So Werner Heisenberg is driving down a road, enjoying the scenery. Suddenly, without warning, he hears the squeal of sirens behind him and sees a motorcycle cop motioning for him to pull over. With some resignation he stops the car, finds his license and registration, and waits for the officer to come up to his window.
Officer: “Do you know how fast you were going?”
WH: “No, but I know where I am!”
For the musicians reading this, there’s no more – that was the punchline. It’s a very nerdy joke, a reference to a key hypothesis in quantum mechanics as advanced by Heisenberg, stating that it’s impossible to determine both the position and the speed of a particle at the same time, since the very act of measuring one characteristic directly alters the other.
I’m leaving for Venezuela in less than 36 hours. This is the obligatory rite of passage, the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Every man and his dog seems to have gone, and the most common refrain upon return is “you have to see it to understand.” That makes me nervous. It suggests undefinable and unmeasurable. We intend to measure, certainly, not with the intent of creating value judgments but with the intent of understanding, then translating, adapting, or if possible, replicating. This is our mandate. But there are many dangers in measurement, not the least that you may not get the results you hoped for – the improbable, but NOT impossible null hypothesis. There’s also the temptation in measuring to align the world to your ruler, rather than your ruler to the world. Answers will always depend very much on the questions asked, and the questions asked are inevitably shaped by overriding motivations or intentions. And sometimes questions aren’t asked at all because the answers might provoke more inquiry. Or outrage.
Heisenberg has validity beyond atomic theory: measurement cannot be effected without changing what is measured to some degree. No matter how impartially something is scrutinized, its image will always be subject to some distortion by virtue of the human lens under which it is seen. In our two months we’re only going to scratch the surface of inquiry, and I use that turn of phrase deliberately, for in measuring we will leave the surface scratched. I’m conscious of all the potential outcomes and offer only the disclaimer that no matter what we do in Venezuela, much more will remain to be done.
And I’ll close by saying, with a smile, that when in Venezuela, we’ll be moving incredibly fast.