I Like To Watch.

This is a long blog post. I wanted to mention it up front. You know, in case you want to get coffee first. Maybe a nice raspberry turnover. If you’re in a rush, there’s a jendocino in an alternate quantum reality who just posted a heartbreakingly exquisite one-line poem on the nature of love and loss. I highly recommend it, but don’t catch the wrong wormhole or else you’ll wind up in the alternate quantum reality in which jendocino has posted yet another music video by the multi-platinum recording artists, Men Without Hats.

On Saturday, in this quantum reality, I was out in the Jughandle taking photographs of manzanita. The winds on that day were upwards of 30 mph, and as I was snapping some shots, I heard an ear-splitting, sickening crack. I looked to my left just in time to see a gigantic pine come crashing down right next to me, landing with such a loud boom and thud that the ground shook.

The ground only shook for a second. I shook for several. It was thisclose.

Suddenly, being out under tall trees on an exceedingly windy day didn’t seem to be the best of ideas. After all, there was now an alternate quantum reality in which jendocino lay dead under a seventy-five foot bull pine because she decided to shoot her manzanita photos from the left instead of from the right.

As I jogged back up the trail to the relative cover of my hippie cabin, my brain kept rehashing the old axiom, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I can tell you first hand that if you are around to hear a tree fall in the forest, it makes a helluva sound.

But in terms of quantum physics, I wondered if no one was around to observe the tree falling, if the tree would simultaneously remain in the states of both standing and falling. You know, since the lack of an observer makes all realities simultaneously possible...

Maybe I should back up a little and explain why I was photographing manzanita and thinking of quantum physics to begin with...

It all starts with the fact that my camera doesn't see things the way I do.

A word about my camera. I have a Panasonic DMC-ZS3, and I’ve written before about how this little machine often takes artistic license with photographs by making bizarre choices concerning light, shadow, color, and focus - among other things.

One of those other things is timing. As in when, precisely, it decides to open and close the shutter after I’ve pressed the shutter release button. See, the DMC-ZS3 sometimes operates on a delay. That is, after the shutter release button is pushed, often it takes about a full second or two for the shutter to actually open and close. Or, if I’m using the flash, for the flash to go off. So, if either the subject or the photographer moves during this delay, it results in out-of-focus photos.

A real, actual photographer recently shot a photo with my DMC-ZS3, and after experiencing this shutter delay phenomenon, he exclaimed, “Oh my god. That’s so frustrating. It’s like shooting a flintlock rifle.”

Yes it is. Which is why from here on out, I’m calling my camera the Panasonic Flintlock.

And I’ve come to learn that the Panasonic Flintlock doesn’t see things the way I do. It’s not just due to the shutter delay, either.

What I mean is, I’ll look at a subject, and my eyes will see the colors and lighting in a very particular way. However, when I snap the photo, the Flintlock often doesn’t “read” the colors and lighting in the same way my eyes do. Digital photography allows you to see this effect immediately. On a hike, I’ll see the wonderful play of light in the trees, or the subtle underpinnings of green in a white piece of lichen, but when I snap the photo and look at the view screen on the Flintlock, the Flintlock has seen something entirely different.

The discrepancy is clearest when I try to photograph manzanita bark. As an observer, I find the bark of the manzanita visually compelling. The list of reasons is long - the amazing red color and the way it changes dramatically depending on the light or season, the way the bark peels in translucent little ringlets, the way the branches cure to an almost driftwood-gray color, the way the velvety smooth bark of a manzanita evokes skin, the way the matte bark absorbs light while simultaneously looking as if it glows… I could go on and on. From my perspective, the visual effect is nothing short of magical.

For the Flintlock, not so much. I’ve shot dozens and dozens of pictures of manzanita, and I have yet to take a photo that portrays the bark of this beautiful tree in a way that’s even half as beautiful as the way that I see it in my mind’s eye.

Part of this can be explained by the nature of the machines in question. I can’t literally “see” anything out of this mask of bone and flesh we humans call a face. My eye is a sort of bio-machine in my face that reads light waves and translates those light waves into images that I “see” on the viewing screen of my brain. These images form my perception of the world, although I can’t really know for certain if this is actually how the world exists. Similarly, I can’t know for certain how anyone (or anything) else perceives the world because each of us has a different set of equipment through which we are viewing the world. So a spider, for example, with her eight magnificent eyes, probably doesn’t perceive her world or her reality in anywhere near the same fashion as I perceive mine. Same world and reality. Wildly different perspectives.

To a lesser degree, this is true with a camera. A camera is an invention whose entire purpose is to mimic as closely as possible what our eyes see. Like an eye, the lens of the camera reads waves of light from the subject, then translates those waves of light into a digital image on the viewing screen. So since the camera is its own viewing entity, it stands to reason that it will have its own perception of the world - a perception that might not match my perception, even as the camera itself is trying its best to mimic for me what my eye sees.

And then there’s the added intellectual conundrum of viewing the subject second hand. Here’s what I mean: First, you have the real subject as it actually exists. Then you have how the camera lens “sees” the subject. Then there’s how the lens’ vision is translated onto the camera’s view screen. Then there’s how my eye “sees” the view screen of the camera (which by this time is already two times removed from the original). And then finally there’s how my perception of the view screen is reflected in my brain. As with a game of telephone, by the time the camera’s perception of the subject gets to my brain, the vision has been completely convoluted.

Walter Benjamin has some interesting ideas on how images deteriorate the further away they stray from the original. Of photography, Benjamin said, “By making many reproductions it [photography] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” I think of it in terms of how a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy eventually loses all integrity and becomes an unrecognizable shadow of the original.

So this discrepancy in the way I and the Panasonic Flintlock see the world may have to do with the way my brain translates an image from the lens of my eye versus how my brain translates an image of the Flintlock’s viewscreen - which in turn is a translation from the Flintlock’s lens.


But this discrepancy in the way I and the Flintlock see the world also has to do with the subject being viewed. There’s a phenomenon in physics called the “observer effect,” a term used to describe the changes that a subject goes through as a result of being observed. For example, if the Flintlock needs to use a flash to get a good shot of a piece of lichen, the use of the flash itself literally changes the lichen to something different than it would have been had it not been exposed to the flash. The change might be exceedingly minute, but it is a measurable change nonetheless.

Quantum mechanics takes this idea a step further by taking away the premise of a flash or other measuring tool, and instead suggests that the mere act of watching by the observer actually has an impact on the observed reality. The idea is that the act of observing itself forces the event to choose between outcomes, and that without observation, the event exists in all possible states at once. This then leads to the intriguing notion that if the outcome of an event has not yet been observed, then any outcome is possible.

Erwin Schrodinger, one of the fathers of quantum physics, thought the idea that something unobserved could exist in all states at once was balderdash. (Note to self: Use the word “balderdash” more frequently.) To illustrate how asinine he thought this whole notion was, he posed a hypothetical experiment that involved a cat sealed in a box, some radioactive material, and a vial of cyanide.

Balderdash, I can hear you say, but it’s true!

Schrodinger’s basic idea was that you seal a cat in a box with some radioactive material connected to a vial of cyanide. In the radioactive material is an atom that has to decide whether it wants to change its state or stay the same. If the atom decides to stay the same, nothing happens. If, however, the atom decides to change states, this decision causes the vial of cyanide to burst open, killing the cat.


Here’s the catch, though: Because the cat is sealed in the box, we can’t observe the outcome of the experiment. As such, everything inside of the box exists in a perpetual condition of existing in all states at once. In other words, the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead.

(Note to self: Make zombie cat. Name Schrodinger.)

As I mentioned, Schrodinger posed this hypothetical experiment to blow holes in the theory of the observer effect as it pertains to quantum physics. To him, the notion that the cat was there in that box, simultaneously both alive and dead, was patently ridiculous.

Yes. I know. When you put it in terms of zombie cats, the observer effect does seem like bit of a stretch.

But I’m telling you…

Some recent experiments in quantum mechanics seem to suggest that the act of watching does, in fact, affect the outcome of an event. The experiment in question, if I understand it correctly - and it’s highly likely that I DO NOT* - involves firing electrons at a wall to see how they behave as they move through that wall. Electrons can behave as either particles or waves, and what the experiment proved is that while electrons can move through the wall as either particles or waves, they can only move through the wall as waves when they are not being observed.

Electrons behaving as waves are able to simultaneously pass through several openings in the wall and then to reconvene on the other side of the wall - something they can’t do as particles. Even more significantly, this measurable process (called “interference”) can only occur when no one is watching. See, electrons can only exist as waves when they exist in a multitude of states with a multitude of options for permeating that wall. Once the electrons are observed, though, they simultaneously and randomly choose specific options for permeating that wall. In other words, when under observation, electrons are being "forced" to behave like particles and not like waves. So, when the electrons move through the wall, they behave in one of two distinctly different ways, depending on whether or not they’re being watched. Thus the mere act of observation affects the experimental findings.

Which likewise suggests that the world as you observe it is not the world as it exists, because the world exists differently when you don’t observe it. It also suggests that when the Panasonic Flintlock tries to capture an image of a subject, the subject changes due to being observed. Therefore, the Panasonic Flintlock will never be able to capture reality as I see it, just like my brain will never be able to capture reality as it really exists. Stupid reality.

Or realities. Plural. Because there is one other possibility. Actually, there are an infinite amount of other possibilities, which is kind of the whole point. What if the electrons trying to get through that wall aren’t being forced to change due to the nature of being observed? Think about it. If there are an infinite number of quantum realities - and therefore an infinite number of outcomes for any given event - couldn’t those electrons simply be expressing one of an infinite number of outcomes? I mean, maybe in the reality that the quantum physicists happen to be observing, the electrons DO change behavior upon being watched. But if there are an infinite number of alternate quantum realities spinning around out there all at once, that means there’s an alternate quantum reality in which the electrons DON’T change their behavior upon being watched. Maybe all the quantum physicists are observing in their experiment is the manifestation of only one of an infinite number of possible outcomes in one of an infinite number of alternate quantum realities.

Which likewise means that there’s a jendocino out there in some alternate quantum reality with a Panasonic Flintlock that does see the world exactly as she does. Alternate Quantum Reality jendocino has an absolutely perfect picture of manzanita bark, I’m absolutely sure of it. And even if she doesn’t, there’s a jendocino in yet another alternate quantum reality who does. Maybe one of them even has a DMC-ZS3 that doesn’t shoot with a shutter delay, but somehow I doubt it.

*Disclaimer: I am not a quantum physicist. I don’t even know how to spell “physicist” - spell check had to correct me every single time, including on that last one. I did my best to try to explain here in direct terms some very spacey quantum concepts, but I might have made mistakes both in how I presented the conclusions of others, and in the logic used to explain my own ideas. The phone number for the alternate quantum reality in which jendocino is a quantum physicist is 707.555.1212. Please direct any complaints and / or concerns to her.

No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog post.


  1. In response to a recent query the Jendocino in my personal reality put to me over one of the many games we play, "I'm not sure you should ever observe me because how I currently exist is bound to change if you ever do."
    Also, "If you observe me your perception of me and our current co-existence will surly change."
    And "if you get a Zombiecat you should name it Schrodinger's, not Schrodinger."
    D: Don't ever use a flash, just hold real still.
    E: Number of the Beast - Heinein.
    and finally, in the words of my favorite Electron, "I can't do it if you're watching."
    Thank You, Goodnight Everybody!

  2. Spell Check?
    We don't need no stiking spell check.

  3. Okay! Forewarned was forearmed. I approached it. I read it. I became completely lost in realities. However, the bit about the camera was very important and reassuring. I have a Panasonic Flintlock too. It must be peculiar to the species though I must admit, my Canon and my Nikon behaved the same way. I have yet to find the perfect camera but of the three, I loved my Canon best.

    Very glad you were not beaned with the pinecone. That would have sent you into a very bad reality.

  4. My head hurt trying to follow Jendocino down her rabbit's hole exploration of time and physics. But I did wrap my mind around the tree falling in the forest. That was scaryclose. I also enjoyed your tale of photographic woe. I have been frustrated every time in my attempts to capture wet madrone bark--surely one of the most beautiful colors I've ever seen.

  5. Thank you all for slogging through my musings and commiserating with me over our various photographic woes. I keep telling myself that it wouldn't be a hobby if it wasn't frustrating sometimes. I'll keep trying, just so long as those bull pines let me! Oh, and Jonny, the advice to hold real still when you shoot? Priceless.

  6. Incidentally, Jonny...

    It’s quantum physics, not rocket science. Life is change, after all. Don’t overthink it.

    (Says the woman who just wrote a dense dozen pages covering the observer effect, alternate universes, and Schrodinger’s cat.)

    By the way, if I ever get a zombie cat, I’m naming it Hamachi. For a multitude of reasons. That is, presuming its tail hasn’t already rotted off, yellow or otherwise.


  7. I think I'll read this in the morning.