Living in a Heissenberg World

2 Nov 2011 in General, Robert Livingston Blog

I love the serendipity of libraries. In the past few weeks, browsing in Inverness library, I’ve come across two fascinating books which I wouldn’t otherwise have read, for the simple reason that they are so lavish and costly that it’s unlikely I’d ever have bought them. And both are books which set out to deliver the last word on their subjects—for the moment, at least.

The first was a new publication from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Entitled Great Crowns of Stone it’s an exhaustive–and exhausting–account of the 70 or so known ‘recumbent’ stone circles which are unique to the North East of Scotland. If you know of these at all, it’s likely that you’ll have seen such well preserved examples as Loanhead of Daviot or Easter Aquehorthies, but there are many, many more, some traceable today only by a single stone. The second is the National Gallery (of London)’s catalogue of its 50 or so 15th century Netherlandish paintings , a group which includes some of the finest gems in that wonderful collection.

As well as being superb examples of the bookmaker’s art, beautifully designed and illustrated, these two books have much in common. They both display a level of scholarship, and a thoroughness of research, which are simply astounding. Of course, both are ultimately team efforts, but one person—Adam Welfare and Lorne Campbell respectively—has had the mammoth task of pulling all this vast erudition into a manageable order. Of course, you don’t actually read such books: only a specialist in the same field could actually read every paragraph and absorb and understand the phenomenal level of detail. But working through each, reading key sections and dipping into others, still reveals more information than it would have seemed possible to accumulate on these two very different and distant subjects.

And yet what is the outcome of this immense scholarly endeavour, this herculean piling up of data? Only to conclude that, in reality, we know far less on either topic than anyone previously thought. Great Crowns of Stone goes carefully through all the past theories about these stone circles—that they were Druidic temples, burial mounds, observatories and astronomic calculators–and politely but firmly demolishes them all. These circles have been surveyed to within a fraction of a millimetre and, in many cases, excavated not once but multiple times, each successive excavation putting right some of the errors of its predecessor. Yet it seems we can make fewer definitive statements about the original nature and purpose of these evocative structures than at any time in the past two centuries.

Exactly the same seems to be true of the discipline of art history. Take not just the most famous painting in this catalogue, but one of the best loved paintings in any British collection, the so-called ‘Arnolfini Marriage’. The Introduction notes the disparity in our levels of knowledge: the first ever catalogue to the National Gallery’s collection, back in 1843 gave this painting just 6 lines; the present volume devotes 38 pages to the same work. The author knows more about fifteenth century interiors, furnishings, and fashion than would seem possible at this distance in time. He examines in astonishing detail the biographies of five separate Arnolfinis all active in and around Bruges at roughly the right time. And yet what conclusion does he come to? The male subject may not be an Arnolifi at all, and if he is, we can’t be sure which of those five he is, and we have no idea who the woman is.

Worse is to follow. He comprehensively debunks the theory, championed between the wars by the great art history guru Panofsky, that the double portrait celebrates a marriage, rubbishing all Panosky’s attempts to find marriage ‘symbols’ in the furnishing of the room. It’s not even a betrothal, just a plain ‘double portrait’. So, as with the recumbent stone circles, we are now less certain about this famous painting than at any time in the past two centuries.

I’m reminded of Eliot’s lines from the Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Nuclear physicists often deplore the lazy way that we lay people apply Heissenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty to matters outside the specific field of particle physics. The essence of the Principle is that the more you know about a particle’s velocity, the less you can know about its position, and vice versa. And that’s it. But it seems to suit the zeitgeist of the times to see the application of Heissenberg’s idea in all aspects of life. I even know of a music group which wonderfully calls itself the Heissenberg Ensemble because of uncertainty as to whether they’d hit the right note… (actually, they’re much better than that!).

Consider the vexed issues of climate change, or wind power. The mountains of accumulated data on these two vital and controversial subjects are now so huge that anyone who wants to can mine them selectively to tell the story he or she wants to tell. Manmade, or natural; vital renewable energy, or wasteful blots on the landscape. You pays your consultant and you takes your choice. And the Internet just makes it worse: instead of taking cognisance of the authoritative view of an established critic, of books, music, or theatre, we now must take an overview of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of separate opinions. The more data, the more uncertainty.

If this is a sobering thought, it’s one which, sadly, doesn’t seem to trouble many of our politicians, who continue to issue bold soundbites with a confidence often born of ignorance, an ignorance, moreover, that could often be overcome by a quick session of googling—pet cats and asylum seekers, anyone?

© Robert Livingston