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Quantum Mechanics and Literature: An…

Quantum Mechanics and Literature: An Analysis of El Túnel by Ernesto… (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Paul Halpern, Victoria Carpenter (Author)

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Title:Quantum Mechanics and Literature: An Analysis of El Túnel by Ernesto Sábato
Authors:Paul Halpern (Author)
Other authors:Victoria Carpenter (Author)
Info:Ometeca Institute (2012), Kindle Edition, 25 pages
Collections:Kindle, Read
Tags:non-fiction, literary criticism, physics, quantum mechanics, Latin American literature

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Quantum Mechanics and Literature: An Analysis of El Túnel by Ernesto Sábato by Paul Halpern (2012)

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Ernesto Sábato was a nuclear physicist before he turned novelist, so the premise of this monograph is not as far-fetched as it first sounds. Sábato was also an admirer of Jorge Luis Borges, whose short story "The Garden of Forking Paths" can similarly be seen as a literary exposition of quantum physics.

The authors begin by explaining the scientific principles involved. At the subatomic level, matter and energy can exist simultaneously in different physical states. The phenomenon "collapses" into one state or another at the moment it is observed. This gives the counter-intuitive appearance of the effect having preceded the cause. One implication of this is that time is not linear just because we perceive it as such. Further, the famous thought experiment called Schrödinger's Cat introduced the idea of quantum uncertainty at the macro level: the cat in the sealed box is neither dead nor alive until it is observed, but is in both states at once. This led to the notion of parallel realities or universes. All outcomes are not only possible, but real. Our experience is one, not of making things happen, but of choosing which reality we observe. As the authors point out, this has enormous implications for the concept of fate and predestination.

A close reading of Sábato's novel, The Tunnel, shows that there are three scenes in which cause and effect are hard to explain in conventional terms. First, María, an apparent stranger to Juan Pablo, sees a painting by Juan Pablo in which a woman is looking out to the sea. Later María writes a letter in which she describes herself as though she were, at that moment, literally the subject in that painting. Finally there is a scene in which Juan Pablo and María are together on the sea shore, which could have been when he painted her. But Don Pablo doesn't meet María until after she has viewed the painting. There is no way to arrange these three events chronologically in which the effect doesn't precede the cause.

Most readers will assume, as I did when reading The Tunnel, that María simply chose to imagine herself as having been painted by Juan Pablo. And when she has her first conversation with Don Pablo and refers to sad and tragic memories, we assume that this is something from her past that she will never disclose. Carpenter and Halpern theorize, however, that María's memories are of the future, when Don Pablo destroys their happiness, and the three episodes are not consecutive at all, but simultaneously existing in different planes of reality. Sábato most directly references the idea of choosing among alternate realities when he has Don Pablo speak of his life as "only one tunnel, dark and solitary, mine," while implying that others have choices in the reality they experience.

This is an intriguing paper, and given Sábato's background in nuclear physics, a very credible one. The physics are not as intimidating as I thought they might be, though I did have some background knowledge of such ideas as wave/particle duality and Schrödinger's Cat. The quotations from El Túnel are all in Spanish with no English translation, but this was an ebook, and the Kindle's translator took care of this. I think anyone who has read The Tunnel will find this monograph worthwhile. ( )
5 vote StevenTX | Dec 5, 2012 |
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