With a title like that, you’re probably expecting a how to write type of post, walking through the disparate functions, actions, and reactions of the narrative structure. That’s not what it’s going to be about, but I wasn’t able to come up with a better title. I think that you’ll understand once you’ve read it. This is one of my occasional writing philosophy posts, although in this case it’s actually drifting more into the realm of just straight philosophy. The premise: the narrative is the quantum mechanics of human beings.

I’ve made a hobby of theoretical physics for many years, and I frequently track advances in the field through new experiments and new infrastructure. As much as it might seem unlikely that theoretical physics would tie into writing, or even normal life, I have found that understanding this cutting edge of our comprehension of the physical universe is often a lens that focuses and improves my understanding of more mental pursuits. So, with that in mind, I’m going to subject you to a brief foray into physics concepts. Don’t worry: there won’t be any math involved.

Although the word “quantum” is used today in front of anything that someone wants to sound like futuristic technology, its meaning is actual very simple, and embodies an ancient concept. It actually comes from ancient Greece, although the precise philosopher is debated – I’m going to assume it as Democritus for the purposes of this article, since the linkage between the ideas of quantum physics and democracy suit my purposes well. Democritus, and other philosophers of the time, proposed that the universe was made up uncuttable particles called atoms. This idea was ultimately proven to be incorrect when the “atom” was split (ironic, since atom means uncuttable), but the idea of the universe being composed of some fundamental unit has continued to be favored by some in the physics community, and it is actually the basis of String Theory.

Quantum physics as we know it today arose in the early twentieth century, and has become known for weird phenomena that are immensely challenging to understand: Schrodinger’s cat, wave-particle duality, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, for instance. What the “quantum” simply refers to, though, is the idea that there are discrete measurement. To understand this, I find an example is helpful, because whether you realize it or not, we are surrounded every day with examples of continuous and discontinuous systems. With a continuous system, you can get infinitely precise, and if you plot the data points you will end up with some kind of a smooth curve. An analog thermostat is an example of a continuous system: you can put the dial anywhere, including between the numbers (whether the furnace can keep the temperature at exactly 65.5379321 degrees is a completely different question and not presently relevant). But if you need to go and count the number of pictures you have on the walls, that’s going to be a discontinuous system. You can’t have a fraction of a picture hanging on the wall. (Well, I guess you could cut a picture in half and hang it and call it half a picture, but let’s say for the purposes of this discussion that any object hanging on the wall constitutes one, whole picture.)

It turns out that there are fundamental, physical phenomena that exhibit this quantized behavior. If you’ve ever seen atomic emission spectra, you’ve seen an example of this (I’ve included an example of hydrogen’s emission spectrum below. Note the discreet lines). The electrons exist at specific energy levels, and can jump between them, but cannot have an energy at a fraction of those levels. When the electrons drop from one energy level to a lower energy level, they release photons of a certain energy (which relates to wavelength).

The hydrogen emission spectrum. Note the center image with its discreet lines: those are the wavelengths of light emitted by hydrogen when its single electron drops from higher energy levels to lower energy levels. In essence, an electron can be on floor two or floor one, but it can’t stop on the stairs in between.

I was writing an essay about organizational change last week, and in it I wrote about Isaac Asimov’s ideas of societal inertia and psychohistory, expressed in his Foundation novels. If you’re not familiar with these concepts, first I highly recommend that you read Foundation, and secondly, societal inertia is the idea that, like massive objects, society and organizations will tend to continue along their present path, unless acted upon by some disturbing force. In essence, societal inertia is a Newtonian physics description of humanity, and I made that comparison in the essay. Doing so got me thinking about what the quantum physics of humanity would be.

It was at that point that I realized that, unlike in theoretical physics where we’re not yet sure if there’s really a fundamental unit of matter, we do know that there is a fundamental unit of humanity: the individual. When dealing with humanity, philosophy, and narrative, individuals are the atoms, and understanding the ways in which individuals respond and behave is the quantum physics of humanity. If psychohistory is the understanding of the behavior of organizations and societies, narrative physics is the understanding of the behavior of individual people. And just like the conflicts between classic and quantum physics, for most things the individual and the society will align, but sometimes individuals will exhibit chaotic behavior that is not seen at the macroscopic scale of societies.

So yes, I just called authors quantum physicists, and I’m sure that at least as many will consider that an insult as consider it a compliment. This is not some kind of revolutionary idea or completely new concept; it’s just a rephrasing of an idea that’s been around for centuries, and I found it to be insightful. Now, back to Democritus. If you couldn’t guess from the name, Democritus is also frequently credited with being one of the first to describe the ideas of democracy in a formal way, which is fascinating, considering his ideas about atoms and the uncuttable, fundamental particles of which the universe was composed. Democracy, fundamentally, is about individuals, and letting individuals have a voice in their own government. Hence Abraham Lincoln’s famous line in the Gettysburg Address: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this Earth.” Democracy is, in a way, a macroscopic application of these quantum principles of people. I guess that makes it a sort of human quantum Hall effect?

Narrative is such a powerful thing precisely because it is about individuals. Stories explore how individuals affect, and are affected by, events large and small, how the actions of a single individual can have wide-ranging, dramatic effects in changing large-scale structures. They show us how individuals, under the right circumstances, can influence the direction of the macroscopic whole. They are, in a way, the ultimate expression of individual agency, and a repudiation of modern emphases on big data and identity politics. As authors and readers, we are looking at the scale of particles, but sometimes we look at how those particles become galaxies.

3 thoughts on “Narrative Physics

  1. “But if you need to go an counter the number of pictures you have on the walls, that’s going to be a discontinuous system.”

    ~ Did you mean “and count” ?

    I’m more visual and literary arts-leaning in my amassed and retained knowledge from public education, undergraduate, and graduate studies, but I found this post fascinating.

    “If psychohistory is the understanding of the behavior of organizations and societies, narrative physics is the understanding of the behavior of individual people.”

    ~ Maybe a large organization that needs to hire a change management consultant can think outside the proverbial box and seek the expertise of a narrative physicist with a degree in sociology or cultural anthropology.

    I love your analogies. “In essence, an electron can be on floor two or floor one, but it can’t stop on the stairs in between” really helped me visualize what you meant by what electrons cannot do in a discontinuous system.

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    1. I’m thrilled that you found the post valuable (and I’ve made the change to the typo you caught – thanks). Your idea about cultural anthropologists or similar specialists perhaps making valuable, unique contributions to the field of change management is fascinating. In a lot of change management situations that I’ve seen, it’s accepted as inevitable that there are going to be a few members of the organization who don’t get on board no matter what steps you take to make the changes easier or more appealed; I’m now led to wonder if incorporating the perspective of scholars or experts who have focused on how individuals work inside of organizations, rather than on the organizations themselves, might be able to improve those outcomes and smooth transition processes. Most people seem to acknowledge that change is often necessary, but that doesn’t always make it easier or more appealing.

      I’ve often considered that some of the technical fields make their material needlessly complex, or at least needlessly obscure – being able to explain those kinds of concepts to people with expertise in other areas has long been a passion of mine, so it’s very gratifying that my analogies helped you.

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      1. “I’m now led to wonder if incorporating the perspective of scholars or experts who have focused on how individuals work inside of organizations, rather than on the organizations themselves, might be able to improve those outcomes and smooth transition processes.”

        ~ I’ve read that people are more likely to accept change in concept or actual behavior if they think it’s their idea. I get that a company with multiple offices across the country and with a global presence may not be willing to think on such a granular level, but why can’t it be worth the effort? Changing vendors is one thing (Pepsi instead of Coke, Papermate instead of Bic, Kimberly Clark instead of Georgia Pacific, Udi instead of Glutino), but implementing new policies without soliciting individual contributor feedback (and not just management at division/dept level) can open the doors to blind acceptance at best, malicious compliance at middle, and oblivious non-compliance at worst.

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