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How quantum physics explains surrealist art

A writer and drag queen explains the connections between surrealism and subatomic particles.

Quantum physics looks at life on the smallest possible scale. There’s something mysterious about it that makes it stand out from the rest of the scientific world, most likely the fact that none of it applies to the world as we can observe it. Nothing about the laws of the world as we see it and know it applies to quantum physics, which is perhaps why it attracts so many non-scientific inquiries.

Discussing the topic with Amrou al-Kadhi, a filmmaker and drag queen whose new book, Life as a Unicorn: A Journey from Shade to Pride and Everything in Between, ends on a chapter about quantum physics, the appeal is clear. Inverse’s discussion with al-Kadhi, which was highlighted last week, ran the gamut as far as topics were concerned.

al-Kadhi has spoken on quantum physics several times, going viral with an explanation ob the connections between gender and quantum physics. Inverse was eager to see what other connections al-Kadhi saw with quantum physics.

One place that came up consistently was art. When al-Kadhi was studying the history of art at Cambridge, they described their study as focusing on the “philosophical and ontological.” Ontology is the often metaphysical task of studying what exists or not. Questions of ontology existed before Socrates, focusing on heavy questions like existence after death and lighter questions like the reality of fictional characters.

You know, that comes up in modern art a lot, when you're literally just asking like ‘What is a thing, what is this object, what is art,” and the like, and that has a philosophical component. Like a lot of the physics stuff within quantum physics is asking ‘What is a thing does, it is a thing, is it a thing if you're not looking at it?’”

These are indeed the big questions of quantum physics. al-Kadhi was specifically talking about the fundamental principles of quantum superposition. Classical superposition states what we all know to be true: two things can interact with each other, like a duck swimming over water. Crucially, in the seen world these objects do not become each other. If you look at a picture of a duck on water, you could assign the water the label “0” and the duck “1,” confident that you could identify each.

On the quantum level, subatomic particles can become entangled, meaning that exist on any number of levels at the same time. The duck is on the water, but the duck has also become the water, and the water has become the duck, and also the duck is off in the park nowhere near the water, and also the water doesn’t exist, all at the same time. You can assign the labels “0” and “1” again, but you’ll also have to assign 0.1, 0.001, and every other number in between.

It gets complicated.

“Surrealism, which is where I was doing my final year study, it's quite similar in terms of setting the sort of component of surrealism is that like reality itself is a lie,” al-Kadhi says, comparing the art form to quantum physics.

Al-Kadhi specifically points to the photography of Man Ray as an example of where the two merge. Born in Philadelphia in 1890 and dying in Paris in 1976, Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) saw tremendous change in his life, including two world wars. Ray was well-known for his ‘rayographs,’ photographic images he created by placing everyday objects on photosensitized paper and exposing them to light.

An untitled rayogram from 1922 by Man Ray. Ray found the unconventional process liberating, saying "The subjects were never so near to life itself as in my new work, and never so completely translated to the medium."Christie's

Ray began creating these images in the early 1920s, around the same time that Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, and others were developing their concepts of quantum physics. Looking at his images now, it’s easy to see the similarities: they show regular objects, like thumbtacks or coils of wire, looking completely removed from how we generally see them.

The quantum physicists and surrealists shared the same goal: completely dismantling the idea that the observable world was all there was, and that everything obeyed its commandments. The connection between the two was explicit as shown in 2008’s Surrealism, Art, and Modern Science, written by Gavin Parkinson. Parkinson shows that surrealists like Salvador Dali and Man Ray found the cutting-edge work of quantum physics fascinating, actively keeping up with the scientific research on the topics.

Physicists, often seen as a somewhat staid group, especially compared to the rulebreaking surrealists, sometimes returned the favor. Theoretical physicist Marie-Antoinette Tonnelat, who worked alongside Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger, once said that in “physics as in painting, Surrealism denies the possibility of a description which does not carry explicitly the stamp of the observer.”

For al-Kadhi, these connections make sense. Neither quantum physics or surrealism give “answers in a way that satisfies normative data,” they say. And in a moment where many past assumptions about history and science are being thrown away, the connection between surrealism and quantum physics could be more relevant than ever.

From the Tuskegee experiments to books like The Bell Curve, the scientific method has been used time and again to cover for racist thought through strict taxonomies. “I like the fact that quantum physics says you can't” split everything up so neat and tidy, al-Kadhi says. It’s a branch of physics that is impossible to pin down, which might be why so many who have felt that they don’t fit into one box or another continue to see the appeal.

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