Rearranging furniture with the light switch – or why people teaching quantum physics deserve a hug

This summer I read Karen Barad’s ‘Meeting the Universe Halfway’. I could hug this woman simply for writing the following sentence:

‘…For example, we don’t notice the furniture being rearranged in the room when we turn a light on in a dark room, although this is strictly the case’ (Barad, 2007:108).

This took me back to sitting in Physics class at school. We had to do one of those boring force calculations where a motorbike rides the inside walls of a cylinder or followed up by calculating gravity in relation to how moons go round planets (you can see I’m not very good at this) etc.
Apart from being bored by the dull ‘boy typed’ imagery of a motorbike going round inside a cylinder, I thought: ‘I don’t think the world is like that. I don’t think that I as a school kid can just sit here and calculate exactly how things work in the universe.’ After much struggle, I did the boring calculation anyway and went up to my teacher and told him just what I had thought then. He looked at me with a raised eyebrow and said: ‘You are right, but you will have to wait till your A-levels where you can take classes in quantum physics – there you will find out how things really work. At least what we know about it so far.’ I was quite excited about that, but lost further interest in the physics we were currently taught. I actually managed to stay with Physics until A-levels, albeit with really bad marks (why invest energy in something that’s not the ‘real thing’ anyway?).

Finally, a few years of boring classes later (in a bizarre way the teacher did a good job at keeping me interested enough in the subject to stay on), I was ‘doing quantum physics’. Luckily, with a new teacher who I did not have to associate with motorbikes in cylinders. I felt extremely excited and could not wait to learn what had been kept from me for so long (remember, those were the days with no wikipedia/internet, and I did not get what people said about quantum physics in my parents’ ancient encyclopaedia, so I had to be patient). And I was rewarded, indeed: I took to the subject, like a fish takes to water. Finally, the world was as weird as I had always felt it must be. And the physicists ‘doing it’ were, too (my physics teacher recommended to me that I read Feynman’s biographies)! I was happy – and my marks went up.
The rest of the class suffered the opposite effect – they hated it: all the certainty was gone, all ‘common sense’ intuition, too. I have to admit that I quite revelled in this feeling, because I was usually smiled upon as a dreamer who was good at languages and ‘arty things’ (and who went to school in bat or astronaut costumes), and now I could stick my middle finger up at the ‘rational guard’. Yes, the furniture is being rearranged when we turn on the lights – and that is great! :D

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2 thoughts on “Rearranging furniture with the light switch – or why people teaching quantum physics deserve a hug

  1. I know this blog post is almost a year old, but I agree that Karen Barad is wonderful, so I need to upload that opinion, for the sake of the Internet. And motorcycles in cylinders sound dull, I agree, and I never really wanted to be that kind of boy, either.

  2. She is so true to her subject, and I agree that there is too much
    concern upon language (eg. philosophy and feminism) and not
    enough attention towards metaphysics.

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