Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the Subatomic Particles of Habits

Dear Mystique readers,

Today's blog post by author Ann Regentin comes as a treat.  As you all know I'm a chemist and adore the field of chemistry (of course when my work is going well its awesome). Well, when I was getting this post ready for the blog I had to smile at Ann's ability to make all the great stuff that I love about chemistry, even better and so practical to day to day life!

So without further ado............

I wrote earlier for Mila about the unexpected impact of trying to keep a time diary. The short version is that in an attempt at setting an earlier bedtime for myself, I kept a detailed record of how I used my time over the course of the day, under the assumption that in doing so, I would see ways in which I could make positive changes.

Not only did it fail, it backfired.  My carefully-designed charts were filled out, but my chores were done later and more haphazardly, as if the energy from putting the house to bed was being re-routed into the diary. It was the law of conservation of energy at work. I couldn’t create the energy to keep track of my time, so I had to take it from somewhere else, and something in me considered bedtime to be the most reasonable sacrifice.

Since I started that diary under the assumption that the process of observation would improve the habit, I was surprised to find the opposite happening. Then I remembered that observation itself doesn’t necessarily create improvement. It simply moves things around. Maybe the movement will be what we need, but we can’t guarantee that, and as with the energy reallocation problem, the phenomenon can be described by looking to physics.

Habits are much like atoms. On the surface, they’re simple and easily identified. A nitrogen atom is different from an oxygen atom, as the habit of going to bed late is different from the habit of eating or skipping breakfast. Habits are also like atoms in that they are made up of even smaller parts. Both atoms and habits have subatomic particles.

Subatomic particles are so small that in order to observe one, you must hit it with something and measure the results. Unfortunately, hitting one object with another will alter the position or velocity of the target, even when the objects in question are as tiny as an electron and a photon. We do have some control here. The smaller the wavelength of the photon, the more accurately you can measure the position of an electron, but you lose accuracy where velocity is concerned. Increase the photon wavelength, and you can measure velocity more accurately, but you’ll lose accuracy on position. Because you cannot help but affect an object when you strike it, in observing one property of an electron, you alter another, which can now no longer be measured as it was in its original state.

 This is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and physicist Werner Heisenberg stated it like this: “One can never know with perfect accuracy both of those two important factors which determine the movement of one of the smallest particles—its position and its velocity. It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.”

The particles of behavior and belief that make up habits are very much like subatomic particles. Things made up of them are everywhere, things we can see and touch, but the particles themselves are so tiny that we can barely imagine their existence, much less see them. They are so small that even light itself will have an impact. We often forget that light is a particle. It might not seem so when one turns on a flashlight, but when one gets down to things the size of an electron, the physical properties of light count.

A time diary is like light in this respect. It doesn’t seem like much, just a simple record of what you do during the day, but as with photons, it can have a greater impact than expected, an impact so profound that it changes the properties of what we’re trying to see.  My bedtime, in itself easily observed and identified, was made up of unseen particles of behavior and belief, and my attempt to get a closer look at them knocked them around quite a bit. I have a completely different bedtime now, which means that although I am clear on how I was using my time, other reasons why I went to bed when I did can no longer be observed as they were. Too many things have changed.

Still, the effort wasn’t completely wasted. Among other things, I learned that my bedtime isn’t just a decision to go to bed at a certain time. It has subatomic particles: a need for quiet work time, wanting to be awake when my teenaged son wants to talk, physical exhaustion problem, a difficulty keeping track of the passage of time when I’m absorbed in a task, and messed-up circadian rhythm from a few years of working nights. The trick now is to observe each little piece separately and carefully, with the understanding that as I watch, some aspect of it will change that can no longer be measured as it was in its original state.

Obviously, this is an imperfect simile, but I think it’s a useful one. Treating a habit as if it were a simple decision that lacks or demonstrates willpower can have results we don’t expect, because a habit is not a simple decision.  It’s a complex system of interrelated parts that fits in with other, similarly complex systems. My bedtime isn’t an isolated choice. It’s made up a handful of assumptions and behaviors, and in turn interacts with other habits, like when I make dinner, when I clean up after the birds, and even when I read. These habits, too, have their own subatomic particles.

My life, in this respect, is like air, something apparently simple is actually so complex it’s dazzling. Air is not a single substance. It’s made up of atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide and trace gasses, which in turn are made up of subatomic particles. Any action that might create changes in something like this shouldn’t be done recklessly. It needs gentle, careful observation, the most controlled impacts I can manage, incremental steps that take the smallest elements of daily life into consideration, as if I were a physicist measuring the properties of electrons.

My current project?  I’ve taken on the problem with keeping track of the passage of time, a far more modest undertaking. My watch alarm is getting a bit of a work-out, as I’m relying more on it than on my obviously crappy internal clock. It’s not as showy as those carefully filled-out charts, but it’s also not as disruptive.

Maybe once I get this one sorted out, I’ll know which gentle, careful, incremental step to take next.


Mila Ramos said...

Love it Ann, simply love it! hehehehehe

Ann Regentin said...

Thanks, Mila!

Jenny Twist said...

I once worked for a company which insisted that you kept a record of every single thing you did in the working day. We had to fill in a chart putting in a tick for every sales call, every interview, etc. Of course, nobody ever remembered in the heat of a busy working day, so we all filled our forms in after work, mostly by guesswork. I pointed out to my boss that all she was achieving was extra work and that the statistics were useless. I never got promoted