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Friendships from Afar

I have a friend, named Lucinda. She is 11,639 kilometres (7,232 miles) away from me. Fourteen years ago, we met in a place that is 4,925 km (3,060 miles) from where I now sit, and is 11,217 km (6,970 miles) from Lucinda’s current location. We met whilst both staying at the Eagle House, a guest house in Northern Thailand that serves as a base for trekking. Within a time so brief it now seems startling, we became friends, and are still friends to this day.

After a few days at the Eagle House, I made my way back to Britain. I was facing a deadline to grow up and become a chartered accountant. Life is funny like that, not that being a chartered accountant is the least bit funny. Lucinda later returned to Canada. As Lucinda was an early adopter of the joys of the internet, it was easy to keep in touch, and some years later I made the journey to visit her in British Columbia. Though only the second time we met in person, I had already grown accustomed to thinking of Lucinda as an old and dear friend. That was also the last time I saw Lucinda.

Time never relents. Lucinda has since married and become a mother, though time and distance have never stopped Lucinda featuring in my life. We exchange emails with lamentably infrequency, but on those few occasions when we do put fingers to keyboards, only the greatest of Victorian letter-writers ever sent correspondence of comparable length. In defiance of the trend that spells everything beginning with ‘e’, Lucinda does receive e-less mail from me once a year. In fact, I got the idea for a festive missive by shamelessly copying Lucinda’s, right down to the way she folded the paper. I must admit that the words I write each Christmas are not uniquely for her. They are shared with an audience almost as large as reads this website, not that the printers would consider my Christmas letter to be a bulk job. Neither of us uses the telephone often enough, but we know each other’s number. Her name also sits on the roll call of my Skype contacts, meaning Lucinda’s voice and image is a tantalizing instant away, if I press the right button and the winds of the internet blow favourably. Skype’s perpetual potential for immediacy is muted by hyper-polite restraint. The ease of throwing yourself into the midst of someone else’s life means that if everyone did it all the time, you would soon find yourself participating in multiple conference calls daily. Freud would have understood our admirable self-control. Our superegos have adapted to the information age. Yet they adapt too well – leading to the paradoxical result that Lucinda and I never Skype each other at all, and I would hardly dare to do so. I also share with Lucinda that uniquely modern second-generation, second-degree version of friendship that is only enabled by the so-called social network. Despite many reasons to do so, neither of us have deleted our Facebook accounts (yet). The phenomenon of Facebook friendship is motivated by intelligence gathering in a free market at least as much by the human need to interact. That is why they make it so easy – and end up making it superficial. But put aside the shenanigans and chagrin of modern commercialism. Whatever the format or gateway, however enabled or why, though we are far apart, Lucinda is my friend.

Are there mathematical and physical forces that help to explain this friendship from afar? Though spread over many miles and years, a friendship need not be based on proximity any more. Language flows at the speed of light; electrons fizz down wires. Though seemingly instantaneous, at 300,000 km/s, that leaves Lucinda’s voice no less than three hundredths of a second away from me, which is tolerable but less than truly instant. Add sundry milliseconds for intervening CPU’s, and the delay when talking might even be noticeable, if we speak too quickly.

It is possible to postulate other, hidden, numbers that prescribe modern friendship. Might it be that I can have a friend anywhere, but that there are only ever a fixed number of friendships in the world? That might mean my making a new friend in Prague causes somebody in Beijing to lose touch with their pal in Cancun. This would help explain the modern trend where we know people on the far side of the planet, but are ignorant of our neighbours. Maybe the mathematics is a little more subtle, and the sum total of friendship embraces quality as well as quantity. Suppose then that ten Facebook friends are worth one regular guest for dinner or a couple of drinking buddies. If that is so, an explosion of social networking might preface the collapse of deep and meaningful friendship, with everyone’s amity spread thin like marmite across a thick piece of toast. That might be to some people’s taste, but not to everyone’s.

Maybe the physics of friendship lies deeper still. Electrons and photons may be deployed to keep us in touch through the wonders of modern communications, but perhaps friendship involves a subtle quantum leap. Scientists believe that pairs of sub-atomic particles can become entangled, so that they remain connected no matter how far they are separated. Because of the connection, to look and learn about one entangled particle is to learn about the current state of the other, wherever it may be. Sub-atomic particles are more mysterious than an Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of Agatha Christie, but the entanglement guarantees that unraveling the secrets of one is to simultaneously resolve the state of its sibling. Einstein called this the “spukhafte Fernwirkung”, or spooky action at a distance. What if, on a humid Thai evening, there was a literal spark between Lucinda and me? Perchance an entangled electron took umbrage with the electrical resistance of skin, and was emboldened by the large volumes of Mekhong whisky drunk that night. The air itself, laden with moisture, was charged with the duty of aiding the electron’s journey. Said electron galvanized itself for a mighty jump, and so conducted itself between the two of us. The electron’s entangled brother was left behind, moribund in its host epidermis. If the spark did fly, then I would share an invisible bond with Lucinda, thinner than gossamer but stronger than steel, instantaneous and absolute, wherever we go.

Einstein derided the idea of the spooky connection; he thought all would be explained by factors that were as yet unknown. Whatever the truth, science has not yet determined the mechanics of friendship. Maybe the hidden variables will one day be calculated. The equations may involve dividing the billions of neurons in a brain with data from millions of users of the internet. For now, I am glad that the foundations of friendship remain ineffable, at least to my humble knowledge. Digging them up will not strengthen them. Belief in friendship’s solidity is what makes friendship so enduring, even when stretched half way round the world. These properties make friendship our most valuable resource.

Happy birthday to my friend, Lucinda.

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