And the Trees Clap Their Hands: Faith, Perception, and the New Physics by Virginia Stem Owens (1983, republished 2005, 148 pages)
I recently read And the Trees Clap Their Hands: Faith, Perception, and the New Physics by Virginia Stem Owens. This is a book that addresses the important question “What does it all mean?” with regards to science – what does science really tell us about the world, and how should we respond to that? How can we make sense of it all in a human way?
Virginia Stem Owens was born in 1941 and became a pastor’s wife in the Presbyterian Church (USA), also gaining an MA in English literature from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Religion from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. She has written numerous books.
And the Trees Clap Their Hands was an enjoyable read, but Owens’ lack of scientific experience is responsible for several flaws in the book. I was a little disappointed at the lack of footnotes and at some glaring errors of fact. For example (p. 92), Owens confuses turbulence (a phenomenon of liquids and gases in the “Old Physics”) with Brownian motion (a microscopic phenomenon resulting from the existence of atoms). I also felt that she skipped over some important things, while not getting others quite right. I should point out, too, that the “New Physics” of the subtitle (relativity and quantum theory) is now roughly a century old. On the other hand, Owens’ writing is lyrically beautiful:
“The body I am today came yesterday in a crate of avocados from California. India spins in my tea-drenched blood this morning. Minerals dissolved for millennia in a subterranean aquifer irrigate my interior, passing through the portals of my cell walls, which are themselves filigrees of chemical construction. I am really only a river of dissolute stones, the wash of world-water dammed for a melting moment in the space I call my body, some of it ceaselessly brimming over the spillway and flowing on down drains, into other tributaries, catching in some other body’s pond, until one day the whole structure cracks and buckles, giving up in one great gush its reservoir of mineraled water.” (p. 126)
What does it all mean? Answers have come from Plato, Galileo, and the Bible, to mention just three sources (bust of Plato photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen)
Relativity and Time
Since Owens mentions relativity several times, I was surprised to see no mention of spacetime. As Hermann Minkowski wrote in 1923, “The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”
Relativity implies that there is no absolute “present moment” in the Universe, and hence that, of the three theories of time illustrated below, only the Block Universe (Eternalism) can be correct. The philosophical and religious implications of this are huge, and would have been worth discussing.
Three views of time: in Presentism, only the Present exists; in the Growing Block Universe, the past exists as well; and in the Block Universe, also called Eternalism, the universe forms a four-dimensional spacetime “block” in which the future is already written (image © Anthony Dekker)
Quantum Theory and Observation
One of the key aspects of the century-old “New Physics” is that both matter and light exist as waves and particles. The true reality is a combination of two seemingly contradictory perspectives (this has been used by other writers as an analogy for the relationship between e.g. determinism and free will). The wave function of a particle changes over time according to the Schrödinger equation. It can also undergo wave function collapse, changing from something fuzzy and spread out to something far more definite. How and why the latter phenomenon occurs remains quite mysterious.
One of the classic experiments exploring this involves firing electrons at a detector screen through a double slit:
The double slit experiment (credit: NekoJaNekoJa and Johannes Kalliauer)
Being fuzzy waves, electrons go through both slits at the same time, undergoing interference effects characteristic of waves. They are then detected as particles, with comparatively precise locations:
Individual electrons being detected by a screen after passing through a double slit (credit: Thierry Dugnolle)
Physicists used the word “observation” for the electron being detected by the screen (thus having its wave function collapse). Owens takes it for granted that this means “observation by a human mind” and that the human race therefore, in a sense, creates the universe by observing it. However, this use of the word “observation” is not what most physicists mean (indeed, the universe fairly obviously existed before there were any people). It is, in fact, not clear exactly what constitutes a wave-function-collapsing “observation,” but recent work with quantum computing suggests that it happens even when nobody’s looking (and even when you don’t want it to).
Along the lines of Gary Zukav (whom she cites), Owens tries to build a semi-pantheistic philosophy on top of this – something that is not actually justified by the physics. She also makes a big thing of “the impossibility of isolating the observer from the world” (p. 85), which is not actually a huge problem in the physical sciences, if you know what you’re doing. It’s more of a problem with animal behaviour (as in the famous example below) and an enormous problem in psychology and anthropology.
Konrad Lorenz interacting with geese in the 1930s (Are you my mother?)
Religion and God
Owens is writing from an explicitly Christian (Presbyterian) perspective, which doesn’t quite sit comfortably with the New Age Zukavian material in this book (there also appears to be some influence from Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry). And while Owens highlights the issue of nonlocality in quantum theory, she does not explore how this might relate to an omnipresent God “behind the scenes.” There are some beautifully written spiritual reflections, but the connection of the religious material to the scientific is somewhat tenuous. Owens seems to want “and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” to be more than a metaphor, but the physics doesn’t really help with that. In addition, there seems to be some theological confusion regarding the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Goodreads gives this book a score of 3.9. In spite of the beautiful writing and genuine sense of wonder, I can’t go nearly that high (side issue: Goodreads somehow has a cover image with the wrong title!).