“In the early 1920s, Niels Bohr was struggling to reimagine the structure of matter. Previous generations of physicists had thought the inner space of an atom looked like a miniature solar system with the atomic nucleus as the sun and the whirring electrons as planets in orbit. This was the classical model. But Bohr had spent time analyzing the radiation emitted by electrons, and he realized that science needed a new metaphor. The behavior of electrons seemed to defy every conventional explanation. As Bohr said, “When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” Ordinary words couldn’t capture the data.
Bohr had long been fascinated by cubist paintings. As the intellectual historian Arthur Miller notes, he later filled his study with abstract still lifes and enjoyed explaining his interpretation of the art to visitors. For Bohr, the allure of cubism was that it shattered the certainty of the object. The art revealed the fissures in everything, turning the solidity of matter into a surreal blur.
Bohr’s discerning conviction was that the invisible world of the electron was essentially a cubist world. By 1923, de Broglie had already determined that electrons could exist as either particles or waves. What Bohr maintained was that the form they took depended on how you looked at them. Their very nature was a consequence of our observation. This meant that electrons weren’t like little planets at all. Instead, they were like one of Picasso’s deconstructed guitars, a blur of brushstrokes that only made sense once you stared at it. The art that looked so strange was actually telling the truth.”