Thursday, November 8, 2012

Say my Name

These last few years I have been watching the AMC drama, Breaking Bad.  It's a guilty pleasure about a likeable, desperate man who, step by step, descends into depravity as he moves up the ladder in the local meth production and distribution business.  (I also think that I once owned that 1989 candy-apple red Jeep Grand Wagoneer his wife drives.  But that's another story.)

Our anti-hero, a rather brilliant scientist, does business under the name of "Heisenberg."  A shadowy figure in the drug world, the name of this post comes from a recent episode in which he taunted a rival, unsure of who he was dealing with, by insisting, "Say my name."  "Heisenberg."  Shivers.

As it happens I am a little concerned about what this is going to do to the reputation of the real Werner Heisenberg.  Most educated people will at least recognize the phrase, "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle."  Those with a little more knowledge of twentieth century physics will know him as one of the central architects of quantum mechanics.  And those with a little history will recall the controversy surrounding his having been in charge of the atomic bomb project in the Third Reich.  It was, presumably, the notoriety of that last job that led to his name becoming a pseudonym for a brilliant, scientific thug.

By a happy coincidence I have finished reading Heisenberg's memoirs this year, Der Teil and das Ganze.  It is surprising in a number of ways.  I won't go into the apologia he offers for his work during the war.  Some people have bought his explanation, others haven't.  What I find most interesting is the breadth of his culture, that characteristic which, before the world wars of the twentieth century, was most frequently associated with Germans.  His father was a professor of Greek.  He is a musician, and is good enough to have to defend to his friends his choice of following physics rather than a career in music.  He loves the outdoors, hiking not only in the Alps, but in Colorado (where, after having missed connections with Paul Dirac, he naps and wakes up face to face with a bear).

He is also well-versed in philosophy, defending the statistical nature of quantum mechanical laws against doctrinaire Kantians, questioning whether positivists truly understand the nature of the science that it is their boast to serve, and asserting that Plato, in his committment to the priority of form, and number, comes closest in expressing the true nature of reality.

And he is willing to grapple with the question of religion.  He is no conventional believer, but he cannot help but admit to belief in an overall order than makes science possible.  There is discussion among friends of Einstein's frequent invocations of Der Herr Gott, especially his famous maxim, aimed at the new quantum mechanics, "Gott wuerfelt nicht," "God does not play at dice"--to which Niels Bohr famously responded, "Aber es kann doch nicht unser Aufgabe sein, Gott vozuschreiben, wie Er die Welt regieren soll," "But surely it's not our task to prescribe how God rules the world."

There is little controversy, in the various reconstructed conversations (Heisenberg takes Thucydides as his model), about that overarching order.  But in one conversation, toward the end, the more arresting question is asked:  "Glaubst du eigenlich an einen persönlichen Gott?"  It it that "personal" that raises the stakes.  We are suddenly transposed, in Buber's terms, from an "Ich-es" to an "Ich-du," from a standpoint of knowledge to a position of encounter.  Heisenberg's response remains a tentative one.  If personality, knowledge, soul, conscious relationship, have arisen, in whatever way, in and between our own bodies, there seems little warrant to deny their possibility in the considerably greater and more complex totality of the cosmos--though our seeing and feeling that takes us out of the realm of science: 

קָרָאתִי בְשִׁמְךָ לִי-אָתָּה

"I have called you by name and you are mine."  And it is always uncanny to be called on to say the name.