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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Heisenberg Principle in Mississippi

The Heisenberg Principle states, simplistically put, that things are uncertain. "Things" is important here: in physics, things are only things when they or their properties have been observed, in particular, their measurements; else they are at best irrelevant. To be said to exist, to contribute to the physicist's view of reality, they must be observable, and unobserved observables are merely extrapolations from observed observables. Furthermore, observation of a thing, the only source of its claim to reality, interacts with the thing observed, changing its properties and thus at once falsifying the results of observation. (Entanglement has since replaced direct disturbance in accounting for uncertainty in observation.)

In 1962, the Federal Government, in its methodical campaign to desegregate the South one institution at a time, enlisted a young black man, James Meredith, who had won in court the right to enroll at Ol' Miss, the all-white University of Mississippi. Attempts to enroll would not by themselves accomplish much, so along with James the government sent a large troop of marshalls, soldiers, various agents, and probably some attorneys general. An entire dormitory was demanded and (no doubt grudgingly) handed over for the housing of marshalls, soldiers, agents, attorneys general, and James. I have no doubt that they put James at the center of the building, with as many marshalls, soldiers, and walls as possible between him and the bullets that could well be expected.

In the fall of 1961, I received a telephone call from my best friend in high school. Our families lived on the same street in New Haven, CT. Joel went to Ol' Miss simply to drive his father insane, although he must have suspected that his likes and dislikes would find comfort there, and so they did: he loved it. Now he invited me to be a guest of his fraternity--Phi Kappa Psi forever!--for Homecoming Weekend. I explained that one weekend in Oxford, MS would consume more than my total entertainment budget for that year, if not for all the rest of college. But he convinced me that, if so, it would be more than worth it. He was right. It was the finest college weekend I would ever spend. Bellowing Dixie, I experienced patriotism for the first time. The Game was genuinely thrilling. I built much of their Homecoming lawn display, featuring a rocket that belched dense white smoke for hours, using chemicals pilfered from the lab.

Now when in 1962 I heard of James Meredith's adventure, I was electrified: I wanted to return to Ol' Miss, throw myself on the mercy of Phi Kappa Psi, and, using their frat house as a hideout, report the goings-on from my presumably unique perspective. No one--not at college, not at the local paper, nowhere--would finance the trip. I went anyway. There was a total news blackout. The entrances and exits on campus were guarded and no one was allowed in. There were no reporters anywhere around. Just me. I knew the terrain well enough to evade the guards, made it to the frat house, and explained my plan. Joel was gone by then, but they took me in. I promised them that if I got my news published (I did), I would send them a copy, so they'd know that I had told the story truly. For three days I roamed the campus, observing and interviewing everything and everyone except James, and the marshalls, soldiers, agents, and any A.G.s who might be on hand. I stayed away from them and their building, and strolled about as just another student; no one challenged me.

Finally, when my head was full enough, I was ready for what I knew would be my last interview. Once I had identified myself, I expected to be ejected at once, and so I was! Two government men drove me to Memphis immediately after. This service was not optional. At lunchtime, I headed for the dining hall. A cartoon from the 1950s made up of dots surrounding an empty circle with one dot at the center says it all: "Germs avoiding a germ that caught penicillin." The place was packed, but for a deserted circle centered on one table, where James sat with his guards. He was handsome and well dressed, and doing his best to seem at ease. I walked directly to the table, introduced myself, and did my short interview. There really wasn't much to say; I certainly was not going to get into, "And how do you feel, Mr. Meredith, at being the object of so much fear and hatred?"

And toward the end, one of the students at lunch outside the Circle of Death detached himself from his company and came up to us looking serious and resolute. He allowed as how, though he did not approve of this invasion, he respected Mr. Meredith's right to be here. They shook hands. He was the second student at Ol' Miss to interact with James. I was the first.

James Meredith must have graduated, because he became a lawyer. He is alive today, but no longer practices law.

Copyright (c) February 12, 2011 (110212) by W.Bloch, all rights reserved.

2 comments:

  1. Great story, Wabulon!

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  2. But...

    ""Things" is important here: in physics, things are only things when they or their properties have been observed, in particular, their measurements; else they are at best irrelevant."

    As I understand it, a particle's wave function continues to develop, and in a deterministic fashion, while the particle is not being observed. (Of course, what is deterministically developing is a probaility space.)

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