Yikes! The Role of Physics in the Determination of Identity

johannes_diderik_van_der_waalsI flunked Physics in college.  Yup…a flying F. So, why am I talking about Physics and identity–of the genealogical kind, you may ask? Because the basic principles of Physics are germane to our establishing the identity of an individual. I actually used all three of these principles in my portfolio’s case study! And, the identity of the person on the left? Johannes D. van der Waals (edited).[1]

Here are some of the basic principles of physics and how they apply to identity. (Now, don’t glaze over here; stick with me on this….)

  • Principle of Physics: one object cannot be in two places at the same time. However, Einstein believed and scientists have now proven Einstein correct that this principle is false at the sub-molecular level.[2] At the “Law of Intuition” level (I made that up) this appears to still be true for those of us above the sub-molecular level.
  • Pauli Exclusion Principle [3]: Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Actually, it has been proven multiple atoms can occupy the same space at the same time.[4] For people, composed of billions and billons (etc.) of atoms, scientists haven’t figured that out yet.
  • Principle of Physics and Chemistry (Johannes D. van der Waals): “The condensed phases of matter depend for their properties on the content proximity of all their constituent atoms.”[5] Non-scientific translation: There is a strong desire for objects to cluster together.

Let’s take them one by one.

  1. Principle No. 1:
    If you think “your” Lars Larson resided in the United States in 1882, but you find “your” Lars Larson in Sweden immigrating in 1895 for the first time–there is some explaining to do. Lars cannot be in both the United States and Sweden at the same time.  An example closer to home for me…Friedrich Eilers was naturalized in Chicago in 1856; Yet, it appears that MY Friedrich was raising a family and didn’t immigrate until 1861. Result?  The first Friedrich is NOT MY GUY. It comes down to…just because the name is the same doesn’t mean its your guy.They both cannot be your ancestor.
  2. Principle NO. 2:
    If there are two John Smiths—one the younger and one the older–they will have different timelines and events that happen in their lives, even if they live in the same place. Your job as a genealogist is to tweaze out the differences in their timelines  and make them each unique in the world.
    Example: Bengt #1 lived in Sweden in 1785-1795 as a day laborer on a farm and was enumerated on the tax rolls as “Bengt.” Another “Bengt,” surname unknown lived on the other side of the parish. Which fragment of Bengt’s life belonged to my ancestor? They lived totally separate lives until 1791 when Bengt no. 1 paid taxes on the west side of town and Bengt no.2 paid taxes on the east side of town. And, one thing we know is that no one, at no time, pays tax twice for no good reason. Different life experiences differentiated the two men of the same given name and approximate same age.
  3. Principle no. 3.
    There is a strong desire, especially pre-social security era, for family members to rely on other family members as “insurance.” Family members are the ones that help when the barn burns down. Family members are the ones who migrate together to a frontier fringe. Family members are the ones who support each other when a spouse dies. What does this sound like– The FAN Club. So, according to physics, your group will stay together even if pressure is placed on one to move. Case in point: Antje, age 21, living in Germany, apparently was made an offer of marriage by a recent immigrant to the US. She accepted. The famiy discussion must have been interesting, because the entire family decided to emigrate. The father at 54 was the oldest traveler on the ship. This FAN Club stuck together.

So, that wasn’t so bad now was it!

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post: Prepare for my beginners class at Washington Athletic Club, work on my syllabi for the Olympia GS (I thought I had them done–I didn’t.); shifted the date of my presentation to the Sons of Norway/Bothel due to a scheduling conflict; attended an APG online discussion on presenting to groups. I also participated in two trial runs and a tech test with the certification discussion group members on Google Hangouts and worked up the website for the same group. This will be my first 100% online class where I am the leader. I am very excited.

[1] Johannes Diderick van der Waals, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Diderik_van_der_Waals : accessed 14 February 2017). In the public domain.

[2] Steve Connor, Independent, blog, “Einstein was Right, You Can be in Two Places at Once.” ( http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/einstein-was-right-you-can-be-in-two-places-at-once-2162648.html : accessed 14 February 2017).

[3] Wikipedia, “Pauli’s Exclusion Principle,” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauli_exclusion_principle : accessed 14 February 2017).

[4] Physics.org, “Atoms can be in the Same Place at the Same Time,” (https://phys.org/news/2015-01-atoms.html : accessed 14 February 2017).

[5] Stephen Barry, Encyclopedia Britannica, (https://www.britannica.com/science/cluster : accessed 14 February 2017).


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