Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Uncertainty Principle

© Hannah Phelps
Study  done on Monhegan Island
oil on canvas, 3.75" x 8"

A couple of weeks ago, fellow artist Dora Ficher interviewed me for her blog. First off, she asked me to explain how someone who studied physics in college became an artist.  Dora wasn’t the first person to wonder about this. If you share her curiousity, you will probably enjoy the interview. I know you will like Dora's artwork on her website!

The rest of the story is that I am not a physicist now, but there are some things that I learned while playing with lasers and listening to lectures that I think about all the time - especially when I am creating art.  

One of these things is the Uncertainty Principle.

While I don’t bully my way through complex calculus equations anymore, I am kind of geeky, so I can still refer to the physics texts I have kept from college. Here is a quote:

“...experiment cannot simultaneously determine the exact value of a component  of momentum, px say, of a particle and also the exact value of its corresponding coordinate, x. Instead, our precision of measurement is inherently limited by the measurement process itself such that:    
∆px ∆x ≥ hbar/2” *

What this means is that scientists can’t know how fast something is moving and where it is at the same time. 
The act of measuring one of those things changes the other. In this case they are specifically talking about subatomic particles like electrons.

WAIT!! Where are you going?! 

Don’t just assume you won’t get this because it is physics!! You are probably smarter than you give yourself credit for, so bear with me!!

Because this is actually a mind-numbing, reality altering discovery that does affect you even if you think you don’t get it! Everything in the universe is made out of subatomic particles - including the landscape and including you and me. And the teeny tiny things that we are made of cannot be witnessed without being altered.

Haven’t you experienced that? Have you ever felt that while you are observing something, you are actually kind of missing it too?

This is when I feel it: Landscape artists use the phrase “capture a moment” all the time - especially plein air painters. I use it myself. But the truth is that while any of us are painting a scene, that very act prevents us from really looking at the truth all around us.

While I am looking in one direction, I have no idea what is going on behind me at the same time. When I watch one wave breaking, I then can’t paint that exact wave because it is gone. If I take a photo of that wave, I can’t track its motion. This makes our art exactly what our life is - a composite of memories of what we were focusing on one second at a time. 

And this doesn’t just apply to art or electrons: Sometimes at dog agility trials, a fellow competitor will hand me a video camera so I can tape her dog on course. Whenever I am asked to do this, I am shocked at how little I remember from my friend’s run. I obviously saw the whole thing through the camera, but I can’t tell her which bar came down or if the judge called a fault - I have as little idea about what really happened out there as if I wasn’t watching at all. That is because I wasn’t “watching” it. I was making sure the dog was in the shot and playing with the zoom.  

I sacrificed witnessing an event in order to record it.

This knowledge is why I don’t mind when I forget to bring my camera on painting trips. As a matter of fact, I often leave it home on purpose. I know that if I really want to experience the salt air, the warmth of the sun and the good company of my painting buddies, I can’t do it through a lens. I have to see it and feel it. And risk changing it all with my presence.


* Eisberg, Robert and Resnick, Robert. Quantum Physics of Atoms, Molecules, Solids, Nuclei, and Particles. Second Edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1985, p. 65

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