The Manhattan Review – Volume 19, no. 2

«The Manhattan Review», Philip Fried editor, vol. 19, n.2, 2020. In this issue: D. Nurkse, Philip Gross, Nicola Vulpe, John Burnside, Erich Fried, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Christopher Bursk, Marc Kaminsky, Cheryl Moskowitz, Kate Farrell, John Greening, Penelope Shuttle, Claire Malroux, George Szirtes, Chris McCabe, Richard Hoffman, Carol Rumens, Rosalind Hudis, Menno Wigman, Howard Altmann, Federico Federici, Judith Wilkinson, Charles Wilkinson, Bibhu Padhi, Hal Sirowitz, Anja Konig, Seán Street

Sedimental symbols

«In our description of nature, the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of phenomena but only to track down as far as possible relations between the multifold aspects of our experience.»
Niels Bohr, 1939

Physicists refer to the properties of Nature by means of symbols which differ from purely mathematical notations since they must be experimentally validated. A definite procedure must exist that assigns numbers to them, hence the name observables. Nevertheless, phenomena may sometimes appear to be quite counter-intuitive or rest on sheer abstraction. Let it suffice to quote the well celebrated case of the elusive wave-particle dualism.
In Hamlet and his problems, Eliot wrote: «The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.»[1] Laying the scene can thus meet the expectation of immediacy and concreteness of emotion.
It may be stimulating to rephrase this “chain of events” in terms of the quantum principle of superposition: «the way of expressing any state of any microscopic system in the form of quantum physics is by finding a “superposition of states”; in other words, a set of complex numbers and a complete set of commuting observables which, combined together, shall conveniently define the formula of any state of that particular system; such that when the external devices, which must terminate in an experimental result, are given, the microscopic system is immediately set into a particular state». Getting familiar with this irreducible level of abstraction may help bridge the gap between symbols and “reality”. Continue reading “Sedimental symbols”