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A Scientific Explainer of What Terrence Howard Was Talking About at the Emmys

The 'Empire' star had some choice words about waves, straight lines, and the "flower of life" at the awards show. As it turns out, there's some actual science here.

by Carly Minsky
Oct 1 2019, 2:28pm

Images: Wikimedia, YouTube. Composition by Jordan Pearson

In a year of big statements on the Emmy’s red carpet, from Viola Davis’ sneakers-and-gown combo to impassioned speeches on transgender rights and equal pay, one managed to stand out at last week's awards show: Empire star Terrence Howard’s deep dive into geometry, ancient philosophy, and quantum physics.

"I’ve made some discoveries in my own personal life with the science that, y’know, Pythagoras was searching for,” he told a very confused interviewer. “I was able to open up the flower of life properly and find the real wave conjugations we’ve been looking for for 10,000 years.”

It could have ended there, but then, Howard got down to the science:

“All energy in the universe is expressed in motion, all motion is expressed in waves, all waves are curves, so where does the straight lines come from to make the Platonic solids? There are no straight lines. So when I took the flower of life and opened it properly, I found whole new wave conjugations that expose the in-between spaces. It’s the thing that holds us all together.”

Howard's mind-boggling answer to a casual interview question about quitting acting after Empire ends was notable enough that the clip went viral on Twitter last week.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but most surprising of all is that it's partly based on real science. When it comes to straight lines, he’s not wrong.

There are no straight lines, actually

It’s true that there are no straight lines in the physical world that we see and experience around us, but this has very little to do with wave-curvature or Howard’s (false) claim that all energy is expressed in motion. Instead, it’s a quirk of maths and logic due to how we define "straight" and how we define "line."

Strictly speaking, any line (straight or curved) has a thickness of zero—that’s just what we mean in mathematical terms when we refer to a line. If a "straight" line with a finite length has any thickness at all, it is actually an extremely thin rectangle, not a line.

It should be obvious then that no true lines exist physically; even the thinnest line we can draw has a width greater than zero. Straight lines are an idealised mathematical concept, and so arguably don't "exist."

So we can prove Howard’s claim without even touching on whether real-world objects with straight lines exist. As it turns out, he’s onto something here, too.

Take any physical object with lines that look perfectly straight. The closer we look, the more we see imperfections or inconsistencies in materials which reveal that there are tiny deviations from perfect straightness.

Even light doesn’t really travel in straight lines. At the smallest physical scale, quantum physics jumps into action, which means things get really weird. At the quantum level, there’s more to light than meets the eye, since it is made up of light particles (photons) which sometimes behave like one continuous wave, and sometimes like individual particles.

If we couldn’t break down light into photons, then it could be said to move in perfectly straight lines. But photons have the strange property of not having trajectories we can calculate; they simply show up at an end point when we go to measure them.

“All energy is motion, and all motion is a wave”

At this point, it might be wise for Howard not to pursue a potential post- Empire career as a science professor.

Motion is one type of energy (called kinetic energy), but it’s certainly not the only fundamental type of energy. All forms of energy can be classed into one of two overall types: kinetic (motion) or potential, which is the energy stored when forces act on an object which would cause motion in the right conditions, like stored electrical energy.

Within the two broad types of energy, other forms include electrical energy, thermal energy, radiation, nuclear energy, and others.

It’s also not true that all motion is a wave. In fact, I suspect Howard meant to put this entire statement in reverse: "All motion is energy, and all energy is a wave." This is closer to the truth, but still misses the mark.

Due to quantum physics, everything behaves in weird, form-changing ways when you get down to an infinitesimally small level. Stationary particles with mass convert some of their mass into energy in order to have motion (energy-mass equivalence) and energetic particles behave like waves with frequency, and vice versa (wave-particle duality).

Quantum physics reveals that properties of particles (mass, energy, motion, momentum, location, etc.) are interchangeable with properties of waves (frequency, wavelength), but it doesn’t tell us that everything is made up of curved waves. In fact, quantum physics prevents us from making definitive statements like this.

What are Platonic solids and the flower of life?

Howard probably didn’t come up with these theories himself. He’s clearly into "sacred geometry," a new-age spiritual practice that runs with the ideas of ancient philosophers and mathematicians like Plato, Euclid and Pythagoras.

Platonic solids are a set of five 3D shapes where all the faces are uniformly shaped and sized, all edges and angles are regular, and each corner of the object has the same number of faces meeting at that point. Examples of Platonic solids are cubes and tetrahedrons.

Sacred geometry assigns new meaning to geometrical objects like these and more complex shapes like the "flower of life,"—a geometric pattern which contains all five Platonic solids within it—using them to connect with different “energies.”

Today this idea seems like pseudo-science at best, but long after Plato and his contemporaries came and went, "real’ scientists continued to obsess over how to relate geometry to the physical or natural world.

Take the important 17th century physicist Johannes Kepler, who tried (and failed) to use Platonic solids to model the solar system. Even though he abandoned the geometrical side of his work, his original theories eventually gave rise to revolutionary theories of planetary orbits, which are still used to describe movement of planets today.

So, in some respects Howard is actually in good company. But I still wouldn’t recommend following his lead and using outdated ideas about obscure shapes to guide your important life decisions.

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