17 May 2022
17 May 2022
Berkeley, CA
4 mins

There is a concept in physics called resonance. In lay terms, it describes the fact that for any given object there are natural frequencies at which the object “likes to vibrate”. A simple pendulum’s natural frequency is the rate at which it swings back and forth; if you wiggle the pendulum at the same frequency, the pendulum will swing farther and higher, but if your movements don’t match its own natural rhythm, it will only dampen the swing instead.

If you have two objects, like guitar strings held taut, with different resonant frequencies, and one vibrates, the other will lay still. The distance between them is dampening any energy thrown out into space by the vibrating string. But if you have objects with the same resonant frequency next to each other, vibrations in one will reinforce vibrations in the other, and rather than dampen each other’s sounds, they will bring out the latent voices in each other to vibrate together louder.

If you have a piano at home, you can try to feel this for yourself. If you sing into the sound chamber of a piano at a specific pitch, then stop and listen carefully, you’ll hear the few strings that were tuned to exactly your note continue to vibrate.

A few times in my life I’ve been struck with chance encounters and longer relationships with people who I felt resonated deeply and naturally with some part of me. I didn’t have to sit them down and patiently tell them my life story. They just got it, probably because somewhere within each of them was something that shared some resonant frequency with something within me. When we spoke, our movements reinforced each other and educed into the often unforgiving void of time an unmistakable sound, perfectly tuned to each other. Sometimes these are shared personal pasts, like family stories or cultural context. Sometimes these are just interests, like computing or writing. Most magically, sometimes these are communities or ideas that are at the core of who we are.

What’s most surprising is that more often than not, these are not people whom I’d gotten to know for months and years. They are a stranger on a balcony at a party. A fellow traveler looking for the last seat at a crowded airport terminal. A lost voice on the internet. I was pulled towards them by their frequencies, before I even knew them. A few times, I have been lucky enough to resonate with them, and them with me, long enough to leave lasting echoes in my memory.

The trouble with people who resonate with us seems to be that inside each of us are many different people and histories that vibrate at different frequencies, and as rare as it is to stumble into someone who can speak to just one of them, it feels tragically rare to find someone whose disparate selves can shake apart the many different parts of us that sing at different frequencies. Often when I had felt that I had found someone who so deeply resonated with some part of me, I later saw that there were parts of me that dampened who they were, and parts of them that dampened who I was. And when I’m with someone who so deeply resonates with one part of me, it can be confusing and painful to feel the other parts lay so silent.

This, I think, is the challenge in finding precious people — it’s hard enough to listen for people who resonate with us; to find the one who can stir up a chord seems at times a mathematical impossibility, like trying to fit two puzzle pieces together in some 10-dimensional space. But I’m hopeful that, perhaps by paying careful attention to the sounds of my own strings and listening carefully to the vibrations around me, I might be lucky enough to notice when someone so deeply resonant with me is in my midst.

Thoughts at the boundary between machine and mind

Knowledge tools, finite and infinite

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