The battlefields of France and Belgium attract many thousands of visitors each year. For most of these people the journeys are one-off pilgrimages, but for others these trips become habitual. The reasons for this vary – some people are just interested in the history, others are driven by a sense of ‘remembrance responsibility’ but there are also the people who feel an inexplicable force pulling them back time and time again, something that they struggle to articulate. I’ve written about this phenomenon before (being one of these people!) and having met a number of others over the past year or so who share these sentiments, I have been thinking about it yet again.
One of my other passions in life is astronomy and it’s something I often draw parallels with when discussing the philosophical power of the battlefields. There are two fundamental theories in physics which govern our understanding of nature and the universe; general relativity and quantum mechanics. Einstein’s 1915 theory of general relativity describes gravitation and its relationship with space time, allowing us to reconcile and further our understanding of the largest structures in the cosmos from stars to galaxies – I’ve written about the impact the Great War had on Einstein’s work here. The war also had a huge impact on theoretical physicist Max Planck, whose work on quantum theory is the other foundation stone of modern physics…
Now, just to point out that surprisingly enough I am not a quantum physicist (nor am I an historian really, but hey) I’m just someone with a keen interest in astronomy, so my explanations here are basic – but there is a very tangible link between quantum theory and the Great War as well as more transcendental link between quantum science and the psychological impact of the landscape on visitors.
Whilst general relativity focuses on the largest aspects of our universe, quantum theory seeks to explain the nature and behaviour of matter and energy at an atomic and sub-atomic level. At the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was at the forefront of scientific research. With the establishment of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (which Max Planck would later become president of) in 1911, at a time when the nations of Europe stood on the brink of political and social upheaval not seen for generations, it is of no doubt how strong the desire was for a greater understanding of our universe. Planck first submitted his work on the concept of energy quantisation (put very simply, the idea that energy exists in discrete, quantifiable units rather than a constant wave) deducing what became known as ‘Planck constant’ to the German Physical Society, in 1900. Putting Planck’s politics aside (this deserves a blog of its own!) he would lose and gain all during the years that the Great War raged.
The tone was set for this tragic period in Planck’s life when in 1909 his first wife Marie died at only 48. By 1919 Planck had also lost 3 of his 4 children – his son Karl died from wounds received at Verdun and his twin daughters Grete and Emma both died in child birth in 1917 and 1919 respectively. It is said that Planck’s great personal loss and his grief during this period increased his devotion to his work – the importance of which was recognised officially when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. His surviving son, Erwin, who had been taken prisoner in 1914, was to die at the hands of the Nazis 30 years later, tortured and executed for being associated with the failed attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler. These are the tangible links between the Great War and Planck, a snippet of how the war potentially impacted the development of quantum theory. But how does quantum theory link us now to the Great War?
Well, Planck’s work gave birth to modern quantum mechanics which underpins our understanding of nature and energy today. Quantum mechanics, is frankly… weird. It’s far too complex for me to really understand (it’s a whole lot to do with particles and waves) but fundamentally states that objects exist in a haze of probability. They have a certain chance of doing X and a certain chance of doing Y, and indeed a certain chance of doing XY. It has spawned all kinds of crazy theories, from the ‘many worlds theory’ – that all possible outcomes are physically realised in different worlds and the multiple history theory – that all possible events have manifested already resulting in retrocausality, to the concept of superposition – that objects can exist in more than one state and place at the same time. The thing about all these theories, which are reminiscent of science fiction (yes Star Trek fans, the tachyon is a real quantum theory) is that because they stem from proven, observed events of quantum mechanics, one could conclude that they have a reasonable chance of being true.
There is one thing which is still a big problem in our understanding of the universe though – time. We are conditioned to view time as linear; the past, the present and the future but our understanding of time often simply doesn’t fit with what we have observed to be true in quantum mechanics and relativity – physics then, deconstructs our illusion of time. As the universe obeys the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity, then could the idea of quantum time really be so far fetched? The idea that, there is no past, present or future, but rather that time exists in discrete units and events that occur at point A or let’s say Ypres, at point X, perhaps 1915, could also be occurring in Ypres at point Y… say 2019 – just in a different block of space time, and so we enter the realm of philosophy and ideas of eternalism…
When looking through this lens at our love of the Old Front Line, is the pull that some of us feel to the battlefields actually quantifiable? As our footsteps cover the ground in the Silent Cities are we tracing our way through shadows of the men living their daily lives on the front line, still existing, still living and dying, in parallel to us today? Should we discount reports of supernatural events by battlefield pilgrims as figments of the imagination or is it possible that some people have an ability to sense more than others? When people comment that they feel something beyond their understanding drawing them to find relics or a particular headstone, or that they feel an affinity to a certain location on the battlefields that they can’t explain, I have to wonder if this could be something other than a psychological reaction to sites of deep rooted cultural memory.
As we study the history of the First World War, the historiography of the war and our remembrance practises with a more scientific approach, could we perhaps consider the application of quantum theory to help us unlock some of these seemingly inexplicable phenomena? Attempts to relate quantum mechanics to consciousness, spirituality and the human condition have have long been dismissed by many physicists (including Planck and Einstein) but Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger first posed questions on the subject in the 1920’s and research continues today. Whether the pull of the Old Front Line is simply the result of 100 years of emotion imbued in the landscape and our culture, or something more, its power is as strong as ever and something that I believe, we should not be so quick to dismiss when spoken of.
2 thoughts on “‘Whence come I and whither go I? That is the great unfathomable question’”
You are a historian and, this is a great blog.
This is an excellent blog post. It is spiritual, scientific and historical, all rolled into one post. In a way, it is much like the subject matter of which you so eloquently speak. On a different but, related note, my eldest daughter loves History and blogging and WWI, too. She is thirteen and has her own blog, too. I have forwarded your blog to her because I feel it is important for young women to have role models to look up to. Thanks for all that you do. It is important and meaningful.