If Nobody Is Looking - Poem by gershon hepner
If nobody is looking, is the moon still there?
Perhaps the reason that it seems to shrink
is that we are not always looking where
it ought to be. What we assume we think
has simply got to be the case, facts on
the ground like those we study in the sky,
though every thought is an ephemeron
that shrinks until we ask the question: why,
and disappears like objects in black holes
unless we see it as a source of wonder
till we lose sight of it like aureoles
around the moon or lightning after thunder.
Inspired by Dennis Overbye’s obituary of John A. Wheeler, the physicist who coined the term “black hole”:
In 1976, faced with mandatory retirement at Princeton, Dr. Wheeler moved to the University of Texas. At the same time, he returned to the questions that had animated Einstein and Bohr, about the nature of reality as revealed by the strange laws of quantum mechanics. The cornerstone of that revolution was the uncertainty principle, propounded by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, which seemed to put fundamental limits on what could be known about nature, declaring, for example, that it was impossible, even in theory, to know both the velocity and the position of a subatomic particle. Knowing one destroyed the ability to measure the other. As a result, until observed, subatomic particles and events existed in a sort of cloud of possibility that Dr. Wheeler sometimes referred to as “a smoky dragon.” This kind of thinking frustrated Einstein, who once asked Dr. Wheeler if the Moon was still there when nobody looked at it. But Dr. Wheeler wondered if this quantum uncertainty somehow applied to the universe and its whole history, whether it was the key to understanding why anything exists at all. “We are no longer satisfied with insights only into particles, or fields of force, or geometry, or even space and time, ” Dr. Wheeler wrote in 1981. “Today we demand of physics some understanding of existence itself.” At a 90th birthday celebration in 2003, Dr. Dyson said that Dr. Wheeler was part prosaic calculator, a “master craftsman, ” who decoded nuclear fission, and part poet. “The poetic Wheeler is a prophet, ” he said, “standing like Moses on the top of Mount Pisgah, looking out over the promised land that his people will one day inherit.” Wojciech Zurek, a quantum theorist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said that Dr. Wheeler’s most durable influence might be the students he had “brought up.” He wrote in an e-mail message, “I know I was transformed as a scientist by him — not just by listening to him in the classroom, or by his physics idea: I think even more important was his confidence in me.”
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