Great minds can achieve great things – but true greatness lies in helping great causes
Welcome to the beginning of a new series of blog posts I’ve put together under the blanket title Science, Silliness and the Nucleus of Niceness. Some of what you’re about to read is ludicrous, speculative drivel. Some of it is fantasy-laden intergalactic horseplay. And some of it is actually hard science (apologies if I get bits wrong – I’ve done my best not to but I’m not exactly an expert. I got two C grades for science at GCSE – my father has a chemistry PHD. Not sure what went wrong there). Amongst the crazy theories, preposterous proposals and general scientific and metaphysical inquiry, hopefully there will be plenty of things that make you think (maybe) and laugh (less likely) – or at least keep you mildly entertained for about 10 minutes.
I’m going to attempt to explore a bit of the quantum theory illuminated by Carlo Rovelli. I initially read his book Seven Brief Lessons On Physics and it gave me the bug to find out more about the quest to find a unified theory of quantum gravity. I then read some other quantum theory books before tucking into Rovelli’s 2016 follow-up – Reality Is Not What It Seems. I use this book as my guide throughout, as well as a smidge from Richard Feyman’s QED: The Strange Theory Of Light And Matter, and tussle with what I think the purpose of, importance of, and need for science might be. I’ll also investigate knowledge and religion generally, before going full bonkers mode and just throwing out a series of ridiculous theories on such immense topics as what the universe might be, what dark matter might be and what might happen to us when we die. All pretty light stuff then…
What’s so good about science anyway?
“The objective of scientific research is not just to arrive at scientific predictions,” says Carlo Rovelli. “It is to understand how the world functions; to construct and develop an image of the world, a conceptual structure to enable us to think about it. Before being technical, science is visionary.”
I like this summary from Rovelli – particularly the use of visionary. He sees science as a means to understand the fundamental constituents of our existence, and also to think openly and progressively about what new things we might get to know. In this respect, I think science and philosophy merge in a beautiful marriage – the purpose of both is to use the tools at our disposal in each discipline to try to understand our existence – to make sense of our surroundings, to question why we’re here, how we’re here and what’s to come. We have theory, practice, experiments, and equations – but we also have our wonderful intuition.
Intuition, foresight and dreamers
Human beings have wild and brilliant imaginations, capable of realising such wonderful ideas as gravity. Using his little moon as a guide, Sir Isaac Newton figured out that celestial bodies influence each other through an invisible force, realising that the moon isn’t orbiting in a straight line but is in fact travelling on a curved trajectory due to the force being enacted upon it. And then Faraday and Maxwell combined to take things further with the Faraday lines. Rovelli writes adoringly of Michael Faraday (an ex-bookbinder who went on to work in a lab and didn’t really do complex equations) in Reality Is Not What It Seems, explaining how Faraday conjured up the notion of the field to explain the convulsing cosmic web of which the universe is constructed. He just imagined it (using the knowledge he had of course, but still, pretty amazing foresight).
“His intuition is this,” writes Rovelli, “we must not think of forces acting directly between distant objects, as Newton presumed. We must instead think that there exists an entity diffused throughout space, which is modified by electric and magnetic bodies and which, in turn, acts upon the bodies. This entity, whose existence Faraday intuits, is today called the field.” Light is merely the wobbly trembly-ness of Faraday’s electromagnetic lines! As Rovelli writes: “If we see a child playing on the beach, it is only because between them and ourselves there is this lake of vibrating lines which transport their image to us. Is the world not marvellous?” It sure is! Faraday and Maxwell had laid the foundations for formulating the concept of the electromagnetic field. It explains so much of how the world works – even how the particles in a rock hold its matter together.
And then on to Albert Einstein – who wrote three astonishing papers for Annalen der Physik, which predicted countless amazing things that have helped to explain so much about the world as we know it; the most notable being Special Relativity, General Relativity and that the universe is both finite AND without a boundary (try to get your head around that for a second!). Special Relativity reveals that space and time are linked for objects moving at a consistent speed in a straight line. The laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers. Time is relative – it appears to flow slower for a person who is stationary from the perspective of another person who is on the move. It shows us that the speed of light is always the same, independent of the motion of the observer. The movement of someone driving a car is relative to the movement of the planet on which it is driving.
Special Relativity helps us to understand (or maybe not!) that we are living in an extended present, and that there is no absolute simultaneity in the universe. Things aren’t happening in a ‘now’ all across the universe – spacetime doesn’t work like that. As Rovelli explains, the duration of the extended present in the Andromeda Galaxy in respect to us is two million years! Time passes differently in different places. We have our own intuitive idea of what time is – but it’s essentially an illusion. The present is only what we perceive it to be.
Curves in all the right places
It is Einstein’s theory of General Relativity that really blows my mind, though – he took Newton’s amazing work on gravity (his mysterious space) and the gravitational field, and realised they were the same thing! Spacetime is curved – like a giant mollusc. It has its own physics – and this is why planets move they way do, on curved trajectories. Light curves around planets – matter distorts spacetime and slows time down. One of my favourite examples of this phenomena is the realisation that if you take twin siblings and place one at the top of a mountain and one at ground level, the one further away from the Earth’s gravitational pull would age faster than the other – because time is moving more quickly at a higher altitude. The gravitational pull slows time down. The higher you are, the faster you age! The gravity of a massive body warps the spacetime around it – and the flow of time is thus affected.
These are just a few examples of an ever-growing list of incredible discoveries and ideas that the world’s greatest scientists have formulated in our recent history. I just find it so heart-warming that humanity continues to throw up people with the capacity to dream so big, imagine so impressively and work so hard to make their wild thoughts become hard(ish) facts. I say hard(ish) because one of the most important things about science, as the great Richard Feynman always reminded us, is that we must always be open to new ideas and discoveries. Science and absolutes don’t go well together. An idea can often be built upon, amended, improved or even completely refuted, despite initially seeming to be correct. Being wrong is not a bad thing – failing to accept that we might be wrong, however, is.
We owe a great debt to these thinkers and will continue to do so; that is, if we ensure to focus our efforts and our intelligence on the most important matters to our species. For me, this starts with ensuring everyone on the planet has their basic human rights met. It’s wonderful that we know so much about how our reality works, but we need to remember that only knowledge which helps humanity is truly important knowledge.
Do we really need to have all the answers?
The tussle between quantum theory and gravity to find a unified theory which explains how things work on both a microscopic and macroscopic scale is troubling the greatest minds on the planet. Equations which work for our tiny, granular fabric of spacetime don’t match up with those on a large scale (with gravity). Quantum mechanics cannot deal with the curvature of spacetime and general relativity cannot account for quanta – this is the problem of quantum gravity. Quantum mechanics shows us that there is a limit to everything – it banishes the notion of endless divisibility and infinities.
Of all the most relevant and progressive theories currently doing the rounds, it seems that loop quantum gravity might be the closest yet to finding a solution. The theory combines General Relativity (larger scale gravity) with quantum mechanics in a way which makes them compatible; it’s not a perfect marriage, but it is an acceptable one. Space is not a continuum – it is formed of atoms in space. Quanta of space (gravity) are the place; they are spacetime. And these grains are thought to be linked by circuits – or loops; like a giant spider web. There’s loads of other stuff out there on the structure of space being like soapy bubbles (and nodes and links), but I can barely explain what I’ve read up to now, so I’ll leave it there.
My next point is this – while it’s wonderful having these amazing visionary ideas, are they actually useful? Are they actually making our lives better? Is this quest for knowledge, answers and explanations actually improving our lives? Is human civilisation better off for having the answers to all these immense cosmological questions?
Or are we in fact asking the wrong questions? Shouldn’t we begin by answering the question of how to ensure everyone on the planet is nourished? Shouldn’t we be asking why there are still people living in abject living conditions every day? Should we not be questioning why there are children in some countries still being sent to war, or why women are often still treated as second-class citizens, or why there are still racial injustices, or why people suffer as a result of their sexuality – when all they’re doing is just being who they are? Shouldn’t we be asking why brutal regimes are still allowed to hold power over their citizens, or why slavery and torture still exists?
I guess one might suggest that there is plenty of room in our vast sphere of existence for lots of different lines of inquiry; we can try to answer all those questions I just posed (try to improve living conditions for the whole of humanity) and also explore the nature of our existence. It’s what I do with my blog – I question, I explore, I inquire, I investigate, I philosophise. And it’s not like I’m out there growing crops for starving children in Third World countries. But I’m not one of the greatest minds on the planet. I’m not even one of the greatest minds in this train carriage I’m currently sat in on the way to work writing this post – and there’s only four of us in here. Are we wasting time, energy, money and other resources going after the wrong things?
Yes, scientific progress can be wonderful. Those visionary ideas I previously wrote about are amazing feats of human endeavour. And I would never wish us to take a step back from those achievements; I know we have so much more to accomplish as a species. But when so many people are living difficult, troubled or just plain awful lives, for whatever reason, are we directing our energy and attention towards the wrong pursuits? Shouldn’t our primary objective as a species be to take care of each other? Shouldn’t we be ensuring that everyone has access to the most basic human rights – food, shelter, protection, good health, love? And once we’ve achieved those aims, perhaps then we can think about our world, why it’s the way it is and what’s to come?
Nietzsche knows best
Surely there’s no point in having all this incredible information about our existence at our disposal if actually being alive is so wildly unfavourable for such large numbers of people? I can’t help siding with Nietzsche on this one – I love scientific inquiry, and I love reading about the amazing ideas we’ve dreamed up, are dreaming up, and will continue to dream up to explain the way our universe works, but I can’t help feeling like we have our priorities mixed up. I go on to speak a little bit about Nietzsche and the frustration of religion hampering intellectual progress in another post – so what I’m about to say feels like a Nietzschean contradiction. But perhaps ignorance could be bliss for our species? Maybe we should park all this intellectual inquiry for a bit and just get our house in order; maybe we should use the great minds we have to make the world a better place. I realise that experts in various fields are finding it more difficult than ever to make an impact in our Donald Trump-led post-truth apocalypse, but we need to focus on new technologies that can feed the world. We need innovations to bring peace, prosperity and equality to all of humankind.
Are we happier now then we have previously been without scientific progress? We have made startling medical discoveries over the last 100 years – and this has ensured that human beings are living longer. But is this even a good thing? Are our bodies really worth keeping alive for more than, say, 80 years? Is it worth the strain that all these longer lives have on our already struggling health systems? Can we actually cope with these ‘life extensions’ in the West? And what of the rest of the world? Is it right that those of us with access to better healthcare live these longer lives while poorer nations continue to fight against high mortality rates among their young people? This doesn’t seem like great scientific progress to me; it seems like a dystopian sci-fi novel.
With great power comes great stupidity
Einstein’s immense theory of Special Relativity not only changed the way we understand our existence, it changed the way live our lives. His realisation that a large amount of energy could be released from a small amount of matter (the famous E=MC2) helped to give us nuclear power, and the capability to power millions of homes. It helped us realise one of the biggest dreams of them all – to launch spacecraft into the outer atmosphere to explore uncharted reaches of our wonderful, mysterious universe. But we took all that intuition, foresight and genius and decided to ask the wrong questions. Rather than think about the other useful things we could do with this new information, we used it to explore weapons technology.
We asked how these exceptional visionary ideas concerning mass could be misappropriated to cause the most damage possible to our fellow man. Einstein was originally against using the technology in this way, before fears of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis getting there first led to him signing a letter to President Roosevelt urging the atomic bomb be built. Thus the Manhattan Project was undertaken, the uranium atom split and a new era of fear, hostility and paranoia born. What a desperately sad state of affairs; we took that knowledge, visionary genius and promise and used it to make our lives worse. For all the wonderful minds we have, there always seem to be enough selfish idiots to ruin it for everyone.
But we must still dare to know
And yet, despite the fact there will always be these idiots with ill intentions, despite the fact there will always be people with power and influence who choose to use our great minds to harm humanity rather than help it, we must not relent in our quest for progress. We must try to be better – we must try to know more. And we must do so in ways that help our species; we must dream big so we can help each other. We need to take care of one another – we need to love each other and we need to be kind to each other. We need to let our Genuinity shine through our actions – allow your childish, feminine inner voice to be heard, connect with others and ensure that compassion and Niceness triumphs.
We need to aim for that Nietzschean Superman – to be the best possible versions of ourselves that we can be. We need to evolve (to be kinder, and promote fairness and equality) and continue to go forward as a species. But in a way in which we care for our fellow human beings and ensure the best possible living conditions for all. And scientific progress, and the championing and celebration of our greatest minds, can help us do that. Democritus, who was essentially the father of atomic theory, showed us that the ‘truth is in the depths’. We must continue to plough those depths for new answers. We just need to remember to keep asking ALL the right questions – not just those to help us understand who we are, but those to help us be better at what we are; those to help us look after our own kin. And our planet. And our universe.
Rovelli, when writing about Plato’s Phaedo – and Socrates explaining how he believes the earth is spherical – says this: “This acute awareness of our ignorance is the heart of scientific thinking. It is thanks to this awareness of the limits of our knowledge that we have learned so much.” We have indeed learned so much – and there is so much more for us to learn. We need to know, understand and respect our limitations, but also try to traverse them where possible; try to expand our horizons and improve the lives of all who take part in this seemingly random, contingent existence.
Rovelli also illuminates the work of Archimedes and his famous text The Sand Reckoner when thinking about the role of science in pushing boundaries, rubbishing the limitations of infinities and daring to know more. Rovelli equates Archimedes’ line of inquiry (formulating a methodology to count every grain of sand and not being overawed or defeated by the sheer scale of such ‘infinite’ possibilities) to the enlightenment era and the quest to know more through reason and rationality.
“The central point is rebellion against the renunciation of the desire to know,” writes Rovelli. “A declaration of faith in the comprehensibility of the world, a proud retaliation to those who remain satisfied with their own ignorance, who call infinite that which we don’t understand and delegate knowledge to elsewhere.”
It’s just so much easier to remain in ignorant bliss; like it is to deflect responsibility and reject our freedom in an existential sense. So perhaps I should renounce what I wrote earlier in this blog piece – as much as ignorance can be bliss, we have a responsibility to ‘dare to know’ as a species. Sapere Aude was good enough for Immanuel Kant – and he was an interstellar philosopher of astronomic awesomeness. We have a responsibility to move forward. We must battle against the futility of infinity and unanswered questions. We must challenge ourselves, stretch ourselves and conquer new horizons. We must reach for the stars. And we must do so in a progressive way which actually serves our species in a positive, collective, life-affirming manner.
“The only truly infinite thing is our ignorance,” says Rovelli.
Let that not be the case. Let our Genuinity, compassion and kindness shine through, so the only truly infinite thing is our humanity.