Analogy, an-al’e-ji, n. an agreement or correspondence in certain respects between things otherwise different. [Gr. analogia – ana, according to, and logos, ratio.]
We all wonder whether our dreams have anything to tell us. At the same time there’s nothing so dull as hearing about someone else’s dreams. We all frequently wake up perplexed or even distressed by what has been going on in our minds whilst in the realm of Hypnos. My friend Harrison told me the strangest story, that concerns dreaming, saying that it was the most disturbing case he had come across in his profession, yet at the same time the most up-lifting.
Physicist Esme Lloyd, Harrison began, had asked herself at the age of fourteen, in her immaculately kept journals, how it was that we dream of places, situations and people that we have never been in or met in waking life. Delighted and intrigued that occasional dreams held no correlation to any aspect of her own life, she began, on top of the journals, to record her dreams. There are, of course, several kinds of dream, Harrison said: the dreaming that clears the mind of the day’s white noise; anxiety dreams; dreams of desire and the so-called lucid dreaming. None of these was of interest to Esme. She waited for the incongruous and inexplicable fragments to come to her at night and wrote them down as soon as she woke. She read Jung and Freud and pronounced them both way off the mark. For Esme, the one common factor in all our dreams is our self. In her journals she writes:
How can I dream I am someone else? The knowing of it confirms that I’m still really me. We cannot dream we are someone else. That would surely be a contradiction, an impossibility that goes against the uniqueness of the self.
We dream in pictures and our dreams nearly always have a soundtrack. Light, and to a lesser degree sound, were obsessions for Esme, ones that took her, at the age of twenty-six, to the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory at Weston, Illinois, to research her PhD. It is only through our knowledge of light, said Harrison, that we have been able to measure and understand what we do about the universe.
The fourteenth century Papal proclamation that the concept of a vacuum was a heresy, since it denied the existence of God, had interested the teenage Esme. Harrison quoted again:
There can be no such thing as nothing and there can be no end to the universe. There is room for continual regeneration, endless bifurcation.
This was very prescient for someone yet to sit A-levels. Current theory holds that the universe was formed out of a state we may call nothing, but is in fact a state of high activity where electrons and anti-electrons (Dirac and Anderson’s Positrons) can borrow energy, seemingly from no-where, fizz apart and then re-unite. Our solar system exists in a galaxy, Harrison said, of two hundred billion suns and in a universe that may be comprised of one hundred billion further galaxies. The scale is unfathomable but the universe can be seen as a macrocosm of the sub-atomic particles that make it up. Those particles often have contradictory properties and can behave in ways which, to us, seem unreasonable. For instance, it is impossible to calculate their position and their speed at the same time. It is therefore entirely plausible that the observable universe is just as unpredictable as a collection of elementary particles. The Relative State Formulation put forward by Hugh Everett in 1957, and re-named The Many Worlds Theory in the nineteen-sixties, views reality as continually bifurcating. Put simply, any event in the past was a branch point and any consequences that did not materialise here will have been realised in another universe that branched off from ours at that very event. This, Harrison said, is not science fiction. Everett met Niels Bohr, author of the Copenhagen Interpretation, the man who famously said:
Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.
In the same way that sound pushes air, explained Harrison, and produces vibrations on a diaphragm in a microphone which are then transferred to the grooves on a disc in a phonographic recording and upon playback – when the process is reversed – a speaker moves air molecules to reproduce the original sounds, Esme proposed that our dreams are an analogue of some other experience that is, nevertheless, specific to ourselves.
In 1826, Harrison continued, Nicephore Niepce, focusing light with a lens, had fixed on a metal plate, without any manual intervention, a positive image of rooftops, buildings and trees on his heavily mortgaged estate south-east of Paris. This was the first analogue image of our world and photography – drawing with light – was born. Fifty-one years later Thomas Edison, having found a way to record and play back his voice, first demonstrated his phonograph drawing with sound. The key point for Esme, or for all of us, Harrison said, is that sound and light are forms of energy and in our universe energy never disappears, it is endlessly recycled. It’s neither created nor destroyed. It can be held or suspended and then released in a different form and, crucially, in a different place.
It’s interesting to note, Harrison said, that for Esme the analogy did not hold true in the case of digital reproduction since she regarded digital as synthetic in the same way that, for instance, synthetic insulin has never been near a pancreas. Perhaps, he said, this is why there is a warmer look to silver based photographs and films, and why audiophiles claim a kinder tone to analogue recordings.
Esme, Harrison continued, was a loner and a dreamer, according to colleagues and one day she upped and left, resigned her teaching post in California, returned to the UK and put her affairs in order. One evening she sat in a hot bath, turned on the valve of a large cylinder of nitrogen to fill the room with that gas, bringer of life and death. I very much hope, said Harrison, that she slipped into another one of those worlds.
The usual way of things, Harrison went on to say, is to conclude that the deceased had committed suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed. In this case he felt unable to make that judgement. Harrison intended to say in court the next day, from his position as coroner, that Esme Lloyd had taken the idea of the Quantum Suicide Thought Experiment and put it into practice, whilst of sound mind. The line that he couldn’t forget, he said, from reading twenty-three years of her journals was this:
If we are not shocked by our dreams then we have not understood them.
Header photograph: By NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons