I recently read a very interesting NY Times column, The Reality of Quantum Weirdness, by UC Berkeley professor Edward Frenkel. In the column, professor Frenkel discusses a very deep and important question: Is there such a thing as a true reality, or “is our belief in a definite, objective, observer-independent reality an illusion?” The article is about the strange world of quantum mechanics, a world that’s very different from our everyday life experiences. But part of my fascination with the subject is that I often ask myself similar questions when thinking about the equally mysterious world of highly complex emergent systems, that is, systems where the whole can at times be quite different from the sum of their parts.
Frenkel is an author, - Love and Math is his most recent book, - and a filmmaker in addition to being a mathematician. He uses the so-called Rashomon effect to illustrate his points, an effect named after Rashomon, a classic 1950 film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, one of the most prominent and influential directors of all time.
The movie is famous for its novel plot device. Near Kyoto, a samurai has been killed, but it’s not clear why or by whom. Four different characters tell widely different versions of the same event: the samurai’s wife who says she was raped by a bandit, subsequently fainted and then awoke and found her husband dead; a bandit who says he seduced the wife and then killed the samurai in an honorable duel; a woodcutter who says he witnessed the rape and murder but did not want to get involved; and the dead samurai, who speaking through a medium said that the shame of the events he witnessed drove him to kill himself.
The film is an exploration of multiple realities, where it’s not at all clear if there is a real truth, let alone what it might be. The Rashomon effect has thus come to stand for the contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people.