I’ve been rereading ‘Madame Bovary’ and am struck, all over again, at how Flaubert lets us draw our own conclusions about Emma Bovary’s actions, without forcing any ‘morals’ down our throats.
Flaubert was one of a set of nineteenth century writers, along with others such as Zola, who were very influenced by the rise in science and who saw himself as a sort of human and/or social experimenter. Many other writers have also consciously seen themselves in this way. Brecht commented that he conducted experiments on audiences with his dramas and spoke of turning the theatre into a laboratory.
‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn can be seen as an experiment in the way it repeats variations of the real-life conversation between Heisenberg and Bohr in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, in a repeated attempt to understand what really happened at this meeting. But, literature isn’t really the same as an experiment? In ‘Copenhagen’ the audience is presented with different versions of the events but we never get to understand what really happened, and why. But that’s not the aim of this particular experiment. What we’re left with is an understanding that it is fundamentally impossible to know what happened that night in Copenhagen, despite all the written records.
That understanding is a satisfactory result of this dramatic experiment. It doesn’t matter that this experiment cannot really happen, that it’s only acted out for us. It’s actually a perfect example of a thought experiment.
Thought experiments have a long pedigree in science. They’re best characterised as hypothetical experiments which we can imagine, but which we’re not able to perform. They allow us to set up a scenario and think through the repercussions. Einstein, influenced by the philosopher and physicist Ernst Mach, was a whiz at developing thought experiments. Some of the best ones (such as imagining a person riding on a beam of light) show how his theories developed from considering everyday objects such as clocks and rulers. They also provide the most accessible illustrations of the ramifications of his theories, without having to wade through all the maths.
As twentieth century physics became more esoteric and abstruse, physicists became more and more reliant on thought experiments to illustrate the implications of their work.
The most famous of these thought experiments; Schrodinger’s cat, was developed as a reductio ad absurdam by Schrodinger to criticise the bizarre, and clearly to him wrong headed, ‘standard’ interpretation of quantum physics. In this experiment a cat is locked in a box with a vial of poison. After a fixed amount of time, depending on a random process, the cat will either be killed by the poison, or not. But according to quantum physics, until we open the box, observe the cat, and therefore measure the outcome of the experiment; the cat is in a superposition of quantum states and is both dead and alive.
This experiment is not about to be performed in any laboratory soon. It doesn’t need to be. Thought experiments are a beautiful use of imagination in science. They allow the scientist to imagine ‘what if?’ This is precisely the question that fiction writers ask. Just because the results aren't scientifically provable doesn't mean they're not true.
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