This post is a contribution to the #twistedpair series instigated and curated by Steve Wheeler. The challenge is to write about an unlikely pairing that helps illuminate how we think about learning. The subjects I have opted to entangle are physicist Erwin Schrödinger and rugby player Jonny Wilkinson.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
— Robert Frost, Road Not Taken
is a mental activity,
a dream of souls,
without foundation, purpose, weight or shape.
— Jorge Luis Borges, Break of Day
Surely we dream the world, and ourselves into it. But to say that the world is illusion is not to say that it is not real, only that it is not what it seems (and who ever believed that it was?), that it is constantly becoming, constantly being made.
— James Sallis, Renderings
Trinitarian, or third-angle, thinking is always looking for solutions which can reconcile or illuminate the opposites.
— Charles Handy, The Empty Raincoat
Erwin Schrödinger, often afflicted with tuberculosis, was a regular visitor at a sanatorium near Arosa in the Swiss Alps. A Professor of Physics at the University of Zurich, he took the opportunity during a visit in the mid-1920s to exercise his mind while his body underwent its regular cure. Schrödinger conjured with ideas put forward by fellow scientists, Albert Einstein and Louis de Broglie. Early in the century, Einstein, when introducing the concept of photons, had posited the notion that while light is usually considered in terms of waves, in some cases it can behave as if composed of particles. In 1924, de Broglie had built on Einstein’s evolving ideas and proposed that all matter consisted of particles that can be considered waves. The challenge with which Schrödinger was confronted was to devise an equation that described how such waves moved.
Schrödinger’s solution was published in January 1926 in the first of a series of papers that year which advanced the understanding of quantum mechanics. His discovery and ongoing exploration of wave mechanics and atomic theory earned him international recognition, as well as the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933. Inevitably, his ideas did not always rhyme with other schools of thought, with other explorers in the field. For example, Schrödinger took issue with what became known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which was based on work by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, among others. In 1935 he devised a thought experiment to illustrate the problem he saw in their interpretation. In doing so he posed a conundrum with which scientists, philosophers and artists still grapple today: Schrödinger’s cat paradox.
In the scenario Schrödinger sets out, a cat is locked in a steel container. Free from interference by the cat, but also within the same container, there is a geiger counter contaminated with a small amount of radioactive substance, a flask of hydrocyanic acid and a hammer. The latter will break the flask if an atom of radioactive matter is released by the geiger counter. How does one know if such an atom has been released without opening the container? How does one know whether the cat is alive or dead? For a period, therefore, there is a superposition of states during which the cat is both alive and dead. It is only when the container is opened, and measurement, observation, is applied that this state of superposition collapses into one of two alternative states. The cat follows the fork towards either life or death. A continuum of alternative realities suddenly freeze-frames.
[Image credit: Schrödinger’s Cat, Christian Schirm, November 2011]
Let’s consider another freeze-frame, familiar to many English rugby enthusiasts. It is the evening of 22 November 2003. A ball bisects the uprights, kicked by a young fly-half with his right foot, the one he does not favour. England have just won the Rugby World Cup, defeating Australia 20-17 in the last moments of extra time. In numerous alternative realities, the kick misses, England never achieve the correct field position, someone knocks the ball on. The lottery of an unprecedented drop-goal shoot-out then looms. These are the vagaries of sport, illustrated again in the 2015 vintage of the Rugby World Cup in the quarter-final match between Scotland and Australia. There alternative realities see the referee award a scrum rather than a penalty to Australia in the last minutes of the game or decline to issue a yellow card earlier in the game. Another alternative sees Australian fly-half, Bernard Foley, kicking all his penalties and not allowing the Scots a scent of victory. In another quarter-final, one alternative sees all of Ireland’s injured players restored to full health, but still being outplayed and outscored by a rampant Argentina.
An individual all too familiar with the highs and lows of sport is Jonny Wilkinson, the fly-half who kicked that drop-goal in 2003. As a young man, Wilkinson was so intense, so driven to be the best he could be, that he found it difficult to enjoy that victory. In media interviews, he came across as a young soul tortured to the point of incoherence. He was in thrall to the pursuit of perfection, in his own words, ‘piling on layers of achievements’. But such a pursuit, ultimately is a fool’s game. If nirvana is ever attained, one’s notion of perfection fulfilled, then entropy soon sets in. Stasis is quickly followed by decay. The team of which Wilkinson was a member in 2003 was a good illustration of this. During their summer tour that year, England did the unthinkable, defeating the All Blacks on their home patch, holding out even when temporarily reduced to 13 men. Then, the following week, the English team went on to issue a masterclass in its match against Australia. The team then declined rapidly, rather than ascended, towards its World Cup victory.
The period between the World Cups of 2003 and 2007 was one of physical and psychic fragmentation for Wilkinson. One injury followed another. The running joke became which part of his body has Jonny Wilkinson not injured during the past couple of years? He became rugby’s Schrödinger’s cat: both/and. The record points scorer who was not adding to his tally. One of the most capped players, who was not winning any more caps. The national captain who was not captaining. The long pause was only temporarily interrupted by the occasional appearance for his club or the British Lions. Wilkinson fought the effects of depression. But he also read, he learned, he thought.
It was during this time that Wilkinson came across quantum mechanics. A rudimentary grasp, a curiosity for some of the Eastern philosophy that had attracted the likes of Schrödinger and Bohr, as well as many of their Modernist contemporaries in the fields of art and science, led him to Buddhism. The fragments formed a whole again. Wilkinson reassessed what was important. ‘Just shed the layers, go back to the beginning, stop viewing everything I do in comparison to others.’
Victories can happen. Injuries can happen. They both did. But the non-player became a player again. He featured in another World Cup final, losing to South Africa this time around. He moved to France, playing club rugby for Toulon, blossoming as both a rugby player and a more rounded man. 2011 saw him sharing a stage with a Nobel Prize-winning physicist talking, in fluent French, of his interest in quantum mechanics and Buddhism, reflecting on the effects they had had on his life. 2014 saw him retire as a rugby player, having just led Toulon to its second consecutive European champion’s title, as well as the French league title.
Wilkinson’s discovery of the work and ideas of Schrödinger and his contemporaries did not transform him into a Nobel-winning scientist. If pressed, it is likely he would confess to grasping the essence of some quantum theory rather than understanding it in its entirety. What is illuminating about his encounter with the quantum world, however, is the way it gave him pause, made him rethink his approach to life, prompted him to follow his curiosity. This is the essence of lifelong learning. The constant acquisition, processing, internalisation and acting out of knowledge and experience. An open invitation to have our worldview challenged and expanded upon.
A fixed viewpoint – a single line of thought – can be a trap – where we see only what we’re looking for. Blind to other possibilities.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening
We can provide many examples of verifiable phenomena, such as the particle/wave duality of certain entities, that seem to contradict the manner in which experience tells us the world works.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity
In the quantum world, everything is potentiality, a lottery in which outcomes depend on who (or what) is running the show.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge
For Fichte, the mind of God is in everyone. Similar notions led Schopenhauer to Eastern philosophy; Schrödinger and Bohr followed later. People highlight parallels between quantum theory and Buddhism, forgetting those similarities were built in from the outset.
— Andrew Crumey, Mobius Dick
Increasingly, I am inspired by Buddhist philosophy. I want to understand more about who I am and why I seem to be fighting against the world I live in instead of working with it. In order to do that, I realise I need to learn more empathy, and be more flexible with my views and my values.
— Jonny Wilkinson, Jonny