The day I decided to become a scientist was a sunny spring day.
The birds were singing – I know, my parakeet had enthusiastically greeted them right after dawn – and it was warm, with no breeze blowing. I was standing next to our apple tree, its full blossoms foretelling a glorious harvest in the fall, and fully taking the air in.
As I raked the freshly mowed grass, I realized that this was actually the first serene day in a longer while. I thought back at the slogan “April, April, he does whatever he will.” Except that “whatever” was never clear. Sometimes it was rain, sometimes it was sunshine, and how about some hail?
On that particular day, fog abounded all morning long. I thought at the beginning of Bruckner’s symphonies and Wagner’s operas. They enveloped the world in a primeval fog, an “Urnebel”, from which the first melody emerged. I thought back at the fall in the previous year, riding my bike through the evening mist, arriving at home and listening to those symphonies.
I loved it when the strings carried the melody. It was as if I could grab my cello and break through the fog myself. And here I was, standing in the fresh and crisp air.
Music or Science?
Back then, I alternated science homework with cello practise. If I had played enough, I’d start to solve equations – and vice versa. Beethoven inspired science, while mathematics inspired a yearning for Bach. Numbers were beautiful, and music was a different medium for me to understand that which holds the world together. It was all magic.
I asked myself: Would I become a musician? Or a scientist? And was it really either-or? A plethora of images and impressions floated through my mind. They still do. And I love them all. Mastering to accept this abundance and the contradictions within seems more important to me than to give preference to one side over the other.
Unfortunately, there was no “science cello” subject. Maybe I should have studied “cellology”. Or “Cellectrical engineering”? The closest I got was a couple of years later, when I greeted the professor with my own version of the Elgar cello concerto. For my attempts at crossover, my room mate rewarded me with a beer, but sadly, no career grew out of it.
Back at home, I was still deep in thought, piling the grass next to our apple tree, when my father stopped by. “You know what? I met a toxicologist the other day. Maybe you want to look into becoming a scientist. It sounded amazing!”
Toxins? Poisons? To my 17-year old mind, that sounded like the best idea in the entire world. In biology, I had sat in awe in front of the posters depicting biochemical pathways. Toxicology gave me an opportunity to understand all these complex diagrams, which to me always appeared a bit – foggy.
That was when I decided to become a scientist. Everything clicked. It was as if I had found the missing piece of the puzzle and all the different images had lined up in my mind. The fog had cleared.
And since then, I lived happily ever after as a scientist, while keeping my cello as a source of inspiration.
The end? Not quite.
There is a classic experiment in quantum physics that I learnt in high school just one year later.
It’s called the double slit experiment.
Electrons are shot through two vertical gates onto a screen. Dots emerge on the photographic paper in a seemingly random manner, like stars in the night sky. Then, with more electrons, more dots appear, but now they form clusters that yield a curious structure: evenly spaced vertical stripes. Dark-Bright-Dark-Bright.
This is called an interference pattern, and it is precisely what we can see when waves overlap each others. If one wave is at its strongest and hits another wave at its weakest, both cancel each other out. If both waves are at their maximum, they add up. Dark-Bright-Dark-Bright.
Still, the interference pattern consists of single dots. We imagine single electrons hitting the screen.
It appears that photons, electrons, atoms and almost all other components of matter are waves and particles at the same time. Without our attempt at observation, electrons stay both wave and particle at the same time and merrily go their way.
We can focus on the dots that are arranged in a specific pattern. Or we can focus at the pattern that consists of little dots.
A friend asked me recently how I make my decisions. I realized – I actually don’t try to make a choice. My thoughts are as ambiguous as the matter from which they arise.
The choice comes to me once my mind has pondered the different possibilities long enough. Then one flash of insight, one idea, is enough to crystallize all impressions into one clear pattern, one image that tells me exactly what I want to do.
And even then, I am merely deciding to go into one direction. The other part is still there.
I found it curious that my decision to become a scientist is similar to one of the best-known experiments in science.
Maybe I was destined to become a scientist and not musician after all.
Yet, even though the grass has long gone – I am happy the music never left.