Quantum warriors

BLACKFOOT PHYSICS: A Journey Into the Native American Universe by F David Peat, Fourth Estate pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
OCCASIONALLY we find a book that opens the door to some entirely new world. The journey within can be strange and unsettling, yet exhilarating at the same time. We may return with a far greater understanding of home and ourselves. This was the effect Blackfoot Physics had on me. Its author describes gathering its material as one of the most profound experiences of his life.

Theoretical physicist David Peat is a native Liverpudlian who lived in Canada for most of his academic career. Working all day with new theories of space and time, his mind stirred by the holistic images of quantum reality and a strong "felt sense" gleaned from his science that the entire universe is alive and vibrant, he became increasingly frustrated by the contrast with the fragmented state of the society around and its alienation from nature. Twentieth-century man seemed unable to learn from twentieth- century science. Our culture was still deeply embedded in the lifeless images of Newtonian billiard-ball particles and the kind of thinking that had led to the overly rational, mechanistic Newtonian world view. Given a book by his wife featuring photographs and speeches of Native American Elders, Peat was drawn to a vision that seemed wholly other than and yet uncannily like his own. He set out to explore the world of "the medicine way" and its indigenous science.

The result is a book "about two worlds and two ways of knowing and being" - that of the ancient Blackfoot people and that of modern science - "and of the traffic that can take place between them". Peat's thesis is that the Native American way of knowing represents a future possibility for the Western mind, and that through a dialogue with it we might more fully come into possession of the vision latent within our own science.

To do this, we must come to realise that we see the world through the "spectacles of the Western world view". It was with a view to removing these spectacles from his own eyes that Peat sat in the circle of teepees prepared for the Blackfoot summer Sun Dance, listening to the old men speak of process and relationship, hearing the hooves of running buffalo that no longer exist and experiencing the ways in which "other spaces and times interpenetrate and coexist with our own".

Peat is struck by the paradox that the analytic, linear thinking of the western mind would make it impossible for us to enter the Native American reality, and yet it is western scientists themselves, working at the very cutting edges of their fields, who have conceived a world deeply in tune with that of indigenous science. Where the Native scientist speaks of a necessary link between spirit and matter, between individual human beings and the whole of nature, the quantum physicist describes a necessary link and co-creative dialogue between the observer and the observed. The Native scientist teaches that everything that exists results from relationships or balances between energies, powers and spirits. The modern physicist tells us that the essential stuff of the universe exists as "relationships and fluctuations at the boundary of what we call matter and energy". Both Native and modern scientist speaks of process and interconnectedness and the wholeness inherent in the universe.

Some of Peat's best writing in the past has been about chaos theory. Here he is drawn to a powerful analogy between the role chaos plays in science today and the role of the clown or the joker in Native American rites. Clowns openly challenge the order and nature of society; chaos challenges the order of nature herself and makes us rethink all our descriptions of her.

Indigenous science also challenges basic assumptions in our way of ordering ourselves. Where our legal system is celebrated in an adversarial arena and emphasises guilt and punishment, Native justice concerns itself with restoring the balance in relationships and with healing any damage. Our concept of knowledge, and thus the education we devise to instill it, is of something to be acquired and accumulated, "rather like stocks and bonds". The Native American sees knowledge as a process, as a "coming to knowing" and as necessarily involving personal transformation. And for him, "medicine" is not an object or a concept but a "movement, a balance, a way of life - walking the Good Red Road".

Blackfoot Physics is a delight. Each anecdote, each story told by an Elder, each insight into Native perception or Native language contains material to blow the western mind - and usefully so. It could make quantum thinkers of us all.

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