by Larry Floersch
As we all know from high school, one of the basic tenets of quantum physics is that the very act of observing can alter the result. Now I know what you’re thinking. “But Lare, that only has relevance when you’re talking about quarks, Higgs bosons, and the Large Hadron Collider.” Don’t be too sure. A lot depends on who and how many are doing the observing of anything. I remember how, many years ago, I tried to observe Leonardo da Vinci’s painting the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. Because the entire population of Italy was also there observing it, what I was able to see looked like a postage stamp on the wall. This was the same entire population of Italy that also altered the result of my observing the city of Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower. There, the panoramic view of the Seine, Notre Dame and Montmartre looked just like the backs of other people’s heads.
I found out later from an art history book that the Mona Lisa is not a postage stamp at all, but the image of some unknown woman’s face or maybe even the face of Leonardo himself while he was getting in touch with his feminine side. But I couldn’t swear to it from what I observed in the Louvre.
I had a similar experience just a few weeks ago in New York City. I went to the Museum of Modern Art. There, on the fifth floor, they have Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting “The Starry Night.” I know this because it said so in the little map they give you when you get your ticket. I finally located the fifth floor (normally I am very good with maps, having almost mastered the art of refolding them into their original configuration, but this map and the building it supposedly depicted didn’t always seem to match). Once I found the correct gallery, my observation of “The Starry Night” was altered by a large group of people with their backs to the painting, so what I managed to observe was just a tiny patch of some swirly blue and yellow paint between two guys’ shoulders. One would think that since these people were not observing “The Starry Night,” nothing would have been altered and I would have been able to see it, but as it turns out they were observing it, just not directly. I kid you not, they were observing it through their cell phones as they obtained “selfies” in front of it. I guess I’m old school, where you go to a museum to look AT something, not AT yourself in front of that something. Still, given the fame van Gogh achieved during his lifetime, which was zero, I am sure he would be happy to know that “The Starry Night” now serves as a background for the faces of hundreds of people on a daily basis.
The advertisers on the jumbotrons in Times Square must feel like van Gogh as well. Times Square is where selfieness reaches a pinnacle. When I wasn’t contending with people in shabby costumes of superheroes or Sesame Street characters trying to make a buck by posing with tourists, or people almost walking into me because they were looking down while texting on their cell phones, I was dodging people holding their cell phones at arm’s length while not observing the jumbotrons but trying to align themselves in their phone cameras with the jumbotrons in the background.
Selfie fans are now aided in their quest for selfies by the latest in technological wizardry. This device makes the task of obtaining a selfie easier for the user, more dangerous to bystanders and is hawked by vendors all over Times Square. I am talking of course about the selfie stick. For those of you not familiar with the device, a selfie stick is an arm “extender,” adding about two or three feet to your humerus, radius and ulna, thus improving perspective and widening the background of your selfie photos. You clamp your smart phone into it, plug a wire into the phone and use a button on the handle of the stick to click the camera’s shutter. You see selfie sticks, or as some people call them, “narcissticks,” all over New York. If you are at sidewalk level, many a double-decker tour bus will go by with nothing but a large field of cell phone “lollipops” waving about from the upper deck.
I just read in a large metropolitan newspaper that, according to behavioral scientists who make it their business to worry about such things, people who take a lot of selfies have narcissistic, psychopathic and Machiavellian personality traits. I don’t think that’s true. I am convinced the selfie craze is my mother’s fault. For years I would return from vacations and business trips and with great pride show her carefully framed and dramatically lit photos of things I had seen, such as the Grand Canyon or the cathedral in Chartres, only to have my artistic ego deflated with a simple dismissive comment, “but you’re not in it.” Since she was a sedentary and somewhat reclusive person, what I just do not understand is how all these selfie fans came to know and adopt her philosophy that if you’re not in the photo it didn’t happen.
Even NASA has gotten into the selfie act. Using a rocket as a giant selfie stick, they recently sent a satellite a million miles into space. They then pointed the camera on the satellite back at Earth and took a photograph. That photograph appeared on the Internet a few weeks ago. I do not know if that “ultimate” selfie will quell the urge by so many people to obtain selfies here on the ground, but there we are in that photo, all of us, all at once, in the words of astronomer Carl Sagan, “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” And the background in that photo is nearby stars and distant galaxies set against the infinite blackness of the universe — the original “Starry Night.”