The Dancing Wu Li Masters
By Gary Zukav
Who else out there, has carried a book around with them for twenty plus years, with the intention of reading that book, because it is really something they ought to read? That book for me, has been The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, first published in 1979 and subtitled – An Overview of the New Physics. Now I was never big on science at school, in fact I only did biology in my final years of school, because you had to do at least one science or math subject for tertiary admittance, and I failed that (biology not my TAE). In the years since I have developed a far keener interest in the non-humanities and I put down my adolescent indifference to the sciences, to the appalling teachers we had – repressed science types with no flair for teaching. In the intervening years, I have found a fulfilling passion for Richard Dawkins, the celebrated atheist and biologist, reading several of his enlightening books about selfish genes and blind watch makers (being a selfish bastard myself I could easily relate to those genes). I have also flirted with neuroscience and a number of studies of the human brain by a variety of scientific authors.
I suppose, however, I have read more of what they call pseudoscience than anything else, all those self-help authors who have picked up a scientific concept or two along the way, and expounded upon them for a book or ten. Deepak Chopra springs to mind but there have been many more, Wayne Dyer, Stuart Wilde, Ken Wilber, and the list could go on and on. What these authors were and are, are great communicators – able to deliver a concept with best selling aplomb. Gary Zukav, fits into this category, but the content of The Dancing Wu Li Master does not – physics of the non-Newtonian, non-classical sort, is not light reading.
The mystery of the sub-atomic world and its quantum mechanical behaviour has always appealed to me. Sure, the gist of it all, has leaked out into my world over the last thirty years and has conceptually influenced many of the seminars I have attended and many of those pseudoscientific books I have read. Still I wanted to read this account of it and I had carried this book with me for most of those thirty years. The fact is, it wasn’t even my book, as confirmed by the name inscribed in the fly leaf, it was an old girlfriends and I am not even sure if my appropriation of it was entirely mutually consenting – but this kind of things often happens with books doesn’t it? I had of course made several attempts to read the thing over the years, but a number of issues had prevented me each time. These stumbling blocks are clearly visible now in hindsight, but at the time were not.
Firstly, the edition of this book was a Fontana paperback, now yellowing with age, and the size of the type is highly sympathetic to the sub-atomic subject matter. I would begin the book and after struggling through a couple of pages, listing experiments involving excited atoms and a Danish physicist in 1913, I would begin to glaze over and squint at the black micro copy now dancing on the page. If I had also had a few glasses of wine with dinner, then the whole campaign would be very short lived and the petit paperback would find its way back onto the bookshelf; to be lost for another half decade or so.
Another little matter, or amusing literary device employed by the author, Gary Zukav, which I was entirely unaware of in my earlier unsuccessful stints at reading the book, was the fact that there are multiple chapters but they are all entitled Chapter One. So to the dilettante reader who makes only occasional forays into the book, one never seems to make any headway and when picking the book up again after a break is never sure where he is up to. This in combination with the seemingly nonsensical content of quantum physics is almost a guarantee of unreadability.
However, today, I stand before you as a new man who has now read an overview of the new physics. I did have to make a few changes in my life for this remarkable achievement to have finally occurred. My marriage break down and separation, was an important stepping stone I now see, and the following break down and separation from my subsequent lover was also a vital link in the chain. I would also posit, that my removal from all friends and acquaintances, was equally integral to creating the necessary ambience for the reading of this title. Not having a job, which could get in the way and distract from the level of concentration required, was another step in the right direction. In toto I would say that all of these things contributed to having the time and space to complete my reading of The Dancing Wu Li Masters.
It is an excellent and at times exciting book about a topic that is often imponderable and at heart indescribable. Quantum Theory is really a theory about the ultimately elusive nature of matter’s smallest building blocks. Very early on in the book we discover that these sub-atomic particles can be observed to be behaving as both waves and particles, but not at the same time. This immediately, for the first time since Isaac Newton gave us our classical world view of the physical nature of all things, created uncertainty; bona fide scientific uncertainty. What does science love to do in such circumstances? Name things of course, so we end up with Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle , which states that we cannot know both the position and the momentum of a particle with absolute precision. The more we know about its position, the less we can then know about its momentum. Our study of the sub-atomic world was taking us beyond what we knew as common sense and delivering us into an unknown realm of maybes. The book shares the shocking sentiment, this experimentally verified new physical reality sent into the established scientific world. Nothing would ever be the same again in that once rock solid scientific strata.
Quantum physics questions, and then dissembles, the once sanctified truth, which was the separation between the observer and what was being measured. In the old Newtonian scientific view, when and where an experiment was held, all things being declared, had no measurable influence on the outcome. Not so in the sub-atomic universe, as particles or waves appeared and disappeared depending upon the observer’s intention to observe. Zukav then begins to introduce the parallels with Eastern philosophical mysticism and in particular it’s understanding that language can never deliver experience. Similarly words and even mathematics cannot adequately convey what is truly happening on the sub-atomic level. All languages have their own symbology and rules which define them and thus make them unable to describe things that they were never designed to describe. So our attempts at understanding sub-atomic reality, our ability to picture it, are on par with languages attempts to describe mystical enlightenment or satori. This conundrum has been poetically referenced as to be like a finger pointing at the moon.
The Dancing Wu Li Masters are another poetic metaphor, taken from one of the many meanings of the Chinese characters utilised in the term Wu LI. They are used here to reference the possible nature of the sub-atomic realm, as a quantum energy field alive with dancing probabilities. The indications of the unfolding new physical realities of the quantum universe are tantalisingly mysterious, and mathematical equations and so called proofs are all pointing at something so much more alive with unforeseen possibilities. The book imparts a real attitude of excitement and infers that science, and physics in particular, has awoken after a long sleep of certainty.
One of the more interesting possibilities is the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, in this it is posited that when a particle appears in a certain place or behaves in a certain way, all the other possibilities occur simultaneously in other dimensions or worlds, rather than just not happening in this world. This level of unknown behaviour and reality is mainly possible because we are unable to perceive the sub-atomic world with our senses (the dark adapted eye apparently can detect single photons, but all other particles must be detected indirectly). Zukav is suggesting that the nature of existence is far more unpredictable than we once thought.
Humanities best loved and most well known scientist, Albert Einstein, graces the pages of The Dancing Wu Li Masters and we are informed of his importance to much of the new understanding of the quantum universe. Einstein himself rejected the pragmatic Copenhagen Interpretation of the new physics, citing its inability to represent all aspects of physical reality. He felt that a true theory needs to be able to interact with all levels of reality and that Quantum Mechanics may indeed be the best explanation for the sub-atomic realm but could not provide a one to one correspondence between reality and theory. The book is very illuminating when explaining Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, both the general and the special; it is worth reading for this alone. We all know Einstein as some sort of twentieth century celebrity but very few of us actually understand the ramifications of his scientific work. Basically he brought a fourth wall or dimension to our understanding of the universe, a space-time continuum, that alone shattered our age old assumptions built on Euclidean geometry. He questioned things, which had never been questioned before, and that is why he was able to come up with answers nobody else had. Of course much of what he achieved and gave us goes completely over my head but this book did give me a grasp of a few things.
A large part of the book is concerned with explaining how sub-atomic particles collide into each other and reform as completely new particles. This is what Zukav calls the dance and we hear a lot today about particle accelerators and colliders, including the giant one, CERN, in Switzerland. He explains how the colliding and accelerating of these particles is really all about creating mass, as sub-atomic particles have no mass at rest, and through this activity the quantum behaviour can be observed in an attempt to get closer to understanding the fabric of the universe. We have particles and anti-particles, photons, protons, neutrons, electrons, possibly gravitons, and the four forces known as: the strong force; electromagnetic force; weak force; and the gravitational force. Bubble chambers are used to capture the particle behaviour on photographic plates, as we chase the elusive tail of this mythical dragon, made up of sub-atomic matter.
I have used the Internet to check out the ongoing Quantum Physics journey, since the book’s publication, and there has been the discovery of the W & Z Bosun particles discovered at CERN in 1983 – which led to a Nobel prize for its discoverer in 1984. There is still talk of discovering Tachyons, once we are travelling beyond the speed of light, and we hypothetically think a lot about Gravitons too. So what has happened to the general zeitgeist of physicists since the publication of this book? Well not a lot as far as I can see, there still seems to be those (the majority) who keep their head down and don’t formulate the big questions and carry on like technicians, to borrow a defining term from the book, rather than as scientists in search of the answers to “what is the nature of existence?” But how the hell would I really know. The book is worth the read, even if it took me thirty years to scale it, and in a way it’s timeline is my timeline, as I first ventured out on the road to nowhere at about the same time. So if you have a little space in your life I recommend a dance with a Wu Li master.