Confused at a higher level

The view from a liberal arts college physics department (and deanery)

Relationships as physical theories

Posted by Arjendu on July 30, 2008

Jennifer Ouellette has a fun post on Physical theories as men (responding to a McSweeney’s article that, yes, I also seem to recognize as being adapted from something familiar, on Physical theories as women). And this, in my current drug-addled state (I am recovering from elective surgery designed to stabilize my shoulder against recurrent dislocations) seems to be a good excuse to do my own little inversion of the theme: Seeing physical theories in relationships — at least the theories I work with the most. Bear with me? It’s a little bit of an extended pun, something of a metaphor stretch, but …

What do I mean? Well, first, let’s see, there’s nonlinearity, chaos, and deterministic unpredictability. Which seems to characterize the whole sex and seduction thing, at least for a geeky puzzled guy like me. Yes, I decided to start with the most difficult one to write about.

Oh, I am not talking about the strangely fractal patterns that your bedsheets get into (though I am clearly throwing away plenty of pun-able material in the term strange attractor), or, ahem, the broad-band spectrum of the various different frequencies that make up the time-series in the actual making of the beast with two backs (or however you like to do it). I am talking about the way in which an evening (say) might unfold, even (particularly!) with a long-time partner — things would be going smoothly, the music is perfect, the food is good, the jokes are flowing, and then … something happens, and the chemistry dries up, the headaches start, etc. And other times this works out very well indeed. And the obverse: Both of you in a grumpy mood, clumping towards solitude, and bam, a smile, a joke, a conversation, a touch, a kiss, and you are in each other’s arms, grateful, so grateful for each other. Or not, but that’s the point. Deterministic unpredictability, I tell you — every step logically leads to the next one, but you couldn’t have predicted where you end up by your imperfect knowledge of the initial condition. (Or this only the beginning of relationships that I am talking about?).

Moving on, with an embarrassed cough: Quantum mechanics. Well. That’s one of the most mysterious theories around, has phenomena like entanglement, tunneling through barriers, interference effects, non-locality, and so on. If you allow yourself to drift into metaphoria land, it’s imagery meant to describe what we term ‘love’, innit ? I could riff on measurement collapse and how naming a relationship alters it. Or what it means to try extract quantum phenomena from our day-to-day experience, even though it underlies everything. You’ve got to be careful, and work hard, and be smart, and protect against random perturbations that kill the quantum-ness. All that.

And then there’s stochastic processes. It’s like the ‘friendship’ part of a relationship. Things happen, interactions are sometimes nice, sometimes grumpy, you are attacked unprovoked (seemingly) and you later understand is because of something that had happened earlier, or treated wonderfully when you don’t know what you did to deserve it, perhaps. And you build up statistics internally. Don’t understand a relationship by any one event or sets of events, but by patterns that emerge, that accumulate. That can shift gradually when you aren’t noticing. But are ultimately clear when you step back and look at the big picture.

So, what do I do, as a good chaotician/quantum mechanic/statistical mechanic? Try to understand and appreciate these phenomena — chaos, quantum mechanics, stochasticity, each remarkable on its own. And the wonder is the beauty that emerges when all three interact. As they do in my work. And metaphorically, in my life.

One Response to “Relationships as physical theories”

  1. [...] I must have stumbled into a memestorm, because following up on my post about physical theories as men and women, here comes comparisons to Harry Potter, dog chew toys, and relationships. [...]

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