Nerdy jokes, The Uncertainty Principle + Side-Swiping


Somehow I’m only able to remember two jokes: 1) about Sam Clam & Fred the Lobster (which is well beyond and below the scope of this newsletter), and 2) the above [attributed here], which is a nerdy joke referencing Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which says that the more precisely a particle’s position is known, the less precisely its momentum is known, and vice versa.

In other words: when a scientist tries to describe an electron he can do so in terms of EITHER its location or speed. But not both simultaneously (unlike, for instance, a tennis ball). So if he’s able to say that the electron is moving at 2200 km/s, he has no idea where it is; if he’s able to say that it’s located within atomic orbital 1s, he doesn’t know how fast it’s moving. Note that this is different than the observer effect, in which the act of observing a system influences that which is being observed. With the Uncertainty Principle, it’s that electrons exhibit both particle- and wave-like behavior…so the scientist is studying what he wants to measure.

Therefore, what this joke riffs upon is a cop’s stereotypical line when pulling over a car for speeding…and the cheeky response by Heisenberg, who doesn’t know his speed but thereby knows his whereabouts. Kind of makes me want to give that response next time I’m pulled over;)

Take a moment and re-read the joke. Even funnier now 🙂
(And if you’re fully a physics nerd, here’s an extended version of the joke, featuring Schrodinger in the passenger’s seat).

It’s a wild concept that matter’s most fundamental fabric is soaked in uncertainty. Probability. Nothing definitive. Heck, even atomic orbitals are just mathematical functions that are used to calculate the probability of finding an electron there.

Take another moment. Let that last sentence marinate.

So you can see how the Uncertainty Principle makes waves—pun intended—in a scientific climate that would prefer to know that ‘x’ causes ’y’, and that the universe can be neatly labelled, categorized and otherwise explained according to the machinations of the modern mind. Heisenberg’s principle turned this paradigm on its head, as it essentially said, “maybe, perhaps, we don’t really know for sure.”  Which calls for me to post another uncertainty-related cartoon:


The ride becomes even wilder when you realize that this same uncertainty applies to you, too. Because a) you are matter and quantum and all that jazz, and b) even at macro levels, you can only know where you’re headed or where you are at any given point in time; your conscious brain can’t hold two thoughts at exactly the same time (…says Dr. S as she listens to music while typing this blog… but at any instant I’m focused on either this content or the music/lyrics).

Think on it: when your mind is present—focused on where you are right here, right now—you are attuned to your station of being, your position. You are captivated while watching your kid’s dance recital,  listening to your colleague, tasting the food on your plate, etc. Otherwise, when your mind is mired in the future: you’re watching your kiddo dance while thinking about what to eat for dinner, or sitting at your business meeting thinking about what to eat for dinner…or (finally) eating dinner, while thinking about what’s on tap tomorrow. Your mind is in motion.

So we are perpetually faced with the decision to be where we’re at and BE IN IT, or to focus on what’s coming next.

No surprise to anyone reading this cartoon that many modern minds speed on autopilot straight into the future.

Corollary: what I’ve seen lately in my practice is that, for those whose focus weighs heavily on the future, they feel stuck. Which seems paradoxical. But it’s not, because we can’t predict the future (note some probability of a related, future blog on probability); there are many possible outcomes for any given decision. And so it can be easy to get lost in the pro’s and con’s of each outcome. Especially as these outcomes are closely connected to a heavy load of should’s, shouldn’ts and the like. Thus, many decisions ahead = no decision being made at all.

And so you’re standing at the edge of the ocean knowing that you need to jump in but not sure how, and yet unable to move back to whence you came.

How, then, to move forward in a meaningful way: Choose one thought and decide to change it, a.k.a., it’s hard to make big decisions if you’re stuck perseverating over small ones. 

  • Let’s use negative self-talk (NST) as our example (of course, choose whatever works for you). Now, NST isn’t always blatantly obvious, i.e. you’re not necessarily walking around town thinking “I look awful today,” “I should be better/stronger/smarter,” etc. Many times, NST takes a more insidious approach, and reveals itself as a ‘negative’ story/emotion/thought that you would’ve liked to express outwards but—due to your propensity to stay ‘nice’ on the outside—you internalize the script, instead. For instance, a colleague (figuratively) throws you under the bus, and you meet her with 100% compassion and understanding of why…and then spend every morning for the next month waking up engaged in an internal dialogue of the things you additionally would like to say to her. And they’re not very nice. In this scenario, even though you think your anger is directed toward this individual…you’re actually taking it out on yourself…because the dialogue is happening nowhere except in your own head. So you bear the brunt of your own anger. This is a form of negative self talk…that you are tacitly deciding to do. And now that this super long example is our of the way (I see it frequently, so wanted to share in case a bunch of yous resonate with it too)…

  • Side-swipe it. In mid-air. Seriously. Catch yourself in the internal dialogue -> place your second- and third-fingers together and side-swipe the thought to the right (just as you would on your phone) -> think about anything else (e.g. color of the sky, the wall, puppies) until you feel confident that the NST is gone. Practice this airborne side-swipe right now. Easy-peasy.

  • And that’s it. The more you catch yourself in NST and side-swipe it away, the easier it will become. And your decision to shift mental gears will serve you in the face of even larger decisions that need to be made. Especially as you realize that the decision you made was ok. And that you’re ok. Which you are.

Remember: You’re always somewhere and moving through it. Therefore,  as both the quantum substrate and observer, you get to choose your focus—here or there. And (partly) because uncertainty rules the roost,  there’s no definitive right or wrong. It’s mainly about which state of mind serves your purpose at any given time. For what it’s worth: the more here I am mentally, the sooner I get there, and with less stress. Which leaves precious moments available to watch the all-important video of a man being slapped in the face by a seal holding an octopus.Stay seated and focused through the entire 4-second video: the seal-octopus complex moves fast 😉