Quantum Theory and the Arts

by Frederick Turner

An increasing number of artists and poets are becoming interested in the perspectives that are afforded by current physics, in particular, quantum theory. The website http://quantumartandpoetry.blogspot.com/ is an example, as is the poetry of Ross Talarico and many others. David Bohm (with whom I once shared a memorable conversation in a train in Tuscany) has inspired many with his vision of the “implicate order,” the timeless realm of harmonic probabilities that, he maintains, underlies ordinary “classical” reality.

All the great periods of human achievement in the arts have been accompanied by dazzling scientific advances, and have incorporated them into the arts themselves, either in their content or in their form and technique. Ming dynasty China, famed for its literature and painting, was also a period of striking progress in the sciences. The great Japanese print artists Hokusai and Hiroshige were exploiting and incorporating many of the features of Tokugawa science and technology, both in their sophisticated printing and pigment techniques, and in their observations of nature. Hokusai’s The Great Wave is famous as an example of fractal scaling, now recognized as a fundamental principle of nature. The Vedic Bhagavadgita, besides its profound spiritual and ethical meditations, also contains an analysis of the physics of the universe based on the Three Gunas, darkness, fire and light (corresponding to our contemporary classification of matter, energy and information). Classical Greece boasted not only the sculptor Praxiteles, the artist Apelles and the architect Ictinus (of the Parthenon), but also the scientists Euclid, Pythagoras and Democritus (founder of atomic theory).  The Renaissance, with its simultaneous invention of perspective and projective geometry, its incorporation of anatomy into the visual arts, and its profound literary and poetic consideration of nature, is perhaps the strongest example of all. In our own time, science fiction, in its graphic, cinematic and literary forms, has come to dominate the more creative side of our culture.

Perhaps the most important influence of science on the arts is in our fundamental picture of the nature and origin of the universe as a whole. Consider the classical Greek mapping of nature onto number and geometrical logic, whether in the analysis of musical intervals or the arrangement of architectural columns, architraves and pediments or the composition of metrical verse. Nineteenth-century literature is full of the metaphor of the universe as machine, nineteenth-century painting full of the science of color and optics. The obvious question for the present time is: what foundation does our own science provide for our art? And from this question follows another: what is our own basic model of the world?  What might quantum theory, for instance, tell us about the world that artists paint or sculpt, about the notes musicians play, about the poetry we write on it?

On a first glance at the known scientific facts, we might conclude “not very much.” The problem is the very clear difference between the microcosmic quantum level of reality and our everyday macrocosmic level of classical physics, which is where living organisms and paintbrushes and artists dwell. It is common sense that we mostly need not bother with the tiny details of anything below a certain threshold of size—we are not interested, for artistic purposes, in the shape of the molecules in our printing ink or paint pigment, or in the individual mechanical waves that make up a sound, the individual light waves that make up a color, the electronic pixels on our screens.

We make meaning out of substances like marble, paint and sound, whose inner atomic structure the great classical masters of the past were utterly unaware of—and they did not do so bad a job. Perhaps the occasional genius like Leonardo might theorize about the strange fractal self-organization of water eddies and clouds, and even interest himself in the alchemy of pigment and its adhesive medium (often to the despair of modern conservators); but the materials are already given, and artists use them as they stand. Some artists, like Chuck Close, want to make us aware of both the larger image and its constituent parts. In an interview with the Worcester Art Museum, Close cites Roman floor mosaics as a source for his method, http://www.worcesterart.org/Exhibitions/Past/close.html. A contemporary conceptual artist or “language poet” with access to a nanotech laboratory might be able to make a painting or a poem out of molecules with beautifully tailored shapes, but the macroscopic painting or text itself could be a failure or a success to our macroscopic eyes, regardless.

So mere scale already renders sufficiently microscopic details irrelevant to art. The difference between the macroscopic classical-physics world we inhabit and the quantum realm is much greater still. Here we are dealing with entities that are not just smaller but radically different in nature. In the quantum world, instead of real events, we have probabilities of events happening. Instead of things, we have “wavicles” in which events (energy) cannot be distinguished from objects (matter). Instead of cause and effect, we have what Einstein called the “spooky action at a distance” of quantum coherence and entanglement, by which one quantum particle is harnessed to another in its charge and spin, with no means of communication between them. Instead of the Aristotelian logic of true and false, yes and no, we have the “superposition” of various contradictory states of the case. Instead of our familiar shared time with its continuity, its earlier and later, its before and after, its increase of thermal disorder over time (clock springs run down, perfume escapes from but does not return to perfume bottles, work produces waste heat), we have eternal/instantaneous flashes of time, one for each free-flying photon or neutrino.

Worse still, the quantum world is extremely fragile in any classical-physics environment. Any piece of solid matter can “collapse the wave function” of a quantum particle so that it behaves like a real physical event or object and starts to obey Aristotelian logic. The quantum world is even fragile to itself: if enough quantum virtual particles are amassed together in an “ensemble,” they can spontaneously collapse into a regular particle that can endure for billions of years. Computer scientists across the world have been striving to create a quantum computer, which could, in theory, solve enormous self-complicating problems at staggering speeds. But any tiny contamination by classical matter or energy causes the entangled particles to de-cohere and the “qubits”—the superposed states of information that define a quantum particle—to collapse into a traditional “bit,” a yes or no such as we find in an ordinary digital computer.

In fact, it is just as well for us that quantum particles do collapse into regular matter and energy, and lose their wonderful quantum indeterminacy. In the first fraction of a second of the Big Bang that began the universe, its heat, pressure and unimaginably minute size were so extreme that classical matter and energy could not exist and superposed virtual particles entangled with each other were all that existed (if “existed” is even a meaningful term in these conditions). As the universe ballooned out, creating its own space and time, it cooled and decompressed, the entanglements mostly de-cohered, and classical energy and matter crystallized out of it. The current quantum world is a sort of living fossil of the Big Bang, hiding in its refuge of the extremely small and brief—or one could almost say that it is the Big Bang, still going on, since in its own terms it is timeless and eternal.

This “crystallization,” this precipitating-out of classical from quantum physics, was repeated several times, but in a less comprehensive fashion, in the history of the universe. Each time, it gave rise to new levels of being and time. When the universe cooled and expanded enough for atoms to be able to stick together, the whole world of chemistry was born, with its own wonderful “language” of valences, reactions, bonds and catalysts, of crystalline, polymeric and monomeric structures, and so on. When the remarkable carbon atom was first created in the hellish interior of massive stars and cast out into space by their explosive deaths, organic chemistry emerged with its amazing capacities for forming more elaborate structures. One of those structures, DNA, could record and reproduce its own structure, thus triggering a new collapse, a new realm of reality and time, that of life. And, quite recently, the neural complexity of certain living organisms crossed yet another radical threshold, into human awareness.

So not just one but several radical transitions or levels of reality separate us from the quantum world.

Nevertheless, the classical world is not totally insulated from the quantum realm. That realm is, after all, physical reality’s fundamental material, and it is not a passive material. Though the classical regime—of cause and effect, either-or, matter and energy, things and events—dominates the quantum world, it permits its odd effects in profoundly important ways. A complex catalytic reaction in chemistry could not take place without the permitted quantum ambiguity that allows energy barriers in the process to be circumvented or alternative energy paths to be taken into account. The weak hydrogen bond that holds the twin strands of DNA in the cells of all living organisms together, loosely enough to be peeled apart for metabolism and reproduction to take place, is a quantum phenomenon. Likewise the answer to the protein-folding problem in cell biology, a problem that involves multiple simultaneous solutions impossible for a classical linear computer.  Certainly, much of our current electronic technology (including the diode that will soon light all our homes) uses quantum tunneling effects, crossing the quantum-classical barrier as a matter of course.

But are any of these instances of the emergence of the quantum world into our canonical concrete world relevant to the arts? Certainly, video artists and animal and plant breeders (who are artists of a kind) regularly use quantum effects without knowing that they are. Visual artists who employ butterfly-wing type pigments that break up or polarize the light, or experiment with interference patterns, are invoking this archaic level of reality. But is the quantum more than an unintended precondition, a marginal curiosity, a technological special effect?

In music, the answer is clear. The way a melody works is through harmonic correspondence: the quantum world shapes itself by precisely such resonances, and music could be said to be our most immediate experience of the quantum world. The way, in a great piece of music, the relations between the overtone series of each note, different for each instrument and bending away from any scale by which we locally organize it, is the very soul of the tune. Something of the same thing happens in great colorist paintings, in which a set of wavelength resonances self-organizes into a sort of emotional shape for the viewer. A similar interference pattern or moiré effect arises between the meter and the semantic meaning of a metrically formal poem.

Perhaps the most important effect of quantum theory on the arts in general is as a kind of reminder and challenge. The world is not a Turing machine, a perfect logical computation machine. Our apparently solid and predictable world is based on an underlying reality that does not operate by deterministic one-way cause and effect, but by a strange sort of harmonic correspondence among indeterminate entities, whose very being is only a probability.

To grasp this concept is to open the imagination. The predictability of the world of classical cause and effect is, as it were, a remarkable achievement of the universe. And knowing this, we might be ready to grasp that further achievements—in which the macrostructure of a new form of organization is quite different from its microstructure and comes to dominate its own materials—might also be possible. The way a moving billiard ball causes another to move is very different from the way in which an existing ecological niche causes a new species to emerge, and different again from the way an artist chooses a subject and a medium. The billiard ball’s determinate motion is a compound of trillions of indeterminate quantum events. The evolution of the new living species—which could come from many different biological lineages and look and behave very differently, and is therefore in its details indeterminate—is a compound of trillions of determinate billiard-ball atomic interactions. Artists determine themselves and their actions; they are autonomous (auto: self, nomos: rule). Their predictability is based upon the unpredictability of living organisms, which is, in turn, based on the predictability of atomic interactions, which is again ultimately based upon the unpredictability of the quantum form—worlds within worlds.

Some thinkers, such as Erwin Schrödinger and Roger Penrose, believe that they can prove the freedom of the human will—so essential if art and ethics are to have any meaning—by invoking quantum indeterminacy. A clear picture of the hierarchy of the levels of reality would challenge this simple equation: after all, true freedom—autonomy—is even more remote from mere randomness than it is from deterministic causality. Self-organizing and self-determining systems like ecologies and human minds harness both quantum indeterminacy and classical determinacy for their own created and designed futures. But those who connect quantum “freedom” with human freedom are right in a way: reality has many ways of organizing itself, of which cause is only one. Our world of free moral and aesthetic choice is undergirded by the animal world of emotions and drives, itself undergirded by the infinite open possibilities of DNA, undergirded, in turn, by the strict physics of real particles and forces, and undergirded at its bottom by the timeless play—the lila, as the Hindus say—of the quantum ocean.

How might we actually use this awareness in our art? In Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Demetrius and Hermia, awoken from the strange forest dream that has changed their lives, are in their own state of superposition, of seeing double, of experiencing the indistinguishable, living in superposed realities.


These things seem small and undistinguishable,

Like far-off mountains turned into clouds.


Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When every thing seems double.

We can take the play as an extraordinary model of how to depict in art the way that our familiar world, if we peer under the surface, becomes irreducibly strange and wayward. In dreams, we enter a lower and deeper level of being; we lose our autonomy, our perception of the order of time, our clear distinction of one thing from another, our logical distinction of true from false. It is almost as if we were to plunge into the world of animal impulse, then deeper into the atomic realm of mechanical determinism, and then, at last, into the quantum ocean of possibility, of potential. “Those things do best please me” says Puck, “That befall preposterously”—that is, that befall impossibly, out of order, ass-backwards, illogically, indeterminately. In fairyland we are in the quantum world.

Shakespeare’s imagery changes from the hard outlines of Athenian city life to the “glimmering” light of the moonlit forest, where “how easy is a bush supposed a bear”—or, we might say, a particle supposed a wave. Light does not delimit but ambiguate. In the world of the fairies, who embody the motivations of that inner world (and who successfully manipulate the sexual impulses of the lovers to bring about a fertile outcome), everything is in miniature. It is as if Shakespeare had blown the view of the world up with a powerful poetic microscope, to look at what its apparently smooth surface conceals. Shakespeare enumerates the streaks in the throats of cowslips, his minuscule fairies shoot bees to steal their honey-bags, he makes his Puck the agent of the mysterious microscopic processes that transform milk into butter, mash into beer, mud into mushrooms, human sexual fluids into babies.

And, astonishingly, this journey that the lovers and the amateur actors take into the midnight forest world outside the city is absolutely essential for the ethical and moral survival of the city. For, at the beginning of the play, a grave injustice is about to take place: a father is going to force his daughter to marry someone she does not love. Civil authority has usurped the very process by which the human race was bred into existence—that mysterious and total attraction that one human being feels for another, that utterly individual free-market eugenics by which we choose the mother and father of our children. The rule of determinative law must limit itself and not attempt to dominate the creative process whereto the lower levels of our being bring their irreplaceable contribution. If law does not limit itself, there is no place for the lovers to go but to the forest night.

Artists, too—even the brilliantly incompetent theatrical artists of Peter Quince’s troupe—must take that trip into near-insanity. Significantly, the only human in the play to actually meet the fairies is the actor Bottom, whose name means “ass” and who, like the ancient shamans of prehistoric humanity, will wear an animal head in place of his own in token of his ability to revert to a lower level of being. Somehow the innocence of all true artists (which often gets them shot by dictators) gives Bottom access to what indeed lies at the bottom of things.

Not that Shakespeare has any romantic illusions about the forest—it is a dangerous, thorny, muddy place for us mortals, indeed, even terrifying and irrational. In a sense, the forest is death, or at least a little death. We lose ourselves there, to regain ourselves. The night forest’s powers are needed for civil society, but in controlled measure and as a final refuge. It is good to be in a law-governed daylight city, where we can see where we are and rationally decide what to do and be. The lovers must definitely return to it, and the theater artists, too, bearing with them the cognitive, moral and aesthetic fruits of their adventure.

So art becomes a journey, a shamanic descent into the underworld, where what was past becomes present and the pilgrim, like Orpheus, learns the tongues of animals, trees and stones. Art explores the older and inner levels of reality. As the quantum world becomes more familiar to us, artists will incorporate more and more of its mysteries into their art.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2012, Volume 29, Number 2