October 26, 2004
New York Times ESSAY

This Season, Heisenberg Wears a Red Sox Rally Cap

By DENNIS OVERBYE

I'm the biggest sports fan I know who hardly ever watches a game.

I was watching a dinosaur movie with my daughter last Wednesday while my Red Sox were completing the greatest comeback in the history of baseball and vanquishing the Yankees. Even as my wife, in the next room, relayed scores posted on the Internet suggesting that Boston was winning, I refused to turn on the game.

The reason is something I call quantum baseball. It caused me to lose the World Series for the Red Sox 18 years ago, when I realized that I seemed to have terrible powers, powers that could be used for good or evil - but mostly, it seems, evil.

So I didn't watch last week, and it worked. And I didn't watch this weekend as the Sox, hoping to overcome history and fate, went two-up against St. Louis in the World Series.

As a young man I watched the Red Sox lose to the Cardinals in seven games in 1967. I was a middle-aged unemployed writer in 1975 when they lost to Cincinnati in the most beautiful World Series ever played. In 1978 I raced home from work to see Bucky Dent's home run disappear over the Fenway wall and make the Yankees division champions, ending Boston's season.

So by 1986, when the Red Sox faced the Mets in the World Series, I had long since learned the lesson: In the end the Red Sox would lose.

My gloominess got me banished from watching at my girlfriend's house. So it was that I was alone in my house on the night of Oct. 25, 1986, when I switched on the television to find Boston ahead in the 10th inning of Game 6 and one strike from victory.

And I succumbed and said the magic fatal words.

"I'm about to see the Red Sox win the World Series!" I exclaimed to my cat. I felt almost dizzy.

That instant of belief, of course, was what the universe was waiting for. It was as if a circuit suddenly closed and a signal had flashed instantaneously across space-time and into Shea Stadium. Within moments, a wild pitch had let in the tying run and Bill Buckner, the first baseman, let a ground ball through his legs, scoring the game winner. Two nights later the Red Sox lost the seventh and deciding game. Again.

What does this have to do with science? This is the science section, remember? Well, that is where the "quantum" part comes in.

About a century ago scientists began to realize that beneath the too, too solid veneer of what had passed for reality for 2,000 years there was some pretty funny and fuzzy business going on. Its central silliness is Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which sets limits on what you can know about a subatomic particle. Knowing an electron's velocity blurs its position, and vice versa.

In quantum mechanics the old Newtonian certitudes are replaced by a mathematical entity called a wave function that spreads throughout space, giving the probability of finding an electron, a ballgame or even the universe in one state or another, one place or the other.

When we do an experiment, say to find the electron, the wave function "collapses" to a particular point in space and time. But before that, the electron has a small probability of being anywhere, the way Tim Wakefield's fluttery knuckleball might go anywhere before plopping into the catcher's mitt (or eluding it).

Before I uttered those magic words in my living room that night in 1986, the Red Sox existed in a limbo of neither winning nor losing.

But it's easy to imagine that in baseball, where a quarter of an inch or a hundredth of a second can be the difference between a home run and a grounder to first, the Heisenbergian touch can have a profound effect, and my words - just the thought - were enough to collapse the wave function and the Red Sox. The branch of the universe in which the Red Sox are winners split away into some other parallel space, as near as an irrevocable breath, as unreachable as a black hole.

Now I am aware, on some level, that my fears are silly. Despite its fuzzy chancy foundations, or perhaps because of them, reality on our level is surprisingly robust, and we can't push it around by hoping and praying. Computers and televisions go on when we click the switch. Physicists are fond of pointing out that while measurements may be subject to quantum indeterminacies, the wave function itself is perfectly predictable and calculable.

But I'm not the only one who, knowing better, succumbs nevertheless to the shadows of the lizard brain. One of my best friends, an outspoken atheist, admits to being terribly superstitious. Over the course of her life, she says, she has given away a small fortune in jewelry, purses and bits of clothing she decided were jinxed. An editorial in this newspaper last week repeated an old theory known as the Cubs jinx, that the team having the most players who used to play for the Chicago Cubs, an even more star-crossed franchise than the Red Sox, will lose.

Baseball, like quantum mechanics, is a game of statistics, where we have faith that as the numbers mount over the long run, luck will be overridden by skill and daring. And for a player, it's not so crazy to think that if wearing a particular pair of underpants makes you feel lucky, that feeling might relax you and give you an edge when you're 60 feet from Roger Clemens with a very hard ball in his hands.

But what do the rest of us get out of our hexes, our lucky caps, our quantum fantasies of influence and control?

Most of us, I suspect, would rather believe that the devil is running things than that no one is in charge, that our lives, our loves, World Series victories, hang on the whims of fate and chains of coincidences, on God throwing dice, as Einstein once referred to quantum randomness. I've had my moments of looking back with a kind of vertigo realizing how contingent on chance my life has been, how if I'd gotten to the art gallery earlier or later or if the friend I was supposed to have dinner with had showed up, I might not have met my wife that night, and our daughter would still in be an orphanage in Kazakhstan.

Anything but the void. And so we keep hoping to luck into a winning combination, to tap into a subtle harmony, trying like lock pickers to negotiate a compromise with the "mystery tramp," as Bob Dylan put it, putting our lucky caps on, turning our bracelets, refusing to look.

And yet life too seems robust, buoyed by zillions of chance interactions reinforcing and contradicting each other. We are people, with desires and memories and a sense of humor - not Ping-Pong balls.

I contend that I might have met my wife anyway, since we belonged to overlapping circles of writers and artists. And maybe the fate of the Red Sox is equally robust. I haven't decided yet whether to watch the rest of the Series. My friend says she finally subdued her superstitious behavior because she wants her daughter to grow up free and fearless. I'm taking inspiration from that.

It's a new morning as I write this. I'd like to believe that I've served my time away from the games and that if the Red Sox can throw off the Yankee curse, maybe I can grow up to live without quantum anxiety, and so can my own daughter. Now that Boston is ahead, maybe I'll start watching the Series.

If the Sox fall apart, you'll know why.