The Unexpected Physics of Solo Travel

Inertia negation is a hypothetical phenomenon discussed and experimented equally by physicists and science fiction pundits. (The juxtaposition of these two groups – by the way, “juxtaposition” has got to be the quintessential word used in high school English class discussions – is charming. Physicists, considered the highest of sciences, paired with science fiction, considered the lowest of fictions – at least, at one point.) As cultural icon and professional provocateur Bill Nye (heard he doesn’t dabble in music) says, inertia is a property of matter: the tendency of an object to remain in its current state of motion. Inertia negation is when objects behave as if massless and thus don’t exhibit inertia. This is all but impossible, of course, unless an object can truly be massless. (But then one wonders, is it still an object?)

I can’t help but think about how much of my life revolves around inertia. At times, my life and the inertia in it are almost synonymous. There’s good inertia, like when you have some buddies who meet consistently through the semester to pound out weekly psets. (Shoutout to my math group that is objectively 10x more productive when I’m not in it.) And there’s also bad inertia, feeling down about a recruitment cycle or simply an inescapable attitude about the semester as it carries on, overlooked life habits like sleeping late or social media usage. But all inertia, good or bad, can be suffocating. It can turn us into static entities, defined by a job, a ritual, a routine.

In a perfect physics and science fiction couplet, I thought about inertia (I know, just your everyday inertia-centered philosophical pondering) as I finished reading The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin (who many consider to be the queen of science fiction), sitting at Ttukseom Hangang Park in Seoul as the sun set. Let me tell you, it was picturesque. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt lonely. (Seriously, FaceTime me guys, the only recognizable face I’ve seen for weeks has been a front desk employee at a hostel I stayed at for more than one day.) It wasn’t a feeling I would need to take a second to think about if you were to ask me; I was acutely yet painlessly aware of this feeling. Let me explain: while it wasn’t something so subtle I needed to be reminded of it like the weather on a cool summer day, it also wasn’t overwhelming like standing waist deep in a forceful river. The feeling was simply just there – like walking through a cloud of mist. I was keenly cognizant of it and it kind of just hung there, held up by the world and the atmosphere around me. It was loneliness with no negative feelings attached. LeGuin’s words lingered in my mind:

“Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

As long as we have mass in our living, we have daily inertia. Where does this mass come from? Well just like objects in a mechanics model of the world, I think some of this mass comes from merely existing. But I also believe some or maybe much of it comes from being purposeful or our desire to have a purpose. It carries over from moment to moment, day to day. Whether we are purposeful the way we want to be or we aren’t purposeful the way we hoped, whether this purpose is well-reasoned or grossly misinformed, it creates a mass in our lives, a weight, one could say. And with daily mass comes daily inertia.

Can we ever live in a world with absolutely no inertia? Probably not, but here’s my newfound secret: solo travel constructs an environment that is probably as close as you can come to natural inertia negation and therein lies its ultimate sublimity.

But back to basics: why solo travel? Surely I had not enrolled, before beginning my trip, in what you might think is some absurdist, Taoist school of thought, explained above in convoluted terms of mass and inertia physics. Or, as you might also think, why take a good thing in traveling or vacationing with others and degrade it into a far less appealing and enjoyable version? In universal language, why take a pizza and put anchovies on it?

The simple answer: I had no other options. But there was also a serious intentionality behind my decision to backpack around solo, though admittedly I never realized how eye-opening and transformative it would be.

One of the first things I noticed as a solo traveler was that I felt viscerally aware of myself as an outsider, more so than when traveling with family or friends. (I do miss the social and fun-filled aspects of traveling with others though.) Alone, you are not in a rowdy pack of the boys TM or in constant dialogue with your family, all you have is yourself and your foreign surroundings in which you are the foreigner. Think about that for a second – you are both foreign to your surroundings and your surroundings are foreign to you. In a world where we so often have people or points of familiarity to return to – in fact, I wonder how social media has impacted how people experience college now, a safety net of high school and hometown friends to return to when the going gets tough – solo travel is the opposite. There is no safety net, emotionally or physically: no friends serving as an oasis to escape to in a place completely devoid of recognizable culture or people (especially thanks to my low-tier AT&T international plan), no familiar face to rescue from awkward or even dire situations, no companions to chat to help pass time. As a result, you remain wholly in the present, in the moment. As I explored foreign places, I began seeing my tendencies, my habits, my behaviors in plain sight. And there’s no turning away, you can’t follow up mistakes by chatting your parents or forget about something that just happened by talking with friends. Instead, these concepts of self just kind of sit there like mountains on the horizon. Hence, as much as solo traveling is a bodily, outward experience, it is also a deeply inward and mental one.

Awareness of self as an outsider leads to awareness of the outside, the world around you. Like Thoreau in nature, the outside becomes a site of deep exploration, not just in the superficial or touristy sense. Interactions become a must. You see, the intention of solo travel is never the path of least resistance. I took buses and subways, often skipping Uber or a private car, learning from Taipei locals their thoughts on their healthcare system and welfare programs. I spent time in hostels and home stays, meeting traveling locals and foreigners, who converged around an inebriated and hilarious dialogue of politics. I walked a dozen, sometimes two dozen miles a day to see the famous sites but also the neighborhoods not mentioned in hundreds of online blogs and thousands of Instagram posts, noting how the locals lived. As a solo traveler, you’re forced to engage, to talk with locals, to seek recommendations, to learn first-hand how not to be scammed by the buck-toothed old guy outside the station. And I’m not just saying these things to paint myself as a traveling savant. I’m not – while traveling this way is not ordinary, anyone who does so will find these experiences quite ordinary. In journeying not just the oft-beaten paths but also the ones less traversed, I learned about myself and the world I live in. (And how little did I and do I know.)

When I don’t feel like talking, I easily disappear into the background, become nothing more than a shadow, a mere blip in the background on the subway, on the bus as nothing more than another stranger, and just observe. You can’t do that in a group. I saw the seemingly small, subtle things that are direct reflections of a culture, a society. I noticed how citizens of different countries behaved on airplanes waiting to be docked, a mirror of priorities and cultural values. In Taipei, I selflessly observed how different folks ate their soup dumplings, advancing science for all of mankind. (Can proudly say that I’m now well-versed in the art and practices of various forms of soup dumpling eating.) In Seoul, generational differences in clothing and social behavior stared at me in the face.

These dimensions of solo travel described above are conducive to inertia negation. They combine to form a world without structure. I planned my first couple of days rigorously, and then I saw them slowly devolve or, really, evolve into an amorphous form. I began asking myself, why am I visiting the fifth Buddhist temple I’ve seen in the past twelve hours? Just because I saw it on TripAdvisor? And that was it – nobody else to consult in my decision to go off the rails. In the words of G-Eazy, it was just “Me, Myself, & I”. This lack of structure introduces the unknown, and with the unknown, a lack of repeated moments – each day is as different as the Gilmore Girls. (Note: I’ve never watched Gilmore Girls and I’m making an absolute assumption here, hoping that the writers conceived of the series the same way I’m ridiculously imagining it right now.) Your purpose becomes so subtle, so dynamic and adaptive that, in our physics model of the world, you become essentially massless. And, hence, there is no inertia in this world. Have an awkward conversation? Move on and the next one can be transformative. Miss a bus or a destination? Make the most of your free time now, find a different, spontaneous activity. Go through a perfect, blissful day? So what – can you do it again tomorrow, even if you’re in a different place, your disposition has shifted, or unexpected and unfortunate circumstances have arisen?

Which brings me back to my moment sitting in Seoul’s Ttukseom Hangang Park, looking at Gangnam’s skyline. After finishing The Lathe of Heaven, I reread LeGuin’s stupidly killer opening:

“Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moondriven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.”

Consider the jellyfish. It is no apex predator. Ask any kindergartener and if they tell you the jellyfish is their favorite animal, you might need to get the kid checked out. In fact, if it were a human, it’d be considered a dunce, a mindless individual, and that’s objectively speaking. But in it its lack of direction, it harnesses the power of the ocean. Learning from the jellyfish, in the words of LeGuin, maybe we don’t always need to have a purpose, a function. Some of my favorite days so far have been the ones without purpose – the ones without a clear plan, where I hadn’t set my eyes on visiting, where I was guided by where my eyes wandered and where my heart chose.

So as I sat in a park I didn’t even know existed until I wandered to it, I felt lonely, sure, but the reason it didn’t feel bad was because I felt rather happy. It’s a strange feeling. It was sublime and forceful like sitting underneath a waterfall. And it was a day without defined purpose. I had no schedule for the day and had barely pulled up Google Maps. I had wandered around almost aimlessly, stopping for a couple hours at a time at various chic and aesthetic coffee shops, stumbling into a gamut of neighborhoods, and ending up in this park. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt happy, so happy.

Well, what next? Do I need to solo travel endlessly for the rest of my life to attain this kind of happiness? Do I need to become a new age hippie? Am I going to become one of those Instagram chicks who essentially say that traveling is their personality? If you follow my wild world of physics, then give me a chance to present another concept: quantum entanglement, the phenomenon where particles that have interacted or shared proximity will be linked, having quantum states unable of being described independently of the other particles, even when separated. It’s like the fact that the Sherlock in Benedict Cumberbatch is forever seeable in every new role he takes on. Or that you can’t see Trump without thinking of him saying “build the wall” and the associated hand motions. Like all experiences, I believe that this solo backpacking will leave its mark on me, making an imprint on my daily quantum state. But I also intend to be, well, intentional: to carry the attitudes and behaviors that have made me happy and content on this trip to my daily living.