The Physics of Freshers

How understanding the uncertainty principle can help you understand the uncertainty of starting university, and understanding relationality can help you relate to others

Jon Deery
31st October 2021
Freshers entering the famous 'double slit experiment'. Image credits: Pixabay, Piqsels, Pxfuel
Being a ‘fresher’ is an overwhelming experience. You’ve moved to a new place, started a new stage of education, one whose rules you haven’t even begun to get used to, and you’re still working out what exactly to expect from the year(s) ahead. Given how complex this is, the Science section of The Courier would like to make clearer what ‘freshers’ means exactly, by comparing it with something notoriously simple: quantum physics.

This is, more than anything, a time of ‘uncertainty’. What will my flatmates be like, how will I cope with my new responsibilities, what will my lecturers be like? Luckily, some of the greatest minds of the last century have all had a crack at understanding uncertainty, and none more influentially than Werner Heisenberg.

Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’, to simplify, states that you cannot know everything about a particle. In the very act of measuring a particle’s momentum, for example, you interact with the particle in a way that means you will never, ever, get to know its position at that time. You have to choose one path, and once you’ve found out what’s there, you can never go back.

Some of the greatest minds of the last century have all had a crack at understanding uncertainty, and none more influentially than Werner Heisenberg

You’ve chosen your degree, your university, your accommodation. You’ve chosen the knowledge it’s possible for you to receive, you’ve committed to a path, you are about to determine years’ worth of observations. You will never know what experiences you would have had if you picked differently. At some point, you chose one path over another. So you’ve got to make the most of it while you’re here.

But how to know you’re making the most of it, if uncertainty is inevitable? 

To answer, I’d like to introduce another physicist: Carlo Rovelli. In his book Helgoland, he argues for a ‘relational’ view of the universe: he claims that nothing exists independent of interaction. Everything only exists in relation to something else.

A university doesn't exist independently of students - it is changed by, and it changes, all of us.

Take this paper you’re holding right now, for example. It has certain properties - it’s printed on white paper, folded in the middle. But the whiteness of the paper isn’t an inherent property: colour is the result of light interacting with the page, bouncing off into your eyes, and being converted into electrical signals in your brain. And the fold is something you move every time you turn the page over. The paper’s properties exist because of its surroundings, and you are among the many surrounding influences.

Much in the same way, a university doesn’t exist independently of students - it is changed by, and it changes, all of us. 

But perhaps even more relevant to freshers, no human being exists independently of their relations to others. What is vital to freshers is to embrace your role in this relational universe, to reach out, to shape others and allow them to shape you in return. Trust me, it’s the best time to make friends - everyone (including the second years) is only just entering the large particle collider that is campus, and excitement is a requirement for fusion.

Between certainty and uncertainty there is a precious intermediate space

Carlo Rovelli, There are Places in the World where Rules are Less Important than Kindness

Every factor of your future university experience - the course, the friends - currently exists in a state of quantum superposition. Both exhilarating and terrifying, both rewarding and demanding. But we all must make the leap - the quantum leap - to break the uncertainty, to define our world and ourselves. And now’s the time to do it.

To end, here’s Carlo Rovelli:

‘In this essentially uncertain world, it would be foolish to ask for absolute certainty… But this doesn’t mean either that we are completely in the dark. Between certainty and complete uncertainty there is a precious intermediate space - and it is in this intermediate space that our lives and our thoughts unfold.’

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