Senior Essay Showcase: Adna Arnaout (SF19)
April 4, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin
Adna Arnaout is a native of Bosnia. Her senior essay is entitled “To Be and Not to Be—Heisenberg’s Third Possibility: On physics as an art and a language immersed in the strangeness of nature in the quantum world.”
How did you decide on your essay topic?
Last year, I was a junior lab assistant, and we did electromagnetism in second semester. There was an experiment that we did in lab class—Thomas Young’s double slit experiment—that showed how light behaves differently, or how the theory about what light is evolves through the new experiments that come into light in the 19th century. That sparked my interest, but I wasn’t set on my topic until fall of senior year. We started reading things that had to do with uncertainty in science and how the further in the progression of modern science physics goes, it starts to resemble something like a liberal art—where our belief in an objective world is put to question and we can no longer claim with certainty that there is an objective world that the pursuit of science is after.
I just thought that was really interesting, mostly because in high school, I didn’t think that physics was that interesting. I liked reading, I liked novels and literature because I didn’t feel like, in physics, I could take lessons and apply them to my life or that there was a way in which I was a part of what was being done. But then quantum mechanics turns all that around and says the way in which we participate in the world and how we observe things changes the course of natural events. And I thought it was the strangest thing I’ve ever encountered in my intellectual life.
So what was the essence of your argument?
I wrote on Werner Heisenberg’s book Physics and Philosophy, and a few other works. Heisenberg, along with Bohr, is one of the leading physicists who are the founders of quantum theory in the 20th century. He is a proponent of the Copenhagen interpretation, which is nowhere articulated explicitly as a coherence theory for quantum mechanics, but Bohr and Heisenberg put forth a few postulates that say, for example, that our knowledge about the natural world is limited to the moment of observation. We have mathematical formulas and equations that serve as descriptions of the natural world, but we can’t speculate about ontology—or it’s not the job of a physicist to speculate about the ontology of the physical world outside of the moment of experiments.
I spend a large part of my paper describing how it’s just so strange that the scientific development goes back and forth. Some experiments show that [light] is wave-like, but then there are experiments like Einstein’s photoelectric effect that show it’s particle-like behavior. It’s strange, because there couldn’t be a compromise made, the development of quantum theory—unlike any other scientific theory that preceded it—couldn’t define light in one consistent way. There was a discontinuity is the way light behaved in different experimental circumstances. I thought that was mind-boggling,
Where does the philosophy come in?
It’s just a way into the deeper philosophical questions. A large part of the debate of the 20th century, and what we do at the college, is taking experiments and then looking at the philosophical implications. Heisenberg is one of the scientists that does that as well. The Copenhagen interpretation is interesting because it says our job is empirical science. We look at experiments, we have data. That’s what our concern is. But then, in this book that I was really drawn to, Physics and Philosophy, he says that we cannot separate our thought from empiricism. We cannot separate our thought from the results we get in our laboratories because in order to find a way to integrate what the implications of experimental findings are, we have to apply philosophy and even go as far as to suggest interdisciplinary ways of thinking.
In the first sentence of the book, Heisenberg says every science speaks in the zeitgeist of its time. He introduces us first to the practical applications of quantum theory and nuclear physics, but then he says in order to digest or metabolize what the consequences of such discoveries are, we have to think of it as a liberal art.
In an experiment in quantum theory and quantum mechanics, there’s no way to observe something without influencing it. If you look at an atom and try to observe or determine two properties of an electron—its momentum and its position—there’s no way to determine both of those. If you try to localize an electron on an electronic orbit, in order to localize it, you have to hit it with a photon—and one you do, it’s no longer in the same place. So there’s only ever a partial uncovering of what reality is. There are limits to how much we can know about the world.
It’s a large part of an overarching project of modernity, how we grapple with that fact—that the world maybe goes beyond our reach and there are only partial ways in which we can participate in it and examine it and make sense of it. A lot of Western thought is asking the question ‘How is the world commensurable with my mind?’ We can’t make definitive claims that aren’t prejudiced about reality in its totality. We can only participate in parts of it.
What was your writing process like?
I had a really lovely advisor, Mr. Wells, and I sent him an email early on and said I’m interested in writing about either Virginia Woolf or uncertainty in science. He was really accommodating and helpful. We met once a week from early October on.
During the writing period itself, I had a good routine. I wrote a bit every day and I was running outdoors. I think that helped balance the mind and the body.
What did the writing process teach you—beyond just subject matter?
What we do here is very rigorous, and I think I didn’t have a chance to see what my mind has done and what it has become until this project. We got all this time and space to just be with ourselves and with these ideas, these projects that we chose for ourselves. Ultimately, it was very rewarding, but it also made me see how inexhaustible the intellectual pursuit is, how it’s kind of bottomless and broad and deep. Our neural networks are just so fascinating, and I was in awe of how many avenues you can take with your mind and what you do with it.
[Before], I saw a contrast between literature and the humanities and science. I used to think of it as, like, ‘When science bores me, I’ll go read literature.’ But now I just see an interconnectedness between these disciplines more than ever before. It’s crystallized itself after these four years that science and art and language speak to one another and are perhaps even the same thing, just in different contexts.
Did it feel like a culmination of your four years in the Program?
From freshman year, I was just very rigorous with my approach. I think my work ethic came in handy. I just felt like this was the thing to do—do it fully. Devote yourself. Writing the paper, I was out of my comfort zone, but that made it even more rewarding. What we’re equipped with here is this kind of proficiency in and understanding of various disciplines that manifests itself in a synthesis of thought.
Are you glad you came to St. John’s?
I’m super glad I did. This year, I feel like my mind has evolved a lot. I feel like I’m grateful for the perspective I was able to embody throughout the course of this education. Talking to peers, it seems like this education is really unique. Over spring break, I went to the Louvre, and I felt at home there, because I was walking around and saw Athena and Zeus and I saw Botticelli’s paintings, and I knew about all the Greek myths and the gods and goddesses and I just felt proficient in the world.