Thursday, February 15, 2007

Quantum Yarn

A well-known thought experiment in modern physics is the story of Schrodinger's cat. Suppose, Erwin Schrodinger said, you put a cat in a box. The box is rigged with a system that will release cyanide to kill the cat, based on a completely random trigger. We seal the box; it is soundproof, it is sturdy so we do not see it shaking. We have no way of telling if the cat is alive or dead at any moment. Common sense would tell us that, considering the trigger is completely random, the cat could be either. But quantum physics takes it a step further. The cat is both dead and alive at the same time. It is only when we observe the cat, by opening the box, that the we force an outcome one way or the other. (Don't worry, this is only a thought experiment. No one has done or will do this to a real cat. ) (Especially not my cat.)
It sounds far fetched, but that's how the real world works at a subatomic level. When you look for an electron orbiting a nucleus, it could be anywhere. In fact, it is everywhere, until we pin it down to one place by observing it. We're used to a deterministic view of the world - things are the way they are and we passively observe it. But it's just not the cast - our decision to measure something actually changes the system.
This is coming back to knitting, I promise.
In many situations, it is far more probable that the electron will be one place instead of another when we measure it, but this is just a probability. It still exists in a very fundamental way at all the other possibilities. Everywhere that it can exist, it does. Kind of mind-boggling isn't it? Einstein didn't like this idea. "Gott spielt nicht!" he proclaimed, "God does not throw dice." Well, aparently he does. (And Einstein got himself in trouble with an awful lot of women, so maybe that whole "smartest guy ever" thing could use some re-examining.)
Here's how this comes back to knitting. When I have a certain project in mind, I've already made a measurement on the system. This yarn is destined to become whatever I choose to make with it, it's pinned down to one place. But there are other yarns that exist with infinite possibilities. These tend to be the more precious yarns, the cashmere that I horde, that beautiful handspun. I probably will never knit them. Why? Because I haven't found the right project. Sure, I have lots of ideas, but my resistance is deeper than that. As long as I haven't actually chosen a project, all those possibilities exist in reality still. It's improbable that the skein of cashmere is going to be part of a luxury scrap sweater, but on a quantum level, it already is. It's also part of a gorgeous bedspread, a snuggly collar on a cool cardigan, a delicate lace pillow. Until I pin the yarn down to one project, all these wonderful things still exist.
That's kind of hard to give up. Viva la stash!


DancingFish said...

Great post!

MUDNYC said...

Thanks for making me think too much brain's been rusting since college until now.

Anonymous said...

It reminds me of Thoreau's comments in Walden. He was planning on buying a farm, but in the end the farmer changed his mind and didn't want to sell. Thoreau mused that it was better that way, because he had all the fun of planning and dreaming and imaging all the things he could do with his new farm, and then he never actually had to do it.