God Emperor of Quantum Physics

7 May

The universe wants what the universe wants.

I think I started reading Frank Herbert’s Dune series sophomore year of high school—I’m pretty sure it was sophomore year because freshman year I was obsessed with Watership Down for some reason I can’t quite remember, but ended up using the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear as my senior yearbook quote (a decision I shall never regret).  So it was between year one and four, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t three as year three I was keeping a Word document of Algernon Charles Swinburne poems.

But that’s not really relevant.

What’s relevant is that next Tuesday the Scattering will one year old, and in celebration a return to the beginning is in order.

Shockingly, this blog does not derive it’s name from the scattered nature of my thoughts and the tangents that posts often go off on [see first paragraph].  “The Scattering” is actually a far-future event that takes place at the end of the fourth book in Frank Herbert’s famous series—God Emperor of Dune.  It’s a species-wide diaspora of sorts, with human beings spreading out across the universe after the (spoiler alert) murder of Leto Atreides II, half-human/half-sandworm dictator.

— begin tangent –

Whenever I hear Bozz Scaggs’s “Lido Shuffle” (and I hear it quite a bit when my iPod’s on shuffle), I subtly change the lyrics to pay tribute to said God Emperor’s death:

Leto (woah-oah), he’s for the money, he’s for the show—drowning in the Idaho-o-o-o-o.

— end tangent –

The Scattering was the ultimate end of Leto’s Golden Path, a prescient vision that turned into a guide for all the horrible choices he had to make in his 3,000+ year creepy hybrid life—the only path that would prevent the total destruction of homo sapiens sapiens.  Essentially, if humans scattered to the millions of planets and billions of stars, no force (not even themselves) could ever destroy them all.

And thus, Leto II saved humanity.

But the most interesting part of the series, for me, was Herbert’s idea that simply seeing the future made the future.  When Leto’s father Paul (a messiah himself, if not a god) had his visions, he was tormented by the terrible things he saw.  And yet, the very fact that he saw them predisposed him to follow the paths he’d glimpsed—for all he knew, the alternatives he was blind to could be worse.  But Paul couldn’t take the pressure, and left his son to choose the devil he knew.

But after watching the most recent episode of FlashForward (“Course Correction”), I’ve begun to wonder whether Herbert’s ideas weren’t entirely science fiction.

For those of you who aren’t watching ABC’s new series in the hopes that it can fill the void that LOST will leave in just a few weeks, FlashForward is a science fiction drama focused on an event known as The Blackout—a couple minutes of time when the whole world went unconscious, or rather: the whole world shifted consciousness and mentally traveled six months into the future.  Everyone glimpsed what would happen (or not happen—if they’d be dead) to them on a particular day in April, and everyone freaked out.  Free will versus destiny debates broke out everywhere, and philosophy professors all over the country saw a sudden spike in their research grants.  (Well that last part’s speculation, but I’m pretty sure ABC has it in backstory somewhere.)

Central to the mystery of the blackout are Simon Campos as Lloyd Simcoe, two quantum physicists whose experiments may or may not have had something to do with the world-changing event.  In any case, they’re experts now, making talk show appearances and working with the FBI.  And in “Course Correction,” Simcoe makes a particularly interesting statement about what happens when people see the future.  To avoid butchering science, I’ll leave explanation to the experts—

From a 1998 Science Daily article:

One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory, which has long fascinated philosophers and physicists alike, states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality.

In a study reported in the February 26 issue of Nature (Vol. 391, pp. 871-874), researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have now conducted a highly controlled experiment demonstrating how a beam of electrons is affected by the act of being observed. The experiment revealed that the greater the amount of “watching,” the greater the observer’s influence on what actually takes place.

When a quantum “observer” is watching Quantum mechanics states that particles can also behave as waves. This can be true for electrons at the submicron level, i.e., at distances measuring less than one micron, or one thousandth of a millimeter. When behaving as waves, they can simultaneously pass through several openings in a barrier and then meet again at the other side of the barrier. This “meeting” is known as interference.

Strange as it may sound, interference can only occur when no one is watching. Once an observer begins to watch the particles going through the openings, the picture changes dramatically: if a particle can be seen going through one opening, then it’s clear it didn’t go through another. In other words, when under observation, electrons are being “forced” to behave like particles and not like waves. Thus the mere act of observation affects the experimental findings.

(today in 2010, this premise is generally accepted among the physics in-crowd)

And so, to oversimplify in every way: once you see something, you make it real.  Or as Lloyd Simcoe explained, the universe wants it to happen—and if you try to thwart your [fate], the universe will “course correct.”

This doesn’t only apply to the visions seen by all the poor denizens of FlashFoward world, but Paul and Leto of the Duniverse as well.

Paul Atreides saw the Golden Path, but found it too horrifying to comprehend—he didn’t find the idea of millennia of sandtrout cilia invading his privy organs terribly appealing.  By not following his vision, Paul should have changed the future, but the Duniverse course corrected through Leto.  From Children of Dune:

Already he could feel how far he’d drifted from something recognizably human. Seduced by the spice which he gulped from every trace he found, the membrane which covered him no longer was sandtrout, just as he was no longer human. Cilia had crept into his flesh, forming a new creature which would seek its own metamorphosis in the eons ahead. You saw this, father, and rejected it, he thought. It was a thing too terrible to face. Leto knew what was believed of his father, and why. Muad’Dib died of prescience. But Paul Atreides had passed from the universe of reality into the alam al-mythal while still alive, fleeing from this thing which his son had dared.

My advice: think twice before you let the spice flow.

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3 Responses to “God Emperor of Quantum Physics”

  1. gwern May 9, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    It’s not that Paul couldn’t take the pressure. It’s that he never had any choice – Paul was always trapped in someone else’s prescient vision, acting out his appointed role.

    Re-read _Dune_, and pay particular attention to Appendix III – this is Herbert speaking to us.

    > … This alone should have alerted the Bene Gesserit to the possibility that a wild variable had entered their scheme. But there were other far more important indications that they virtually ignored:…
    > In the face of these facts, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that the inefficient Bene Gesserit behavior in this affair was a product of an even higher plan of which they were completely unaware!

    Consider this Paul quote from _Dune Messiah_:

    > A Bene Gesserit axiom slipped into his mind: To use raw power is to make yourself infinitely vulnerable to greater powers.

    Who is the greater power? Leto II, of course. Paul’s visions are wrong & incomplete only once Leto comes into the picture. (If you doubt that Leto is more powerful than Paul, refer to their fight scene in _Children of Dune_.) If prescience means reaching forward in time, there ought to be symmetry and allow reaching *backwards* as well.

    • thescattering May 9, 2010 at 9:42 pm #

      That’s a good point– but either way, the fact that he was “trapped in someone else’s prescient vision, acting out his appointed role” is an example of Paul getting trapped in a path that’s been foreseen (which was really the point of my post), because it’s been foreseen.

      I’ll take your reading suggestions under advisement, but I have some China Mieville to finish first. 🙂

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