Beyond The Frame

The Copenhagen Interpretation

This is the first in a series of monthly blog posts that I plan to write explaining the stories behind the images I create. Since the juxtaposition of modern science and spirituality is a theme often explored in my imagery, I have decided to begin with one of my favorites from a couple years ago, a surrealism-inspired print entitled, The Copenhagen Interpretation. The initial inspiration for this piece came to me following a lengthy discussion I had with a group of friends concerning quantum mechanics and spirituality.

The Copenhagen Interpretation, © 2012 Michael Pierre Price

The Copenhagen Interpretation, © 2012 Michael Pierre Price

Physics Background

The early 20th century brought forward two major developments in physics: the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Both of these new theories stood the old Newtonian view of the universe on its head. In this discussion I am only going to concentrate on quantum mechanics, since my piece is an artistic portrayal of one of the central aspects of this mind-boggling physics of the microscopic.

To fully appreciate the revolutionary approach that quantum mechanics represented, it is important to remember that the physical world was seen as a mechanistic creation of discrete objects precisely interacting with each other based on universal forces. Newton's equations and the invention of calculus were the mathematical language that described this universe prior to the revolutions of modern physics.

The rise of technology in the late 19th century that allowed for experiments to focus on the tiniest elements of creation took scientists down a new road that led to the development of quantum mechanics. Experiment after experiment showed that the tiny world of the atom behaved in a probabilistic manner, and not in a concrete fashion as the macroscopic world we are normally used to living in. This meant that it was impossible to precisely predict the behavior of a single subatomic particle (like an electron) as it would be with Newtonian mechanics, but that it was completely possible to predict with astounding precision the aggregate behaviors of large numbers of subatomic particles. The mathematics was clear, but how to interpret the math was in dispute amongst the leading theoreticians of the day.

The crux of the dilemma was how to make sense of a theory that was indicating that the fundamental nature of individual particles of matter existed as mathematical probabilities with discrete physical outcomes, but any one of those outcomes did not actually materialize until the particle was observed and interacted with in some way. And the theory indicated that it was not a "lack of precision" of the observer that prevented precise knowledge of the particle, but that instead it was a fundamental nature of existence. In the mid 1920's, physicists discussed several interpretations to the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. The Copenhagen Interpretation was one view that arose from those discussions; the other was the Many Worlds Interpretation. The major difference between these two schools of thought had to do with the interpretation of the wave equations that describe the probabilistic character of subatomic particles.

The Many-Worlds theorists believed that these probability waves were actual physical realities associated with particles; and therefore whenever an experiment was run that had several potential outcomes, every result actually occurred, but each in a different universe. So, if an experiment was conducted where there were three distinct outcomes predicted, the Many-Worlds physicists believed all three outcomes would happen, each in their own separate universe. The Many Worlds view postulates a multiverse of countless universes in existence. The Copenhagen Interpretation put forth the notion that the wave function is only a mathematical construct to help explain the nature of subatomic particles, but that it is not part of physical reality in and of itself. Therefore, the observed outcome of an experiment is the one and only reality, and the wave equation that precisely described the particle's potential behavior prior to the experiment no longer exists nor is valid afterward. In the 90 years since this fundamental debate began, this core concept has not been universally resolved.

Image Interpretation

I wanted to create an artistic piece that would reflect my academic training in physics and astronomy, along with the teachings that I have received from the Native American elders I have been fortunate enough to study with. Quantum mechanics seemed like a good nexus point on a number of levels. My visual inspiration came from two surrealist artists I admire, Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. Both were masters of creating engaging imagery that cause the viewer to react and reflect on the dreamlike settings they produced in their art. The revolutionary nature of quantum mechanics and the animistic qualities of Native American spirituality provided me a wonderful opportunity to share something of myself with others using a surrealistic setting as my medium.

There are two distinct settings presented in this piece, the "real world" of everyday life seen in the landscape within the open window and the mathematical construct of the quantum world shown in the stark space enclosed by the rusted wall and floor. The decayed, rusty backdrop of the quantum space represents the dying nature of the old Newtonian world. The open window and the eyeball symbolize the awakening of new perception to the nature of the universe that quantum mechanics brought forth. The shadow of a cat cast along the rusted floor is an allusion to the famous quantum mechanics thought experiment, known as Schrödinger's Cat.

The main action in the piece portrays a hand reaching up through the window from the real world into the quantum setting, while simultaneously trying to grab one of three distinctly shaped and colored floating objects. The size of each object represents the probability solution to the wave equation as formulated in quantum mechanics. The yellow object is the most likely result statistically and the object the hand will most often grab, the magenta object is the next most likely result, while the blue object is the least likely event and the object the hand will select least often. So, the scene in The Copenhagen Interpretation represents the moment just before the event (object selection) occurs, when all three distinct solutions to the wave equation are possible. However, once one of the objects is selected, the event concludes, there are no longer three possible outcomes, and the hand returns back into the real world.

Even though the chosen object defines the result of the event, there is no way to know precisely which object will be selected beforehand. This indeterministic quality inherent in quantum mechanics combined with the Copenhagen Interpretation of the wave equation has helped to shape my spirituality and provide meaning to this piece in two significant ways. The first is that nothing is completely certain at the smallest most fundamental level of creation and everything in the universe exists as potential. The second is that we, as human beings, are creators and our "gift" lies in our ability to make choices. Every choice leads us on a path to new potential opportunities and new teachers.