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Dan Sportiello | Thursday, February 18, 2010

It is a bad idea to read philosophy for 12 hours straight.
Trust me. Even before the words begin to blur together on the page, the concepts do so in one’s mind: phantom inferences flit back and forth across one’s vision, yielding syllogisms baroque and fantastical where before there were none. Before long, one is overwhelmed by strange hybrids — twisted things insisting that they cannot be and yet should have been.
I do not know whether steampunk originated in such a reverie — but I would not be surprised if it did, given that it came to obsess me on this darkest of nights without warning or reason. Steampunk is an obscure genre of science fiction birthed in the confrontation of information technology, punk rock and nostalgia that characterized the 1980s — a confrontation that yielded a postmodern dystopia in which cars and computers are made of brass and powered by steam, in which the struggle for empire sees the great powers field entire fleets of armored zeppelins, in which the likes of Darwin, Babbage and Maxwell sit in the House of Lords.
There is something immediately compelling about this surreal echo of Victorian Britain, with its paradoxical spirit of simultaneous rebellion and tradition — of change and permanence, of disintegration and order — something that goes beyond the image of my girlfriend looking rather fetching in corset and bustle: there is a part of me that longs for this impossible world, and I imagine that I am not alone.
It takes a long time for a culture to understand its science. Experiments and equations, of course, may well permeate college curricula immediately upon their invention. But there is a tremendous difference between undergraduates computing wave functions and the man on the street internalizing the fact that his whole world, and he himself, is nothing more than a shifting region of likelihood.
Yet there are always certain visionaries: Richard Feynman saw, and saw clearly, that the division of said man on the street into man and street was a falsification — that any quantum of either was entangled with every other quantum, that a certain ontological fuzziness was distributed throughout the system and bled into the world beyond. That reality was, at its most fundamental level, disjoint — and liable, just barely, to come apart without warning.
Albert Einstein, for his part, saw that there is no fact of the matter about the speed or mass of that man on the street as he walks, or even about the distance he travels and the time he takes to cross it. These things are, in other words, relative to the observer: two men walking at different speeds experience time and space and one another in radically different ways. And neither experience is to be privileged over the other: such quantities are merely the shifting veils behind which invariant reality lies hidden — different lenses through which the two men look upon a single fabric of four dimensions, warped and rippled in vast and intricate array.
Feynman and Einstein gave us quantum field theory and general relativity — sets of equations that allow us to quantify precisely the way the world comes apart on the smallest of scales and the way it holds together on the largest. And yet these are not new ideas: 25 centuries ago, Heraclitus held that permanence is illusion and that the world, thus, is nothing more than change and diversity — indeterminacy flowing like a river. Parmenides, for his part, held that change and diversity are illusions and that the world, thus, is one and eternal — a single seamless fabric onto which our disjoint experiences are but broken views.
These philosophies were not obviously compatible then. And they are not obviously compatible now. The world, it seems, cannot be both truly diverse and truly one, truly changing yet truly eternal. Scientists speak of a unified field theory — of a single set of equations that would show us how these two worlds are really one world — would so show us, if we could only discover it. For now, our undergraduates continue to compute wave functions and spacetime intervals, seeing their world through a glass darkly.
It is small wonder that we have not yet internalized this world — small wonder that we long for that of Victoria: hers is one that still makes sense to us. A century after the fact, we finally understand that world of steam and brass: surely, we insist, one might build a clockwork computer, a clockwork television, a clockwork battleship — all powered by sturdy coal, not silly uranium. We accept mechanism at last, accept Darwin, Babbage and Maxwell — now, when it is too late.
Every generation, no doubt, does the same: in a century, men will long for the contest of Feynman with Einstein — for a world of quanta and spacetime, a world that still makes sense to them. In the meantime, we can only struggle to understand that world, to leave behind the science of Victoria for our own — corsets and bustles notwithstanding.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his
second year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy. Listen to his radio show on WVFI every Sunday at 4 p.m. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.