There is a joke that has Werner Heisenberg, one of the fathers of quantum physics, speeding down the expressway. He is pulled over by a policeman, who sternly asks him, "Sir, do you know how fast you're going?"

"No," Heisenberg replies, "but I know exactly where I am."


I'm thinking about this now because last Sunday's writing prompt, carried over from two weeks ago, is "Heisenberg Principle."

Since January, my friends (Eric and Donna) and I have been challenging each other with these prompts. It's been a fun exercise that has also been helpful in reviving our blogs from the throes of abandonment. But it's also a frustrating exercise because we're people with non-science degrees who agreed to having Heisenberg Principle as a prompt.

To be honest, I hadn't thought of this principle in years, maybe not since freshman or sophomore year in college, until Breaking Bad brought it to the forefront of my consciousness. But I do remember learning about it in my senior year in high school because of something our physics teacher said during that lesson: "The act of observation affects what is being observed."

Of course, it's so me to latch on to that one line and run away with it. I remember going home that day, thinking of how my act of observation would change my horrible teenage life. It was a wild concept: by simply observing, I could turn things into ... well, no longer what they were, at least. What a super power!

It did work, in a way. I stopped escaping my reality and started looking at it closely, hoping it would turn into something different. Sometimes it made me even more miserable, but many times--and this is important to teenage me--it led to deeper understanding, compassion, and acceptance, even.


Mulling over the Heisenberg Principle now, my thoughts drift towards trade-offs: how in measuring A, we are forced to lose precision in measuring B. When we try to know A better, we understand B a little less.

I used to find uncertainty upsetting. When you're an anxious child, you want everything spelled out for you, no surprises. But my personality isn't suited for precision planning either, and it took me a while to accept that.

Now, I think I'm okay with knowing A, and leaving B for some other day. And if I never figure out how fast I'm going, I think I can be happy with just knowing I am here.