Mind Shadows      Written on a Napkin at Starbucks: String Theory & The Familiar World

In his novel Remembrance of Things Past (now In Search of Lost Time) Marcel Proust explored time and memory through biting into a petite Madeleine, and he found in that taste the warmth of his mother’s bosom, the toss of his father’s head, both of them gone so long ago. Here in another time, another place, I sip my beverage and the latté carries me to an Iowa farm yard, its grass green under the bright sun, my father’s hand reaching down for mine, my mother’s red lips curved in a smile as she bends toward me. The moment passes and the world returns to Starbucks and I am left with a question. Airy nothing has conjured a local habitation and a name; in it I see people long dead, and feel my loss.

A taste can bridge past and present; it jumps across time. Yet science tells us that the days of trusting the senses are over. Today we have only data—the data for General Relativity and for Quantum Mechanics. The nose may reveal the bouquet of wine, the eyes tell the shape of a cloud and its color, but our senses cannot find the connection between the worlds disclosed by Einstein, Bohr, and others. Our intellects are caught between the universe writ large, the macro, and the one small, the micro. We know how each behaves but cannot join them. They simply make no sense for a Unified Theory. String Theory, one effort to unite them, is wildly removed from the world of ordinary sensation.

Yet, they once did meet, eons ago at the Big Bang. Quanta and gravity were there and exploded into space-time. Out of that pin-point explosion we arrived; out of no-time, we became a creature of time, out of no-space, we came into space, occupying left-right, forward-backward and up-down while we are thrust out of the past into the future. Back at the Big Bang, planets and particles, gravity and quanta, macro and micro, were single.

Our senses evolved to handle survival and reproduction, not to comprehend the universe. As Hamlet said to his friend, “There are more things under Heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.” Or as Prospero said, “We are such things as dreams are made on, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep.”

We are sleepwalkers, all of us. Dreams are what we have and we call them reality. Something there is, though, that tells me that those I have loved, and the pain of their passing, are more real than all the data. Data are what we have in place of our heart’s desire. We find cold comfort here. Maybe in another dimension we fully come to our senses. That possibility has just as much grounding in the familiar world as does String Theory.


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