Saturday, October 18, 2014

Neville's Brain

Although Neville's brain was in a state of superposition, he was, when fully probed, a naive realist. Lynden Stone 2014
Lynden Elizabeth Stone is an Australian visual artist who explores the richness and ambiguity of existence using metaphors derived from quantum physics. I first met Lynden in the context of her Metaphase Typewriter Revival project where she reproduced with modern technology a nutty old experiment of mine put together at the dawn of the computer age that explored the conjecture that elemental quantum randomness might be used by spirits, both embodied and immaterial, to communicate in human language if a suitable computer interface were provided.

Lynden recently came to America as an artist in residence at Crane Galleries in Philadelphia where she exhibited the revived metaphase machine and other work concerning the ambiguity of existence. She just now completed her PhD at Griffith University in Queensland for a thesis entitled Doubting Conventional Reality: Visual Art and Quantum Mechanics in which she surveys contemporary visual artists who are using quantum-physics metaphors in the visual arts -- including her own work in this arena.

Part of Lynden's PhD thesis included a public exhibition of her work. She asked me to contribute some program notes for this show and promised me "an original art work" in exchange. A few days ago I received in the mail a pizza-box-sized package that contained Lynden's art work Neville's Brain.

In one simple image Lynden invokes several famous physicists beginning with the image of the Moon in the upper left corner. Lynden renders this moon in lenticular photography which was invented by British physicist David Brewster (who also invented the kaleidoscope). In the present context the moon image also suggests Einstein's famous quantum question to physicist Abraham Pais: "Do you really believe that the Moon does not exist when nobody looks?".

The black-and-white background of Lynden's piece consists of distorted Greek letters "psi" which is the symbol for the wavefunction in quantum theory. Neville's superposed brain is reminiscent of the "Wigner's Friend paradox" in quantum mechanics as well as John von Neumann's conjecture that when humans observe a superposed quantum system, their brain states should also turn into superpositions.

The fact that Neville is a naive realist despite his superposed brain summarizes the basic quantum conundrum of why the world always appears "classical" despite the fact that physicists can prove that the world is entirely "quantum". Today, the real mystery is not quantum mechanics; the real mystery is why the world appears to humans to be stubbornly classical.

We house-broke quantum reality
Taught Schrödinger's Cat to purr
Now daily life's as uncanny
As atoms ever were.

At the bottom right is the fuzzy sketch of an animal which might possible represent the famously ambiguous Schrödinger Cat. Except that Lynden's animal looks just like a dog.

Thank you, Lynden Stone, for this rich and original work. I will treasure it like a quantum Picasso.

Erwin's Puss by Lynden Stone, housed at Centre for Quantum Dynamics, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia


Lynden Stone said...


your critique of my work is very much appreciated. Yes, that is no cat, it is Gus, my Airedale terrier, my constant companion in the lonely pursuit of being an artist. Gus, however, has a very keen interest in cats.


Len Anderson said...

It took human beings about 200,000 years to discover quantum behavior. Or should I say that it took 4 billion years of life on this planet to discover quantum behavior. Until the so-called 20th century all of our physical interaction with the world followed what we now call classical physics. That classical interaction over 4 billion years was important in developing our ability to move and move other objects in a predictable way and our perception and description of that behavior. It became an integral part of our nervous system, our language and our metaphors. All integrated and learned bodily. If we are to "understand" bodily and develop resonance with the quantum insights, we must do so through our bodies, through our physical interaction with things. We will have to ground the mathematical in the physical. Perhaps Nick's probing inquiry and poetry plus art such as Lynden Stone's can help us along the way. Full understanding includes the body. Suppose that you could respond to quantum behavior as naturally and automatically as you do in playing pool. Maybe we need a quantum simulation pool table. After a few generations growing up with them, humans might develop a more natural understanding of quantum physics. Now there's an experiment.