Heisenberg was OK with uncertainty, and Schrodinger had a cat. That is how I remember high-school physics - it is a good job my physics stopped there. Why Heisenberg, why Schrodinger, today? I was on Chesil Beach thinking how Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle might apply to swimming - we cannot measure the position and the momentum of a particle with absolute precision. A swimmer in the ocean is a mere particle relative to the ocean’s vastness. “It is easy to get lost in the ocean and difficult to be found”. That’s really why I was distracting my fears with quantum mechanics (as you do, I here you think). This sunny-windy day on Chesil Beach, near Weymouth. “Better not to go too far out” – my application of Heisenberg, today. Life is full of uncertainty at the moment – Covid-19 uncertainty, and Heisenberg kills all hubristic thoughts that we can dominate anything. I am just a particle in the ocean, somehow that thought is comforting. Which brings me to Schrodinger, but actually not Schrodinger but his cat. A very special cat, thought I, simultaneously alive and dead, at least according to Copenhagen quantum mechanics. Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg worked together for a year in Copenhagen and they dreamed this idea up - the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the first general attempt to understand the world of atoms as represented by quantum mechanics. Sounds very grand, too grand for my brain to comprehend, obviously VERY IMPORTANT INDEED because it keeps the physical world (and the universe) going. But really? An idea that could only be dreamed up in a sauna, I thought. Bohr studied and worked at Copenhagen University and I can’t imagine him not taking Heisenberg to a swim-sauna in winter – after all, important ideas are worked through in the sauna in Copenhagen, at least I have found it so. The thoughts are fun but I am distracting myself while working out how best to swim here, on Chesil Beach today.
The distraction was working, I was delaying getting changed, getting in – the water looked quite marvellous, but also potentially dangerous. Pauline had already decided she would not get in. Delaying a little, my thoughts turned to my 65 swims this year, how to end them, and to Schrodinger’s cat, who worked out that Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg (I call them Bo and Heisie, as I imagine them in the Kalmpenberg ocean water, just north of Copenhagen on a crisp and sunny winter’s day) had got it wrong. The cat was very special, being alive and dead at the same time. Seems impossible, sure, but I, the swimmer, know this to be possible. Usually first thing in the morning, after the alarm goes off and it is dark and cold and wet outside and I have pledged to swim with a friend at an ungodly winter hour. At this time, ungodly-am, before my brain is working and automatic reflexes take me to the water to swim even without thinking, when there is both pain and pleasure in the “why am I doing this?” moment, I am both dead and alive at the same time.
“Did Schrodinger really have a cat?” – yet another thought, yet another delay to swimming today. Well yes - Schrodinger worked at the University of Oxford in the 1930s, and he did have a cat, called Milton. “Did Schrodinger swim when he was at Oxford?” – yet yet more delay. He might have swum, or he might have swum and not swum at the same time (this would the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics applied to swimming). Between 1933 and 1938, I imagine him with both wife and mistress dipping in the Thames at Port Meadow, or perhaps more discretely in the River Cherwell at the back of Magdalen College, where he was Fellow. I can see how Milton the Cat could have become the metaphor for the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics being wrong. Schrodinger lived a life of seeming paradoxes – with a Catholic father and Lutheran mother, himself atheist but religious at the same time, living with both wife and mistress under one roof in his Oxford years. Milton being both alive and dead at the same time wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for Schrodinger. Yet yet delaying yet more, I have given him a nick-name, one that would work in an outback Australian pub - ‘Schro’. Then I visualize a cartoon strip ‘Schro and Milton’ – a bit like ‘Tom and Jerry’, a particularly cartoon-violent scene where Milton dies and jumps back to life again, much as Tom does, over and over, in Tom and Jerry. Yet more delay – it is not faffing, because swim-faffing only happens when there are two or more people.
Why am I delaying? Obviously, I have the time to, and the day is not bad at all, very pleasant to watch the waves go by. If I stay longer I will see some wave-particle duality I am sure. “But what would that look like?” – yet yet yet more delay. Now visualising Schro, Heisie and Bo on the beach next to me, I start to think the unthinkable. I don’t want this to be my last swim in my 65@65 journey, nor do I want to discard it. The conversation with the three physicists starts something like “What would you do, Bo? Schro? Heisie? You can all imagine beyond my imagination…” I was happy to be here, but I didn’t want it to be the final swim of the 65. Heisie-Schro-Bo helped me with that one – it didn’t need Eistein (I asked them “where’s Albert?” –busy in Bern, Switzerland, they said, busy inventing E=MC2 - a real cracker of an equation). My mind found another way of delaying, by meandering down a neural back-alley to Bern, where we swam in the River Aare which fiercely loops around Bern as the River Wier does around central Durham.Fierce but it doesn’t stop the locals swimming in it. Somehow I can’t see Albert in the River Aare. On a bike, yes, but not in the river.
My last swim was to be the Thames Lido at Reading, a very comfortable place, a private members club of a renovated turn of the twentieth century lido where you can swim a few laps of a 25 meter pool, sit in the hot-tub after, and have a beautiful lunch after-after. Mike Lapworth, my inspiration for the 65@65 (remember, I met him at Hywel’s swim party way back last year). He did 50 at 50, and he shared his 50th swim with his wife at Thames Lido. This was a fine thing to do, and I had booked Thames Lido for the final swim. But Heisie, Bo and Schro help me imagine swimming according to the time-space continuum – if time and space can fold into one (I imagine myself on the famous Bern tram with Albert) then why can’t I swim on both Chesil Beach and at the Thames Lido at the same time? Problem solved. Stop delaying delaying. Time to swim. Before Pauline dies and does not die of boredom, before my grandiose thoughts of arresting the everyday laws of nature get even grander.
There is a pathway to this Heisenberg Cat solution to the 65th swim. Across the year (plus three months) I have embraced Surrealism at Wittenhagm Clumps, Dada in Zurich, Alice in Wonderland in Oxford, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic lock-down. Time has stopped and started, my 65th birthday has been pushed back by 3 months to account for the lockdown, and I have a lovely collection of facemasks. Who could have predicted that facemasks could be a fashion item?. So, if I can control my birthday, and if now quantum mechanics tells me that I can be both alive and dead at the same time along with Milton the Cat, then perhaps I can be in two places at the same time – Chesil Beach and Thames Lido. I have been struggling with how to end this project, this swim-sequence of novelty and familiarity. Why don’t I want to let go of it? In an odd way it has come to feel like a dress-rehearsal for retirement, when a work-life of habit changes or stops suddenly, and suddenly you are out at sea, flailing in the water, struggling to stay afloat mentally and physically. I know it doesn’t have to be that way. I have two years until retirement, 68 years of age plus, for me, three months (don’t ask – this is an Oxford University rule, which defies the law of the land and even strict chronology), and across my 65@65, my thoughts have increasingly turned to how to retire well. One person whom I see doing retirement well is Jeremy, and he has plenty of sage advice which he doesn’t force on anyone. He leads by example, and his example is to simply be out there in the world, friendly, with a smile. He was out there this morning, at Port Meadow, where we swam with Kristie and Pauline and Jo. I outlined the idea of my last swim being in two places at the same time while Jeremy and I swam heads-up in the Thames at Oxford. He very politely suggested that I might want to think about putting my imagination in a box, if only for this swim. Given that Jeremy’s advice is usually good, thoughtful, I have done just that tonight as I write. The box is a black one (of course, I am a scientist in my day job), full of black holes. Jeremy didn’t quite say “don’t be stupid”, but his politely-framed words carried much the same affect. My imagination now in a black box in my study, I now know that will not now be both on Chesil Beach and at Thames Lido, Reading, for my final swim. Thames Lido will be the low-key celebration after the event. Schrodinger’s cat will have to find someone else to take for a walk, and I am now ready to swim, back on Chesil Beach.
On Chesil Beach, near Weymouth on the English South Coast, the final swim. After words of advice from Jeremy and struggling with time and space with Heisie, Bo and Schro and sitting on a Swiss tram with Albert Einstein. Chesil Beach – there is a writer attached to this beautiful and rugged waterscape - Ian McEwan. His novel /movie ‘On Chesil Beach’ the central character ejaculates prematurely on his wedding night and makes a mess on his new wife’s belly. This triggers divorce after an unconsummated marriage – thus a singular event changes a life course for the protagonist Edward and his wife Florence. At my age (now 66, starting my final swim on Chesil Beach), premature ejaculation might be a problem I might quite like. I struggle to think how this unlikely plot became so feted. Florence was a violinist in a string quartet, and the music that floods into this last swim, as water piles onto smooth rocks with wave after wave, are the dramatic opening bars of Franz Schubert’s string quartet ‘Death and the Maiden’. .
Chesil Beach has a bleak beauty even when the sun is shining, which it is today. The shingle-rocks sing jingle-rock songs as Death and the Maiden and Bobby Helms’ Jingle-Bell Rock start to mash in my mind as I stumble-trip into the water lapping and shifting the smooth round rocks under my feet. “Should have brought swim-shoes” – memo to self, memo for next time, Pauline trying to dissuade me from swimming.
“Be careful of the under-toad”, enters my mind from left stage, a voice-over to the Death and the Jingle-Bell-Rock-Maiden sound-track. Another novel/movie of its time – The World According to Garp, written by John Irving, seems right for right-now. Irving’s work has more sex of different kinds than McEwan’s, with all kinds of life-course changes. The under-toad is a mis-hearing of ‘the undertow’, referring to a beach in New England with a strong undertow, and the protagonists’ sons’ fearful fear of it. In Garp’s young son’s mind it was a giant toad, ready and waiting to take him deep down into the water. From Jingle-Bell-Death Maiden Rock, to Singing Beach off Manchester-by-the Sea, my mind was quickly immersed in swimming in the New England ocean all those years ago, nearly two decades now. Yes, both Singing Beach and Manchester by the Sea really exist. Chesil Beach was singing a different song as I visualized the under-toad - Jingle-Shingle-Death, Jingle-Shingle-Death – as I was now in the water and swimming quickly away into the deep, away from the shallow shingle where the under-toads wallow. Out and along in parallel to the beach, the music in my head started to clear - it had become a kind of horror death metal funeral thrash. As my mind emptied, I could start to enjoy the rush of cooling water up and around me. I could start to reflect on the sheer beauty of the shingle bank, Chesil Beach, from fifty meters from shore. I told Pauline I would be careful – she sat watching, she was my land-mark on the smooth rocks. I reflected on McEwan, Schubert, Manchester by the Sea, on Irving, on retirement and on sex. Sometimes your mind doesn’t let go of you; sometimes the water doesn’t wash the rambling words and notes off the chalk-board, such it was today. In the worlds of Irving and McEwan, sex fucks things up. I hope Chesil Beach doesn’t fuck me up today, here on this final 65th swim. That’s what I am really thinking, have been thinking, here on Chesil Beach.
Schubert's Death and the Maiden -
Jingle-Bell Rock -