Friday, November 30, 2007

Why Physicists Prefer Tee Shirts

Fresh out of self-contradictions, I went to HEB to restock. A highschool guy with a ring in his eyebrow was washing vegetables in produce and said to me, "dude, life is full of contradictions, yo". He is right. Some contradictions are the result of bureaucracies, some lies, and some are cosmic. A few years ago I read a book that, on page 86, provided a framework for levels of contradiction. Reading it saved me big money in therapy and here I am giving it to you for free. But first you have to read about physics and watch a video about quantum mechanics, so that's payment enough.

The video was sent to me by a physicist friend and former college roommate of mine (hi Danny, ahem, I mean Dr. Bruton). These mind blowing concepts were first presented to me as a college junior while I was taking Modern Physics.

The example in the video is about electrons, but the same is true for photons, the "particle" of light. Like electrons, the nature of light is sometimes self-contradictory. Is it a wave or is it a particle? It acts like both under different circumstances. Physicists argued about this for like, a long long time, before they finally decided it WAS both. That's when they made the t-shirt that says "I like the wave-particle duality of light" and had a physics party.

So are you ready for the four levels of contradiction? Are you ready to relieve some of the phycho-tension you carry around in the back of your mind but are afraid to expose to the conscious mind? Buckle your seatbelt my friend.

1) The Verbal Puzzle, the lowest level of contradiction,
: "one must die to live"
Explanation: The "contradiction" dissolves once terms are more clearly defined. A seed must "die" in order to "live" as a butternut squash plant.

2) The Mystery, the next level
: true but inexhaustive truth
: Some of the information is missing, there are no self-contradictory assertions, but you can't make full sense of it until someone gives you more information. When I write exam problems they usually, though unintentionally, fall into this category. It might go something like this:
a) Bob lives next door to Mary.
b) Mary lives next door to her brother.
At this point it is a mystery whether Bob and Mary are siblings; maybe so, maybe no. There is nothing contradictory in (a) and (b) but we don't have all the information. If we were later told that Mary's only has one neighbor, the mystery would be resolved.

3) The Temporary Agnosticism, the last resolvable level
: the wave-particle duality of light (and electrons, see the video)
Explanation: In this level, there are indeed full-blown contradictions; "light is ultimately a wave" and "light is ultimately a particle" for example. But these contradictions are held in tension temporarily with reason to hope that they will be resolved. In the case of light, the resolution was a new theory called QED (which secretly stands for Quick Earwax Dissolver, though physicists won't admit it publicly) which explained how light could behave as both. So a Temporary Agnosticism is when you mentally decide to accept two contradictory viewpoints in your head with the (perhaps unstated) hope that they will eventually be reconciled by physicists in t-shirts. It's agnosticism because you don't know how they could both be true, but you know they must be somehow, like the agnostic dyslexic who isn't sure if there even is a dog.

4) The Paradox, the irresolvable contradiction
: the square circle
: There is no reconciliation nor is there acknowledgement that the views are in contradiction. Yet there is an insistence that the square circle is just that, a square circle, not a squircle or some other new thing. It is like the Hindu-influenced idea that good and evil are the same thing or that they are both, in essence, the eyebrow-ring-wearing produce guy, yo.

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