Quantum Mechanics, John Dickson Carr, Yunnan

This week I will talk about mysteries, about parallel worlds and shadow worlds, about an existence beyond our every day life, about something better, more glorious and wonderful. In short, I will say something about Quantum Mechanics, John Dickson Carr and Yunnan Tea.

1. Quantum Mechanics

Quantum Mechanics is beautiful. It was the reason I choose to study physics. The fact that most other fields of physics I found exceedingly dull, was a source of great pain and torture during my studies. (I still have nightmares about my Electrodynamics exams).

Quantum Mechanics is beautiful. But in order to understand Quantum Mechanics (QM in short), you have to know quite a bit of the mathematics and physics behind it. Physicists still don´t agree on the interpretation of QM (i.e., how to put the maths into words), but they all agree on the mathematics to describe typical QM phenomena (mainly elementary particles doing wacky stuff).

Feynman does a great job in explaining its basic concepts in his book for laymen: “QED, the Strange Theory of Light and Matter“, but to be honest I doubt that someone without a solid background in the mathematics, will really understand what he talks about. (Still, his way of explaining calculations of complex numbers by means of weird operations on clocks is nothing short of brilliant.)

Let´s look at three basic QM concepts:

1. Entanglement (currently very much talked about in the investigation of quantum computers). Entanglement means that two particles, for instance two electrons or two photons (light particles) that have their origin in the same “quantum state” (for easiness sake, let´s say: a parent particle) will be entangled. In other words: the behaviour of one particle cannot be mathematically expressed without describing the other particle.
2. Uncertainty (undecidedness, would be a better word). Before one takes a measurement on a particle, certain quantum qualities (velocity, position, “spin” (let´s just think of that as an arrow that points in a certain direction)) of that particles are undecided. There are only “potential” values. Only at the moment of measurement, the particles “chooses” (with which we refer to the mathematical process of “taking the square of a sum of orthogonal complex numbers”) which value it is going to take, according to certain deterministic probabilities.
3. Pauli exclusion principle. When two electrons are entangled, one of the consequences is, that they cannot have the same spin. When measuring they will always have opposites spins (spin up/down or spin left/right).

(The “Feynman diagram” on the left, shows how a photon (a parent particle), creates an electron (e-)  and an anti-electron (positron) (e-, but with the arrow backwards). The electron and the positron are entangled.)

Taking these three ingredients together, first lead to the Einstein-Polanski-Rosen gedanken-experiment (i.e., an experiment which can only mentally (gedanken in German) be imagined), then to the Bell inequalities, and finally in the eighties to Alan Aspect´s experiment. Whereas Einstein (who did not like the non-deterministic aspect of QM) wanted to proof that Quantum Theory was still not complete (lacking a complete deterministic description of all particles), the Aspect experiment results showed that – as QM interpretations dictate –  particles indeed do “whatever they want as long as you don´t look at them” (here again, I am very liberally describing something much more complicated). Aspect basically did a lot of clever stuff by measuring the spins of two entangled particles under different angles (i.e., one in the spin up/down direction, the other one at an angle with respect to that axis, let´s say up*/down*). Then he measured the probabilities that certain combinations up/down* or up/up* would occur and compared them with predictions when assuming that particles “always know what they are doing” (classical physics) or assuming that particles “do whatever they want as long as you don´t look at them“, as QM predict. And Aspect´s experiment showed that the predictions of Quantum Mechanics are correct.

As a consequence, two entangled particles (i.e. not just any two particles, and certainly not all particles in the universe) will have some dependence on each other even while they are moving away from each other with the speed of light (which means that there is no way they can send a message to each other). Only after a measurement (i.e., any form of physical reaction (electromagnetic, nuclear)) a particle is a real, deterministic object.

QM is beautiful and I found it beautifully inmediately when I read about it because it threw such a different light on my personal life and on the entire human race, with all its art, cultures, wars, politics and religions. QM makes all of that look so futile, so small, so ridiculous. We are nothing. Personally, I find that one of the most liberating and beautiful facts about life.

Moreover, since the laws of QMs don´t follow human logic, it is like a door to something bigger than us. I don´t mean that in a religious way but, on the contrary, in a very mathematical way. We are like ants who can deduce, from the footsteps around us, that there things going on up there which we cannot see, only deduce. If I were an ant it would be such a delight to know that there is a strange world out there which does not depend on me at all. And it is even more wonderful to see how we, little ants, can deduce something of that bigger reality and even calculate parts of it.

This liberating sensation of how meaningless human beings really are, is the only thing it has in common with certain eastern philosophies which seem to say the same thing: we are nothing. I repeat that, to avoid misunderstandings: what they have in common is how they make me feel that we (me and you and all of us) are meaningless.

On the other hand, there is nothing beautiful about people who do not know anything about physics who misquote certain aspects of modern physics to make it sound as some kind of freaky Eastern sekt. So, no!: QM does not say that “everything is connected” or “all souls are one” or “the universe is holistic”.  Of course, anyone is free to believe all that, but don´t think it has anything to do with quantum mechanics. You can´t have it both ways: pick out of physics whatever seems attractive to you (I wish I could have done that when I studied physics) and use that to “proof” some “theories” that, in fact, are contradictory to physics, such as astrology, spiritualism, homeopathy, or insane quakery such as “quantum therapy” (WTF?).

Oh, and while we´re at it: Einstein never said “everything is relative” either. On the contrary, he said that (1) the speed of light is absolute and (2) the laws of physics are supposed to be absolute (which leads to an extension of Newtonian mechanics in which distances and times are not as absolute as we used to think.)

I am sure there are more myths about physics, but right now, I don´t remember them.  (The image on the left is by the brilliant Marcel Gotlib by the way.)

2. John Dickson Carr

I have written about detective-novels before. That piece of text was mainly to throw some light on the great Swedish writers Maj Sjöwahl and Per Wahlöo and drop some bricks on the ridiculously overrated Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. These are all writers according to the European detective tradition, in which social criticism has an important role.

John Dickson Carr (who also wrote under the name Carter Dickson), however, was an exponent of the traditional English whodunit, and belonged to what later was called the Golden Age of that genre. Other representants of that age and guild are Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesteron, and, of course, of course, Agatha Christie.

In his essay “The Grandest Game of the World“, John Dickson Carr explained very well that whodunits should always be judged on its own merits, and not on general literary criteria. This is even more true for whodunits than for other “genre-literature“, like science-fiction or espionage novels or more general detective novels (like the American or European variety mentioned before). Probably it has this in common with porn. They are both mainly meant to excite, albeit in very different ways.

Carr firmly believed that the main goal of the whodunit was the challenge between the writer and the reader. The writer constructs a puzzle and the reader will try to solve it. The writer tries to think of a particular new trick under his sleeves to outwit the reader and the reader tries not to fall into that trap.

It has some similarities with magic and it´s no coincidence that Carr had many friends who were magicians. And – just as with magic tricks – once the public figures out how it is done, it tends to feel deceived: in the end it was no magic but “just a trick“. Just a trick indeed, but it takes only a real master to come up with that trick.

John Dickson Carr was a master. So was Agatha Christie in her way, and her popularity is no miracle. But John Dickson Carr stands out in many ways when compared to Christie and others. First of all, his main speciality was the “locked room” mystery. The basic premisis of “the locked room mystery” is that a dead body is found in a room from which the killer could not possible have entered or, after the act, have escaped from. This might be because of locked doors or because of witnesses who were watching the doors (and windows and chimneys) at all time or for other reasons. Carr has come up with a lot of varieties on that basic idea: a dead body in a field of snow, and no footsteps around him, for instance.

The ingredients of his novels are:

1. Fair play. All clues for the final solution should be given. Carr´s stories are always full of clues. As he himself stated: a good detective story should not be afraid to show clues, instead, the clues should be openly stressed, the writer should “dangle them like a watch in front of a baby”.
2. A consistent plot. In the words of Carr again: “The fine detective story, be it repeated, does not consist of  ‘a’ clue. It is a ladder of clues, a pattern of evidence, joined together with such cunning that even the experienced reader may be deceived […]”.
In fact, in Carr´s books there are so many clues, that often halfway the book, some noble but not too smart policman or protagonist will come up with a seemingly plausible explanation of all the facts. “Ah”, thinks the reader, “that nails it!” But then, in comes the excentric detective, spilling ash over his vest, humming and hawing, mumbling incomprehensible mutterings and with a few majestic words wipes the entire explanation convincingly away.
3. Atmosphere. For a great deal, the thrill of the chase lies in the mystery and in the atmosphere. With Carr, dangers lurks in every corner, and even a raincoat hanging in a cabinet can be a threatning shadow, changing colours at the drop of a hat.
4. Ingenuity. A new brilliant idea to fool the reader with.

His books makes that one keeps on reading well after midnight because one cannot possibly put the book away until one has found out how it all works.

Take for instance the following excerpt from “He Who Whispers”.  A girl, Marion, is found in her bedroom, unconscious and in severe shock, with a gun in her hand that has been fired (witnesses have heard the shot). Later, her brother Miles tries to get the truth from the brilliant mastermind Dr. Fell:

“… she must have seen something! After all, she did fire a shot at it…”
“Oh, no, she didn´t!” said Dr. Fell sharply.
“But a shot,” insisted Miles, “was fired in that room when we heard it?”
“Oh, yes.”
“Then at whom was it fired? At Marion?”
“Oh, no,” answered Dr. Fell.
[…]
He looked at Miles. “I think – harrumph – I am perhaps puzzling you a litte,” he said in a tone of genuine distress.

And we can´t help feel just as puzzled as Miles when we read something like this. Passages like these hint at dangers even worse than a killer, an even darker, more terrible truth, just around the corner, not only threatening to kill but worse: threatening that the world does not make sense anymore.  The real enemy in whodunits is not the killer, it is chaos. It is the threat of nonsense, of an incomprehensible evil without sense, that makes one turn yet another page, even though it´s already 3 AM and one has to wake up early next morning. And then, in comes the blundering but brilliant Dr. Gideon Fell and takes the shrouds away and turns on the light. These last chapters, in which all is explained, give very much the same sensation as the last striking chords of Beethoven´s ninth symphony.

Now, of course, the man had flaws too, and a few warnings should be given. For instance, it´s better to stay away from his later books (especially those written in the 1960´s), in which he seemed to have grown tired of creating atmosphere or even decent writing (which he used to do very well in the 1930´s and 40´s). This often lead to embarrasing sentences like: “Calm! Calm! Calm” he said to himself. “I must calm down!” probably to invoke the sensation that the protagonist is not feeling very calm. Or he would let the host of a house welcome a guest in by saying stuff like:  “Welcome to our home. Here right in front of you see the stairs that lead to the bedrooms, two on the left wing and two on the right. On the side of the stairs you see the door that leads to the kitchen. That lamp that you will notice hanging there from the ceiling belonged to my father, who died 24 years ago, as you well remember.” Drawing a map might have been a better idea.

Another warning is that Carr´s political and moral ideas were very conservative, in some romantic 18th century way. But who cares anyway? One does not read crime fiction for political correct ideas and at least Carr´s were certainly not as cringeworthy or openly racist as many of his contemparies (and not just in detective fiction either). With Carr it does not go further than the fact that people from Southern-Europe end up either dead or guilty (normally they tend to be blackmailers too), socialists are milk drinkers and feminists only need more sex to change their terrible James Joyce-reading independent ways. I find it more amusing than annoying.

His novels from the 1930´s and the 1940´s (when he wrote almost two novels a year) were almost all brilliant. About half of them are with Dr. Gideon Fell as the amateur sleuth (and he is my favorite), and about the other half is with Henry Merrivale, H.M. (who is ok as long as Carr does not try too hard to make him seem funny). A few of his absolute best novels are:

1. The Hollow Man (in the US edition: The Three Coffins). The solution is absolutely crazy, but also wonderful and delightful. The atmosphere is grim all the way through, already in the first few chapters something truely horrible from the past is reveiled, and again: the final solution is crazy but wonderful. Ah, and it also contains an entire chapter in which Dr. Fell lectures on locked rooms.
2. He Who Whispers. The title is already great and the whole book is flawless. The solution is possible and sad and unexpected and beautiful. And Dr. Fell is at its best: mystifying, criptical but also human and clumsily and steadily fighting the demons that seem to be just behind the curtains.
3. She Died a Lady. A H.M. mystery. Again, a perfect plot, a well constructed story line and a really beautiful and tragic solution.
4. Poison in Jest. The plot is not the best, but the dark, bleak atmosphere, the sadness and terror that reigns within a disjointed family is very well done. And I love the excentric detective Rossiter, unfortunately only used in this book by Carr.
5. The Arabian Nights Murder. Carr sometimes tries to be funny, and it never really works, but this book is great, and really funny, because of the sheer craziness of all the clues, plots, traps and misunderstandings all over the place. On every second page, the entire story is turned around yet again, and only Dr. Fell makes sense out of it.
6. The murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. Based on the real historical facts of the murder on Sir Edmund Godfrey in 1678,  of which historicians still do not know who was the real culprit. Carr presents all existing theories, finds the flaws in all of them, and then presents his own solution. It really is a brilliant piece of work.

Enjoy the read. In the words of Dr. Fell: “Let´s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book”.

3. Yunnan Tea

It´s been a while since I drank Yunnan tea. Saturday, March 14 of the year 1998, to be exact. Just before going out to the Maloe Melo blues bar in Amsterdam. Strange moment to drink tea, you might say, and you would be right, but that´s neither here nor there. My point is that it´s been a while since I drank Yunnan tea. There is something very special about Yunnan tea.

I love all teas, Assam, Ceylon, Kenia, Japanese, or just normal English teabag brands (but never, ever, ever, try the absolutely terrible Spanish tea brands Hornimans or Pompidour, by the way. They are rubbish), but Yunnan is something else. It´s from China and like all Chinese teas its taste is more subtle than Indian teas. There is a moment, when one drinks it, that one forgets that one is drinking tea, or indeed that one is doing anything at all. A transcental moment of non-existence, is the sort of experience I am trying to get across here.

Also, at the Maloe Melo that same night, I met again a very nice girl who I hadn´t seen in a while. That was good too.

Yunnan tea. Remember that name.

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