The Uncertainty Principle: Somalia and the Art of Quantum Mechanics

  • Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it – Niels Bohr
  • If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it – John Wheeler
  • It is safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics – Richard Feynman

For a small part of my student life, I wanted to be a theoretical physicist. It was partly because I was useless at experiments and was pretty keen on identifying a career that would allow me to work from an armchair. But then it turned out that theoretical physics was pretty darned complicated. The reason is that you have to leave your intuitive understanding of the world at the door, and proceed like a blind man in a dark room, with a bag over his head, feeling your way through the sub-atomic world until you arrive at the other end. You’re not sure where you’ve been, but somehow you have got where you needed to be. Nothing makes sense unless you trust the mathematics of wave functions and wait for your answer to pop out at the end.
So if you think that sub-atomic particles are a bit like a tennis ball you may as well give up and go home. The everyday world that we see all around us bears no resemblance to the world at the quantum level. The tiny science of quarks and neutrinos makes sense only when you turn off the bit of your brain that says “this makes no sense”.
I was reminded of this feeling while chatting with one of my pals yesterday. He’s not a quantum physicist but a Somalia analyst. We were basically doing what hacks do best, and laughing at some of the guff that is being written by people who know nothing about Somalia but feel obliged to pontificate on the country because they went there once, or have seen Black Hawk Down. The mistake it always to take perceptions and understandings gleaned elsewhere – Afghanistan, Iraq or other African conflicts – and think that they offer a framework for understanding Somalia. They don’t. (It’s going on a lot at the moment with particular reference to the two kidnapped journalists.)
Many people who should know better have fallen into the same trap. (See my stuff on DfID, UNDP, the EC and warlords). Somalia is quite simply a place where the normal rules do not apply. It may as well be in a different universe. Just as quarks are not tennis balls or even tennis ball-like – but essentially are described by a wave function that sometimes collapses to become something that might be understood as a particle – Somalia is no longer a failed state, but has its own, unique position as a “post-failed state”, such that aid models developed in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan or Mozambique become ways of delivering cash into the pockets of warlords. (Putting warlords in charge of aid cash, for example, conforms to the principle of giving Somalis “ownership” of aid programmes – in keeping with practices elsewhere, but is frankly bonkers.)
Some of the people here in Nairobi seem to get it. They are the ones who tell you they don’t have a clue what is happening in Somalia. (See Nick Wadhams for a discussion.)But beware anyone who claims to know what is going on. As our discussion continued over another coffee, I tried to remember a quotation I vaguely recall reading about quantum mechanics. Something along the lines of…
“Only three people in the world understand quantum mechanics. One is dead, one has gone mad and the other is me, and I’ve forgotten.”
I can’t find this anywhere and maybe I made it up. But it seems to me that it could equally apply to Somalia’s complex mix of clans, armed entrepreneurs and misguided aid agencies. The lesson is to suspend intuition, forget what you learned elsewhere and treat Somalia differently. In some ways it’s every bit as magical and exciting as the quantum world – just don’t trust your senses… or anyone else, for that matter.
Anyway, this may well be the most pretentious post I am ever going to write. In fact I hope it is. But it’s been building in me for a while. And I wanted to show off the fact that I once studied quantum mechanics. (Although I wasn’t actually very good at it… and there are other jobs you can do from an armchair.)