A love letter to our cool, queer universe

When you learned physics in high school, you probably learned classical physics — a system of calculus-based relations and rules that are used to model several real-world situations, such as collisions, friction, circuits and the dreaded block on an inclined plane. Perhaps you fell in love with the subject for its ability to deeply and elegantly explain the natural world and chose to continue studying the field — be it academically or on your own time.

Eventually, you may reach a point where you’re instructed to temporarily forget about the classical view and now learn quantum physics, where suddenly things you didn’t think were abstractions become abstractions, some properties are fixed yet others can exist in infinite states, everything is highly discretized yet highly spectral, and everything has uncertainty built into it. You’re sucked into this world of confusion, unpredictability and adaptability, and you're given the daunting task of modeling such chaos.

This is not to say that classical physics is wrong. After all, principles of classical physics govern the majority of modern technology and infrastructure. But we now know that this view only models a certain portion of the world, and only at a more macroscopic level. As we approach a deeper level, we start to see an entirely new set of rules surface, and these rules seem to currently be the most successful understanding of our world with growing prominence in many modern inventions and innovations.

What I’m hoping to do here is draw a rough parallel between the ways we’ve historically thought about science and the ways we’re currently thinking about ourselves. In the above paragraphs, if you replace the “physics” narrative with “sexuality,” “gender” or other “identity” words, perhaps you might have had a similar experience of having a certain worldview challenged (even shattered) and struggling to find some semblance of individual “truth” or “knowledge” in a sea of perplexing and sometimes contradictory information. I chose to demonstrate this relation between science and queerness with physics in particular because the drastic shift from classical to quantum physics was historically ripe with conflict, and physics taps into something deeply fundamental and fearfully unifying. A similar case can be made in several fields of science that have undergone their own revelations and evolutions (sometimes about evolution itself). 

This is not to say that science “explains” social identity; science is incredibly far from revealing anything about personhood with the level of profundity we desire. Nevertheless, I think there's beauty in the universality of how scientific and social theories work have shifted toward models rooted in “fuzziness”, uncertainty and plurality, and that beauty needs to be named. The closer we get to accurately modeling the natural world, the more confusing and expansive our models become. The more adaptive our language around how we describe those models becomes, the more critical language itself becomes to preserving a model’s integrity, whether that language is rooted in mathematics or prose. The more intense our debates become about a model’s validity due to its far-reaching implications outside the sciences or the humanities.

Seeking to articulate the connection between the scientific process and queer existences isn’t new (Harvard even has an entire department dedicated to the subject). The most notable example of this is the acclaimed theoretical physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism. This theory rejects the notion of matter as “fixed,” instead defining it as a series of ongoing “intra-actions” (Barad’s term for interactions). In this way, Barad calls attention to not only the adaptive nature of the quantum world, but the fluidity of gender dynamics, and how our identities are highly shaped by our interactions with the world. While this philosophy has shared its course of debate, agential realism has served as a major tool in both gender education and particle physics.

On a less academic level, a few people have also looked to connect ideas from physics with their personal identity journeys, such as physicists Chanda Prescod Weinstein and Jessica Esquivel and queer activist Amrou Al-Kadhi. They make similar connections to how the “strange” ways we’ve been thinking about the quantum world have mimicked their own “strange” ways of finding their place in it. They make novel connections and abstractions to these seemingly disparate disciplines — like how the dismantling of binary in quantum computing parallels gender nonconformity, or how concepts like duality and superposition parallels a more fluid view of sexuality. 

Unsurprisingly, the comment sections of many of these works are riddled with hate speech asserting that this identity connection to science is “corrupt” and even “narcissistic.” While some of the connections these speakers make can be abstract, I think it’s made very clear in these works that the point of this kind of language isn’t to help you study for a physics exam but to gain an appreciation of scientific practice and potentially draw connections between distant concepts and real-world experiences. With metaphor being one of the first-line defenses for science communication, is it so “corrupt” to build metaphors from lived experience, accepting that those comparisons aren’t obviously perfect and being continually improved upon? If science is the most epic narrative of who we are, how things work and how we got here, what’s more beautiful than connecting your own story within that narrative — especially if it not only helps you remember science but also celebrate it? 

Light can be both a particle and a wave. Particles decay into new particles into newer particles every second until reaching a point of stability. The electromagnetic spectrum is vast and the only portion visible to us happens to be the rainbow (coincidence? I think not). And there’s a cat with questionable mortality! The more we learn about the world around us, the more we realize a universe that, like the late mathematical biologist J. B.S. Haldane once wrote, “is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Maybe to call all of these scientific phenomena “queer” is unsettling; maybe it’s even misinformative. Maybe a better word for it will come in the next decade. 

Maybe we’ll have to overhaul the entirety of physics, biology, chemistry or gender — yet again. At least for now, I think drawing connections between scientific and identity-centric disciplines is really cool, and enriches our framework for how we view the microscopic worlds that ultimately make us us. If anything, perhaps reconciling with the inherent chaos of our queer universe can provide some sense of comfort in navigating the internal chaos of our own personhood.

Monika Narain is a Trinity junior. Their column typically runs on alternating Thursdays.


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