When Marcel Proust talks to us about physics

Marcel Proust, whose centenary of death we are celebrating, wrote with In Search of Lost Timea kind of Divine Comedy à la française, published from 1913. Like the work of Dante in the XIIIand century summed up the knowledge of the Middle Ages, Proust approached all the facets of the knowledge acquired at the dawn of the XXand century.

He argues about aesthetics with his typical artists: the composer Vinteuil, the painter Elstir, the writer Bergotte, he talks about medicine alongside Freud in psychology, he deals with the art of war on the eve of 14-18. There are many references to new techniques: the telephone transmits the specter of his beloved grandmother, the one-hour-22 train leaves the Gare Saint-Lazare, the airplane marvels him like a god appearing to an ancient Greek. The theory of evolution is known to him: “The word selection followed by natural refers to the work of Darwin. »

Finally, Proust echoes the decisive progress of science. However, in physics, the beginning of the XXand century witnessed two revolutions that upset our vision of the world: relativity, which contests the absolute nature of time, and quantum mechanics, which, by its indeterminism, calls reality into question.

Let us examine the reflections of these immense advances in his work.

To start, some school memories

Dante alludes (Purgatorysong XV) to the first law of optics, that of light reflection formalized by Descartes in the XVIIand. In turn, Proust invokes the second law, that of refraction, to describe very tenderly the relationship he has with his grandmother:

” [Mes] Thoughts were prolonged in her without undergoing any deviation because they passed from my mind to hers without changing environment, person. »

He recalls other lessons learned in high school:

“For a physicist, the place occupied by the smallest ball of elderberry is explained by the conflict or the balance of laws of attraction and repulsion which govern much larger worlds. »

We feel the old-fashioned charm of the lessons of yesteryear when we electrified an ebonite bar by rubbing it with a cat’s skin.

A physicist cannot fail to guess the Doppler effect in the sentence:

“There was also a new whistle which was exactly like that of a tram, and since it was not carried away by speed, it was believed to be a single tram, not endowed with movement, or broken down, immobilized, shouting at small intervals like an animal that dies. »

Doleron/WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.

“He encountered in her the electric force of a contrary will which strongly repelled him; I saw sparks fly in Albertine’s eyes. »

The physicist Charles-Augustin Coulomb tells us differently: two opposite charges attract each other while two charges of the same sign repel each other!

Proust in X-rays

Approaching more modern physics, Proust speaks on various occasions of ultraviolet or infrared radiation, he also stages the X-rays discovered in 1895 by Röntgen. Francoise says:

“Madam knows everything, Madam is worse than X-rays.”

The episode takes place during the writer’s early youth. But he was 24 years old when he was discovered, so we have to imagine that the servant had the gift of prophecy. The writer repeats:

” [Cette] strange test, which seems so unlike to us, has sometimes the kind of truth, certainly unflattering but profound and useful, of an X-ray photograph.

And he claims for himself an in-depth view of reality:

“No matter how much I had dinner in town, I didn’t see the guests, because when I thought I was looking at them, I x-rayed them. »

He is not afraid to approach radioactivity, endowed then with therapeutic virtues; we bought radioactive anti-aging creams. Astonished by Mrs. Swann’s longevity, a metaphor dares to judge her:

“a more miraculous challenge to the laws of chronology than the conservation of radium to those of nature”.

The radium dear to Madame Curie is unstable and disintegrates with a period of 1,600 years. That’s a lot, but there are even more resistant elements since stable isotopes have an infinite life expectancy.

Proust and time

Time plays a fundamental role in The research. He introduces himself from the start “For a long time, I went to bed early…” and he concludes the last sentence “…in Time”.

However, the time of Proust completely renewed our perception of it. Certainly, we still do not know more than Saint Augustine what time is, he who said: “If you don’t ask me, I know what time is, if you ask me, I don’t know anymore” . But Einstein’s relativity reveals a time which is no longer absolute and eternal but varies according to its framework of representation; it depends on its measure. Proust demonstrates an intuition close to that of the physicist when he writes of the church of Combray:

“All of this made it… a building occupying, so to speak, a four-dimensional space, the fourth being that of time. »

Four-dimensional space obviously resonates with relativity. Did Proust know Einstein’s theory? He was asked the question and in a letter he explained:

“No matter how many people write to me that I derive from him or he from me, I do not understand a single word of his theories, not knowing algebra, and I doubt for my part that he has read my novels. We have, it seems, an analogous way of distorting time. »

The quantum view of reality

Less obvious are the correspondences with quantum mechanics which then developed, the idea of ​​a quantum, that is to say of a primary energy corpuscle, proposed by Planck dating from 1900.

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Max Planck in 1901.
Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia, CC BY

A sentence puts the flea in the ear. The narrator, to reassure his sick grandmother, says to her:

“According to the latest discoveries of science, materialism seemed ruined. »

What discoveries does he have in mind? The only answer comes from quantum mechanics. A reflection by Paul Valéry, also born in 1871, reinforces the idea. In Views on the current world 1929 we read :

“Light is compromised…in the trial brought by the discontinuous on the continuous, probability on images…the real hidden from the intelligence that tracks it down and, to be honest, the unintelligible against the intelligible. »

Quantum mechanics is revolutionizing our concepts. Classical physics is deterministic: we know how to predict the course of events. One can know reality “in itself”. But for an electron, we only know how to calculate the probability of carrying out a particular path. Determinism becomes collective: we know the distribution of a population of electrons but we do not know where one of them will end up. Quantum theory, which controls these behaviors, is a sometimes counter-intuitive branch of physics.

It is based on two postulates that seem contradictory:

  • Schrödinger’s evolution equation remains deterministic, it is the dynamic law of forces other than gravitation, the equivalent of Newton’s law but much more subtle writing

  • but this law is supplemented by a principle of “collapse”, which applies at the moment of measurement and which chooses the result among an infinite set of possibilities.

Proust rubs shoulders with the quantum paradox when he writes:

“She looked quite sheepish at having, instead of the ten, twenty noses, which I remembered alternately without being able to fix my memory, only one nose rounder than I had thought which gave an idea of ​​stupidity and had in any case lost the power to multiply… Fallen into the motionless reality, I tried to bounce back. »

He confronts the multiple image he keeps of a young dairywoman with the unique reality that is offered to him, so his vision “collapses” into reality.

Quantum mechanics reveals a probabilistic material reality, Proust generalizes to spiritual reality, that of humans: “beings only exist for us through the idea that we have of them”, in other words: “The testimony of the senses is also an operation of the mind where conviction creates evidence. »

Quantum reality depends on the measurement made by the observer, likewise any observation leads to a subjective mental translation: “Reality does not exist for us until it has been recreated by our thought. »

The search for lost time represents a great sum. We pick up a lot of humor, emotion, poetry, philosophy. Proust writes with the help of all the ingredients that life brings and as such a law of physics at the turn of a sentence becomes a useful decoration. Proust translates the world through an impressionistic vision of reality, which is reminiscent of quantum mechanics.

According to many informed experts, Proust is the greatest French writer of the 20th century.and century. However, he received no Nobel Prize, his ashes are not in the Pantheon and his effigy does not haunt the Grévin museum. But in advance he consoles himself by remarking:

” [Il] there is no reason in our living conditions on this Earth for us to believe ourselves obliged to do good… nor for the atheist artist to believe himself obliged to start over twenty times a piece whose admiration ‘he will excite will matter little to his worm-eaten body. All these obligations which do not have their sanction in the present life seem to belong to a different world… so that the idea that Bergotte was not dead forever is without implausibility. »

And then, Proust too entered this ideal world which he hopes for his writer.

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When Marcel Proust talks to us about physics


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