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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 A Serious Man


Joel & Ethan Coen (2009)

Mrs Schrodinger: ďI donít know what my husbandís done to the cat, it looks half-dead.Ē (Old joke.)

Personally I have sympathy with Mrs Schrodinger. Not to mention the cat-in-the-box. Schrodingerís thought experiment is a waste of time, and possibly a waste of a cat. It doesnít really tell you anything about quantum physics. For that only mathematics will do.

In A Serious Man a student of Prof Larry Gopnik, Clive, tells him that although he might be rubbish at maths he does get the metaphors, Schrodingerís Cat and all that, so he should have passed the exam. Gopnik protests. You canít have physics without maths (as I discovered to my dismay halfway through my O Levels).

But we canít escape metaphors, the stories we tell ourselves to make life a little more bearable.

Joel and Ethan Coenís exploration of the mysteries of the everyday misfortune opens with a Jewish parable. A peasant brings an acquaintance home for soup. The peasantís wife tells him the old man has been dead three years, so this must be a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit.

She proves it by stabbing him through the heart and the old man wanders off into the snow, saying he knows when heís not welcome.

Was it a dybbuk? Was the old man alive or dead? Is he alive or dead now? Itís Schrodingerís cat. Weíve been there before. This isnít about quantum physics, itís an epistemological question.

Which is why Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), despite being able to explain Heisenbergís Uncertainty Principle in a maze of equations, hasnít a clue whatís actually going on.

His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for the decidedly unattractive Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Someone trying to wreck his career, perhaps Clive (David Kang), perhaps not. His life, generally, is unravelling. He doesnít know why. He hasnít DONE anything.

Trying to get some sort of handle on it all he goes to see the rabbi. Then another rabbi, who tells him the story of the goyís teeth, which only deepens the mystery. Neither science nor religion are any help.

Itís an old post-modernist theme. That itís not possible to truly understand the world and we can only cling to stories, like flimsy life-rafts in a storm.

For the Coen Brothers itís great comedy material and they give it a typically punchy screenplay. And itís not entirely despairing, either.

Larryís brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is also a brilliant mathematician who has produced his own probability theorem. It works. He gambles and he wins. Only problem is gambling is illegal in this state.

Well, not the only problem. Arthur is some way along the autistic spectrum and is caught up in some sexual indiscretion. Also, heís continually draining a sebaceous cyst on the back of his neck.

But he has grasped the power of probability. Quantum uncertainty only applies to the unimaginably small. Well before you get up to the size of cats probability has evened out the unpredictability into a world still understood by Newtonian physics. So you know you can sit on that chair without quantum randomness suddenly whipping it out from under you.

This may not help Larry. The Coens have conducted their own thought experiment around him. The narrative ends abruptly, leaving the important questions unanswerable, building an impenetrable frame around him just as Schrodinger boxed in his poor helpless cat.


November 24, 2009

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