Barry Manilow and chance

Dec 8th, 2009 | By | Category: Spirituality

There was a time when remembering words of Barry Manilow songs would have seriously damaged the credibility, but there comes a point when caring about credibility is a thing of the past.

Riding a DART into town, the opening lines of ‘Mandy’ came to mind:

I remember all my life
Rainin’ down as cold as ice
Shadows of a man, a face through a window
Cryin’ in the night, the night goes into

It wasn’t a Barry Manilow moment, it wasn’t even night time and the book was about physics, but Marcus Chown’s opening lines from ‘We need to talk about Kelvin’ evoked thoughts of Mr Manilow and raised questions about the failed relationship with Mandy.  Chown writes:

It is night-time and it is raining. You are staring dreamily out of a window at the lights of the city. You can see the cars driving past on the street and you can see the faint reflection of your face among the runnels of water streaming down the pane. Believe it or not, this simple observation is telling you some­thing profound and shocking about fundamental reality. It is telling you that the Universe, at its deepest level, is founded on randomness and unpredictability, the capricious roll of a dice ­that, ultimately, things happen for no reason at all.

Chown explains that the reason that one can see both one’s reflection and the lights of the city is because of the random nature of particles of light – 95% of the light passes through the glass of the window, but 5% is reflected; which particles are reflected and which pass through is a matter of complete unpredictability, as is the behaviour of many atoms in our universe.  All of which is troubling.

Set in the context of the complete unpredictability of things, how does the broken relationship with Mandy appear?

‘I remember all my life’, but it is only one of many possible lives that could have happened in a random universe; one decision differently taken could have set off an altogether different chain of events.

‘Rainin’ down as cold as ice’.  Clearly, the perception is that the life has not been what it might have been, but if life is utterly random, in the way sub-atomic physics suggests, then it is pointless complaining about the outcome; it might become something completely different tomorrow.

‘Shadows of a man, a face through a window’.  Ah, that would be those light particles and their refusal to behave in any reasonable manner.  It’s impossible to know which of them will come through the window.

‘Cryin’ in the night, the night goes into’.  While understanding that the man is not feeling in a very positive frame of mind, if things happen for no reason at all at a cosmic level, then tears about Mandy are probably not going to achieve very much.

Which Universe do I prefer? I wondered.  One that is capricious, utterly random, defying prediction, or one that has a deeper meaning, one that has purpose in the unfolding of events, even when such meaning and purpose is difficult to discern?  Einstein’s belief that God does not play dice seems undermined by more recent physics which suggests that he not only plays dice, but does so with dice that have an infinite number of sides, making the prediction of any outcome impossible.  Perhaps the plaintive cry to Mandy is evidence of a human willingness to seek a desired outcome; in the face of the idea that things happen for no reason at all, to find a purpose that brings happiness.

9 comments
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  1. Is it Robert Frost – The road least travelled?

  2. No, The road not travelled

  3. I’m not familiar with Frost.

  4. God has made a universe founded on the random at small scales. But that does not mean it is capricious nor that prediction is impossible. Using Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) physicists have predicted the results of experiments to ten parts in a billion! Don’t be troubled – the universe is wonderfully made!

  5. I was standing at Schroedinger’s grave in January (I pay my respects when in Alpbach), and a man from South Wales came across the graveyard. He was a physicist turned policeman (I think the pay was better) and began he talking about Schroedinger’s work – I confessed complete ignorance and when he discovered what I did for a living, he talked about about the ‘anthropomorphic principle’ – it was fascinating stuff.

  6. Dearest Ian,
    You end with a question. Left on the cliff edge again. You must have seen a lot of follier-uppers at saturday morning matinees. Science has always been used to prove almost fully opposite views. It seems that nowadays Quantum Physics is used by just about everyone to prove both the existence and non-existence of God, or at least ‘a power beyond ourselves’ – bit like Mr. S’s dead and not dead cat. Damn, now I’m at it!

    I will freely admit that I do not understand Quantum Physics. I just about know how to configure Google Adwords.

    As you intimate in your final poser, it’s all about belief. You have your God. I have this life. Sure doesn”t that make it grand altogther. btw I could recommend a song to you – ‘Let the Mystery Be’, by Iris Dement. check it out – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlaoR5m4L80

  7. When I saw a YouTube link, I thought for a moment it was a link to a Barry video!

    Anglicans do questions, not answers. People can only answer for themselves.

  8. I thought Kerrymen do questions, don’t they?

  9. Kerrymen do lots of answers as well – particularly when fifteen of them line out at Croke Park!

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