A Quantum of Solace

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times:

UniNiels Bohr, the Danish physicist and philosopher-king of quantum theory, once said that great truth is a statement whose opposite is also a great truth. This pretty much captured the spirit of those elusive rules that govern the subatomic world, where light can be a wave — no, a particle — well, actually, whatever you need it to be for your particular experiment. It also seems to me to sum up much of the history of science and philosophy, in which the learned consensus keeps swinging between the yin-and-yang theories of existence: free will and fate, change and eternity, atomicity and continuity. These bipolar themes have been on my mind lately. This spring the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin published a new book, “Time Reborn,” reopening a debate supposedly settled by Einstein and his acolytes a century ago: whether time is real or an illusion. Meanwhile, other physicists have been arguing recently that the only way to understand the dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe, and perhaps the mass of the newly discovered particle believed to be the Higgs boson as well, is to postulate that our universe is only one in an almost infinite ensemble of universes, each with different properties. The reality of time and the plurality of worlds are only two of the eternal (so to speak) questions. Bob Dylan once wrote a song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” that consisted entirely, he said, of the first lines of songs he thought he would never have time to write. In that spirit I’d like to blurt out some of the Bohr-like questions about this vat of stars that I’ll never be able to answer before my own time runs away.

Is nature discrete or continuous? Is the universe infinite or finite? Is life inevitable, or is it a lucky accident? Will we ever find company in the cosmos?

Is the truth of the world to be found in the ways things change, like the river that you cannot step into twice, or the ways they remain the same, like the law of gravity or, indeed, the name of that river?

I could go on all day. Feel free to write in with your own. A final answer to any of these questions would be a landmark of human progress. But it might be in the nature of being human that we will never answer them but have to hug them both in a kind of Hegelian surrender. And so we live in the tension between opposites.

More here.