Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Physics Fridays with Fuchs: A Wonderful New Slant On the Story

Every Friday during the month of March, This Side of the Pond will feature correspondence drawn from Coming of Age With Quantum Information: Notes on a Paulian Idea, a collection of more than 500 letters between physics luminary Christopher A. Fuchs and his friends, mentors, and other pioneers in the field. This Friday our hero flies with the stars, reads Borges, and turns his “psychotic side to thinking about acid” in a letter to an old friend.

Letters to David Baker

14 August 1999, “Rampant Repine”


And the boredom overtook us . . .

Guess what I’m doing again? (Buzz like a bee.) I’m scheduled for an early arrival in Los Angeles in a little over an hour. What I hate about that is that I always get my hopes up only to have them dashed: inevitably an early arrival leads to sitting on the runway for extra time. It never fails that there’s another plane still parked in the scheduled spot. Two seats in front of me is Hugh Grant, the actor. (For real, escorted on and everything.)

Have you ever read Borges? I bought a collection of his short stories while I was living in Canada, but I hadn’t really sat down to read it until now. I read “The Garden of Forking Paths” the other night and really enjoyed it; it was quite eerie.

Lately too I’ve been turning my psychotic side to thinking about acid. Namely, how it must induce certain kinds of connections in the brain that aren’t normally there. And similarly how it must suspend other ones that we normally rely upon. Is it a priori obvious that that sort of rearrangement of the brain would be a bad thing? We’ve always been told that it is surely so, that it suspends our function in society. But I’ve been wondering what might happen if we took a large community (whose transportation is based on the bicycle rather than the car!) like Amsterdam, and surreptitiously gave the residents a small dose of acid in their water supply for something like five or ten years. Would anything interesting and permanent crop up. The acid-eaters would in this case not be isolated in society (as they always have been in the past) but would be the complete community. What form would that community evolve into? What form would their art and literature take? And most importantly for me – i.e., the real reason I’m thinking about this – what form would their scientific investigations and insights start to take? What would they be able to see in systematic ways that we cannot see at all? Could they capture in a scientific way, whole aspects of the world that we are just blind to? Would they in their discussions ask (fruitful) questions about nature that would never have occurred to us?

There’s a lot of reasons I’ve been thinking about this. But one certainly takes its roots in a slide that I use in some of my talks. It’s a chart of the raw genetic differences percentagewise between various species of animals. I have both man and dog marked with a yellow marker. The wonderful thing is that there is only an 11% difference between the two species!! We’re so accustomed to thinking that mankind is the pinnacle of creation – and surely we are – but how this hints at a wonderful new slant on the story. This difference in intelligence and understanding that we (subjectively) suppose as almost infinite, might not be infinite at all. In reality it might itself only be 11%. How wonderful that would be!

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