This exercise is a note-taking exercise, an exercise that is a kind of
formula for collecting information. The name is derived from physics,
and has to do with the way light behaves under different
circumstances--it can behave as a particle, or a wave. The field part
of the theory refers to the idea that the field is the larger
environment that affects the overall way light behaves. The PWF theory
is analogous to the way ideas or objects can "behave" as you look at
them from different time and space perspectives. Not only is the PWF
exercise good for taking notes, but it can be a good way to organize a
piece of writing. If you pay attention as you read any good essay,
you'll see that these various parts emerge, fade and reemerge in the
essay as you go along. As you take notes in the Particle Wave Field
exercise, let your mind be literal, simple, don't get too
complicated. Remember that this is a generating exercise. Let every
idea have an audition. You can edit later. You'll need to sit quietly
with a notebook for some time to do this exercise. Give yourself at
least 20 minutes.
Particle: In this part of the exercise you record details about the
object or idea you are looking at or pondering. Record all the details
of the "X" as a static object--size, weight, color, shape, smell, age,
texture, etc. If you get stumped, ask yourself questions: What does "X"
look like? How big is it?
Wave: In this part of the exercise, ask yourself questions about how
"X" changes over time. What was "X" doing before I got there? What will
"X" be doing after I leave? What is the history of "X"? What is the
future of "X"? You chose the time frame for describing how "X" changes
over time. You could describe changes over geologic epochs, or just
changes that occur while you sit there observing.
Field: In this part of the exercise, ask yourself what larger systems
"X" is a part of. What is the purpose of "X"? What does this "X" remind
you of beyond itself? Keep going outward in concentric circles until
you have an idea about the place of "X" in the bigger picture of the
Writing Sample:Particle: On Tuesday, September 16, I spent
some time in the Observation Tube that scientists have place on the ice
near McMurdo Station. The tube is made of thick metal and is painted
blue. About a third of it sits above the ice, and the rest, about ten
feet of it, goes down below the ice, into the cold ocean. To get down
in the tube, you climb up on the metal above the ice, put your feet
inside the tube and climb down using metal rungs in the side of the
tube. The tube is about two and a half feet in diameter, and is a tight
fit for some of the bigger people. At the bottom of the tube is a small
area with a wooden floor and a small stool. There are six long narrow
windows in the bell of the tube, so that you can sit and look out at
the ocean from under the ice.
When I first got down in the tube I sat down and took my mittens and
hat off. I could hear the wind buffeting the surface of the ice around
the top of the tube, but down where I sat it was still and quiet. My
companions above slipped the wooden cover back over the top of the tube
and then I sat in darkness. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I
could see quite a bit. I could see the bottom of the sea ice. It looked
to me like blooms of ice--great beautiful clusters of long, sharp
crystals. The ice was white in some places, gray in others, blue in
some places. I could see the dive hole near the tube. The dive hole is
used by divers who are collecting sea stars from the ocean bottom.
Running to the bottom of the ocean from the dive hole was a white cord
with checkered flags tied to it at intervals, a safety device used by
the divers. As my eyes adjusted even more to the darkness, I could make
out small animals floating and swimming in the dark water--what I later
learned were pteropods, a kind of mollusk; ctenophores; and amphipods.
The ctenophores glowed with an iridescent light, almost like a crystal
in a sunny window, giving off brilliant greens, blues, yellows and
reds. The other small creatures, which looked like small jellyfish,
undulated in the water, their tentacles delicate white, almost
invisible. At one point I was startled by a fish, probably about four
inches long, that suddenly appeared in the window of the bell,
fluttering its fins, pausing for a few moments right in front of me.
Another time, I might have been able to see a seal. And if it had been
lighter, I might have been able to see the ocean floor, covered with
sea stars, sea spiders, urchins, anemones, isopods. But it was too dark
for that. Another time I also might have been able to sit longer, be
still and quiet. But my friends above were, I knew, getting cold
waiting for me, so I climbed up the ladder and lifted the wooden top of
the tube with my head.
Field: The Observation Tube is partly used for science, and partly for
fun--for recreation for those who work at McMurdo station. What it does
is it lets us sit for a long time, safely and warmly, in a place where
we normally would never go, under the sea. We live on land, not in the
water. We can't breathe under there. It's not our place. Yet, this
contraption lets us enter that world, lets us learn about what happens
in spheres not our own. Being down there reminded me again of a
favorite quote of mine from Henry David Thoreau's book Walden.
In one chapter he writes about fishing at midnight on Walden Pond. He
says that he can see the sky in the water, so it seems to him he is
fishing doubly--in the water for real fish, which tug at his line, and
in the sky too, for ideas, for metaphorical fish. In any case, he is as
curious about this watery world under his boat as he is about the airy
world over his head--both spheres that he lives sandwiched between. The
Observation Tube reminds me of all the ways scientists and engineers
have devised "to go where no man has gone before"--to go into space, to
go to the moon, to go to Mars, to go deep into the world's oceans,
into the hearts of volcanoes, deep into the core of the planet.
Analysis:In the Particle part above I tried to record details
about the tube itself, about it's size, color, etc. In the Wave part
I tried to describe what happened over time as the lid was closed and
my eyes adjusted to the light. I also speculated on what I might have
seen had I been down there longer, or at another time. In the Field
part, I reach way beyond the tube itself and my experience to things
that the experience reminds me of, and also the part such observation
chambers play in the way we try to gain knowledge about the world.
Illustration above is "View From the Observation Tube: Ross Sea Music Fairies"