Wigner has no friends in space

The title phrase of this post is taken from an article by Seth Lloyd that appeared on today’s arXiv, entitled “Analysis of a work of quantum art“. Lloyd was talking about an artwork in collaboration with artist Diemut Strebe, called `Wigner’s friends‘ in which a pair of telescopes are separated, one remaining on Earth and the other going to the International Space Station. According to Lloyd, Strebe motivates the work by appealing to the concepts of quantum superposition and entanglement, referring to physicist Eugene Wigner’s famous thought experiment in which one experimenter, Wigner’s friend, finds herself in a superposition prior to Wigner’s measurement. In Strebe’s scenario, both telescopes are aimed at interstellar space, and it is the viewers of the exhibition that are held responsible for collapsing the superposition of the orbiting telescope by observing the image on the ground-based telescope. The idea is that, since there is nobody looking at the orbiting telescope, the image on its CCD array initially exists in a quantum superposition of all possible artworks; hence Wigner has no friends in space. Before I discuss this intriguing work, let me first start a new art movement.

I was doing my PhD at the University of Queensland when my friend Aggie (also a PhD at that time) came to me with an intriguing problem. She needed to integrate a function over a certain region of three-dimensional space. This region could be obtained by slicing corners off a cube in a certain way, but Aggie was finding it impossible to visualize what the resulting shape would look like. Even after doing a 3D plot in Mathematica, she felt that there was something missing from the flattened projections that one had to click-and-drag to rotate. She wanted to know if I’d ever seen this shape before, and if I could maybe draw it for her or make one out of paper and glue (Weirdly, I have always had an undeserved reputation for drawing and origami). I did my best with paper and sticky-tape, but it didn’t quite come out right, so I gave up. In the end, she went and bought some plasticine and made a cube, then cut off the corners until she got the shape she wanted. Now that she could hold it in her hands, she finally felt that she understood just what she was dealing with. She went back to her computer to perform the integration.

At the time, it did not occur to me to ask “Is it art?” While its form was elegant, it was there to serve a practical purpose, namely to help Aggie (who probably did not once suspect that she was doing Art) in her calculation by condensing certain abstract ideas into a concrete form.

Soft Cube
© Malcolm Wright

Disclaimer: Before continuing, please note that I reject the idea that there can be a universal definition of Art. I further reject the (often claimed) corollary that therefore anything and everything can be Art. Instead, I posit that there are many different Arts, and just like living species, they are continually springing into existence, evolving into new forms, and going extinct. Just as a discussion about “what is a species” can lead to interminable and never-ending arguments, I posit that it is much better and more constructive to discuss “what is a lion”? Here, I am going to talk about, and attempt to define, something that might be called Science-Art, Technologism, Scientism, or something like that. Let’s go with `Zappism’, because it reminds me of things that supposedly go `zap’, but really don’t, like lasers.

So what is Zappism? Let me give some examples of what it is and what it is not. Every now and then, there are Art in Science exhibitions where academic researchers submit images of pretty things that they encountered in the course of their research. I include in this category colourful images of fractals, decorated graphs of pretty mathematical functions, astrophysical images of planets and stars and things, and basically anything where a scientist was just mucking around and noticed something beautiful and then made it into a graphic. For this stuff I would suggest the name “Scientific Found Art”, but it is not Zappism.

© Jonathan McCabe. An example of scientific found art.

Aggie’s shape might seem at first to fit the bill of found art, but there is a crucial difference: were the shape not pretty, it still would have served its purpose, which was to explore, in material form, scientific ideas that would otherwise have been elusive and abstract. A computer simulation of a fractal does not serve this purpose unless one also comes to understand the fractal better as a consequence of the simulation, and I’m not convinced this is true any more than one can understand a sentence better by writing it out in binary and then colouring it in.

Zappism is the art of using some kind of medium — be it painting, film, music, literature or something else — and using it to transform some ethereal and ungraspable Platonisms of science into things the human mind can more readily play with. Sometimes something is lost in translation, like adding unscientific `zap’ sounds to lasers, but this is acceptable as long as the core idea is translated — in the case of lasers, the idea that light can be focused into beams that can burn through things.

Many episodes of Star Trek exhibit Zappism. In the episode `Tuvix‘, the transporter merges two crew members into a single person, an incident that is explicitly explained by appealing to the way the transporter recombines matter. Similarly, Cronenberg’s film The Fly is classic Zappism, as is Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Indeed, almost any science fiction that uses science in an active way almost can’t help but be Zappist. Science fiction can still fail to be Zappist if it uses the science as a kind of gloss or sugar-coating, instead of engaging with the science as a main ingredient. Star Wars is not really Zappist because it is not concerned with the mechanisms of the technology invoked. Luke and Darth might as well be using swords and riding on flying horses for all the story cares, making it is more like Science Fantasy (Why do lightsabers simply stop at a convenient sword-length?)

A science fiction movie can always ignore inconvenient facts, like conservation of momentum, or how there is no sound in space. These annoying truths are often seen as getting in the way of good action and drama. The truth is the opposite: it takes a creative leap of genius to see how to use these facts to the advantage of dramatic effects. The recent film Coherence does a brilliant job of using the idea of Schrodinger’s Cat to create a tense and frightening scenario. When film, art and storytelling are able to incorporate physical law in a natural and graspable way, we are one step closer to connecting the public to cutting-edge science.

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 9.57.10 PM
Actress Emily Baldoni grapples with Schrödinger’s equation in Coherence.

On the non-cinematic side, Koen Vanmechelen’s breeding program for cosmopolitan chickens, Maguire and collaborator’s epic project `Dr. Brainlove‘, and Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest could all be called examples of Zappism. But perhaps the most revealing examples are those that do not explicitly use physical technology for the scientific motive, but instead use abstract ideas. For these I cite Dali’s Persistence of Memory (and its Disintegration) with their roots in Relativity theory and Quantum Mechanics; the book Flatland by Edwin Abbott; Alice in Wonderland by Carroll; Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Hofstadter, and similar books that bring abstract scientific or mathematical ideas into an imaginable form. A truly great work of Zappism was the invention of the Rubik’s Cube, by the Hungarian sculptor and mathematician Erno Rubik. Rubik conceived the cube as a solution to a more abstract structural design problem of how to rotate the parts of a cube in all three dimensions while keeping the parts connected.

Returning now to Strebe’s artwork `Wigner’s friends’, it should be remarked that the artwork is not a scientific experiment and there is no actual demonstration of quantum coherence between the telescopes. However, Seth Lloyd for some reason seems intent on defending the idea that maybe, just maybe, there is some tiny smidgen of possibility that there is something quantum going on in the experiment. I understand his enthusiasm: I also think it is a very cool artwork, and somehow the whole point of the artwork is its reference to quantum mechanics. But in order to plausibly say that something quantum was really going on in Strebe’s artwork, Lloyd is forced to invoke the Many Worlds interpretation, which to me is tantamount to begging the question — under that assumption isn’t my cheese sandwich also in a quantum superposition?

I don’t see why all this is necessary: when Dali painted the Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, nobody was scrambling to argue that his oil paint was in a quantum superposition on the canvas. It would be just as absurd as insisting that Da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa actually contained a real person. There is a sense in which the artistic representation of a person is bound to physics — it is constrained to some extent by the way physical masses compose in three dimensional space — but the art of correct representation is not to be confused with the real thing. Even Mondrian, whose works were famously highly abstract, insisted that he was bound to the true representation of Nature as he saw it [1]. To me, Strebe’s artwork is a representation of quantum mechanics, put into a physical and graspable form, and that is what makes it Zappism. But is it good Zappism? That depends on whether the audience feels any closer to understanding quantum mechanics after the experience.

[1] “The masses generally find my work rather vague. I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or that which I see) inspires me . . . but I want to come as close as possible to the truth…” Source: http://www.comesaunter.com/2012/02/piet-mondrian-on-his-art.html


4 thoughts on “Wigner has no friends in space

  1. Great write up! If the main purpose of this telescope was to do only this (which btw I don’t believe :P), then I’m impressed that Strebe pulled it off.

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