I’ve been enjoying the Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (Three Rivers Press, 2005).
Most of us don’t think of the Dalai Lama as scientifically inclined, but his small book is fascinating – and suggests that he knows something about physics! My interest, though, has been in how his insights about physics and Tibetan Buddhism might apply to my writing fiction. Imagine the splat when I fall off that tightrope. (Oh yeah, I forgot: For Buddhists, there’s no tightrope, or more to the point, there’s no me to fall off. Therefore, no splat.) However, he notes a couple of fun physics facts that actually do relate to writing.
First Fun Physics Fact
- In 1906, J.J.Thomson won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery that electrons behave as particles. Twenty-one years later, J.J.’s son, George Paget Thomson, won the 1937 Physics Nobel (shared with C.J. Davidson of the United States) for demonstrating experimentally that electrons behave as waves. (I’d love to have listened in to the dinner table arguments in that family: “Dad, you’re a fossil: They’re waves!” “Listen, you young whippersnapper! They’re particles, darn it!”)
The quantum physicists, of course, just shook their heads, reminding everyone that whether an electron is a particle or a wave remains unresolved until the moment when someone actually tries to measure the pesky “wavicle” (or Schrodinger’s alive-or-dead cat, for that matter). At that moment, the electron (or the cat) becomes one or the other, depending on the kind of measurement. In other words, the nature of the phenomenon depends on how some physicist interacts with it. Put another way, the nature of a thing depends on the nature of the things interacting with it.
The Dalai Lama (whose monastic name is Tenzin Gyatso) reflects that the reality of a thing “is contingent upon our language, social conventions, and shared concepts” (Universe, p. 63).
“You say po-tay-toes, I say po-tah-toes.”
Or less flippantly, for people who possess specific skills and experience, things are real and visible that, to those without those skills and experience, are invisible, even unknowable. For instance, a dermatologist sees a tumor where a lay-person sees only a freckle, or a fishing guide sees fish in the water that a rookie can’t. The nature of things depends on how and by whom they are perceived.
Asanga (300 – 370 C.E.)
Second Fun Physics Fact
- Remember Albert Einstein’s twin paradox? One twin takes a twenty-light-year trip in a space ship at nearly the speed of light, while her twin stays on earth. When the space traveler returns, her twin is twenty years older than she is. Learning this, the Dalai Lama writes, “reminded me of the story of how Asanga [a Buddhist saint] was taken to Maitreya’s [a future Buddha] Heavenly Realm, where Maitreya dictated to him the five scriptures . . . all in the time of a tea break. But when he returned to earth, fifty years had passed.” (Universe, p. 59). Obviously, Asanga was taken in a spaceship at the speed of light.
Fun Physics Facts Applied to Writing
What do these fun physics facts mean for writers? Both facts speak to the interdependence of beings, whether they are big beings (the twin humans or Schrodinger’s alive-or-dead cat) or little beings (the electrons). Every thing that is depends on other things. You can’t be a wave-like electron unless some physicist is measuring you. You can’t age at a particular rate unless you live in a world that requires that rate of change.
And the opposite works too: Change one thing, and you change the rest of things. The change may be subtle, but it’s real. Remember the famous butterfly whose wing-flutter in Shanghai eventually affects the weather in New York? If you’ve ever lived with someone in chronic pain, you know how your own life is affected even though you’re not the one in pain.
“Get to the point,” you’re thinking. “What about writing?”
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953 C.E.)
Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” Nothing stands alone, not even a poem, a novel, a memoir, a science text, or an essay. And equally, every poem, novel, memoir, or text of any kind depends on the writer and the world that shaped and continues to shape that writer.
In a novel, every character has – or should have – what I call a transactional (that is, an interdependent) relation to other characters: They need to contribute something to or receive something from each other – and they must also contribute to the story itself as well as being shaped by that story. Every thief must have a victim, every lover a beloved, every action a reaction.
Scenes, too: Successful scenes live in an organic relationship with their surrounding scenes. They proceed logically, clearly, and appropriately in an unfolding order that makes sense to the reader and carries the story forward. Seems elementary.
It is elementary, my dear Watson.
The twins’ aging processes depend on the environments (Earth, or a speeding spaceship) they inhabit. The environment in which an electron is measured determines whether it manifests as a wave or a particle. It’s the same in fiction. In another post, I’ll write about how this applies to non-fiction, but here I’m homed in on fiction. (By the way, my wife, Michele, asked, “Why did you write ‘homed in’ instead of ‘honed in’? I told her that the Grammarist web site says that “homed-in” is preferred about two to one in North America. She said, “I guess that depends on how it was measured, eh?”)
Anyway, characters are shaped by their life-worlds (which include both the other characters and the world they all share), and in turn, they shape the life-worlds of other characters. My lead character in Climbing the Coliseum, Ed Northrup, is a depressed psychologist in a small ranching town. He’d never fit in a Dickens novel or in The Scarlet Letter, nor would he work in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Ed has adapted to life in the small town and the mountain valley — he’s been shaped by them — and in turn, he influences all the characters he meets there.
Of course, a great way to generate tension and conflict – which are the drivers of story – is to place Character A in a world for which she is entirely unsuited. Robinson Crusoe, anyone? Our two Fun Physics Facts show us why: It’s because the out-of-place character and the environment that stresses her are interdependent that their interaction creates the tension that in turn drives the story.
Every piece of good writing embodies this interdependence of beings and their worlds. How do I know?
J.J. and his boy George told us so.