"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Uncertainty Principle (and, of course, Breaking Bad)

a tale of two Heisenbergs...

when i was home a few days ago i started reading Copenhagen.
for some reason, it was just calling to me. i've had it on the shelf for years, one of the select books from college i kept around in arm's reach. i remember being assigned it as reading in one of my core classes (Natural Systems), but never read far before i abandoned it for something else (the only notes i made in the margin ended on page 5, with a blue box around the words "Uncertainty Principle" and "complementarity.")

well, i'd pretty  much forgotten anything and everything about the play until i picked it up and started reading it, and, perhaps due to my brimming obsession with Breaking Bad, have found it more interesting and relevant than before. reading it has made me wonder if perhaps Vince Gilligan was inspired, to some extent, by the work of Michael Frayn and the history of nuclear physics.

the play is nothing but an ongoing theoretical conversation between mentor Niels Bohr, his former student (and now rival physicist) Werner Heisenberg, and Bohr's wife cum secretary Margrethe. it takes place in some future time after all three have passed into the next life and involves a discussion of Heisenberg's (in)famous visit to Copenhagen, the true motives and results of which are unclear to historians and the scientific community. the three actors circle each other throughout the piece (as can be seen in the photo off the cover), as electrons inside an atom, mirroring the atomic physics at the center of their discussion, but also drawing attention to the relationships of individuals/elements to one another.

for people who watch Breaking Bad, this is what comes to mind when we hear "Heisenberg":

volatile, explosive, unpredictable. dangerous. seems to me that Vince Gilligan is very careful and methodical with how he created the world of Walt and Breaking Bad, and it seems unlikely that Walt choosing Heisenberg as his nom de guerre is not mere coincidence but part of Gilligan's elaborate plan.

some interesting overlaps and parallels:
1.  Heisenberg the physicist was recruited by Germany, becoming the youngest professor to work on quantum physics at the university where he began his career, later developing and contributing research to the Nazi regime's atomic bomb program (does this explain the Nazis in Breaking Bad? always thought they were an unexpected curveball at the end of the series)

2.  his mentor, Niels Bohr, was himself a prominent physicist and renowned for his work in nuclear physics, but due to German occupation in his home country of Denmark, was forced to escape extermination

3.  from Copenhagen, page 24:
Bohr talks about Heisenberg's recklessness (while skiing, but also how it reflects his approach to his scientific work): "At the speed you were going you were up against the uncertainty relationship... You never cared what got destroyed on the way, as long as the mathematics worked out you were satisfied."
H: "If something works it works."

4.  page 51, (talking about the arrival of the Allies and the end of the war) Heisenberg: "Under my control -- yes! That's the point! Under my control!"
Bohr: "Nothing was under anyone's control by that time!"

5.  page 74, H: "However we got there, by whatever combination of high principles and low calculation, of most painfully hard thought and most painfully childish tears, it works. It goes on working."

6.  page 75, Margrethe: "Your talent is for skiing too fast for anyone to see where you are. For always being in more than one position at a time, like one of your particles."

7.  page 94, Heisenberg: "Our children and our children's children. Preserved, just possibly, by that one short moment... By some event that will never quite be located or defined. By that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things."

and finally, these chilling words, written by Frayn, said by Heisenberg, shared by me with you on the eve of the series finale of Breaking Bad:

"I'm your enemy; I'm also your friend. I'm a danger to mankind; I'm also your guest. I'm a particle; I'm also a wave. We have one set of obligations to the world in general, and we have other sets, never to be reconciled, to our fellow-countrymen, to our neighbors, to our friends, to our family, to our children... All we can do is to look afterwards, and see what happened."
-Heisenberg (page 77-78)

happy Breaking Bad finale day, folks! i don't know if it's because it's the last day one of the best things to ever happen to television will be on the air, or the quickly disappearing summer and impending winter, or that it's the last day of my unemployment, but i am filled with a lingering sadness. i am going to miss this Sunday feeling so much.

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