Yesterday, driving back from seeing the horses, we overtook a train. Now, trains are one of the best places to get a good dose of the Doppler effect. As the train passes (or as you pass the train), the pitch of the train’s whistle changes quite dramatically (especially with a train moving as fast as this particular one was).
Now, the effect is pretty cool on its own, but it begs a strange question. Here it is:
What is the actual pitch of the train’s whistle?
At first we might be confused, especially if we’re actually experiencing the effect when the question is asked. In that moment, we’re intensely aware of the constantly changing pitch of the sound. But then we think a little more, and our mind does a strange thing – it starts to go through a subtraction process, subtracting elements of the actual situation, attempting to isolate the true pitch.
We might say – “Well, it’s the pitch when I’m standing still.” But with the train whizzing past us, its sound is quickly changing from high to low.
Then we might say – “It’s the pitch when the train is standing still!” But it doesn’t take long to note that trains usually blow their whistles when they are moving, so we’re creating an rather artificial situation when we try to define it in this way.
So we might say – “It’s the pitch I’d hear if I was riding in the train, moving along with it!” And again, we’re applying an artificial situation (unless we often happen to ride on trains).
This process mimics the methods we use in science, as well as in our daily lives. Along comes the world, deliciously organic and constantly changing, and for some reason we feel that to truly understand things, we have to pin things down, isolate them from their environment, or impose special circumstances. If we’re trying to track a photon, or we’re trying to study the behavior of deer, or trying to understand economics or the actions of our loved ones, we run into the same problem – our position, our assumptions, our perspective, and our mental and physical vantage point have profound effects on the reality of the situation.
And I mean reality. It’s not just a trick of our ears that the train’s whistle sounds different. If we bring along a machine to measure pitch, we’ll find that the pitch actually is different. When the train approaches, the waves are packed together, and the pitch is higher. When it goes by, the waves are spaced out, and the pitch is lower. Whatever yardstick we’re going to use to define reality (our ears, the pitch machine, etc.) – it shows this constantly changing ‘reality’ – constantly changing according to our vantage. In the end, we find that we’re getting into trouble if we try to define reality at all!
If we could really see the world in all its mooshy, squooshy simplicity and perfection, perhaps we’d find it a little easier to experience our partner’s changing moods, our children’s growth and evolution, and the constantly shifting moods of our own health, finances, relationships, and self-image. But when we try to isolate the world, fit it into our ideas and boxes, and impose all sorts of strictures and expectations which aren’t really a part of the mooshy, squooshy world, then we can get pretty miserable when the world doesn’t behave.
The world is just fine as it is. In fact, it’s pretty downright amazing. Let’s all jump in, head-first, and swim and dance and play in this remarkable world. After all, we’re mooshy and squooshy too, and we fit in as perfectly as anything else.