qz | Donald Trump’s election victory is only a shock if you have been looking at the world through simple equations. Classical physics is rooted Newton’s three laws, where an action has an equal reaction, objects at rest tend to stay there, and force equals mass times acceleration. Newton describes the observable world in ways that are logical. But long ago, scientists showed the underlying physical world can’t be explained with algebra. To understand the universe, classical physics had to incorporate quantum mechanics, which describes a micro-world of uncertainty and ambiguity that is harder to measure but defines our true reality. Likewise, as recent geopolitical shocks have proven, outdated methods are no longer capable or sufficient to explain global society’s complex and interconnected systems.
Quantum mechanics’ principles are actually quite clear: Units are difficult to quantify, and they’re in perpetual motion; invisible objects can occupy space; there are no causal certainties, only correlations and probabilities; gravity matters more than location; and meaning is derived relationally rather than from absolutes. Relatively is the rule. Indeed, the principles of quantum mechanics are, when explained in art, quite clear. Take this example:
Michael Frayn’s award-winning play Copenhagen presents multiple versions of what might have transpired when German physicist Werner Heisenberg paid a visit to his Danish mentor Niels Bohr in late 1941. Against the backdrop of an intense arms race between the US and Germany to develop atomic weapons that could determine the outcome of World War II, the two Nobel laureates debated the scientific aspects of nuclear fission and the psychology of nuclear deterrence, seamlessly blending physics and geopolitics in their discourse.
Seventy years later, another Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Leon Cooper of Brown University, began using Frayn’s play as a medium to instruct his undergraduate students. He recruited an ensemble of faculty, including the respected international-relations theorist Thomas Biersteker and a European historian, to co-teach the course. Uniquely, each class featured a live performance of scenes from the play by members of the Trinity Repertory Company of Providence, Rhode Island. Cooper issued a challenge to his students from the outset: “Can you understand the play if you don’t understand the physics?”
Today, in the wake of the Trump win, there is no more important question that we can ask about the emerging world order than this: Can we understand geopolitics if we don’t understand its physics?