The World and Its Mask

by David Kordahl

An astronaut, refracted by a water bubble.

Last month I worked on a modern sort of archaeological dig, going through the equipment in a college physics lab to see what sorts of devices were on hand. It reminded me of being a little kid, when I would tiptoe around my dad’s religious paraphernalia (he was a Lutheran pastor), not really knowing what everything was for, but being sure that each item had a definite purpose. My job in the lab was to construct setups for a modern physics course, demos for students to learn a few things about the empirical basis of special relativity and quantum theory, to cut through the layers of interpretative bullshit. Encountering unfamiliar items, I would rummage around for their service manuals, pushing aside brittle O-rings and chipped pipettes, stacking old printouts, believing without proof that the lab’s former occupants had found some use for these treasures.

In bed one night after a long day with the machines, it occurred to me that these educational toys might share some common purpose with the portable communion kits and illustrated Bibles of my childhood. In each case, the devices were technologies designed to strengthen belief in a distinct mask for the world of observed phenomena. And in each case, strengthened beliefs hold for believers the promise of new ways to navigate the world, ways that non-believers can neither appreciate nor access.

This is not to deny the obvious differences between a communion kit and a current amplifier. One obvious feature of technology is that it’s mostly belief-proof. Almost no one understands all the devices that they use, and many users hold views that explicitly contradict the theories used to construct the devices on which they rely. (Teaching high school science, I met smartphone savants who were supremely confident in the irrelevance of physics to their lives.) Yet the fact that I now entertained the possibility that my lab setups had anything to do with religious conversion already proved that I’d strayed pretty far from my early days.

When I taught my first physics lab, I was twenty-one years old, a fresh college grad whose grasp on the standard lore was wobbly at best, but I was supremely confident that Nature on its own would guide earnest seekers to the Truth. “Just report what happens,” I told my students, trying to sound cool, or as cool as a physics graduate student could sound. “If you end up falsifying Newton’s laws—well, so be it!”

This is the type of dare that students are recklessly willing to take. I remember once spending the frenzied minutes before lab trying to figure out how a moment of inertia experiment was supposed to turn out, and having Nature teach me, in the next hour, as different groups came to contradictory conclusions, that the lab instructor must do more than simply take attendance. From this I concluded not that the laws of physics are easily stretched by the human will (if any of my readers are gifted spoon-benders, please let me know), but that even earnest seekers can easily go astray.

Nature sometimes needs a nudge. My original stance—the stance that Nature would sort things out on her own—was easily toppled.

As I got better at teaching labs, my views went through a fairly predictable progression. At twenty-one, my views on science had been based on a caricature of Karl Popper, the only philosopher whose views all physicists know, whether or not they know his name. In Popper’s view of science—in my caricatured view of his view, anyway—scientific truths can never be fully secure. The role of the scientist is first to propose theories that can be tested, and second to run experiments that might prove them wrong. This open-ended cycle of theory proposal and theory falsification is supposed to drive science forward. But I soon found out the problem with all this: any experiments you might design require the application of existing theories, so the only way that new ideas about physics can be tested is by tacitly assuming that older ideas about physics are pretty much true. In any given experiment, a loose wire is much more likely than any observation that might topple the whole scientific superstructure.

Many thinkers have filled in the details of this objection to Popper. With The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Pierre Duhem anticipated these criticisms by half a century, and with the 1962 publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn established just how far real scientists diverge from the Popperian ideal. Such objections were on my mind when I quit grad school and followed my wife to Arizona to teach high school for a few years.

As a science-teaching science dropout, I thought I might instill in my students a certain ironic inquisitiveness, an ability to tease out distinctions between facts and interpretations. But the questions I got from high school students (“Do the Illuminati keep it secret that we can breathe in space so we won’t go there?”) invited shorter answers (“Umm…no”), and I kept busy repeating the fundamentals and erasing dick drawings from desktops.

By the time I returned to grad school a few years later—I had a mortgage in Arizona by then, and went back to school as a townie—I was ready to submit. My time among the savages had forced me to realize just how much scientific language I took for for granted, and made me wonder if it might be useful to spend less time imagining terms like “the electromagnetic field” and “spacetime” without their attendant scare quotes. Following my pet philosophers, I had become convinced that the language we use to mask the world is unlikely to mirror its essential nature. But once I started in on physics research, I spent my weekdays as a scientific realist, more or less. Like most scientists, I found that I was most motivated when I allowed myself to believe there was an answer waiting to be discovered.

These contradictions are easy to ignore when you’re untangling a technical snarl whose threads seem nearly ready to give. They’re less easy to ignore when you’re designing a modern physics lab, when you have one classic experiment to show how light is a particle, and another to show how light is a wave, and you’re convinced the issue is less about science than about language. At their best, lab exercises can indirectly communicate the ways that guessed assertions and empirical facts are juggled in physics, suggesting how literal and non-literal claims are thrown back and forth in complex ways that are never entirely documented.

This, I suppose, is similar to the way that religious dogmas are difficult to extract from their accompanying social benefits. But for those of us who harbor doubts about the realness of science (if not its effectiveness—I’ll line up for a vaccine with everyone else), there’s an extra hook. Just as the full benefits of a religious practice are available only to those supplicants who fully embrace their traditions, the most fruitful scientific discoveries seem to be made by those scientists who maintain an uncomplicated trust in science. There’s some benefit, after all, in believing you might reveal the hidden face of Nature, and not battling the suspicion that you’re just tightening the ribbons on a badly fitting mask.