Ideas and stories and things people said in recent days have swirled into a gathering cloud of something that in the parlance of Winnie the Pooh forces me to “turn to matters too hard for a bear of little brain.”
I prefer to do my deep thinking on my own time, but now and then I’m pulled into it by forces beyond my control.
It begins late on a Friday night. I’m nursing my third glass of Trader Joe’s best $4.99 Malbec and watching 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. Spencer Tracy is briefing pilots on a dangerous mission over 1942 Japan, noting that some of them won’t make it home. It’s a true story, so we know that he’s right; some of the men are captured or killed. From the viewpoint of Tracy’s character, whom and how many men is an unpredictable matter of random outcome, of luck.
But not really, not from our perspective, if you consider that a complex chain of physical events play out as causal ripples in time – The precise course and speed of each plane, differences in fuel consumption and piloting skill, the reception each crew met over its target and an infinite list of other variables large and small. Variables that trace their origins hours, weeks, years into the past, but all leading up to a moment.
I’m not suggesting that Spencer Tracy had such thoughts. He was overpaid for what amounted to an extended cameo in this movie. His affair with Katharine Hepburn had begun a year earlier. They say Kate was a bit of a handful during this period. So his mind was elsewhere.
Physicists say nothing, outside the spooky realm of the quantum, is random. Not even that last paragraph.
Take the lottery. Winners are determined by machines full of ping-pong balls carefully calibrated for size and weight to produce a “random” ball, which is customarily drawn from the hopper by an attractive, thirtyish blonde weathercaster named June or Pat or Jeannie.
But if you could somehow learn everything there is to know about the closed universe of the ping-pong machine, you could predict, know even, which ball would emerge.
“Random number generator” computer programs are based on human-made algorithms and cannot produce a truly random result.
The most compelling explanation of this principle was not penned by Heisenberg or Feynman, but Carter, in his classic X-Files episode Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. No spoiler alerts here. Check it out if you’ve not seen it. Streaming on Netflix. Just a warning that it will make you miss Peter Boyle.
On the morning after 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, I have to get something in the mail by noon. I can’t lay my hands on an envelope. My always-helpful wife appears, announces that she found a “random envelope” in a shopping bag. I examine this bag; it is from Best Buy and contains a hodgepodge of items, triggering an unpleasant memory of a somber teen Geek Squad Team Member breaking the news that my crippled laptop is beyond their science. That’s not the point. A predictable and causal chain of events led to that particular envelope being in that bag at that moment. Not random
But there’s more. The passage of time – the medium in which the shopping bag and the envelope traveled – is not real. Time can be broken down to units called chronons, discrete and indivisible. We feel that time passes because of a mysterious “smoothing” of these chronons.
Who, or what, is doing the smoothing, and why?
If you know, please leave me a detailed voicemail message with a callback number.
An old philosophy professor of mine, physically a cross between Abe Vigoda and a disheveled version of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, had a habit of rhetorically asking “But Could he have done OTHERWISE?” over and over and over until placing a revolver in your mouth seemed preferable to listening further. Winter Quarter. He wore a faux-fur Russian Cossack hat, which he never removed.
So I’m going to stop now. I couldn’t bear to learn that I caused you that level of annoyance.
Before I go, the blogging template I use requires that I check a box to categorize this entry. Filing now under Uncategorized, and Random.