I could never muster much enthusiasm for the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. His work, on the early universe and the nature of spacetime, was Nobel-worthy, but those of us outside his narrow community were horribly short-changed. His 1988 global best-seller A Brief History of Time was incomprehensible, not because it was difficult, but because it was bad.
Nobody, naturally, wanted to ascribe Hawking’s popular success to his rare form of Motor Neurone Disease, Hawking least of all. He afforded us no room for horror or, God forbid, pity. In 1990, asked a dumb question about how his condition might have shaped his work (because people who suffer ruinous, debilitating illnesses acquire compensating superpowers, right?) Hawking played along: “I haven’t had to lecture or teach undergraduates, and I haven’t had to sit on tedious and time-consuming committees. So I have been able to devote myself completely to research.”
The truth — that Hawking was one of the worst popular communicators of his day — is as evident as it is unsayable. A Brief History of Time was incomprehensible because after nearly five years’ superhuman effort, the author proved incapable of composing a whole book unaided. He couldn’t even do mathematics the way most people do it, by doodling, since he’d already lost the use of his hands. He could not jot notes. He could not manipulate equations. He had to turn every problem he encountered into a species of geometry, just to be able to think about it. He held his own in an impossibly rarified profession for years, but the business of popular communication was beyond him. As was communication, in the end, according to Hawking’s late collaborator Andy Strominger: “You would talk about words per minute, and then it went to minutes per word, and then, you know, it just got slower and slower until it just sort of stopped.”
Hawking became, in the end, a computerised patchwork of hackneyed, pre-stored utterances and responses. Pull the string at his back and marvel. Charles Seife, a biographer braver than most, begins by staring down the puppet. His conceit is to tell Stephen Hawking’s story backwards, peeling back the layers of celebrity and incapacity to reveal the wounded human within.
It’s a tricksy idea that works so well, you wonder why no-one thought of it before (though ordering his material and his arguments in this way must have nearly killed the poor author).
Hawking’s greatest claim to fame is that he discovered things about black holes — still unobserved at that time — that set the two great schools of theoretical physics, quantum mechanics and relativity, at a fresh and astonishingly creative loggerheads.
But a new golden era of astronomical observation dawned almost immediately after, and A Brief History was badly outdated before it even hit the shelves. It couldn’t even get the date of the universe right.
It used to be that genius that outlived its moment could reinvent itself. When new-fangled endocrine science threw Ivan Pavlov’s Nobel-winning physiology into doubt, he reinvented himself as a psychologist (and not a bad one at that).
Today’s era of narrow specialism makes such a move almost impossible but, by way of intellectual compensation, there is always philosophy — a perennially popular field more or less wholly abandoned by professional philosophers. Images of the middle-aged scientific genius indulging its philosopause in book after book about science and art, science God, science and society and so on and so forth, may raise a wry smile, but work of real worth has come out of it.
Alas, even if Hawking had shown the slightest aptitude for philosophy (and he didn’t), he couldn’t possibly have composed it.
In our imaginations, Hawking is the cartoon embodiment of the scientific sage, effectively disembodied and above ordinary mortal concerns. In truth, life denied him a path to sagacity even as it steeped him in the spit and stew of physical being. Hawking’s libido never waned. So to hell with the philosopause! Bring on the dancing girls! Bring on the cheques, from Specsavers, BT, Jaguar, Paddy Power. (Hawking never had enough money: the care he needed was so intensive and difficult, a transatlantic air flight could set him back around a quarter of a million pounds). Bring on the billionaires with their fat cheques books (naifs, the lot of them, but decent enough, and generous to a fault). Bring on the countless opportunities to bloviate about subjects he didn’t understand, a sort of Prince Charles only without Charles’s efforts at warmth.
I find it impossible, having read Seife, not to see Hawking through the lens of Jacobean tragedy, warped and raging, unable even to stick a finger up at a world that could not — but much worse, *chose* not — to understand him. Of course he was a monster, and years too late, and through a book that will anger many, I have come to love him for it.
It’s not given to many of us to work at the bleeding edge of theoretical physics, discovering for ourselves the way the world really works.
The nearest most of us will ever get is the pop-science shelf, and this has been dominated for quite a while now by the lyrical outpourings of Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli’s upcoming one, Helgoland, promises to have his reader tearing across a universe made, not of particles, but of the relations between them.
It’s all too late, however: Frank Wilczek’s Fundamentals has gazzumped Rovelli handsomely, with a vision that replaces our classical idea of physical creation — “atoms and the void” — with one consisting entirely of spacetime, self-propagating fields and properties.
Born in 1951 and awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 for figuring out why atoms don’t just fly apart, Wilczek is out to explain why “the history of Sweden is more complicated than the history of the universe”. The ingredients of the universe are surprisingly simple, but their fates, playing out through time in accordance with just a handful of rules, generate a world of unimaginable complexity, contingency and abundance. Measures of spin, charge and mass allow us to describe the whole of physical reality, but they won’t help us at all in depicting, say, the history of the royal house of Bernadotte.
Wilczek’s “ten keys to reality”, mentioned in his subtitle, aren’t to do with the 19 or so physical constants that exercised Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, in his 1990s pop-science heyday. The focus these days has shifted more to the spirit of things. When Wilczek describes the behaviour of electrons around an atom, for example, gone are the usual Böhr-ish mechanics, in which electrons leap from one nuclear orbit to another. Instead we get a vibrating cymbal, the music of the spheres, a poetic understanding of fields, and not a fragment of matter in sight.
So will you plump for the Wilzcek, or will you wait for the Rovelli? A false choice, of course; this is not a race. Popular cosmology is more like the jazz scene: the facts (figures, constants, models) are the standards everyone riffs off. After one or two exposures you find yourself returning for the individual performances: their poetry, their unique expression.
Wilczek’s ten keys are more like ten book ideas, exploring the spatial and temporal abundance of the universe; how it all began; the stubborn linearity of time; how it all will end. What should we make of his decision to have us swallow the whole of creation in one go?
In one respect this book was inevitable. It’s what people of Wilczek’s peculiar genius and standing do. There’s even a sly name for the effort: the philosopause. The implication here being that Wilczek has outlived his most productive years and is now pursuing philosophical speculations.
Wilzcek is not short of insights. His idea of what the scientific method consists of is refreshingly robust: a style of thinking that “combines the humble discipline of respecting the facts and learning from Nature with the systematic chutzpah of using what you think you’ve learned aggressively”. If you apply what you think you’ve discovered everywhere you can, even in situations that have nothing to do with your starting point, then, if it works, “you’ve discovered something useful; it it doesn’t, then you’ve learned something important.”
However, works of the philosopause are best judged on character. Richard Dawkins seems to have discovered, along with Johnny Rotten, that anger is an energy. Martin Rees has been possessed by the shade of that dutiful bureaucrat C P Snow. And in this case? Wilczek, so modest, so straight-dealing, so earnest in his desire to conciliate between science and the rest of culture, turns out to be a true visionary, writing — as his book gathers pace — a human testament to the moment when the discipline of physics, as we used to understand it, came to a stop.
Wilczek’s is the first generation whose intelligence — even at the far end of the bell-curve inhabited by genius — is insufficient to conceptualise its own scientific findings. Machines are even now taking over the work of hypothesis-making and interpretation. “The abilities of our machines to carry lengthy yet accurate calculations, to store massive amounts of information, and to learn by doing at an extremely fast pace,” Wilczek explains, “are already opening up qualitatively new paths toward understanding. They will move the frontier of knowledge in directions, and arrive at places, that unaided human brains can’t go.”
Or put it this way: physicists can pursue a Theory of Everything all they like. They’ll never find it, because if they did find it, they wouldn’t understand it.
Where does that leave physics? Where does that leave Wilczek? His response is gloriously matter-of-fact:
“… really, this should not come as fresh news. Humans themselves know many things that are not available to human consciousness, such as how to process visual information at incredible speeds, or how to make their bodies stay upright, walk and run.”
Right now physicists have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of mass in the universe reacts so weakly to the bits of creation we can see, we may never know its nature. Though Wilczek makes a brave stab at the problem of so-called “dark matter”, he is equally prepared to accept that a true explanation may prove incomprehensible.
Human intelligence turns out to be just one kind of engine for understanding. Wilzcek would have us nurture it and savour it, and not just for what it can do, but because it is uniquely ours.
This book, soaked, like the Dutch Republic itself, “in ink and paint”, is enchanting to the point of escapism. The author calls it “an interior journey, into a world of luxury and leisure”. It is more than that. What he says of Huygen’s milieu is true also of his book: “Like a ‘Dutch interior’ painting, it turns out to contain everything.”
Hugh Aldersey-Williams says that Huygens was the first modern scientist. This is a delicate argument to make — the word “scientist” didn’t enter the English language before 1834. And he’s right to be sparing with such rhetoric, since a little of it goes a very long way. What inadvertent baggage comes attached, for instance, to the (not unreasonable) claim that the city of Middleburg, supported by the market for spectacles, became “a hotbed of optical innovation” at the end of the 16th century? As I read about the collaboration between Christiaan’s father Constantijn (“with his trim dark beard and sharp features”) and his lens-grinder Cornelis Drebbel (“strapping, ill-read… careless of social hierarchies”) I kept getting flashbacks to the Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak double-act in Aaron Sorkin’s film.
This is the problem of popular history, made double by the demands of explaining the science. Secretly, readers want the past to be either deeply exotic (so they don’t have to worry about it) or fundamentally familiar (so they, um, don’t have to worry about it).
Hugh Aldersey-Williams steeps us in neither fantasy for too long, and Dutch Light is, as a consequence, an oddly disturbing read: we see our present understanding of the world, and many of our current intellectual habits, emerging through the accidents and contingencies of history, through networks and relationships, friendships and fallings-out. Huygens’s world *is* distinctly modern — disturbingly so: the engine itself, the pipework and pistons, without any of the fancy fairings and decals of liberalism.
Trade begets technology begets science. The truth is out there but it costs money. Genius can only swim so far up the stream of social prejudice. Who your parents are matters.
Under Dutch light — clean, caustic, calvinistic — we see, not Enlightenment Europe emerging into the comforts of the modern, but a mirror in which we moderns are seen squatting a culture, full of flaws, that we’ve never managed to better.
One of the best things about Aldersey-Williams’s absorbing book (and how many 500-page biographies do you know feel too short when you finish them?) is the interest he shows in everyone else. Christiaan arrives in the right place, in the right time, among the right people, to achieve wonders. His father, born 1596 was a diplomat, architect, poet (he translated John Donne) and artist (he discovered Rembrandt). His longevity exasperated him: “Cease murderous years, and think no more of me” he wrote, on his 82nd birthday. He lived eight years more. But the space and energy Aldersey-Williams devotes to Constantijn and his four other children — “a network that stretched across Europe” — is anything but exasperating. It immeasurably enriches our idea of Christiaan’s work meant, and what his achievements signified.
Huygens worked at the meeting point of maths and physics, at a time when some key physical aspects of reality still resisted mathematical description. Curves provide a couple of striking examples. The cycloid is the path made by a point on the circumference of a turning wheel. The catenary is the curve made by a chain or rope hanging under gravity. Huygens was the first to explain these curves mathematically, doing more than most to embed mathematics in the physical sciences. He tackled problems in geometry and probability, and had some fun in the process (“A man of 56 years marries a woman of 16 years, how long can they live together without one or the other dying?”) Using telescopes he designed and made himself, he discovered Saturn’s ring system and its largest moon, Titan. He was the first to describe the concept of centrifugal force. He invented the pendulum clock.
Most extraordinary of all, Huygens — though a committed follower of Descartes (who was once a family friend) — came up with a model of light as a wave, wholly consistent with everything then known about the nature of light apart from colour, and streets ahead of the “corpuscular” theory promulgated by Newton, which had light consisting of a stream of tiny particles.
Huygens’s radical conception of light seems even stranger, when you consider that, as much as his conscience would let him, Huygens stayed faithful to Descartes’ vision of physics as a science of bodies in collision. Newton’s work on gravity, relying as it did on an unseen force, felt like a retreat to Huygens — a step towards occultism.
Because we turn our great thinkers into fetishes, we allow only one per generation. Newton has shut out Huygens, as Galileo shut out Kepler. Huygens became an also-ran in Anglo-Saxon eyes; ridiculous busts of Newton, meanwhile, were knocked out to adorn the salons of Britain’s country estates, “available in marble, terracotta and plaster versions to suit all pockets.”
Aldersey-Williams insists that this competition between the elder Huygens and the enfant terrible Newton was never so cheap. Set aside their notorious dispute over calculus, and we find the two men in lively and, yes, friendly correspondence. Cooperation and collaboration were on the rise: “Gone,” Aldersey-Williams writes, “is the quickness to feel insulted and take umbrage that characterised so many exchanges — domestic as well as international — in the early days of the French and English academies of science.”
When Henry Oldenburg, the prime mobile of the Royal Society, died suddenly in 1677, a link was broken between scientists everywhere, and particularly between Britain and the continent. The 20th century did not forge a culture of international scientific cooperation. It repaired the one Oldenburg and Huygens had built over decades of eager correspondence and clever diplomacy.
One day someone is going to have to write the definitive study of Wikipedia’s influence on letters. What, after all, are we supposed to make of all these wikinovels? I mean novels that leap from subject to subject, anecdote to anecdote, so that the reader feels as though they are toppling like Alice down a particularly erudite Wikipedia rabbit-hole.
The trouble with writing such a book, in an age of ready internet access, and particularly Wikipedia, is that, however effortless your erudition, no one is any longer going to be particularly impressed by it.
We can all be our own Don DeLillo now; our own W G Sebald. The model for this kind of literary escapade might not even be literary at all; does anyone here remember James Burke’s Connections, a 1978 BBC TV series which took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention, and demonstrated how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events were built from one another successively in an interconnected way?
And did anyone notice how I ripped the last 35 words from the show’s Wikipedia entry?
All right, I’m sneering, and I should make clear from the off that When We Cease… is a chilling, gripping, intelligent, deeply humane book. It’s about the limits of human knowledge, and the not-so-very-pleasant premises on which physical reality seems to be built. The author, a Chilean born in Rotterdam in 1980, writes in Spanish. Adrian Nathan West — himself a cracking essayist — fashioned this spiky, pitch-perfect English translation. The book consists, in the main, of four broadly biographical essays. The chemist Franz Haber finds an industrial means of fixing nitrogen, enabling the revolution in food supply that sustains our world, while also pioneering modern chemical warfare. Karl Schwarzchild, imagines the terrible uber-darkness at the heart of a black hole, dies in a toxic first world war and ushers in a thermonuclear second. Alexander Grothendieck is the first of a line of post-war mathematician-paranoiacs convinced they’ve uncovered a universal principle too terrible to discuss in public (and after Oppenheimer, really, who can blame them?) In the longest essay-cum-story, Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg slug it out for dominance in a field — quantum physics — increasingly consumed by uncertainty and (as Labatut would have it) dread.
The problem here — if problem it is — is that no connection, in this book of artfully arranged connections, is more than a keypress away from the internet-savvy reader. Wikipedia, twenty years old next year, really has changed our approach to knowledge. There’s nothing aristocratic about erudition now. It is neither a sign of privilege, nor (and this is more disconcerting) is it necessarily a sign of industry. Erudition has become a register, like irony. like sarcasm. like melancholy. It’s become, not the fruit of reading, but a way of perceiving the world.
Literary attempts to harness this great power are sometimes laughable. But this has always been the case for literary innovation. Look at the gothic novel. Fifty odd years before the peerless masterpiece that is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein we got Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which is jolly silly.
Now, a couple of hundred years after Frankenstein was published, “When We Cease to Understand the World” dutifully repeats the rumours (almost certainly put about by the local tourist industry) that the alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel, born outside Darmstadt in the original Burg Frankenstein in 1673, wielded an uncanny literary influence over our Mary. This is one of several dozen anecdotes which Labatut marshals to drive home that message that There Are Things In This World That We Are Not Supposed to Know. It’s artfully done, and chilling in its conviction. Modish, too, in the way it interlaces fact and fiction.
It’s also laughable, and for a couple of reasons. First, it seems a bit cheap of Labatut to treat all science and mathematics as one thing. If you want to build a book around the idea of humanity’s hubris, you can’t just point your finger at “boffins”.
The other problem is Labatut’s mixing of fact and fiction. He’s not out to cozen us. But here and there this reviewer was disconcerted enough to check his facts — and where else but on Wikipedia? I’m not saying Labatut used Wikipedia. (His bibliography lists a handful of third-tier sources including, I was amused to see, W G Sebald.) Nor am I saying that using Wikipedia is a bad thing.
I think, though, that we’re going to have to abandon our reflexive admiration for erudition. It’s always been desperately easy to fake. (John Fowles.) And today, thanks in large part to Wikipedia, it’s not beyond the wit of most of us to actually *acquire*.
All right, Benjamin, you’re erudite. We get it. What else you got?
Another New Scientist assignment, interviewing artist duo Semiconductor, who turn the most abstruse scientific observations into captivating sensory experiences.
RUTH JARMAN: Since we first started making work we’ve been interested in nature and matter. We went looking for matter that exists beyond the bounds of our perception, and we turned to science as a means of bringing that matter into view. We’re not led by archives or data sets. We’re interested in the way people talk about their field, and how they use language to balance their observations and their experiments. For some fields – radio astronomy springs to mind – the observable bit of the work can only be considered information: as a bit of the natural world, it’s just chaos: pure white noise.
Whenever we work with scientific data, we ask how we can best perceive it. About fifteen years ago we made a film of the sun, using data being studied at the space sciences laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. That work was relatively unproblematic: the sun is unquestionably there for you to observe. With our installation HALO, though, we’re creating an immersive environment that enriches the data captured by Atlas, one of two general-purpose detectors at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. And Atlas detects collisions that actually don’t happen unless you force them!
In the early universe, there would have been the energies and speeds for proton-proton collisions like this to have shaped the early universe. That’s no longer true. We found ourselves making a piece of work that isn’t really about nature as it exists at the moment. It was departure for us and, a troubling one at first.
JOE GERHARDT: Proton-proton collisions take place inside the Atlas millions of times a second, Of those events, just a few thousand are considered worth mining for data. The proton-proton collisions are recorded by detectors wrapped around the barrel of the instrument. Beyond them are the transition radiation trackers – long wires that register whenever a particle collides with them. Where along the wire the collision happens is not recorded, but you can say the collision happened somewhere along its length. Rows and rows of long metal wires: we imagined something a bit like a giant harp being plucked.
JARMAN: Initially we interpreted the wires as a purely sculptural device. We wanted to convey the craft and know-how that went into the Atlas machinery, without simply illustrating what was already there. After endless iterations it became obvious that these wires were there to be played.
For the people at CERN, the events recorded by the Atlas are sources of information. We on the other hand treat those collisions as natural phenomena in their own right. In our installation you’re conscious of the surrounding technology, but at the same time you’re made aware that there’s a complex natural world beyond the machinery. The soundscapes generated by HALO represent that wider world.
GERHARDT: The scientists at CERN call the raw numbers they receive from the Atlas “minimum bias data”. I love that. We tend to assume science is all about looking at the world with the least bias possible, but of course when you’re experimenting, you’re doing exactly the opposite. You want to bring the maximum amount of bias possible to an experiment so you can focus on what interests you. That’s what an hypothesis is.
JARMAN: We’ve plucked 60 collision events from the millions that occur each second in the LHC, and use them to trigger HALO’s light and sound effects. To do that, of course, we’ve had to slow them down immeasurably so as to make them comprehensible. Once you reanimate the data in this way, you can start tracing the beautiful geometries of each collision. And as one of our chief collaborators pointed out early on, this is the very material CERN’s not interested in.
GERHARDT: The interesting stuff for us is usually the stuff the scientists discard. Mark Sutton, a research fellow at Sussex University, explained to us that any particle that makes a pretty, spiralling track back towards the centre of the detector lacks the energy to escape the machine’s magnetic field. We know all about those particles. It’s the absences, the unexplained gaps in the chart that matter to the scientists.
When the hammers that “play” HALO hit certain strings, resonators pass and amplify their vibrations to neighbouring strings, until the wires become visible waveforms. Meanwhile, we’ve got spots of light being projection-mapped through the mesh surrounding the installation. We wanted a way of feeling and seeing particles and waves simultaneously, and this “quantum” way of thinking is oddly easy to do once you start thinking about harmonics. Particles and waves begin to make sense as one thing.
JARMAN: When HALO opens at the Art Basel this week, there will be information boards explaining all the science and technology we’ve drawn from. Ideally you’ll through the installation twice – once naively, and the second time armed with some background information. Of course, the test of the piece is that first, direct engagement with the piece. That’s what matters most to us.
GERHARDT: HALO is a circular installation in a space big enough that you can approach it from a distance and observe the hammers striking its strings and the lights passing through its mesh. Once you’re inside the piece, then it will appear that you are the source of all the events that are animating it. It’ll be a much more intense, immersive experience. It occurred to us recently that it’ll be like inhabiting the workings of a watch: appropriate for a piece paid for by a Swiss watchmaker.
JARMAN: The fit wasn’t conscious, but it’s undeniably there. We were invited to look around the factory of Audemars Piguet, our sponsors and long-time associate partners of Art Basel, where HALO has its first outing this week. We saw watches being assembled by hand using screws that you can’t even see properly with the naked eye. My favourite was a watch that actually chimed; someone had made it a lovely little acoustic box to amplify the sound.
GERHARDT: Our visit reminded us that there’s bespoke side to CERN that we wanted to capture. Big as it is, nothing about the LHC is run off on an assembly line. It’s crafted and shaped. It’s an artisanal object.
JARMAN: Entering any big science institution, you find yourself playing anthropologist. So much of our work involves simply observing scientists at work in their domain. A film we made as part of our residency, The View from Nowhere, reflects this.
GERHARDT: Unpicking the hierarchies in these places is endlessly fascinating. At CERN there’s a big philosophical divide between the experimenters and the theorists. The theorists always think they are the top dogs because they get to decide which experiments are even worth doing!
JARMAN: At CERN everything is so much more lo-fi then you expect it to be, and perfectly accessible on a human level. You get a powerful sense of everything having been developed in this wonderful bubble in which nobody has had to make excuses for doing their work. There’s a wonderful honesty about the place.
GERHARDT: As an artist in an environment like that, staying naive is really important. The moment you think that “you know your field”, you stop really listening.
And besides, every institution is different. Our residency at the Smithsonian in 2010 was very much about archiving geological history, about finding a place for everything. And the Galapagos residency which followed was about removing human traces from the world and turning back time.
JARMAN: There are always going to be scientists who are outwardly supportive of an artistic programme, and there are always going to be people who hide away from it and think that they don’t want to have anything to do with it. We’re quite persistent. We do as many very short interviews as possible because we know we don’t have a lot of control over the direction our visits and residencies take us. For this residency we worked most closely with John Ellis and Luis Álvarez-Gaumé, both high-profile theoretical physicists. We were supposed to meet with Luis once a week and he performed wonderfully for us until one day he announced: “I’ve given you all my tricks! Now you have everything I know.”
GERHARDT: In any scientific institution, people just want to make sure that you’re not getting their budget. As long as their science budgets aren’t going to artists, as long as that money’s coming from somewhere else, people are happy. Of course, if the arts budget was just 1 per cent of the science budget, the arts would probably be a hundred times better off.
JARMAN: Every now and then we’ll come across a scientist who will say, “Oh, so will I be able to use your work to illustrate my work?” We’re up front about this: what we do is almost certainly not going to represent anyone else’s efforts in the way they want.
Saying that, the feedback that we do get from scientists has always been amazing. At the end of our Berkeley residency, working with images of the sun, we were able to show our hosts work assembled from thousands of their images. These people would study just a single image for a very long time, and there was this real appetite to have their work presented in a new way.
We felt we were showing them pictures of what they already knew, we felt slightly ridiculous, but the whole event became a kind of celebration of their science — that somebody from outside the department would even be interested in what they were doing. I remember one chap talking to us afterwards. Half-way through he stopped himself and said: “Is it OK me talking to you like this? My wife and family don’t let me talk to them about space science.”
It was then we realised we were fulfilling this other role: reminding these people why they do what they do.
IN 1872, the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann developed a theory of gases that confirmed the second law of thermodynamics, more or less proved the existence of atoms and established the asymmetry of time. He went on to describe temperature, and how it governed chemical change. Yet in 1906, this extraordinary man killed himself.
Boltzmann is the kindly if gloomy spirit hovering over Peter Atkins’s new book, Conjuring the Universe: The origins of the laws of nature. It is a cheerful, often self-deprecating account of how most physical laws can be unpacked from virtually nothing, and how some constants (the peculiarly precise and finite speed of light, for example) are not nearly as arbitrary as they sound.
Atkins dreams of a final theory of everything to explain a more-or-less clockwork universe. But rather than wave his hands about, he prefers to clarify what can be clarified, clear his readers’ minds of any pre-existing muddles or misinterpretations, and leave them, 168 succinct pages later, with a rather charming image of him tearing his hair out over the fact that the universe did not, after all, pop out of nothing.
It is thanks to Atkins that the ideas Boltzmann pioneered, at least in essence, can be grasped by us poor schlubs. Popular science writing has always been vital to science’s development. We ignore it at our peril and we owe it to ourselves and to those chipping away at the coalface of research to hold popular accounts of their work to the highest standards.
Enter Brian Clegg. He is such a prolific writer of popular science, it is easy to forget how good he is. Icon Books is keeping him busy writing short, sweet accounts for its Hot Science series. The latest, by Clegg, is Gravitational Waves: How Einstein’s spacetime ripples reveal the secrets of the universe.
Clegg delivers an impressive double punch: he transforms a frustrating, century-long tale of disappointment into a gripping human drama, affording us a vivid glimpse into the uncanny, depersonalised and sometimes downright demoralising operations of big science. And readers still come away wishing they were physicists.
Less polished, and at times uncomfortably unctuous, Catching Stardust: Comets, asteroids and the birth of the solar system is nevertheless a promising debut from space scientist and commentator Natalie Starkey. Her description of how, from the most indirect evidence, a coherent history of our solar system was assembled, is astonishing, as are the details of the mind-bogglingly complex Rosetta mission to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – a mission in which she was directly involved.
It is possible to live one’s whole life within the realms of science and discovery. Plenty of us do. So it is always disconcerting to be reminded that longer-lasting civilisations than ours have done very well without science or formal logic, even. And who are we to say they afforded less happiness and fulfilment than our own?
Nor can we tut-tut at the way ignorant people today ride science’s coat-tails – not now antibiotics are failing and the sixth extinction is chewing its way through the food chain.
Physicists, especially, find such thinking well-nigh unbearable, and Alan Lightman speaks for them in his memoir Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. He wants science to rule the physical realm and spirituality to rule “everything else”. Lightman is an elegant, sensitive writer, and he has written a delightful book about one man’s attempt to hold the world in his head.
But he is wrong. Human culture is so rich, diverse, engaging and significant, it is more than possible for people who don’t give a fig for science or even rational thinking to live lives that are meaningful to themselves and valuable to the rest of us.
“Consilience” was biologist E.O. Wilson’s word for the much-longed-for marriage of human enquiry. Lightman’s inadvertent achievement is to show that the task is more than just difficult, it is absurd.
We’ve learned much in the half-millennium since Leonardo declared Man “the measure of all things.”, and seen the human species relegated to a footnote in the cosmological story.
Now we’re beginning to see that humanity maybe does sit at the heart of the universe. At no other scale but ours does the universe attain such complexity.
Exhibited at the London Lumiere festival in January 2018, Simeon Nelson’s 3.3 metre-high singing, flashing sculpture, is an enormous puzzle in structural engineering, sound and software design. It’s also a homage to cosmological models of the past, especially Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man”, drawn around 1490.
A FEW hours north of Helsinki, Finland, on the shores of a lake, sits an art museum, opened in the 1930s and much expanded since. Now one of its galleries is filled with 200 years’ worth of artistic visions of the skies, the work of Helena Sederholm, an art-education professor, and science writer Markus Hotakainen.
Scientific approaches to the cosmos are affectionately parodied in Andy Gracie’s Drosophila Titanus – a breeding project to adapt fruit flies for life on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon – and Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar migration bird facility (MGA), which tries to realise, NASA-style, English bishop Francis Godwin’s story The Man in the Moone, whose hero flies to the moon in a chariot towed by “moon geese”.
Reductive approaches to the cosmos reach pathological levels in Marko Vuokola’s Been There, Seen It, Done That, in which the phases of the moon are reduced to a pattern of shadows cast by glass discs resting on a glass shelf.
A more elegaic exploration of the same idea (that we murder to dissect) lies in Petri Eskelinen’s 2016 installation Dying Star. After a few minutes, the viewer’s dark-adapted eye makes out a beautiful and convincing cloud of stars. At regular intervals, lights come on, revealing the cloud for what it is: smeared, worn Perspex sheets stuck with scraps of Post-it note and scrawled over with whiteboard pens: “Yes”; “No”; “No life field”. The night sky is reduced to a bitterly precise, tiresome, anthropocentric hunt for an earthlike planet.
The lights go out. The magic reasserts itself. To comprehend the world, we must reduce it. But as Penelope Umbrico ably reveals in 30,400,020 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr, the world is big enough to take our abuse. And in the moonlit landscapes by 19th-century artists Fanny Churberg and Hjalmar Munsterhjelm, it swallows us whole.
Can the future be predicted? In his book Time Reborn (2013), physicist Lee Smolin set out to show that the world is an unpredictable place, and that common-sense, Newtonian habits of thought prove seriously mistaken when applied to the great unbounded problems of our age, from economics to climate change.
In the first part of this interview, conducted for Arc magazine, Lee Smolin explains why Newtonian physics cannot be applied to the world as a whole, and why the work of Newton’s great rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, may hold the key to a new model of the universe.
… and in the second part Smolin explores the human implications of a world where time is real and true novelty in nature is possible.