Of performers and observers

In physics there is a phenomenon known as the “observer effect” which describes the impact of observation or measurement process on the result for the quantity being measured.

Of performers and observers

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I n physics there is a phenomenon known as the “observer effect” which describes the impact of observation or measurement process on the result for the quantity being measured. For example, if we want to measure the temperature of an object with a thermometer by placing the thermometer in contact with the object, the thermometer will extract some heat from the object and change its temperature. When we measure tyre pressure using a gauge, insertion of the gauge in the valve releases some air from the tyre, thus altering the pressure we are trying to measure.

This observer effect extends to the microscopic level. To determine the position of an electron, for example, in an imaginary thought experiment, a photon must be reflected by the electron to be “visible” and as a result the momentum of the electron would be altered because of the collision between the photon and electron.

This introduces an uncertainty in the electron’s momentum and neither its position nor momentum can be determined exactly. The entire subject of quantum mechanics embraces this uncertainty.


This results in wave-particle duality where particles exhibit wave behaviour on some occasions and particle behaviour at other times. One could say that the wave nature of particles is the ultimate cause of the uncertainties. This observer effect can be generalized to a much wider arena. In fact, this effect (change in an action caused by the process of observation) is present in all activities that we engage in. To be completely accurate, we should redefine any action as a combination of the action itself plus the impact of the observer on the action.

This is true in our activities in our jobs, sports, music, politics, household chores and so on. An incomplete description of an event gives rise to unnecessary confusion, debate and wrong followup actions.

Take sporting activities as an example. There is no point in organizing an event if there are no spectators and the cheering of the spectators would have an impact on the performance of an athlete. It does not make sense for an author to write a book if no one is going to read it. How the book would be received by the readers is always on the author’s mind.

A cook only cooks if there are people who like his cooking and cooks to their tastes. Even a political speech is intended to excite/inspire the audience and this anticipated reaction is factored into the speech itself. It is well established that the behaviour of people, even when they are doing mundane routine things (such as eating, driving a car or going to the bathroom) changes if they know that they are being watched. For any given type of activity, we can divide all people into two groups: “performers” who take the initiative and do something, while the other group consists of “observers”, who just watch the performers perform.

The actions of performers can be constructive or destructive.

Constructive activities result in tangible outputs like music, essays, paintings, buildings, contests, new laws and so on. A destructive performer destroys things. He/she can be a protester, a soldier, a robber, or an arsonist.

An observer can be a critic, a newspaper editor, a fan or admirer, a diner at a restaurant, an art enthusiast, a media “pundit” who supports or dislikes the actions generated by the doers. The observers do not produce anything new of their own. They basically go around by quoting the experts in the field, comparing performances, drawing analogies, speculating “what if” scenarios, establishing plausible theories to justify their opinions and so on.

They try to influence others to think along the same line. Sometimes, it seems like the same narrative is being circulated.

However, these two groups not only need each other, the presence of one group automatically ensures origination of the other group. The classic symbols of a doer and an observer in Hindu mythology are Krishna and Radha. Krishna is the performer (by playing the flute) and Radha is the appreciative listener or observer. Electromagnetic fields provide another example of the performer/observer concept from physics. The electromagnetic field is an intertwined combination of an electric field (E-field) and a magnetic field (or B-field).

According to Maxwell’s equations, a time-varying E-field automatically generates a Bfield and vice versa. This is like the scenario of the action of a performer automatically generating critics and critics influencing the performances. If we represent the activities of performers and observers by the flow of water in a tank, then the performers’ work represents a “source” (faucet) if it is constructive or “sink” (drain) if it is destructive, Actions of observers would appear as a whirlpool.

There is no source or sink in the water flow representing observers because they do not produce anything new, and a whirlpool is a perfect metaphor for some circulative narrative on a given activity. The two examples from physics show that the wave nature of quantum waves or electromagnetic waves are the root causes of this performer/observer interdependence.

It is logical to speculate that there is a wave-like fluctuation in the relationship between any performer-observer pair. As a result, no phenomenon in this world can be described precisely. There is always going to be some “fuzziness” or uncertainty in our description.

The performance of a musician is never perfect because the presence of his audience has an impact.

A lecture never starts exactly at 6 pm because the observers are not ready and seated exactly at 6. In other words, descriptions of all actions are subjective. Even when a gymnast scores a perfect “10”, it is really a perfect ten as deemed by the subjective decisions of a set of given judges. It is precisely the concern about how our actions would be observed that makes us diplomatic in our behaviour and gives us “cold feet” in executing many of our plans.

The withdrawal of Naomi Osaka from 2021 Wimbledon and Simone Biles from the 2020 Olympic gymnastics’ team finals are recent examples of the impact of observers/media critics on the performance of athletes. This leads me to conclude that our description of any event must include the observers. It is not sufficient to say that Virat Kohli hit a six or Donald Trump insulted Joe Biden, or my wife is cooking a meal because the context is missing.

We should say that Kohli hit a six in the third Test match against Australia in a fully packed Wankhede Stadium, Trump mocked Biden at a campaign rally in San Antonio, Texas, and my wife is cooking for a group of ten people we have invited to our home. Just like Radha and Krishna together complete the divine picture, description of the performer and observer together offers a complete account of what is going on. We all remember that age-old question: if a tree fell in a forest but there was no one around to hear it, did it make a sound? From our new perspective, just a statement that a tree fell is an incomplete account of the action.

A complete description should state that: “a tree fell, generating vibrations in air that could make audible impact on anyone nearby”. Then there is no more ambiguity.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America.)