We All Float Down Here
On a lake, under the sea, in an isolation tank, and amid the space–time superfluid.
I. Skimming a Surface
Paddling a kayak on a placid lake lends a refreshing perspective to life. Also known as Bryant Pond, Lake Christopher is not very large, about a mile across at its longest. The reason for the dual names remains a mystery, but one thing is certain: lake or pond, it’s an extraordinarily peaceful place, an ideal escape for an Angeleno seeking to expand time and escape everyday modern B.S.
Here and there around the tree-lined perimeter, houses and docks poke out. There are two small islands on the lake — one is barely a speck and has one of those “tiny houses” that some well-intentioned hipsters are trying to popularize; the other is larger, with room enough for three full-size houses on it, barely visible through the woods. In a place that’s already somewhate remote, imagine needing a boat to get to your house. On these warm summer days, it sounds perfect.
The only sounds were the paddle hitting the water and the occasional unmistakable mad cries of the state’s protected loons. From a distance, one loon temporarily surfaced while it was fishing, casting a silhouette resembling that famous fraudulent photo of the Loch Ness Monster (perhaps itself floating “many miles away….at the bottom of a dark Scottish loch….”).
Directing the kayak across the calm, clear water, the urge is to set sights on a destination, only to reach it and then pick another. But this very modern way of thinking quickly fades, replaced by a calm realization that there are no goals here besides just floating around any which way you please — or wherever the current might take you when you retract your paddle.
Along the opposite shore, a tiny pedestrian bridge came into view. Passing up close revealed that a slight waterfall was breaking right underneath it. Curious where the water was rolling off to, but also not really caring, there was nothing to do but glide on by. In life, on a lake or not, sometimes that’s the best response. Just glide on by.
II. Weightless in an Alien World
Catalina Island, California
Soon it was time for another kind of floating. The first Friday after returning to L.A. just happened to be the day of my first scuba dive.
Two colleagues (one a certified instructor) and I met in Long Beach and took the 8:30 a.m. ferry to Avalon on Catalina Island. Tucked away behind what used to be a casino, concrete steps lead down to a little cove that offers as near to swimming-pool conditions as you’re likely to find in California’s share of the Pacific. Most new divers have to first train in a real swimming pool. How boring that must be! Nothing to see. This was different.
From the surface the area looks rather ordinary, but after taking the steps down to the water and peeking beneath, we were confronted with an explosion of color and sea life. The little marina is teeming with bright-orange Garibaldi and groups of iridescent blue fish, with red and green sea plants swaying beneath them. Lobster, octopuses, and sea lions are also known to hang out there.
A couple hours later, I was standing on the ocean floor about 20 feet deep, my first time completely submerged for an extended period, when my weight belt slid off and fell to the sandy bottom. As I tried not to float up and away, gripping an anchor as my buddy tried to get the weights back on me, my goggles fogged up. I hadn’t mastered clearing them, so I was stuck with nothing to look at anyway, much like the poor saps who train in a boring pool. But it left me free to concentrate on breathing and not freaking out.
Dive two went more smoothly: my weight belt was secure, and the pros had put some substance on the inside of my goggles to keep them clear. We descended again to the bottom and relaxed there for a bit before swimming on our way, heading deeper, skirting over the slanting floor’s waving plants, through darting fish that have learned to love divers (they sell fish food at the shore to people going in the water).
In the near distance, we could see our main destination: a rock affixed with a well-worn bronze plaque, a monument to the legendary Jacques Cousteau sitting 42 feet below the surface. Approaching the rock and grabbing on to it to read the inscription, we hung around there for some time before moving on. Looking up to the surface, groups of fish were illuminated by the bright blue sky overhead.
The only sounds were the respirator and the bubbles. In every direction was indescribable alien beauty. After 23 minutes underwater that felt like 10, it was time to leave. Stepping into the air after floating weightlessly, a great heaviness pushes down on you. For a few minutes it was hard to stand and walk, as if being above water was now foreign. But along with that physical heaviness was an inner elation, and a powerful desire to go back.
It’s surprisingly easy underwater to forget which way is up or down, to feel detached from above-ground life’s familiar orientation. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s easy underwater to remember that our usual orientation is relative anyway, that on a grand scale we’re all just floating around, that there is no true up or down in infinity, regardless of our perceptions. Our minds couldn’t withstand the truth, so they filter raw reality down to something a little more manageable.
Once you get used to breathing with a respirator and learn to move about more freely, reality underwater seems simpler still, which may explain the attraction to this silent world where no person really belongs. It’s exhilarating to float there as a guest for a while, down where there’s no time or reason to heed anything else in the world at all.
III. Extra-Exemplary Deprivation
Isolation Tanks in Venice Beach, California
In another coincidence, the very next morning after my first scuba adventure was my first session in a sensory-deprivation tank.
I had read about these tanks before. But over the summer I came across this evocative essay on floating (as tank aficionados call it) by M M Owen in Aeon Magazine, and on a whim searched for float tanks in L.A. — and was pleasantly surprised (though not really) to find three facilities in the area, including a highly rated one in Venice.
Walking up to Float Lab early that Saturday morning, I saw a man lying on his back in an adjacent parking lot, inebriated and singing up to the sky. Three stories above, a cat was poking its head out a tiny window, staring down at this spectacle. What other oddities awaited?
Here’s the gist of sensory-deprivation tanks: After taking a shower, you climb naked into a tank that holds a supersalinated sterile solution a little over a foot-and-a-half deep (the salt makes you float effortlessly). The solution is warm, ideally the same temperature as your body. Earplugs keep the fluid from getting in your ears and drown out sound. Once the door is shut, there is zero light — whether your eyes are closed or open, you “see” the same blank darkness, even after two hours, since there is no light for your eyes to adjust to. I’d learned that some floaters experience mild visual hallucinations, as the brain compensates for the complete lack of outside stimulation. That didn’t happen for me (maybe next time!).
Once you shut the door behind you, you just lay back, floating in this dark, silent environment, with only your thoughts to keep you company, plus the occasional sounds from splashes and your own internal body.
The owner of Float Lab had given some additional instructions: don’t shave that morning (the solution might sting if you get a cut); don’t eat that morning (you’ll hear your stomach digesting); don’t drink coffee (being wired on caffeine goes against the whole purpose of the experience).
I thought two hours would feel much longer, but time flew. The first minute I wondered whether I could even stay in there for so long, but almost immediately it began to feel wonderful. One of the first thoughts was that the tank was like a giant womb. After settling in to the relaxing environment, the mind sets off on its own course.
Now that I know what floating is like, I imagine all my future floats will be even more enjoyable and more…productive? Maybe productive isn’t the right word, but here’s the thing: in fleeting moments during those two hours, it felt like I was falling into myself, as if my consciousness had been isolated from my body. The feeling is jarring, and so each time I became aware of it I abruptly snapped back to my surroundings, floating there once more to chase away my thoughts, or at least follow where they might lead. With practice, I think it’s possible to get better at detaching and staying detached.
Exiting Float Lab puts you right on Ocean Walk at Venice Beach. I could see the white spray of ocean waves as they broke. All sorts of people were out and about, walking, jogging, biking, skateboarding, selling art, performing, being shady, having fun. The blue of the sky looked richer than before. All colors appeared amazingly vibrant, all sounds were sharp.
As I stepped toward the beach, I heard a Van Morrison song playing: “Hey where did we go, days when the rains came? Down in the hollow, playing a new game...” I grabbed an outside table at a café and watched the weird world go by. The feeling was utterly serene, the most relaxing thing I’ve ever done. Almost as if floating was our natural state....
IV. Oh You Know, Just Chillin’ in the Space–Time Superfluid (?)
In This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, adapted into book form from a commencement speech he gave to Kenyon College in 1995, David Foster Wallace famously tells a tale of two fish who have no idea at all that they’re surrounded by water. Being immersed is all they’ve ever known; it’s not like they have anything to compare it to.
Are we like those fish? We’re surrounded by air, but we only notice it when losing access to it. Air doesn’t feel like much to us. Yet the atmosphere is thick enough to lift gigantic planes when they achieve high enough speeds. If you think about it, airplanes are swimming up there above us, cushioned along by the invisible soup of nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen that makes up our sky. It’s not so different from those fish.
Now the research of some mathematicians and fluid dynamicists suggests that there’s another kind of floating going on all around (and within) us — and it could revolutionize our understanding of quantum physics.
Here’s a quick summary of their bombshell discoveries, quoted from an article first appearing in Quanta Magazine and later republished by Wired as “Have We Been Interpreting Quantum Mechanics Wrong This Whole Time?”:
“The experiments involve an oil droplet that bounces along the surface of a liquid. The droplet gently sloshes the liquid with every bounce. At the same time, ripples from past bounces affect its course. The droplet’s interaction with its own ripples, which form what’s known as a pilot wave, causes it to exhibit behaviors previously thought to be peculiar to elementary particles — including behaviors seen as evidence that these particles are spread through space like waves, without any specific location, until they are measured.
“To some researchers, the experiments suggest that quantum objects are as definite as droplets, and that they too are guided by pilot waves — in this case, fluid-like undulations in space and time....”
And now to dive deeper into the physics…
Just kidding, I can’t do that. But here are some phenomena previously thought to be explained only by super-weird quantum theory that have actually been replicated by looking at droplets of mercury bouncing on the surface of fluids:
- Single- and double-slit interference (this alone is huge; the article linked above quotes the great Richard Feynman as saying that this phenomenon is “impossible…to explain in any classical way”)
- Barrier tunneling
- Bound orbit states
- “[P]roperties analogous to quantum spin and electromagnetic attraction”
- Standing waves
- Distributions statistically identical to what would be observed at the quantum scale
It could even explain one of the strangest traits in all of quantum mechanics — entanglement:
If space and time behave like a superfluid, or a fluid that experiences no dissipation at all, then path memory could conceivably give rise to the strange quantum phenomenon of entanglement — what Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” When two particles become entangled, a measurement of the state of one instantly affects that of the other. The entanglement holds even if the two particles are light-years apart.
So the basis of our universe, at its smallest scale, could be a superfluid, with each particle causing waves and ripples that go on and on in perpetuity….
What might be the ramifications of this? “The pilot-wave theory is deterministic: The future evolves dynamically from the past, so that, if the exact state of all the particles in the universe were known at a given instant, their states at all future times could be calculated.”
The future evolves dynamically from the past.... Their states at all future times could be calculated....
So scientists out there are actively demonstrating that everything creates ripples that later affect everything else, that everything is interrelated — even at the most infinitely microscopic level imaginable. All matter, at its most elemental level, might be just floating around in a fluid we experience as the space–time continuum.
Which would mean that we are just floating around in an infinite superfluid of space and time, hopefully trying to do good but certainly making plenty of poor decisions along the way.
I’m just going to leave all that physics and ontology there I guess. But I was reminded of this mind-blowing theory while watching a beautiful animation of Dan Deacon’s beautiful song “When I Was Done Dying”:
As the speaker transcends the material world to become pure consciousness, floating around as just “a flash made of time,” a higher power assuming the form of Mother Earth confronts him before sending him on his way to live another life.
And the Earth looked at me and said, “Wasn’t that fun?”
And I replied, “I’m sorry if I hurt anyone.”
… She said, “Better luck next time. Don’t worry so much.”
So, maybe life is about making the most harmonious, least harmful ripples we can, then bracing ourselves for the unknowably great multitude of other ripples constantly barreling our way? If navigating a superfluid is the essence of our existence, is the point of life...to get really good at floating?
I’ll have to reflect on this some more the next time I’m locked in a sensory-deprivation tank.
Better luck next time! Don’t worry so much.
Posted on October 2, 2015