Upon the occasion of her solo exhibition, Stella Zhong spoke with quantum physicist Damon Daw about time, probability globs, and the physicality of consciousness, July 2022.  

Stella Zhong: Our earlier conversation went from picturing the spring between an electron and proton that can generate energy or result in transparency depending on how it absorbs, deflects or passes light through, to questions around religion, cosmology, consciousness, dimension…When thinking about atoms being the fundamental building blocks of matter, I think about how they are also codes that store history and numbers that articulate relationships, and that our bodies are made up of these atoms. I study physics in my own dumb fun way, but I am particularly fascinated by quantum mechanics—phenomena like entanglement and superposition—because it seems to be able to anchor everything firmly in physical entities no matter how abstract a concept is.

I keep returning to my note: “atoms well localized,” taken from when you defined what a solid is. I am curious to think more about the idea of “local” in relation to transformation, relativity, space. Perhaps we could start with expanding on the definition of “solids?”

When thinking about atoms being the fundamental building blocks of matter, I think about how they are also codes that store history and numbers that articulate relationships, and that our bodies are made up of these atoms.

–Stella Zhong

Damon Daw: The idea of something being “local,” or more generally, the idea of “locality,” is a deep one because it immediately forces us to consider what location is, which is essentially asking what space (spacetime) is. Honestly, to most physicists the answer to this question is that space is not separable from the time.

The most straightforward definition of localization is that something is localized at a point in space if, with respect to some coordinate axis, the location of that thing doesn’t change (appreciably) with time. Look at the diagram below for a two-dimensional space with a cool star localized at coordinates that are 1.5 meters to the right of zero, and 1.2 meters above zero and the vector representing the location drawn in black.


The zero of a coordinate axis is always arbitrary—this is an important, very fancy sounding idea called translation invariance! This is what I might call the “operational view” of localization—a thing is localized if it makes sense to assign a fixed coordinate to it with respect to some zero and while this view is very useful, it isn’t very deep in a fundamental sense.

But anyway, I AM a physicist that thinks about the fundamental nature of spacetime! I side with Leibnitz, Mach, Julain Barbour, and to some extent Einstein, on the nature of spacetime as, fundamentally, a description of the relationships between events, and something like a “location in space” is only defined with respect to other things in the universe. So for something to be somewhere, to be localized, it needs to have relationships with objects around it that don’t change appreciably with time. For instance:

∞———A — B — C———∞

If we make up a couple simple rules for our alphabet universe I just created above (I am all powerful!), we can get a simple notion of relational spacetime. Say that letters can’t move through one another because they are all fixed to a wire and they can only slide back and forth on this wire that is infinitely long in either direction. One way of talking about location in the alphabet universe would be to say something like “B is between A and C because A cannot move and make contact with C without B preventing it and the same goes for C.” This isn’t exactly location, since B could be ANYWHERE between A and C, but it’s an intuition pump that gets the basic idea across.

So, a solid is something that is made of atoms whose relative locations don’t change appreciably in time because the atoms push and pull on each other and each atom doesn’t allow its neighboring atoms to get too close or too far away. BUT, we need to remember that a thing can be a solid one second and change states of matter to something else depending on what is going on in the environment. The forces that atoms exert on one another can only hold on so hard—if you hit a solid or heat it up sufficiently you can cleave, crush, dent, melt or evaporate it.

SZ: I have a hard time thinking about time in the context of quantum mechanics. In my mind, it feels like time doesn’t apply at the atomic-subatomic level. I guess that’s probably wrong and it’s just the limit of my ability to grasp? For example, reading about superposition makes me think about being or moving between multiple states in position/distance but taking no time.

Simultaneity comes to mind.

DD: I really like all these ideas! And your intuitions about time acting a little funny in the quantum realm are spot on. There is an issue in quantum mechanics (QM) called the problem of time. It basically amounts to this: using QM allows us to answer questions like, “If I put an electron next to a proton, how will the average velocity and average position of each particle change?” QM allows us to calculate averages (called “expectation values” in physics lingo) of the velocity and position of a particle, for example, and things like position and velocity are called “observables” in QM. An observable is essentially any quantity that can be measured (observed) in an experiment. Strangely enough, time is not an observable in QM! This is actually imposed on the theory by mathematical constraints that all observables must obey. This means that it is mathematically impossible to find a variable in QM that acts like time does in classical theories.

Essentially, this means that it doesn’t make sense to ask a question about a QM system like “how much time has passed?” For example, if we trap a single atom in an experiment and try to perform a measurement on it to figure out, “on average, how long has the atom been trapped here?” There’s no observable that corresponds to the atom’s “time,” so it’s not a well formed question to ask in QM (as far as we know!). One can always use another system that acts like a clock—a cyclical process that records its ticks—to act like a clock. If there’s another atom in the system, we could use that other atom as a clock but no QM system has an inherent “time” that is measurable.

SZ: I’m picking up on “average,” that there are no definite values but general tendencies or probabilities. I connect this to the fact that atoms don’t have hard edges. And we were talking about how we have never directly seen an atom, and that atoms are defined by wave function which—please correct me if wrong—is basically a probability field. Atoms, in our current ability to see, are fuzzy globs of…air? space? emptiness?

DD: You’re getting to the very basement of issues in QM…called the measurement problem. We can start talking about this and ‘simultaneity’ that you mentioned above! You mentioned superpositions of QM states above (the “state” is just a description of what the system is doing) and this means, for example, that an atom could be in a superposition of two locations or two energies or two momenta…any observable can be placed in a superposition like this (usually). Which is weird because doing something like placing an atom at two different locations in space at the same time seems to violate our fundamental intuitions about what space is. Space seems like a description that is exclusionary—an object can’t exist at two places at the same time.

I’m very interested in the creative process that generates novel art because I get the feeling that physicists would benefit a lot from thinking about what they do more artistically.

–Damon Daw

In QM this notion isn’t well defined. This is because we can, for example, put a particle in a superposition of two locations at the same time and then perform a measurement, and the atom will always be found at one of the two locations once we do the measurement—we don’t ever detect half an atom at one point and half an atom at another! This makes it seem like the wave function (the blob of probability amplitude) is spread out across space before we measure the particle, and then it becomes localized at the point where we measured the atom to be. In the diagram below, the wave function 𝜓 is peaked at spatially separate locations A and B—which is a single atom in a superposition of two locations—but after a measurement it is peaked at one location and this appears to happen instantaneously. The “collapse” of the wave function into one peak at one location is how this process is typically described. As of now, we have no idea what happens to the wave function during a measurement (the big question mark below). Put another way: how the two peaks become one peak (apparently instantaneously) is not known. This is part of the Measurement Problem in QM. This amounts to a very strong statement: physicists don’t yet know what it means to measure something in a rigorous sense.

SZ: I remember in drawing classes we would learn perspective from simple illustrations (like the tree example below). Your diagram reminds me of that. Is perspective or dimension ever a part of the discussion around how to understand the collapse of wave function?

DD: Wow! Great question. There are a few physicists who study a theory called relational quantum mechanics (RQM) that essentially gives the “perspective” of the observer a primary role in determining what happens when we measure QM systems. Basically, there are apparent contradictions in QM because, as far as the theory says, we could do something like put an entire living thing like a cat or a human into a superposition of states and not break any rules of physics (the Wikipedia entry on Schrodinger’s Cat is a good place to start for more details on this). But, when we perform a measurement (whatever that actually is), we always find objects to be localized at some spot, not spread out in a superposition. Something happens to make matter behave “classically” and we don’t know what that is. A physicist named Carlo Rovelli essentially has postulated that—yes, when we physicists prepare a cat in a superposition of two locations, e.g. napping on a window sill or napping under the bed, it is correct from our perspective. From outside the experimental apparatus, the cat is in a superposition. The theory is correct. Conversely, the cat would say that we, the physicists outside the experiment, are in a superposition! So the theory is STILL correct, we just forgot that the perspective of the observer is key in the whole thing. So this is a cool way of trying to resolve the measurement problem using ideas that are conceptually similar to those in Einstein’s theories of relativity and it depends critically on the perspective of the observer.

SZ: It’s interesting to me that while atoms are the smallest units of matter, they don’t necessarily provide us with a higher resolution of “reality”. It seems to get weirder and more abstract the closer we look.

DD: Totally! Atoms are actually getting bumped farther and farther down the list of smallest units of reality. Protons and neutrons are made of smaller things called quarks but electrons seem to be their own, fundamental particle that we can’t break apart in an accelerator. But you’re right that the scale at which we look at reality seems to make it change a lot, which is weird because scale is just another way of talking about space, separation and location.

And as to what an atom ‘is’...that is always changing depending on the best theory with the best supporting evidence! About a hundred years ago, people didn’t necessarily know that atoms existed, and three hundred years ago we didn’t know that celestial matter was the same as terrestrial matter. Ultimately, humans appear to only be able to describe the attributes of things and so an atom (like everything else humans examine) may always just be a list of attributes. Attributes are abstractions, so maybe the best humans can ever do is make a better abstraction that breaks fewer and fewer rules and predicts more and more stuff.

I guess I am trying to get at the physicality of consciousness, of feeling. I imagine the feedback between our bodies and seeing, touching physical objects involving feedback between the quantum states of the body and the object. In other words I imagine consciousness being spatial and dimensional, perhaps measurable as quantum states.
–Stella Zhong

SZ: I think we can get pretty close to what something is with feelings but not with words. Math is also probably a much better technology in describing things.

If our brains are made out of atoms, I assume they are the physical infrastructure that generates thoughts, and by extension, memories, imaginations, intuitions, which all seem to travel beyond the scope of time. How does consciousness move between physical hosts and having seemingly no dimension? Can there be space if there’s no time?

DD: This is another one that nobody knows how to answer…something is conscious, according to the philosopher Tom Nagel, if there is something that it is like to be that thing…kind of an awkward sentence but you get the idea! And as far as the current materialist picture employed by most physicists, this means that consciousness arises from the interaction of particles in the brain, which means it arises, specifically, due to electromagnetic interactions between the atoms in the brain/body/environment. HOW the brain generates feelings like the “redness of red” just by bumping a lot of particles against one another isn’t clear at all, and this problem is usually called the hard problem of consciousness. This is another one of the questions that is so hard to answer that some people think it’s literally impossible for humans to understand. Edward Witten, one of the best string theorists around, has stated that the hard problem is likely unsolvable. BUT, if it turns out that the materialist picture is right, then consciousness isn’t actually immaterial, and so consciousness or the information contained in consciousness can be transferred just like any other information. For example, when we send a signal via radio waves, we wiggle a bunch of electrons in the metal of an antenna at some frequency (a few billion times a second, usually), and that wiggling causes a propagating disturbance in the electromagnetic field which wiggles electrons at some other location in space—in the receiver of another radio, for example.

HOW the brain generates feelings like the ‘redness of red’ just by bumping a lot of particles against one another isn’t clear at all, and this problem is usually called the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

–Damon Daw

SZ: The question of consciousness brings me back to the question of spacetime, too—both concepts enclose our bodies and minds within them and we can’t examine them from the outside. So like what you said: exclusionary and literally impossible to understand. I return to the question of dimension. Those who live in Flatland can’t compute three or more dimensions. Sometimes I feel that we are trapped in a certain dimension too.

I guess I am trying to get at the physicality of consciousness, of feeling. I imagine the feedback between our bodies and seeing, touching physical objects involving feedback between the quantum states of the body and the object. In other words, I imagine consciousness being spatial and dimensional, perhaps measurable as quantum states.

DD: I really like these ideas! We absolutely are trapped in some number of dimensions. Traditionally we’d say we inhabit a 4-dimensional spacetime manifold, but other theories like string theory posit a much larger number of dimensions. There is another strange aspect to this since there’s no a priori reason that our consciousness ought to be limited to thinking in the number of spacetime dimensions that matter and energy inhabit. I can’t imagine a 4D cube, but maybe someone can or can learn how to do it…It’s a very deep question that we can’t answer yet.

There is a physicist named Roger Penrose who has championed the idea that consciousness is fundamentally related to QM behavior in the brain. But, QM states are typically very fragile, meaning that very small interactions can cause a QM state to mix with the environment and lose some of its quantumness—a process called “decoherence.” In order to protect the states from all the messy stuff going on in the human body, some people have looked for parts of our neurology that might be insulated from the environment. There are structures called microtubules in human neurons that look like little tubes made out of alternating types of proteins. Penrose and some of his collaborators believe that these microtubules might support the QM state necessary for consciousness!

I’m very interested in the creative process that generates novel art because I get the feeling that physicists would benefit a lot from thinking about what they do more artistically. Specifically, physics is in a doldrum at the moment, and we should likely change our strategy because our progress is slowing considerably in areas we didn’t expect it to. For example, the LHC in Switzerland has done some incredible things like prove the existence of the Higgs Boson, but most of the other theories that were expected to be vindicated by that experiment were…not. Physicists likely need to be more creative and more adventurous, intellectually.

Do you have any advice for physicists who might need to radically rethink their ideas and need to cultivate much deeper creativity?

SZ: Decoherence sounds beautiful.

I am a huge fan of Penrose. He seems to have never been tinted by any concepts of category or definition; he moves so freely from numbers to neurons to the origin of the universe to geometry. He’s an incredible artist! I don’t think I am in the place to offer advice for physicists. As an artist, I am still working on unlearning and exploring ways to think beyond the attributes of things. I am interested in physics—particularly in the gaps between the understood knowledge, the areas where language does not exist yet. As we discuss the materialist’s vs. the antimaterialist’s views of spacetime or consciousness, I feel strongly that there’s stuff neither material nor immaterial; there’s stuff in between or is the combination of both. I will think about the probability glob in an atom for a long time, that something else that surrounds us that we can’t see but that it makes up solid matter.

I often think it’s funny that we look for aliens by looking for sources of water, and I realize it’s always all about humans. What if we look to connect to things that don’t exist in our laws of physics, to see those “something else” before we see what’s apparent to our eyes. I don’t know how to do any of these things. But in my own studio, being playful before purposeful usually leads to more discoveries.

DD: Decoherence is a very beautiful idea! It’s a type of noise that ultimately causes QM systems to behave very differently than they typically do and it’s an active area of research across many sub-disciplines of physics.

Your suggestion of integrating more playfulness into work feels spot on. Physics is a difficult field of study and the apparatus that requires scientists to perpetually publish papers can make it difficult to loosen constraints and play around a bit.

The “hydro-centric” search for life is certainly an artificial constraint! It’s not a bad starting point—usually the most conservative hypothesis is the best one to look at initially, but I agree completely that assuming all life must be some kind of carbon based watery thing is likely naive. Luckily, there are some astrobiologists (what a cool job title!) that are in the same boat as you and me and they don’t presume water as a requisite for life.

This has been so much fun and I can’t wait to see where this intersection of art and physics takes you!

All images courtesy Stella Zhong and Damon Daw.

Stella Zhong (b. 1993, Shenzhen, China, lives and works in New York, NY) received her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 2015 and MFA from Yale University School of Art in 2021. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally: at Chapter NY and Sculpture Center in New York, NY; FANTA in Milan, Italy; The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT: Galerie Marguo in Paris, France; PEANA in Mexico City, Mexico; Guan Shanyue Art Museum in Shenzhen, China and Hive Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China; among others.

Dr. Damon Daw is a curious human exploring reality. He earned a BA in Physics from Columbia University and a PhD in Physics studying the quantum behavior of chemical defects in diamond and its electronic transport properties. He is interested in using physical principles to answer questions about stuff like the foundations of quantum mechanics, consciousness, and spacetime.