The Physics of Fathers' Day
Quantum Ethics, Racism, and Grandpa Joe


Time passes.  Rolling into moments, you drive by a new fifteen-foot high sound wall situated to insulate the tract of homes behind it from you and other motorists flying by on the 405 Freeway.  It’s Father’s Day and your father who’s riding shotgun says,  “Is that wall to keep Mexicans out?”

He’s part of your pedigree  — an 83-year old wiseass — so you play it straight. “No, it isn’t, Dad,” you say.  “That wall is to keep sound out.” 

The body which does not move is said to be at rest — unchanging in time — stuck.  But stuck is an impossible state in the world of physics.  There’s no absolute frame of reference in that world — no nailed down point, place, or time.  Everything in the universe is moving.  Nothing is stuck — even your father’s comment which, although seems super-glued to the wrong place at the wrong time, is, in fact, accelerating through the cosmos — shifting and changing.

“You cannot accurately examine 19th century literature through 20th century eyes.”  You learned that in Lit, not physics.  The professor was stamping her feet on the classroom floor when she said it.  You knew exactly what she meant.  It had to do frames of reference and universal motion. What seems quaint now, was revolutionary in the past.  What seems the norm today, was the strange yesterday.  What is shocking now, was expected then.  Motionless (stuck) is also impossible in the world of letters.

You cannot accurately examine Euripides through Delilo eyes.  You cannot accurately examine yesterday’s stories through today’s news.  And you cannot accurately examine your father’s life through yours. 

All things are relative in the moving frame.  Unless you’re in the moment you can’t accurately examine the moment.   If you do, you’re creating a duplication, a simulation, a simulacrum.

Your father thinks that the Mexican wall comment is humor.  He thinks he’s not a racist.  You think you believe him.  He lived ages ago.

Back another step to another father, your grandfather, Joseph, would be easily identified as a racist today.  Joe couldn’t figure out why black people were in his neighborhood — just driving by as if they belonged there. Joe served as a detective on the Hollywood Police force in the 1930s and kept watch on what he called the “chocolate drops.”  That was the frame that he lived in.  At yet, you loved him very much and rightly so. 

Motion is measured by connecting a frame of reference to a body and gauging its change relative to another reference frame.  In physics, it’s relativity.  In Lit, it’s the post-modern condition.  Belief in this condition is not an issue.  It is here, whether we believe in it or not.

Our state of quantum ethics is a reason to not condemn our past and not condemn our fathers. Like the ancients said, “when you reach the top of the mountain, don’t curse the path that brought you there.”  You can’t accurately examine a 20th century father through 21st century eyes, and so on, ad so on.

That doesn’t mean your father wasn’t wrong.  Just that he was wrong in a way that you can’t accurately examine.  Better to ask in what way you’re wrong.  This is your time, after all.   Are you poisoning the air and waging war?  Are you wrong in some way far worse than being a racist or joking that a freeway sound wall is to keep Mexicans out?

The term motion signifies a continuous change in the configuration of a physical system.

We are all continuously moving even though it may seem like some of us are standing still.  Even as you focus on the frame you’re in, time passes.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast June 29, 2012

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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