Shut Up and Take the Picture!

May 14, 2023

Mercado do Bolhão, Porto, Portugal, (1955) by Henri Cartier-Bresson 

Even physicists themselves acknowledge that “quantum weirdness” is an apt description for the strange behavior of subatomic particles — and nothing is weirder than the phenomenon known as “wavefunction collapse.”  Einstein was the first to report that light (photons) behaved like both particles and waves.  So which was it?  Succeeding generations of theorists pursued the question, concluding that elementary particles remain in an indeterminate state with regard to such measurable qualities as mass, location and velocity until there is an act of observation.  This triggers a “wave function collapse” that causes photons and other elementary particle to take on measurable qualities — a phenomenon that physicists refer to as the “observer effect.”  It was as if the building blocks of physical reality were waiting around for an audience before strutting their stuff.

Both Einstein and Max Planck — who between them had laid the theoretical foundations for quantum physics — were profoundly disturbed by its implications, which indicated that the universe did not exist independently of an observer. "No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this," Einstein protested in paper he wrote in 1935 with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen.  Nevertheless, nearly a century of experimentation has confirmed that elementary particles do indeed play peekaboo with physical reality, even though physicists remain sharply divided on the whys and hows.  Many subscribe to the “shut up and do the math” school, rather than waste time trying to explain the seemingly inexplicable.

John Wheeler, a theoretical physicist on the Manhattan Project who coined the term “black holes” for collapsed stars, has suggested that if an act of observation is required to bring elementary particles into existence, the same must be true for everything else. He theorized that we live in a “participatory universe” in which consciousness is not a bystander to physical reality but is an essential element in its formation. In a sense, you could say the world comes into being because we are here to witness it.  We become collaborators in what Wheeler called the “genesis of observership.”  

You might say the universe is reborn at every moment through the action of human consciousness.  If so, then artists are surely its midwives. “Things are because we see them,” the writer Oscar Wilde insisted, long before quantum physicists did the math.

I doubt the iconic street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson knew anything about quantum mechanics.  But his description of the creative process dovetails nicely with what physicists say goes on at the subatomic level. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”  If, as Wheeler suggests, we live in a participatory universe, then that “decisive moment,” as Cartier-Bresson characterized it, becomes the equivalent of a wave function collapse.  Click!  In that moment, color, form, texture, light and shadow come together just so to capture a tiny piece of reality.  In that moment, as the physicist Erwin Schrödinger might have put it, “subject and object are only one.”  But his colleagues in the scientific community might just as easily have said, “Shut up and take the picture.”   


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