Les Vocations

Charles baudelaire, Paris Spleen

A Link to the Prose Poem can be found here.

    “In a beautiful garden where the rays of autumnal sun seemed to linger in pleasure, under a sky already brackish, where the gold clouds sailed like traveling continents, four beautiful children, four boys, weary from play no doubt, talked amongst themselves.”


    The impressions of children are simple and strange. They are un-interpreted feelings strained through the particular character and presentiment of each little mind. They lie about their stories not from complex malice but from excitement and unchecked imagination. These twisted impressions are indistinguishable from the truth in the mind that creates them. Further, the truth is of small interest, for children know better than most that truth has little to do with amusement.

    Play is the vocation of children. Playing with toys, with your hands, with friends, with imagination, with impressions. To play with impressions is something like story-spinning, creating a whole out of something disparate yet striking. In Baudelaire’s prose poem Les Vocations, four beautiful children, four boys, spin their impressions for one another, while remaining immersed in their own world, in their own vocation. The last child is clearly chosen as the strange and "un-understood", the child with which few sympathize. Yet each child in this poem is unusually sensitive and special. Each absorbs his impressions with a peculiar air, an air that suggests a certain state of mind and predilection for the future self he will become.

    The first child is touched by an artistic and nostalgic passion. He sees within palaces the deep skies and seas, and in the dress and look of the actors some transporting beauty. Where others might see an act, he sees the possibilities of life. He sees possibility through art, and is captured by it only when presented through fiction. He does not notice, as the last and “incompris” boy indicates, the strange men playing music at the festival. He is not taken by a foreign way of life presented in reality, but only by the wonderful and beautiful effects of illusion. He believes in illusion as perhaps the truest experience of life and beauty. A tinge of sadness, of the terrible and haughty, heightens this aesthetic experience to something beyond pleasantry. The terrible and flashing eyes of the women, the hands resting upon daggers, maintain a constant beat of anticipation, anxiety, and passion within his young and romantic heart.

The second child points to the clouds. One can see in his young ecstasy the breeding of a holy fool. Sailing atop the clouds is a God only he can see. This sight, beyond the bounds of the world, captures his attention throughout the ramblings of his friend. Can theatre and art rival the greatness of God? As God, like the sun, sets behind the steeples of the church, “Ah! Alas! You can see him no more!” The gaze of this child lingers on “ the line which separates heaven and earth, his eyes bright with an indescribable expression of ecstasy and regret.” Tied to the earth by flesh and gravity, this child yearns to be like the clouds, a body which navigates seamlessly between the realm of heaven and earth. He looks lovingly at the horizon as his goal, the place where he might throw himself off of the earth to merge with the heavens. Yet already he knows that as far as he walks he shall never find that ledge. With sadness perhaps, he regrets this terrible fact of physics.

    “He is a fool, this one, with his little God which only he can see!’ said the third, of whose little being was completely bursting with animation and a peculiar vitality. ‘As for myself, I can tell you how some things happened to me which have never happened to you, and which is a little more interesting than your theatre and your clouds.”


Though this little lover begins with a taunt, he proceeds to expose himself as quite a sweet and playful child. He believes straight away that he has uncovered some unknown mystery in the folds of his nurse’s skin, in her thick hair which comforts him. The feeling that arises in the child’s limbs and belly while sleeping next to a woman is so completely new and strange that it seems to him a new religion. Like a prophet he proclaims this new faith to his playmates, “If you ever get the chance try to do the same – you’ll see!” His fear of her awakening, but more than that his fear of “I don’t know what”, reminds us of his child’s heart, but one can see that as he grows older this bashfulness will evaporate and leave behind pure sensuality. It is not simply eroticism that captures him but the delight in caressing soft skin and smelling the floral garden in her hair. If one could abstract these experiences, the pleasure of touch and smell, and know the pure joy pulsing through a finger tip as it glides upon a surface – it could be skin, but it might just as well be metal, a wooden banister, or the kind of velvet which changes its aspect with each stroke – one might sense the rapture of this young soul.

    “While talking, the eyes of the young author of this prodigious revelation had opened wide by a sort of stupefaction of what he still felt, and the light of the setting sun, in glistening through the red curls of his ruffled hair, seemed to be illuminating a sulfurous areole of passion. It was easy to guess that this child would not lose his life searching for divinity in the clouds, but would frequently find it elsewhere.”


    The impressions of that night leave behind a memory of touch. Like the mysticism of the boy before, and the aesthetic passion of the first, this child is transported by sensual delight. Even the world around him understands his passion and illuminates his tousled curls in such a way as to accentuate his character.

    The first words spoken by the fourth child turn the poem. He is not boastful or passionate like the others, but soberly describes what he lacks.

“You know that there are hardly any amusements for me at home; no one ever takes me to the theatre; my tutor is too mean; God does not notice me or my boredom, nor do I have any beautiful nurse to cuddle.”


He begins his tale by speaking of things negatively. he does not describe what he has experienced, but the holes in his life which the other children do not recognize. He dreams of filling these holes with something just as vague and hollow, the impressions of new and foreign places which he can already perceive are unsatisfactory fillers. For it is not the places themselves that intrigue him but perhaps only their novelty. The other children are not interested in sadness if it is not beautiful and romantic; they are not interested in boredom. Unlike the first child who is drawn to an act and wants to become a part of the play himself, this last boy connects with the vagueness of a vagabond life. He is drawn to the musicians for the life they lead in reality, and not simply the art they present to the world.

    He follows these musicians back to their “home”, merely a cleared spot by the forest. For comfort, they have their music and brandy. The child remembers precisely their trivial conversation about plans and impressions. He is captivated by the minutiae of reality, the words that bore most and the people who most disdain. Hidden, himself a kind of shadow, he dares not become a part of the scene. “But I did not dare, probably because it is so difficult to decide anything, and also because I was scared I would be caught before leaving France.” This sentiment of complete ennui is difficult for a child to understand. The fear they know; they also are afraid. Perhaps their fears are even unknown and vague like the sensual child. However, this indecision is foreign to them, and they meet it with disinterest and slight disdain. They do not like this feeling which does not seem to belong to the vocation of children. It has nothing playful in it.

    “The disinterested air of his three comrades gave me to believe that this little one was already one of the un-understood. I looked at him curiously; he had in his eye and on his forehead that something so prematurely fatal that generally alienates sympathy, but which, I don't know why, excites mine, to the point that for an instant I had the bizarre idea that I might, unknown to me, have a brother.

    The sun had set. The solemn night had taken its place. The children separated, each setting out, all unconsciously and as chance and circumstance would decide, to cultivate his destiny, to scandalize his neighbors, and gravitate toward glory or dishonor.”


    This sudden introduction of an observer is unexpected. Like the misunderstood child he lurks in the shadow, he is not part of their scene and is never noticed by them. He listens and remembers what they say, and if this small boy is not his brother, perhaps it is his younger self. He asks us as readers what we mean by sympathy. Do we only sympathize with those like ourselves, or, to go further, with ourselves? Do we throw aside those we do not understand and look away with disinterest? But what can sympathy do? one might ask. Are we not just led by fortune, either to despair or exhalation? Perhaps the un-understood know this, perhaps this is why the older does not reach out to the younger and say “Here, I know you, you are not so strange.” Perhaps the vocation of the un-understood is simply to observe and record, sometimes transforming this into poetry, sometimes never acting at all.

The Navigator

Michael Faraday, Experimental Researches in Electricity


The first encounter with electricity is nothing short of confounding. If one believes in magic it threatens to bear a remarkable resemblance. However, to a mind bent upon experiment and the wealth of the physical world, there is a promise of something discoverable and useful in its uncanny appearance.  

In our first reading, Otto Von Guericke presented us with the seemingly absurd phenomenon of attraction and repulsion stimulated by friction. There is no theory for this appearance. Guericke merely makes observations supported by multiple tests. The attraction is significant because it is not a freak occurrence; it is repeatable and dependable. It suggests an unknown law of nature, and one that promises a great deal of consequence. It is this duality perhaps, which makes the investigation of magnetism and electricity so tantalizing for budding philosophers and scientists; to uncover a law of nature is profound, but to uncover one which defies all previous conceptions of gravity and experience, one which holds the power to move objects in ways formerly done by witch-craft alone, that is something historically momentous.  

After Guericke many theories are put forward to explain magnetism and electricity and the science advances to show the probable connection between the two phenomena. Ampère goes the furthest, suggesting that they are the same forces acting through different physical conditions. It is not until Faraday however, that a comprehensive experimental approach is taken. Faraday, though well versed in the theoretical conceptions of his day, depends upon an experiential approach to the science, and in an almost childish way cannot grant any conceptual or abstract knowledge without having seen it performed. In a letter to Ampère, September 3, 1822, Faraday presents himself as a... 

“timid navigator who, though he might boldly and safely steer across a bay or an ocean by the aid of a compass which in its action and principles is infallible, is afraid to leave sight of the shore because he understands not the power of the instrument that is to guide him.”  


What arises from this timidity is a series of well-documented experiments elucidating how electricity and magnetism work from a phenomenal perspective. He shies away from the antiquated question of what these forces are in their nature, and focuses on what can be observed, namely the effect of charge. Though his work is fundamentally experimental, Faraday does betray a certain worldview through the interpretation of his data. Ultimately, I am interested in exploring this worldview through investigating Faradays notion of lines of force, and how they bear upon the physical world. Implicit in this question is how Faraday conceptualizes the particles of matter, and how, if particles are made up of forces, and in this way are not ponderable, can they constitute a physical line of force? 

In a way Faraday revisits Guericke, he observes that when a body is brought near to another charged body, the initially neutral matter becomes charged as well. He observes that bodies affect the charge of the other with an opposite and equal action, both in the case of magnetism and electric action. He refrains from concluding, however, as others did before him, that electricity flows as a fluid from body to body, or within a body in the form of a current. However, he does acknowledge that a transfer of some sort occurs. 

Slowly, he develops his principle theory of induction, which through his style hardly feels like a theory at all, but rather a necessary extrapolation. This theory is completely dependent upon the role of matter. Electric induction is a particular polarized orientation of the particles of matter. In this way all particles, whether of insulating or conducting matter, are as wholes conductors. (Series XIV, pp. 1669) For, as Faraday points out, there is no difference between a dielectric and a conductor except in terms of degree. The dielectric through which electricity is induced effects the intensity of the force. Every kind of matter has a dielectric constant, so that if I have two metal plates, one receiving charge and inducing the opposite charge in the other, the intensity of that charge will be changed depending upon what type of matter I interpose between them. How precisely the dielectric achieves this feat is a delicate question.  

Faraday is firm that electric induction is a contiguous action of particles, and in this way the efficiency of the induction must depend upon the matter itself. Or, put in another way, it must depend upon the capacity of the matter to be reoriented so that electricity is realized. Since, in this conception, electricity is a particular condition, or orientation of matter. In the paper “Thoughts on Ray Vibrations” written to Richard Phillips, Faraday admits a speculation that he has for some time considered. It supports the view that the nature of matter has its ultimate atoms as centers of force, “…the particle indeed is supposed to exist only by these forces, and where they are it is.” This theory explains induction as the vibrations of tiny atoms of force. Although Faraday is hesitant to fully support the notion with a claim of certainty, it seems to be his suspicion of how the particles radiate outwards and transmit a charge by polarized orientation. The notion that particles of force vibrate and so affect the next particle and so on is perhaps why the particular matter is relevant. Whether glass or plastic, the particles would have a different capacity of reaction to these vibrations. In this way the dielectric has a tangible effect on the intensity of the charge. 

These vibrations occur in the lines of force that connect particles, or, perhaps one could also say that they create the lines of force. However, Faraday seems to be careful on this point. Lines of force may also depend upon a state of tension, it does not seem that he wishes or can state precisely how lines of force are “created”.  It is this vibration however, to which Faraday accounts the “wonderful, varied, and beautiful phenomena of polarization”, suggesting that it is the vibration of force itself that creates electricity, resulting in a polarized state and manifesting in lines of force. The cause of the vibrations is not clear, and it is likely that he is suggesting there are none. It is not like a stone dropped in water, the vibrations here are something more fundamental to the nature of matter and the phenomenal world as whole. (Thoughts on Ray Vibrations) He calls this the phenomena of radiation, and clarifies that this is not an instantaneous action, but occupies time.  

If this were an instantaneous occurrence the notion that lines of force are abstract and conceptual might have more grip, but for many reasons the question of their physicality is important and necessary. We understand from the first experiment in which he introduced us to lateral or transverse action, as well as the fact that lines of force extend in curved lines, that lines of force have a physical constitution.  If we are given a positively charged body A from which lines of force extend, inducing a negative charge in a nearby body B, towards the edges, where the lines of force have more space, they begin to curve outwards and induce a negative charge above A as well. The lines of force do this because when they are squeezed tightly together in the middle they have no space in which to expand and are held in place by each other. Towards the edges however, there is more space allowing them to curve and repel each other. We see this repulsion happening once more at C where the lines of force extending from A on opposite sides begin to approach each other and then repel. This experiment shows that lines of force are not lines in a Euclidian sense. They are not widthless breadths. Matter needs more space, and while they are compressed together, the lateral repulsion of the forces aches to push its neighbor aside, but it is not until there is space that it can do so, resulting in the curved lines. This theory is confirmed in the later paper “On the Physical Lines of Magnetic Force” in which he states: 

“all these points (referring to a similar experiment to the one I just described) indicate the existence of physical lines of electric force: - the absolutely essential relation of positive and negative surfaces to each other, and their dependence on each other contrasted with the known mobility of the forces, admit of no other conclusion. The action also in curved lines must depend upon a physical line of force.” 


This lateral repulsion combined with the action in a curved line shows that they are not simply conceptual lines of force, but what kind of matter is involved depends upon what is understood by matter. Towards the end of this same paper On Physical Lines of Magnetic Force, Faraday touches upon this question.  

“If [matter] is to be confined to ponderable or gravitating substance, then matter is not essential to the physical lines of magnetic force…but if in the assumption of an aether we admit it to be a species of matter, then the lines of force may depend upon some function of it.”  


If particles of matter can be conceived of as imponderable, if the nature of matter is made up of tiny centers of force, then lines of force are as much matter as we might think a rock to be. They are the very essence of matter, since matter is only force.  

Yet, lines of force as physically constituted by matter that is imponderable, leaves those of us who are accustomed to dirt, stones, and trees in a baffling place. Is all matter constituted by imponderable particles of force, or only particles in an electro-magnetic state? This loophole seems unlikely since Faraday refers to the nature of matter as a whole.  Does the conglomeration of forces and imponderable particles give rise to things I can touch and walk upon? Do particles of force have the potential to be ponderable? I have a few thoughts upon this matter, but for now I shall leave it open to discussion and end simply with my admiration for Faradays work. Though he felt timid, I see him as bold in his thoughts.  

This next essay attempts to understand the role of the double slit experiments during the early phases of quantum theory.

Stranger Things

Quantum Mechanics, The Double Slit Experiments. 


In 1801 Thomas Young performed his famous two-split experiment, which supposedly proved the wave nature of light. In its simplest form, the double-slit experiment is composed of a light source like a laser beam shining onto a diaphragm with two parallel slits. The light beam travels through both slits landing on a photographic plate on the other side. When the light has crossed the slits, it exhibits interference patterns on the photographic plate. This behavior is what confirmed the wave picture to Thomas Young. 

However, in the early 1900’s Planck and Einstein discovered certain phenomena, namely blackbody radiation and the photoelectric effect, which could only be explained through the quantization of light. In addition to acting like a wave, light somehow also exists in discreet units called photons. This causes a variety of problems.  

When the intensity of the light source in the Young experiment is reduced to a certain value, so that only one photon is emitted at a time, one might suppose that the interference patterns would cease, for what would each individual photon interfere with? However, as is seen in later experiments, such as the one performed by Davisson and Germer in 1927, interference patterns are still recorded on the photographic plate. If one of the two slits are closed while the intensity is reduced then the interference patterns cease. But according to the logic of classical mechanics, this should not matter. Each photon must have a definite trajectory, and act as if completely unaware whether both or only one of the slits are open.  

It is as if each photon went through both slits simultaneously, and then collided with its probability double on the other side of the diaphragm, thereby producing the interference patterns of its probability wave. In the least, this must leave us considering the probability wave as not simply a measure of the insufficiency of our knowledge, but as inherent to the phenomena. We know that an amount of energy corresponding to one photon is repeatedly emitted from the source. We also know that these photons register as singular dots on the photographic plate. In between the source and the photographic plate, however, we are unable to give a classically satisfying description of what happens. To suggest that it splits itself and travels through both, or that in one possible reality it goes through the first slit and in another the second, seems to place us in a world of pure insanity. Yet what other option do we have? 

How to explain the dual and seemingly contradictory nature of light haunts quantum mechanics as the most important and mysterious question. Another set of very important and problematic experimental data comes from spectroscopy.  

De Broglie developed his pilot wave in response to Bohr’s astronomical model of the atom. Bohr suggested that the electrons orbit the center of the atom in discreet rings of given energy levels. Bohr had no explanation for why there are discreet energy levels; it simply explained the discreet spectral lines present in excited gases. Electrons excited to higher energy levels would fall back down to lower ones and emit quanta of energy corresponding to the distance that they dropped. De Broglie discovered that the circumference of these orbits corresponds to whole number multiples of the wavelength of the pilot wave. Between these discreet orbits the pilot wave would not be able to cohere with itself; that is, there would be destructive interference, and the electron could not exist.  

 Based on de Broglie’s work, Schrödinger developed his wave equation, describing a kind of standing wave around the nucleus of the atom. Heisenberg developed a mathematical relationship from Schrödinger’s wave equation termed the Uncertainty Principle. He proves this principle in three different ways, confirming both the uncertainty inherent to reality as well as our knowledge.  The first proof is a mathematical one showing a relationship between the location x of the particle and its velocity or momentum p. The more certain we are of one, the less of the other, since their multiplied indeterminacies must either equal or be greater than the quantity h – Planck’s constant. Here, h represents a scale of magnitude that corresponds to the size of an atom.  

A consideration of the wave packet can help to understand this. In most places the collection of waves cancel each other and have no effect, however, where they cohere, they create a packet which acts like a particle. However, we cannot know exactly where the particle is within this packet. The shape of the packet can be thought of as a probability field in which the particle can be found.  Since this packet is constructed of many different waves with different frequencies its shape continually changes, travelling at different velocities in front and back. This dispersal of waves causes the packet to decompose. Due to this change in shape the probability of where the particle is continually changes and is directly linked to the varying velocities of the phase waves that compose the wave packet.  

The second two proofs of uncertainty pertain to our knowledge. The first describes the Compton recoil that an electron undergoes when a photon is released, making it possible to be seen. Though the particle undergoes this recoil whether we see it or not, if we do see it, it necessarily undergoes such a change, making it impossible to know its exact location. The second uncertainty occurs when we attempt to measure the phenomena in any way. By measuring, or simply observing the electron or photon, we must interfere with it in some way. This disturbs its natural state and introduces uncertainty. These uncertainties cannot be improved by technological developments; they are either inherent to reality or inherent to our access to reality.  

In this way, we cannot make individual and precise predictions as we can in classical mechanics, but only statistical ones. For example, in the Young experiment, we cannot say where exactly the photon will land on the photographic plate, but only give a certain region of probability. Only when the event has taken place and an observation has been made does the probability function collapse and a new function is born. However, as is discussed in the Copenhagen interpretation, we cannot exactly say what “happens” between these two observations, between the source and the photographic plate.  

This interpretation presented by Heisenberg and Bohr is perhaps the most well-known and still holds validity today. It begins by expressing the inadequacy of classical mechanics to describe phenomena at the quantum scale. However, since our experience of the world aligns with a classical model of physics, it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, for us to conceive of phenomena and the results we obtain from measurements in any other way. The Young experiment forces us to loosen our classical conceptions, showing that there is no way to describe the behavior of photons and electrons using such a model. 

This interpretation attempts to explain the paradox of quantum reality with a theory developed by Bohr called Complementarity. This theory does not privilege one picture of reality over another, but asks us to accept both the wave-like and the particle-like behavior of tiny things. “By playing with both pictures, by passing over from the one to the other and back again, we finally get the right impressions of the strange kind of reality that lurks behind our atomic experiments.” 1 Though this description is useful and suggests an interesting and rather creative way to imagine reality, it is also somewhat vague. It might suggest that reality itself oscillates between two different states, sometimes acting like a wave and sometimes like a particle. However, it seems that it is not reality itself that changes face, but rather this is our only way to imagine atomic reality with our classical way of reasoning.  

This concept of complementarity reaches beyond the wave-particle picture in Bohr’s interpretation of quantum theory. It helps us think about the indeterminacy between the location and velocity of a particle or wave. The location is complimentary to the momentum. “If we know the one magnitude with great exactness, we cannot determine the other with high exactness without losing again the first knowledge. But we ought to know both in order to describe the behavior of the system.”2  The notion that both quantities must be simultaneously measurable appears to be the only method of obtaining a “complete” picture of what is happening. Yet, the kind of thinking that complementarity suggests might alter this rigid determination of wholeness.  

The third complimentary relationship challenges our understanding of classical causality. When we attempt to understand atomic phenomena we must interfere with it, necessarily disturbing its motion and destroying any accurate assertions about its causal relationships. If we want to maintain causality the phenomena must remain in a closed system outside of our destructive observations and measurements. It exists in a mathematical model outside of space and time. As soon as we open the system and make our observations in space and time the indeterminacy relations assert themselves once more.  

Complementarity allows us to say that reality is a paradox. That it is both wave and particle. That location and momentum cannot be measured simultaneously, that causality does not exist in space and time. One might ask, and rightfully so, does not the idea of complementarity tear down our most basic law of reality which forbids contradiction? We are hard pressed to abandon this law of non-contradiction, for it seems to be the most intuitive result of our experience and reason. Bohr’s suggestion of a new quantum reality forces us to reconsider that continuity exists between our experienced world and the world of tiny things. “Our ordinary description of nature and especially the thought of a strict lawfulness in the processes of nature rest on the assumption that it is possible to observe phenomena without appreciably influencing them.”3 In our large lives (compared to quantum sizes) we test, measure, probe, and observe a multitude of physical things and phenomena without noticeable interference. A tree or even a bug will not be appreciably thrown back by an emitted photon and so we are not perplexed in our measurements of them.  We assume that this aspect of reality is continuous, and when we discover a scale at which this does not hold true we must face the possibility that within a certain realm reality does not permit itself to be read.  

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