Who knew that bible study had something in common with theoretical physics? I have been a student and teacher of Hebrew bible for over 10 years, but long ago was interested in the study of physics. I come from a scientific family. My father is a physicist. My mother took her degree in math after the kids grew up. My daughter flourished as a math student, despite the discouragement of earlier teachers (5th grade teacher to my daughter: “You can’t do advanced math if you haven’t memorized the tables.” (!)) I was a star student in high school: advanced calculus, biology, chemistry and physics.
But as a UC Santa Cruz student in the late 60’s, I got caught up in social action, and the romance and distraction of short-cuts to nirvana, and lost interest. When I wasn’t staring at the banana slugs, I studied poverty in South Carolina, grape boycott in San Jose, and Beowulf. In high school, Science had been for me masses of memorization – with definitive, invariable, Truth. I took pride in deriving formulae rather than memorizing them, and thought I was doing something important – but I didn’t question the fundamental reality of it all. If you could measure something, it was true. I associated physics with a certain intractable side of human nature, embodied in my father (ok, another story there).
For the past decade, in addition to doing close readings of Hebrew text, I have been studying bible commentaries by feminists, queer theorists, rabbinic sages, structuralists, narratologists, post-colonialists, true believers, atheists, archeologists, historians… I fully get it that in texts, there is no single Meaning, no immutable Truth. Who is reading? Who is writing? Who is the audience? What are my filters? What is the writer’s, reader’s, or commentator’s visible or hidden agenda? When was it written and when are we interpreting? But I didn’t reflect back to the world of science.
Recently, I came across the writings of Karen Barad, theoretical physicist and Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy, and History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Whammo: where and how you observe (and who you are) makes a difference in physics, too! The binary between observer and observed breaks down. The observer does not stand in a separate space, objectively recording the Truth. In order for light to be seen and measured, it has to land somewhere and there is an interaction. Detectors are “sites for making meaning.” (#1 p 166). Yes, I thought, just as text readers are a locus (not the only locus) for making meaning. Mind you, one ought not violate the integrity of the texts: it is one thing to find multivalent meanings; quite another to make them say whatever you damn please.
In my study of texts, and biblical commentary, I had learned to suspect the hidden current of Enlightenment thinking: things happen for a reason; life is Progress; old is bad, new is good; European elite white male thinking – absence of the female and other genders, and absence of non-elite, non-European humans. But I had never applied this insight to Science.
Reading “Meeting the Universe Halfway” was an epiphany. What? Enlightenment thinking is not the only framework for science? There are feminist and queer (#2) viewpoints in physics? This came like a jolt of lightening, illuminating both ends at once, communicating from bible cloud to physics earth and from physics earth to bible cloud, two directions at once. (#2)
1 “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Realism and Social Constructivism without Contradiction”
2. “Nature’s Queer Performativity” (discussion of lightning pp 33-35)