^z 10th January 2024 at 8:25am

Quantum mechanics is the science of the small. More precisely, QM deals with the details of systems at a level of precision such that the mere act of observing is itself recognized, quantitatively, as disturbing what's being observed. That's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in a nutshell.

Recently the HUP came to mind in a rather unusual context. In Book III of The Aeneid (which I'm reading for the first time — yeah, I'm slow) Virgil describes the cave of the Sibyl of Cumae. From the 1965 translation by Frank O. Copley:

Once set down there, move on to Cumae's town,
her hallowed pools, Avernus' rustling groves.
There you'll find a prophetess: under a cliff
she sings of fate and writes her runes on leaves.
The leaves, with their recorded songs, she lays
in order and stores them deep within her cave;
they stay in place and never change their sequence.
But when some door is opened and a breeze,
the merest whisper, stirs the fragile leaves,
they flutter all over the cave. She never tries
to catch them, sort them out, or match the lines.
Men leave no wiser, and curse the Sibyl's see.

That's such a wonderful image of the chaos that a tiny disturbance can produce, and how it can grow to make the future unknowable.

My copy of The Aeneid came from the local library's used-book sale. Before I chose it I browsed several editions and checked the style of translation on a random passage, to find a version that seemed readable and in harmony with my preferences. In the classic 1697 John Dryden translation, for example, the same verses as above are rendered:

Arriv'd at Cumae, when you view the flood
Of black Avernus, and the sounding wood,
The mad prophetic Sibyl you shall find,
Dark in a cave, and on a rock reclin'd.
She sings the fates, and, in her frantic fits,
The notes and names, inscrib'd, to leafs commits.
What she commits to leafs, in order laid,
Before the cavern's entrance are display'd:
Unmov'd they lie; but, if a blast of wind
Without, or vapors issue from behind,
The leafs are borne aloft in liquid air,
And she resumes no more her museful care,
Nor gathers from the rocks her scatter'd verse,
Nor sets in order what the winds disperse.

More "poetic", but probably a bit farther from what Virgil (aka "Vergil") wrote; my Latin is negligible, but here are the lines:

Huc ubi delatus Cumaeam accesseris urbem,
divinosque lacus, et Averna sonantia silvis,
insanam vatem aspicies, quae rupe sub ima
fata canit, foliisque notas et nomina mandat.
Quaecumque in foliis descripsit carmina virgo,
digerit in numerum, atque antro seclusa relinquit.
Illa manent immota locis, neque ab ordine cedunt;
verum eadem, verso tenuis cum cardine ventus
impulit et teneras turbavit ianua frondes,
numquam deinde cavo volitantia prendere saxo,
nec revocare situs aut iungere carmina curat:
inconsulti abeunt, sedemque odere Sibyllae.

(see also AlignedMinds (9 May 1999), QuantumNondemolition (5 Feb 2000), ... )

TopicLiterature - TopicScience - TopicPoetry - TopicLanguage - 2004-05-29

The more mathematics-averse among us like to think of this as the Hawthorne Effect! –ANS

(correlates: BowelsOfTheEarth, BirdlessSilence, ElegantTechnologies, ...)