The Beauty of Uncertainty & Chaos

The Beauty of Uncertainty & Chaos

What first attracted me to physics was how nice and predictable it was.  You could use the kinematics equations to predict exactly where a ball would roll off the table, and as long as you chose a dense enough ball for air resistance to be negligible, Ta-da!  The ball fell in the cup.  Once you understood the language of mathematics, could turn words into numbers, you could predict how nature would behave.  For an ambitious student who loved to plan, whose life vision was a constant refinement of a decision made at the age of 5 (teacher->physics teacher->physics professor), I found tremendous comfort in the predictability and order of the universe.

The last day of my freshmen physics class, this simple worldview was blown out of the water by a day long teaser discussion on special relativity.  Sure, my teacher debunked the twin paradox (where you could send a twin on a super sonic spaceship and he’d return to earth younger than his land-loving counterpart) as an incomplete analysis of the situation, and thus not a paradox.  But still, the day left me full of questions and a little bit angry, “How could quantities as fundamental as space and time be measured differently for different observers?  How can the perceived storage of energy depend on your reference frame?  How can basically everything be relative except for the speed of light?!?!”

Well that led me down the worm hole, so to speak, and reading about special relativity inevitably morphed into learning about quantum mechanics which turned out to be even more frustrating.  Supposedly, you couldn’t even determine the most basic properties of a subatomic particle and the process of making the measurement affected the outcome.  If you tried to make a confident measurement of position of a particle, you’d lose information about its speed and moment.  Even more frustrating, our measurement abilities couldn’t be attributed faulty apparatus, it was an intrinsic property of these tiny particles.  Instead of absolute outcomes, the best you could do was speak in probabilities, probabilities that are affected by initial conditions, nearby particles and the actions of the observer.  For someone who loved knowing things, predicting things, planning things, quantum mechanics was deeply upsetting.  A “shut up and calculate” approach got me through my college courses but anytime I slowed down to think about things, the idea that the universe wasn’t innately knowledgeable disturbed me.

It disturbed me until I realized that it corresponded with reality much more accurately than a predictable Newtonian universe.  Despite all my planning and micro-managing my life aspirations, the vision rarely corresponds to reality.  The universe isn’t always a logical progression of cause and effect.  Life is random, and a lot of the time, the best you can do is predict that one outcome is more likely than another, based on certain initial conditions.  You can adjust your behavior to maximize the chances of achieving something, but life can always interfere.  Certainly, trying to predict the behaviors of other people is nearly impossible, and if they know you’re observing them, that will almost certainly impact their actions.

A different perspective... Auckland sky tower.

A different perspective… Auckland sky tower.

The real revelation wasn’t realizing that a quantum mechanical view of the universe made intuitive sense but it was recognizing the beauty in unpredictability.  This took much longer, probably not until I started traveling longer-term, when I dealt with uncertainty and chaos on a daily basis, when a lot of my expectations for my life were turned upside down and replaced by new dreams.

“Perfectionism is merely an endless treadmill of self-destruction that’ll only build momentum until you’re running at unsustainable speeds.  Rather than remaining a slave to the illusions you perceive as safe, step off the treadmill and live as the piece of art you are: messy, colorful, fluid, adaptable to change, mistakes, shifts, surprises, pain and of course immeasurable moments of beauty.

It is there, outside the enclosed walls of perfect self-imprisonment that you shall touch the meaning of freedom” -Victoria Erickson

Life was so much more fun when I embraced opportunities as they arose, took advantage of serendipitous encounters and spent time enjoying life instead of waiting to control it.

“Our anxiety doesn’t come from thinking about the future but from wanting to control it” -Kahlil Gibran

Rarely were the highlights of my trips hitting the tourist attractions that were on the itinerary I designed for myself.  Instead, it was accepting a daughter’s invitation to learn to make dumplings from the Chinese lady who barely spoke English on the Singapore subway.  It was hopping on the back of “Rasta Roberto”‘s motorcycle in El Salvador and enjoying metaphysical musings as he shared his piece of paradise.  It was spending two weeks sailing with a guy who I met because he hadn’t updated his couch surfing location.

“Sometimes, we are so attached to our way of life, that we turn down a wonderful opportunity simply because we don’t know what to do with it” -Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

The beauty of travel is it removes the blindfolds of routine so you can make space for these types of experiences.  When you’re alone and feeling adventurous, it is easy to exploit this flexibility, and have magical experiences as a result.

What is a bit more difficult is bringing this same flexibility back home, when your alarm clock rings at the same time each morning, when getting to work involves moving from Point A to Point B and google maps has already optimized your route and when there’s deadlines to meet.  I think routine can easily lead to boiled frog syndrome, where life slowly deteriorates until all of a sudden, the water is boiling and it’s too late to do anything about it.   I’ve found mixing up my daily life by purposefully injecting some randomness and spontaneity (some of which I wrote about my last post) can help guard against that.  Little shifts are adequate when life is generally fine, but when most aspects of your life are unfulfilling, a bigger shift is required.

How do you go about making long term plans for a significant change while still allowing uncertainty to work its magic?

Planning for Uncertainty

Even though a quantum mechanical view of the universe undermines our capabilities to know certain things for certain, understanding probabilities allows us to make reliable predictions.  Our modern technology rely on it (lasers, MRIs, transistors and so much more).  So giving up the idea of a perfectly knowable universe doesn’t mean you can throw up your hands and blindly proceed without a plan.  Instead you have to manipulate initial conditions in your favor and maximizing the chances of “planets aligning”, so to speak.

I’m almost four months into “real life” in Auckland and find many aspects of my current existence quite unsatisfying.  Realizing that my daily existence has become a perpetual countdown to the end of the work day, end of the work week, the next vacation has caused me to wake up and think about how I can create a life I want to live again, not just something to survive.

“Wherever you are, be there totally.  If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it or accept it totally.  If you want to take responsibility for your life, you must choose one of these options and you must choose now.  Then accept the consequences” -Eckart Tolle

I decided to make a change.  The exact form of the change involves three plans, and the actual outcome might involve a linear combination of multiple plans, or something else entirely but the thought of moving toward something different is energizing.  There’s a plan to make work more challenging and satisfying if I stay, there’s a plan for the near future if I want a change for the sake of change and there’s a longer term plan to work toward something that I think could be deeply satisfying.  Well, “long term” is relative because planning for the “future” these days is mostly thinking about how to get through the next two years.

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?  10 years?”

This was a question I was always able to answer with confidence.  I confess I thought it was crazy how many people entered college “undecided”.  “Why should you pay $40k a year for self-discovery?  Why can’t you just pick something practical and get it over with?”  Even worse were people who studied things but didn’t know what they wanted to do.  “Why would you invest thousands of dollars for an education with an uncertain future?”, I thought.

And here, I am, 28 years old and suddenly, I hate that question.  It’s not that I don’t know what I want, because the past five years, I’ve collected a mind-blowing number of experiences, engaged in a lot of introspection and self-reflection and vicariously sampled all sorts of lifestyles through couch surfing and deep conversations.  It’s just now I’ve reached a point where I prioritize things like flexibility, meaningful human connection, variety, disorder over values that correspond to typical jobs.  If you’re just looking to achieve a certain salary, or given amount of vacation time, or a prestigious title, there’s a tangible path to finding careers that fit.  I’d happily take a pay cut to do something that I find more meaningful, but how do you go about finding a job that “feels right”?

South Africa loving.

South Africa loving.

My current stragety is to create options and opportunities.  My life, to this point, has benefitted from having tangible goals and milestones (getting a PhD, staying employed) but at the same time, some of the most rewarding and interesting opportunities arose out of chance meetings and hobbies I didn’t take too seriously (getting bored in graduate school led to freelance writing gigs that continue to appear three years later, frustration at a sexist boss at nerd camp turned into applying for a summer job with Duke University that didn’t look like it was going to work schedule-wise but that turned into getting a teach position in India that I didn’t apply for, followed by more opportunities in China, etc.).  I don’t get too invested in defining success as achieving a particular outcome, but instead I try to open as many doors as possible and stay patient (which is hard for me!) and persistent.  For example, a posting on the physics education list-serve alerted me to a post-doc position in South Africa.  Visa and logistical difficulties made it unrealistic to accept that position, at that time.  While I could dismiss the time I spent in the country investigating the position as a waste or a failure, it resulted in a free trip back down to Cape Town to give a talk at local universities, which was also a bit of a “failure” because of bad timing with student protests which made it impossible to give a formal talk or visit the campuses.  But, now a random email (from a list I shouldn’t be on) alerted me to Fulbright Scholarships that could allow me to return to South Africa. Sure enough, the situations of many of the people I met on my previous trip have also evolved to create an amazing opportunity to hopefully connect the dots on South Africa Take 2.  Life these days is more about having ideas, planting seeds, making connections and not being satisfied feeling stuck and powerless.

Enlightening piece of street art in Auckland CBD.

Enlightening piece of street art in Auckland CBD.

Chaos and Context

Remembering my high school self, it’s amazing how thoroughly I’ve embraced a more  unpredictable view of the universe.  Maybe this descent into chaos is inevitable, the second law of thermodynamics predicts that the disorder of the universe always increases.  But even in my research, traditional modes of teaching are being overturned. No longer is it enough to create amazing powerpoint slides, recite a prepared speech and give a “good” lesson that runs as planned.  I’ve been spreading the gospel that instructors have to give up their role of “dispenser of knowledge” to creating thought-provoking tasks that encourage conversation, critical thinking and to empower students to challenge authority.  My research on creating radical educational change says it’s not enough to come up with a revolutionary instructional innovation, publish fantastic learning gains and expect people to use it as designed.  Instead, people are best persuaded to change their behavior through conversations with their peers and they are more likely to use materials that they can adjust to their local context.  Researching human subjects is always difficult, but the last few decades of research focused on simplifying and reducing the situation to sweeping generalizations for the sake of “clean science” and straight-forward experiment designs.  When you acknowledge the interactions of humans with their environment, when you acknowledge that how they adapt your educational innovation, when dive into case studies that celebrate the complexities and context-dependence of human behavior, things get messy really fast.  Now I’m moving into complexity leadership theory where traditional views of leaders as directing organizations to a clear outcome is being replaced by something more complicated and chaotic.  This theory argues that in our knowledge era, problems are increasingly less well-defined, future states are unpredictable and full of surprise.  Instead of leaders intervening and making linear process, this model of leadership encourages emergent self-organization by encouraging their employees to interact, exchange ideas, and interact in ways that produce perpetual novel ideas and unintended outcomes without the intervention of a central controller.  No one knows all the answers these days so the idea of a leader with a perfect vision and infinite capabilities no longer exists.  The real skill is harnessing local talent, connecting and combining different ideas, sometimes purposefully causing tension and strife to create something more radical and far reaching than any one individual could orchestrate on their own.  Life is a context-dependent, collaborative affair and it’s nice that research is starting to acknowledge those important factors (despite the difficulty in dealing with them in scientific studies!).

I guess literature that explicitly recognizes the value of random interactions, novel ideas, progression toward uncertain futures somewhat justifies my new approach to life planning.  It also makes me determined to return to a more chaotic place, because instability, some unrest, highly interactive places are where great ideas are born.  One of my favorite authors, Eric Weiner recently wrote the Geography of Genius which explores how physical surroundings can aid or impede innovation.   He travels to places and talks about the history behind creative outbreaks like Vienna of 1900, Florence during the Renaissance, ancient Athens, Song Dynasty in Hangzhou the Silicon Valley of today.  A lot of this innovation happens after difficult, transitory periods, when new nations are interacting, or on the tail end of war, famine or widespread disease.  He concludes that three ingredients help promote radical creative thinking:

 “Three D’s: disorder, diversity and discernment.  Disorder, as we’ve seen, is necessary to shake up the status quo, to create a break in the air.  Diversity, of both peoples and viewpoints, is needed to produce not only more dots but also different kind of dots.  Discernment is perhaps the most important, and overlooked, ingredient.  Linus Pauling, the renowned chemist and two-time Nobel Prize winner, was once asked by a student how to come up with good ideas.  It’s easy, replied Pauling.  ‘You have a lot of ideas and through away the bad ones.'” -Geography of Genius, Eric Weiner

While that book gave me 87 more ways to articulate why my creative juices have practically dried up in New Zealand and why an isolated, stable, rural nation will never be the location of the next Intellectual Golden Age, I mostly brought that up as more evidence that disorder can be a good thing.  Sometimes darkness, upheaval and destruction are necessary for productive rebirth.  Maybe you can avoid some pain and confusion by stubbornly following some plan.  But while the plan may lead to a satisfactory existence, great things rarely happen without struggle, discomfort and random influences coming together in ways you don’t expect.

Disorder in China is easy to create... have a bunch of white people stay in one place and cause a traffic jam

Disorder in China is easy to create… have a bunch of white people stay in one place and cause a traffic jam as people embrace the photo-op

To go back to a physics analogy, even quantum physicists are starting to realize the utility of discord in quantum computing.  Experimentally, it is challenging to create the pure states necessary to use quantum entanglement productively.  As a creative alternative, scientists started playing with discord, how much a system can be disrupted when people observe it to gather information.  Observation doesn’t affect macroscopic systems so discord would be zero but quantum systems are affected because measurement causes them to settle in a superposition state, giving a positive value for discord.  Instead of trying to run experiments based on entanglement of pure states, pairing a pure and imperfect qubit, while calculating a measure of discord could give an economic alternative.

“It was not at all clear why that should work,” says White. “It sounded as strange as saying they wanted to measure someone’s speed by measuring the distance run with a perfectly metered ruler and measuring the time with a stopwatch that spits out a random answer.”  –The Power of Discord

Preliminary results were positive but in practice, dealing with imperfect qubits makes things mathematically difficult so I’m not sure how pervasive this idea is in modern quantum computing, but nevertheless, I thought it was neat.  Just another reason to celebrate imperfection!

In Conclusion

“The worst thing you could do is tame the chaos in you.  It’s like being told not to feel when you’re thrown in the fire” -r.m . drake

My apologies if this post got a bit technical in places.  Even though I feel a bit adrift now and uncertainty isn’t always comfortable, I wrote this post to describe something that my high school self would have never have understood.  And to tell people who are unsatisfied with their lives, that making a change, without having a clear picture of where you’re going, is probably better than doing nothing.

Society (especially a Western worldview, I think Eastern philosophies have recognized the value of disorder for centuries) sometimes makes us afraid of the unknown, and consequently, we blind ourselves to things that could make our lives exceed our expectations.  Instead of investing all your energy into planning a future that can’t be controlled, focus on living and staying open to the opportunities that surround you.  What feels like a failure at the moment might just be a late bloomer, waiting to make itself known when timing improves.

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems
don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the
best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.” — Gilda Radner

Book of the Moment: Marjorie Moringstar by Herman Wouk (novel exploring the adventure of the American Dream… pretty irrelevant to this post but nice)

Songs of the Moment:  Are You With Me?– Easton Corbin & Make A Change– Nahko & Medicine for The People

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  1. Jimmy Foote
    Jun 9, 2016

    I enjoyed the physics twist – nice to see your degree in action! Although there is significant resistance, many of the same principles you articulated regarding creativity are begin infused within the corporate world (also presented the inspiration for myself to go off on my own).

    • Katie
      Jun 9, 2016

      Yes a lot of the literature I read on Leadership is from Business and Organizational Management fields so I know a few people in your fields are starting to change their modes of thinking and recognize the value of disruption, diversity, etc. Good for you for trying to recognizing it. You go, bro! Haha, thanks for reading!


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