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Quantum Genealogy

By Daniel Hubbard | July 19, 2010

I just ran across an article in an old newsletter that I found among my aunt’s papers. The title was Quantum Genealogy and as a former research physicist, it caught, or perhaps even grabbed, my eye. The article mostly discussed the author’s research experiences without so many references to the quantum world, so in my mind, I began to write the article that I thought I was about to read.

Accepting the Strange

The quantum world is a strange and wonderful place. Without our understanding of it, I wouldn’t be able to write this on my computer. I couldn’t have just watched a DVD and my television would be far more primitive than it is. Yet quantum mechanics can’t help but seem truly strange to us. The quantum world is a world of uncertainty and probability. It is a world where particles can be in two places at once and yet not really be in either place, and what seems impossible to us happens all the time. Without those strange things going on among the tiniest bits of reality, we and our everyday world could not exist. When studying these things one simply has to develop a sense of wonder to go along with all the mathematics, logic and experimental results.

That kind of acceptance of the strange, not in opposition to reason but wedded to it, can serve the genealogist well. It is, perhaps, part of the art of genealogy—learning the often small difference between gullibility and the tentative acceptance of something that seems odd but just might be a possibility worth investigating. The other side of that coin is the ability to weed out the ridiculous without rejecting all possibilities that are not obvious. Those are not trivial skills. The path to a mysterious ancestor is often a winding one (otherwise there would by no mystery). If after failing with the straight paths, we neglect the crooked ones, we won’t make discoveries. If we unconditionally believe the first crooked path that roughly seems to fit, we’ve likely made a mistake.

Feeling Certain

In quantum physics, the closer one looks at things, the more they seem if not totally random, probabilistic. The objects we deal with in out daily lives do not jump about as they would in the quantum realm. If you put your toothbrush in a glass in the evening, you won’t find it in the toaster in the morning (unless of course, you have a three-year-old in the house, but that is another matter). Yet to speak about the position of an electron in an atom is nearly meaningless. We are reduced to discussing the probability it has of being in a given region of space. Peer down even deeper and space and time, matter and energy jump about seething with randomness. The closer we look the less certain of anything we can be.

Such is the past. Write down a name, a place and a date and feel certain. Then ask who, where and when. Is this person really the person we are investigating or just someone with a similar name? Where was this place that appears on no modern map? Ask what that date means. Look closer at it. How does it relate to our calender? The harder we look, the less sure we may become—until we do the work to complete our understanding. Wrong results are very easy to come by, right answers can be much more effort.

Socrates’ Cat

When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he was speaking in the present to encourage the listener to examine his or her own life. Genealogists and biographers take that exhortation into the past. The unexamined life was perhaps not worth having been lived and we try to save our ancestors from such a fate. Yet in the quantum realm, examining and observing change the subject of the observation. Schödinger’s famous, though imaginary, cat was neither alive nor dead until an observer’s observation forced reality to choose for it to be one way or the other.

So it is with past lives. When we examine them we change them, though not as dramatically as the cat in Schödinger’s thought experiment. We change the reconstruction of the life we are examining. We change its meaning. We do hope, of course, to come ever closer to the truth but we always make a change.

Feeling Uncertain

One well proven fact of the science of quantum mechanics is the “uncertainty principle.” It states that certain pairs of measurable quantities can never be known to perfection at the same time. The better an object’s position is known the less that can be known about how it is moving, the better its motion is known the less that can be known about where it is as it moves. In everyday life we never notice this because we never know anything with the extreme precision that makes its partner quantity nearly unknowable. When a child rolls a ball across the floor, we have no problem knowing where it is and how it moves well enough to grab it. It is hard to imagine otherwise, yet when precisely measuring at ultrasmall scales, the uncertainty principle comes into play every time.

I often find a similar principle to be true of past lives. The more we learn about some parts of a person’s existence, the more puzzling and unknowable, even mysterious, other parts seem to become. There is no natural barrier here to learning more, as there is in quantum physics. It is simply that without the successes elsewhere we would not know enough to be puzzled and our expectations about what we can know wouldn’t be high enough to give us the feeling that we have the right to be puzzled. Perhaps there is also a part of the art of genealogy here—the optimism that it is only what one has accomplished that makes it possible to be confused.

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Topics: Genealogy | 4 Comments »

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4 Responses to “Quantum Genealogy”

  1. Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith Says:
    July 26th, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks to Randy Seaver for sending me here, and to you for writing this. Neat! Also, now I understand why I switched from Physics, to Math, to Business, to Genealogy… 😉

    Bill 😉
    Author of “Back to the Homeplace”
    and “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories”

  2. sbaird Says:
    July 31st, 2011 at 4:10 am

    Hi, stumbled across your blog today. I think I have read nearly everything in your archives. I really enjoyed it. Have you ever thought that sometimes your birth date can indicate your date of death. In many instances in my husband’s family their birth date just seems to be an anagram of their death. I haven’t explored it further!

    Kind regards, sarah baird

  3. Randy Schoenberg Says:
    February 3rd, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    I liked this article. Different, but in a way similar to the blog post I wrote “On Certainty in Genealogy” at

  4. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    February 4th, 2014 at 9:46 am

    Randy, Thanks for stopping by. I just read your post and noticed that you also discuss Karl Popper. I wrote about him here-