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Observer Effect

by Kevin McMahon



“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”

- Werner Heisenberg, 1958




Sites of the Northwest.  Two days since departing Seattle had uncovered ugly backwaters along the Olympic coastline, a laden fog blanketing the mouth of the Columbia, and a place to camp overnight at a rest area along Interstate 5. 

Living on the road meant learning to adjust to whatever random challenges might arise.  The days could encounter multiple changes in direction, both geographic and mental.  To prevent the uncertainties from overwhelming required a sharp focus on those components of the daily routine which stayed constant.  There were practical matters that surfaced with an expected frequency: locating a quiet and safe place to park for the night, dinners cooked on the collapsible Coleman stove, rolling out the blankets beneath the truck’s campertop.

When not attending to these necessities of day-to-day survival, my mind was kept preoccupied by the daunting distances through the wilderness.  The road wound deep into forests, shadowed recessive ridgelines, or brushed the palm of the universe on cloudless nights.  Here the mind was free to wander, to pursue a trivial course of logic, or – just as likely – rants of pure irrationality.

Yet, somehow, these seemingly conflicted corners of the mind could manifest moments of remarkable clarity.  When the confusion receded, and both the present and the abstract aligned into coherent truth.  A perspective revealed only in the collision of two divergent mental courses.


Come morning, the busy interstate was quickly left behind and I returned to more gentle roads, where the Unknown waited.  The truck carried me east along US26 toward Mt. Hood.  Stoplights, utility poles, fastfood signs – the details of the surface world moved casually past while the mountain’s frozen peak rose to a fixed point in the windshield, drawing me forth hypnotically.





I become aware of my observation of the surroundings – the broken lines over the pavement, the rate at which the trees are passed, the peak in the distance.  I am now conscious of my observing, of noting where my eyes wander, how frequently I turn back to the car in front of me.

With this awareness, my observation is transformed from a passive act to something deliberate.  Only gradually do the implications of this consideration start to unfold.  I recall the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: a limitation of simultaneously knowing both the precise position and motion of a subatomic particle. The experimental proof of this idea arising from the ability to detect such indescribably small masses only from their reactions to other particles – namely photons.  The conservation of energy implies the photons’ impact must produce some deviation either in the target’s position or movement; the inescapable outcome of the principle is undeniably established: to observe such a particle is to influence it.

I ponder whether this axiom – meant for the subatomic – applies congruently in the world of larger scales, against objects which can be seen and heard and felt by human senses.  I concentrate on the slope of Mt. Hood, focusing on a point midway up the steepest side.  Not just seeing it, I am observing it.  But am I influencing it?  How can a person, who must appear so small to the mountain, influence such a massive body simply by observing it?

As my truck draws closer, a potential explanation arises out of oft-scattered and vaguely remembered bits of science:  From the subatomic perspective, some number of photons is striking the mountain every instant.  A subset of these, no doubt, eventually reflect down to my truck; some pass through the windshield, and a fraction find their way to my retina. They confirm to me the mountain’s shape, color and size; its presence.  But all the remaining photons – the ones that escape my eye – are sent elsewhere, perhaps off my forehead or t-shirt.  To pass again through the windshield and back into the world.

Their wavelength is forever altered in ways that are a function of my presence.  Some number of these photons may even find their way back to the mountain, only because of the particular change in their course unintentionally caused by my presence.  These, in turn cause other subatomic particles on the mountainside to move or accelerate or do something they would not otherwise do were I someplace else.  I am influencing the mountain.  And while my effect on such a massive body may be undetectable, the magnitude of this idea looms larger than the mountain itself.





The peak had disappeared from view once the road began its flirtation with the mountain’s base.  Its broad slopes would have to remain unexplored with the highway turning south into the well-cooked flatlands of central Oregon.  In the span of just a few minutes, the landscape completely transformed itself from a caressing forest of evergreen into a parched grassland crossed by columns of sand and only a few lingering scrubby pines.  The temperature climbed in unison with the midday sun overhead.  Heat radiated off the paved surface as I sped south down the dry, eastern flank of the Cascades.

The road began its descent into the Deschutes River Valley where the outside temperatures were mitigated only by the truck’s air conditioner.  My progress into the interior country slowed under the bright sun, and I scanned the roadside for a place to pause.  Badlands surrounded the distance.  But then an unexpected break in the sands: to the south, a sizeable reservoir appeared between interruptions in the rock, its banks giving life to a park with trees standing green and strong against the desert-like surroundings. I turned onto the approach and guided the truck towards the waiting relief from the afternoon’s heat.

I found the park crowded with people.  Perhaps other wanderers observing their own mountains.  Next to shimmering waters, children ran between the parked cars and over giant tree roots.  Music glided from a nearby radio, but was occasionally carried off by the intermittent breeze.  Underneath a high canopy of leaves, I rested the truck and waited for the sun to relinquish its tight grip on the afternoon.

Even from under the trees’ protective shade, the practical concerns of my mind slipped away in the afternoon’s warmth.  The remaining miles to be covered faded to an indistinguishable background against which more unearthly ideas simmered.  On the way into sleep, my mind lingered on recent enlightenments while the sound of the afternoon retreat played randomly within the bounds of my perception.  But its will was no longer a self-contained universe: I was changing the quality of this sound simply by listening to it.




It was unclear exactly how much time had passed when I awoke, but it was readily apparent the diversion from the road lasted deep into the afternoon.  Now that the sun had started its slow descent to the desert’s surface, it was time to return to the road.  Over the outer slopes of the foothills, my mind returned to more immediate matters: scanning the signs carefully in search of the cheapest gasoline, a check of the tires for leaks, a glance at the roadmap with some estimation of how many additional miles could be covered before nightfall.

As the afternoon turned to dusk I found myself along a road inconsistently marked on the maps: Highway 205 – sometimes paved, sometimes gravel, depending on the particular reference.  But always shown dropping south to the Nevada border, across a region of deep emptiness.  The passing cars could be counted on one hand until they stopped appearing altogether.  Even the sun seemed to abandon me; it sank low in the sky and hesitated just at the horizon, as if to ask whether I was certain of having traveled the correct road.  But it disappeared before I could answer.  The only response was to bear down against the road as it camouflaged into the dry plane of sand and grass.  My eyes strained into the twilight.





In my mind I can still see the mountain; it appears directly ahead and hovers in plain view before the root of my optic nerve.  Its white peak stands stark against the darkening road.  But now there is the understanding I am changing the mountain’s attributes as I observe them.

My thoughts wander unguided across the empty grassland of Idea, unhinged from the physical being that is seated inside a small truck moving over the Oregon steppe.  It rises to see past the horizon of reason and experience, to search for the destination of its particular path.  Here, the initial idea takes another step away from its origin: there is no difference in the impression upon my mental canvas between the mountain of this morning (seen with my eyes), and the mountain of the evening (recalled in my memory).  If I can change the mountain by observing it with my eyes, can it also be changed by picturing it in my mind?

If my thoughts stray upon any of the mountain’s thousands of individual features – the shape of the largest ice field, or the length of a particular crevasse – can this affect something in the physical realm?  Perhaps the thought triggers a longer moment of glancing through the windshield – photons are deflected.  Or might the mental image well up in a dream, resulting in an extra moment of sleep – forever altering the rest of the day and, thus, the entire future.

In the shadows of this desert twilight, is it possible I am influencing an eleven thousand foot peak two hundred miles away simply by recalling its memory?  If not, then what is it I am influencing should the mountain not exist outside the borders of this perception?






The overbearing heat which had stifled the journey’s progress during the afternoon was now far behind.  Darkness had overtaken my advance south by the time I reached the Nevada state line and the wretched border town of Denio.  It was little more than a gas station at the junction of another road leading west.

This would make a quiet place to camp for the night, but I suspected the station’s gravel lot may have been private property.  I parked at the far corner away from the facility, hoping to remain unnoticed and unbothered.  The soft breeze rustled across the desert like a wisp at the mouth of a silent gun barrel: peacefully on edge, but cautiously anticipating the inevitable explosion to shatter its serenity.

The moon was full, but veiled in a thin streak of high cloud which distorted its exact location and obscured its detail.  Its reflective light spread across a whole quadrant of the sky like jelly over toast.  Pinned above was the planet Mars, easy to identify since it appeared noticeably larger than the surrounding points of light.

To complete the day, I needed a stretch of the muscles, the recirculation of blood to my legs, and the deep cool of desert air against my skin.  Before rolling out the blankets, I set out on foot down the long state highway that led back towards the Cascades.  Thirty yards in front, a sign loomed up out of the featureless ground warning travelers of the emptiness to come: NO SERVICE NEXT 81 MI.  But this threat did little to dissuade me – I scampered up the shoulder to the flat pavement and strolled past the silhouettes of a million sagebrush stretched far into the distance.  The only sound of the open range was the rhythmic contact of my shoes against the asphalt as I straddled the boundary of Earth and Night.

A deliberate pace kept me along the dashed yellow paint of the road’s centerline.  Only a half dozen spaces were illuminated in the moonlight before they surrendered to the black curtain.  Beyond, the road might have hit a mountain, dropped into the ocean or simply given up and ended.  Still the sage continued into infinity.

I walked no further than the roadsign, fearing it delineated some boundary that could not be crossed by foot.  All was now at rest.  –But not at peace.  Against the silence I peered into the night, waiting for the world to erupt.  In the darkness something stirred at the road’s apex, a movement in the shadows.  Until at once a brilliant light burst from the invisible horizon, an eye on the hunt.

Headlights: still distant, but racing fast out of the west.  From the way they hovered gently in their approach, they must have glared from at least several miles away.  The air remained calm and no sound could be heard from the coming vehicle.  But time had resumed from its standstill and gradually accelerated as the light ahead grew larger and brighter.  A halo of the approaching entity.

Don’t let it see you.  Get off the road.

My legs moved again: toward the oncoming light, past one indifferent dash of the center line after another.  Far behind, the neon of the gas station emitted a deceiving glow of safety.  But I did not turn back.  Not yet.

Don’t let it see you, don’t let it OBSERVE you.

The headlights continued to grow ahead, looming larger and separating into a shape with twin centers.  I rotated my head skyward to find the stars had disappeared.  The rest of the galaxy had already found a place to hide.  Except for the moon which seemed to have shifted its orbit even nearer, hovering now as close as the approaching car.


Quickly, I scattered down the side of the road and ducked behind a sage at the base of the shoulder.  Turning my gaze towards the ground, I crouched in waiting for the car’s arrival.  But the night’s silence remained firm and refused to answer the question of the vehicle’s proximity.  I heard nothing of its approach, and my patience was beginning to fail.  I thought about rising up for a brief glance, though doing so would reveal my hidden position in the desert brush.

But before I could stand, the air carried the first piercing of tires over the asphalt.  Its intensity grew quickly and seemed to echo, despite the emptiness of the landscape.  Still hugging the ground, I focused my eyes on the gas station.  It seemed to be falling farther away at each glance.  In the foreground, the sage turned from deep gray to a shade of aggressive pine as, one by one, they were caught by the car’s headlights.

                                           Not until the scream reached its most penetrating pitch did the vehicle pass at breakneck speed.  I was uncertain if it was the car itself spotted momentarily in the periphery, or whether it was simply the individual molecules of air rushing out of its way.  A pair of red eyes glared back, still searching for my hidden whereabouts, while I resolved to stay put until the vehicle turned either north or south at the junction.  Only once the night’s silence returned did I emerge from behind the protective sage.


I glance behind and notice the stars have returned to the sky.  The photon-sensitive cells of my retina consume the reflective light of Mars before moving on to the entirety of the universe.




All Images and Text copyright Kevin McMahon, 2008