Elves and Dark Matter
How the stories we tell frame what’s ridiculous and serious.
Recently, I heard mention of Nancy Marie Brown’s 2022 book Looking for the Hidden Folk in a podcast episode. At the core, this book explores that many Icelanders (from half to perhaps even two-thirds) still believe in elves (known as huldufólk or hidden folk). I emphasize the word still, as that word in that sentence is doing a lot of work: It’s implying that it’s silly to continue to believe that elves are real in the year of our Lord 2023. But the author’s point here is, so what?
I picked up a copy and started reading. The book is a collection of essays, and the third essay immediately grabbed me. In it, Brown starts with a Unitarian minister and writer sharing how his disbelief in elves alienated him from his audience. She keys on a particular quote:
‘I have found an author who, like me, takes the huldufólk seriously, but not literally. The Little Book of the Hidden People challenges the assertion that most Icelanders believe in elves in the same way they believe in gravity.’1
From there, Brown pivots directly into a discussion of what it means to “believe” in gravity, and she walks through point after point about how “believing” in the fundamental laws of physics as they are known in our world today is at many points perhaps even more of a leap of faith than believing in elves.
Check out this surprising fun video about String Theory…but really about how we tell stories:
What I find fascinating about this is how we acknowledge these theories as stories that help us make sense of reality. Some stories are helpful, and some are not, but at the end of the day, the stories deemed “true” are the ones that our objective observations of reality can back up.
In the word objective, we find another word doing lots of work. This brings to mind the observer effect, which was touched on in that video but is even more strange than that video lets on. Ethan Siegel writes for Forbes about recent observations in what’s known as the double-slit experiment, which is a way of observing light’s dual wave and particle nature:
Somehow, nature knows whether we have the information that "marks" which slit a quantum particle passed through. If the particle is marked in some fashion, you will not get an interference pattern when you look at the screen; if the particle is not marked (or was measured and then unmarked by destroying its information), you will get an interference pattern…2
So essentially, while experimenting, the physicists either figure out which slit a particle of light will go through or they don’t. It would be like you and I having two doors in front of us and someone watching for which door we came through or simply knowing that we made it to the other side.
Unlike humans walking through doors, light can either go through one door as a particle or both as a wave. If it goes through both, you will see an interference pattern on the other side, much like if you’ve ever been at a concert, walked through the crowd, and noticed that the sound got quieter and louder, seemingly at random.
The trick here is, by the way we usually think about nature, it shouldn’t matter if we know. But somehow, it does. Our knowledge of if a particle of light went through one slit or the other changes the experiment's outcome. Siegel continues:
It is extremely tempting, in light of all of this information, to ask what thousands upon thousands of scientists and physics students have asked upon learning it: what does it all mean about the nature of reality?
…The answer, disconcertingly, is that we cannot conclude whether nature is deterministic or not, local or non-local, or whether the wavefunction is real. What the double slit experiment reveals is as complete a description of reality as you're ever going to get. To know the results of any experiment we can perform is as far as physics can take us. The rest is just an interpretation.3
And so here we are, back to the stories we tell. How we interpret the facts that are presented to us. Brown, in discussing the nature of the multiverse as predicted by our current understanding of theoretical physics, note:
In Norse mythology, as recorded in Iceland in the Middle Ages, there are nine overlapping worlds, one being the home of the elves. According to quantum theory, our world ‘depends in a crucial way on all the other worlds that we don't see,’ explains [Paul Davies in Other Worlds]. ‘Without the other worlds of superspace, the quantum would fail and the universe would disintegrate; these countless alternative contenders for reality help steer our own destiny.’
Now that's mind-boggling. Can you believe it? The multiverse is not a fairy tale, not Norse mythology. It's the physics of the twenty-first century. You can do the math.4
Our universe is far more strange and complex than we imagine daily. It’s teeming with oddities right under the surface. It’s almost as if the world is indeed a little enchanted, a topic I wrote about a couple of years back. You can read one of those posts here:
The stories we tell and deem as verifiable have a lot of impact on what we deem as real. The context is highly dependent, as anything known as mythology we typically bucket with not real, and anything with science we bucket as real.
Today, I want us to think about how arbitrary that distinction is. Whether we are talking about the realms of Norse mythology or the multiverse of quantum mechanics, the underlying observations that we can conduct point us to almost the same place.
In all of that ambiguity, perhaps a few elves are lurking in the shadows.
Thanks for reading, and talk to you again next week.
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Stefan Jonasson, quoted in Looking for the Hidden Folk, 25
Looking for the Hidden Folk, 34