matrix mechanics describes the motion of electrons as jumps or leaps from one quantum state to another, reminiscent of clinamen, and evoking the possibility that clinamen could be a physical force like electromagnetism or gravity that exists not only in creative systems but also in physical reality.
How can a poem’s future or present/near-future “meaning” be known with any certainty if its present cannot be described without ambiguity? Conventional notions of meaning are dependent on linear notions of time, as meaning in its conventional iterations is something arrived at, in time, after “comprehension.” Most reading relies on linear notions of time as well, since grammars often follow a progression that occurs before comprehension or examined experience is reached. However, poetry can usurp conventional interactions with reading with the reader experiencing language outside linear notions of time, which might include time slowing, speeding up, or inducing a sense of no time, or a sense of all times at once, where the simultaneity of times can occur between differing or distinct time scales. Perhaps, most importantly, poems can also work in tandem (toward unity and/or disjunction) with space in a way that is attentive to the spacetime of the page, that field that transcends the border of the object or conceptual medium such as the page or screen. In poetry, like in quantum mechanics, the future cannot be forecasted with certainty, and any measurement of its physical reality, including its meaning, might only be described in terms of probability.
Of course, applying discoveries and theories in the natural sciences to sociological, phenomenological, or artistic interpretations of reality can be problematic because correlations sometimes assume a causal relationship between what are conventionally thought of as different modes of inquiry. At the same time, the academic and practical divisions between the natural and human sciences seems to be part of a systemic artifice perpetuated by cultural institutions that serve to protect distinct disciplines from interdisciplinary, and therefore competing, authorities.
To my mind, whatever human consciousness is, it must be partly comprised of electrons—the subatomic material of physical reality—and breakthroughs in describing subatomic or even astronomical phenomenon are also breakthroughs in describing reality at eye level, which is just one, though perhaps our most obvious, encounter with existence. Those attentive to the interactions of clinamatic spacetime of language on human consciousness might notice how fresh iterations of language affect existence within and outside of eye level, which includes language itself and what it means or doesn’t mean to creatively communicate or replicate through mediated or non-mediated sounds and scripts. The cultural and creative dimensions of physical reality are not as distinct from theoretical or experiment-based physics as discipline-specific discourse would have us believe, but seem to be instead linked through ongoing proposals of Alfred Jarry’s imaginary solutions. This exchange between disciplines is not physics or metaphysics; it’s Jarry’s ’pataphysics, and it invites significant communications between disciplines, or what might be thought of as translations.
A great example of successful translation within a discipline is the time in which Faust in Copenhagen focuses, where open, respectful, and rigorous discourse among the practitioners of physics was practiced. The community that Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and others created and maintained in those years before World War II revolved around institutional and personal mentorships, thinking together and debating in both formal and informal settings, and finding ways to disagree and persuade while furthering conversation. I was especially interested in how peaceful the intellectual conflict regarding quantum mechanics between Bohr and Albert Einstein played out. Around the same time that Heisenberg was developing his matrix mechanics, Bohr rejected the existence of Einstein’s “quanta of light,” the photon. Einstein rejected Bohr’s notion that strict causality only holds for the mean value of a particle taken over many measurements, and he also rejected Bohr’s idea that particles don’t conserve energy. Einstein never really came around to quantum mechanics as interpreted by Heisenberg and Bohr, and continuing debates about relativity and quantum mechanics are at the center of theoretical physics today. Bohr and Einstein seemed to both feel deeply about the accuracy of their positions but also seemed to understand the value of inquiry enough to debate without manipulation, aggression, defensiveness, or personal attack.
There seems to be an understanding or belief among poets that the best translators of poems from one language to another are practicing poets, since those who write poetry can often represent challenging or even traditionally un-translatable forms, concepts, sounds, and rhythms using principles and approaches from poetry that a poet would understand in a way that someone who doesn’t write poetry might not. Translation is also a political discourse with its inherent interest in expanding communication and experience between cultures. It also seems to be a conceptual discourse in its iterations where translations occur between distinct creative genres. In other forms, translation is a discourse of imaginary solutions that occurs between disciplines like physics and poetry, computer science and visual art, philosophy and ecology. The ordinary risk of translation in any of these contexts might be that the translation fails at adequately communicating or representing what’s being translated. However, thinking of translation in terms of stark success and failure doesn’t take into account questions about authenticity and whether or not translation is even possible if translation operates at gradations rather than demarcated evaluations of success and failure. Perhaps due to the inescapable result of mistranslation, the act of translation is thus always a creative act, evoking more questions than it can resolve. This is one result of communicating across languages, disciplines, genres, and forms in the multiverse. Imaginary solutions multiply.
POETRY IS THE TANGENTIAL POINT BETWEEN BRAIN AND BRANE.
’Pataphysics is the physics of poetry….