The universe, and all that surrounds it

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

–       Alexander Pope

It did not last: the Devil howling Ho!
Let Einstein be! restored the status quo.

–       Sir John Collins Squire

There was a time when our concept of the universe was understandable. There’s the sun, there are these planets ellipsing around the sun with the sun as a focal point of that ellipse, and with the imaginary line between any planet and the sun sweeping out equal areas in equal time intervals, etc. etc. Yes, there was a bit of mathematics describing all that, but one could visualise it, and even take a bit of pride in being able to understand it. Or, at least, understand some of it.

But then, just over a hundred years ago, it all changed. Space isn’t just space, apparently: space has a shape, and it is curved. And objects in space distort the shape of the space. And somehow, this explains gravity, which is actually nothing to do with bodies exerting attractive forces on each other, but simply a consequence of the distorted space. Right. That’s that one sorted.

And time is not just time either, by the way. It can flow at different rates in different frames of reference.

And this is just the beginning. Then, we get things like particles being wave forms as well as particles; and about uncertainty in measuring simultaneously position and momentum of a particle – uncertainty not caused by our inability to measure, but by the very nature of things itself; and, next thing you know, we’re on to anti-matter and dark energy and multiple universes and what not, all stuff that we like to nod away at, pretending we know what the bleeding hell any of it is about.

And we tell ourselves that, as intelligent people, we should know. We should know at least something of all this. Our increased understanding of physics – from the smallest possible subatomic scale, to the largest possible, taking in, as the late Peter Cook used to say, not just the universe but all that surrounds it – is possibly mankind’s greatest achievement of the last hundred or so years. But I use the word “our” loosely there. And I use the word “mankind” loosely as well. For only a minuscule proportion of mankind is capable of even conceiving of such matters, let alone thinking about them. And it’s hard to know to what extent, if at all, our pride in belonging to the same species as those capable of such extraordinary intellectual activity is undermined by our shame in understanding not a word of what they are on about.

It is particularly shameful for me, as I had actually studied physics as an undergraduate at university. Goddammit, I should be able to understand at least some of this! Oh, the Newtonian stuff was no problem at all; and even some of the stuff that came later, I absorbed well enough to answer my examination questions: I even remember my final year project solving Schrödinger’s equation numerically on those primitive computers we used to have in those primitive days (this was over 30 years ago now). Now, when I see that same Schrödinger’s equation, it does ring a bell, but the sound the bell produces is merely a fragile tinkle rather than a sonorous peal. All those wonderful ideas that the academic staff had worked so hard in implanting into my mind has somehow drifted away over the years, so when I now hear of anti-matter and string theory and multiverses and such-like, I find myself standing in wide-eyed incomprehension, same as everyone else.

To try to remedy at least some of this, I do try reading some popular science books – the very adjective “popular” rubbing it in that I remain, despite my education in these matters, very much a layman. The latest is The Book of Universes, written by eminent physicist John D Barrow, whose past achievements include the formulation of what he calls the Groucho Marx Effect – i.e. “A universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind capable of understanding it.”

Prof. Barrow starts off with early concepts of the universe, moves on quickly to the Copernican system and Newtonian mechanics (which, he is at some pains to explain, have not been superseded by modern physics, but have merely shown to be reasonable approximations of more general laws), until, at Page 47 of this 300-or-so-page book, he comes to the real starting point of the story, that one inescapable figure in the history of modern thought: Einstein.

Curiously enough, Einstein’s ideas, which continue to elude the vast proportion of us, have quite democratic origins: if a body is rotating, then, from the perspective of this rotating body, the bodies around it are in circular motion; and yet, there does not need to be any force acting upon those bodies, thus breaking Newton’s First Law of Motion. It was well-known that Newton’s laws do not apply in every possible frame of reference, but Einstein sought laws of physics that were more democratic, that would hold true, be absolute, regardless of one’s frame of reference. And out of this democratic principle came curved space and time flowing at different rates and all that stuff that seem so mind-bogglingly modern even after a hundred years and more.

So what sort of story is this where even the starting point is so incomprehensible? Prof Barrow is a companionable guide. He writes lucidly – or, at least, as lucidly as the subject will allow – and often with wit. There were certainly points where, I must admit, he did lose me: there were certain sentences in which, although I understood each individual word and found the whole thing made perfect syntactical sense, the idea expressed was such that my mind was simply incapable of taking it in. But on the whole, I think I managed to follow the trajectory of the story, and grasped at least the vague outline of thought on these matters.

It would be presumptuous of me to try to summarise the ideas expounded, let alone set myself to “review” them. I think I’d best just say it was an enthralling read, and leave it there. Barrow considers not merely Einstein’s ideas, but also what led on from there, right down to our own times. At each step, he allows us to see how very strange the universe is – stranger than can even be imagined. And at each step we are reminded of the extraordinary achievement of humanity – yes, I am quite happy to share in the reflected glory of those achievements, despite understanding so little – and also how very far even the greatest of intellects can ever be from understanding enough.

In short, a fine book, and very strongly recommended. It is certainly true that, having read the book, I am none the wiser; but I am, at least, much better informed, and even for that I am grateful.


9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Maureen on December 5, 2011 at 7:22 am

    At least now I feel worthily accompanied in my ignorance and limitations. The generosity of idea-sharing made possible by the internet certainly does, to paraphrase the late Kurt Vonnegut (or more precisely his son), make it easier to help each other get through this, whatever ‘this’ is.

    Just for fun, take a big breath and go to Ken Robinson’s speech at RSA, minute 42, to effortlessly get a clear sense of proportion in all that surrounds us.


  2. Alas, there is little point me even trying to understand such matters – I have tried popular science books before and rarely get far with them. I am currently struggling with Ian Stewart’s “Hoard of Mathematical Treasures” which isn’t too bad but despite 35 years in the IT industry the science of the universe remains pretty much beyond me. A very informative and readable article however.


  3. By coincidence, and after a long hiatus, I’ve embarked upon an attempt to re-engage with mathematics which, despite a PhD., has lain neglected in my brain for so long that I struggle like you to remember the barest details of what once came so easily to my mind. The stimulus (apart from a nagging feeling that I ought to be exercising my brain a little more to stay mentally fit as the third age creeps ever closer, a requirement that doing crosswords fails to meet) was the chance to read Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s new book “The Quantum Universe: Everything that can happen, does happen”.

    There seems to be a new breed of popular science books that repudiate Stephen Hawking’s stated aim to keep equations to minimum and try to lead the naive reader through some of the more difficult mathematical concepts therein. Roger Penrose’s “The Road to Reality” perhaps initiated this trend, and the new Cox & Forshaw carries it forward with an attempt to describe quantum fields which, while it spares the reader exposure to the low-down-and-dirty-details of Hilbert spaces and the like, uses instead a reasonably challenging analogy of a universe filled with tiny one-handed clocks the lengths of whose hands relate to the probabilistic amplitudes of finding a particle there. To me this was more of a barrier than if they had piled straight in with some real maths, but I’m probably not typical in that respect. Nevertheless, I applaud their determination not to spoon-feed their audience, and it’s hard not to share in their excitement as they present a halfway-rigorous mathematical proof of the Chandrasekhar limit as their piece de resistance at the end of the book, nor to appreciate the way in which they explain how the quantum oddities not only smooth out to our more comfortably familiar macro-world but also are required to make sense of that world too. Knowing that it’s the low-level weirdness that stops us falling through the floor is a comfort of sorts.

    Reading this rekindled my enthusiasm for mathematics, and a particular desire to come to grips with the bits needed to properly understand quantum mechanics and general & special relativity, so I’m heading off into previously only-partly-chartered territory and digging out a few undergraduate books. So far what’s struck me is a renewed sense of the beauty of the subject (there’s nothing quite like the joy of understanding Bertrand Russell’s extraordinary set paradox, or the sublime complexity lurking beneath the apparently innocuous Jordan curve theorem), even if I’m still blowing the metaphorical cobwebs away.


    • Having reached the age of retirement from paid employment (but still having plenty of unpaid) I have learned that there are some things which there is just no point in going into. I concentrate on what may find fruitfulness and discard the rest before I waste any more time on it. Alas, my brain seems to have little aptitude for physics or chemistry and so I have put those things to one side. I do understand how scientists find the subject beautiful and by listening to the Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC R4 I can also see the humorous side to science. I find myself fascinated by technology however – my brain is very selective in its interests


  4. Posted by alan on December 5, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    You’ve sold it to me but now I’m in a quandary : do I go for the Barrow or the Cox & Forshaw ?
    Perhaps I’ll go for the Barrow – I never did understand that Mach’s principle thingy. I assume that is why you are going on about rotating frames of reference, or have I got that wrong as well?


  5. Posted by Caro on December 7, 2011 at 8:36 am

    I have over the years enjoyed reading popular(ish) books on science, mostly the development of astrophysics or science through the ages (Hawking’s Brief History of Time, Brian Silver’s The Ascent of Science, Bill Bryson’s book – that sort of thing), but it is really the snatches of the people behind the science that I have liked. On occasions I remember the earth and planets go round the sun, but I wouldn’t stake my life on this, and other science bits feel understood while I am reading them sometimes, but disappear straight out some part of my brain immediately afterwards. It doesn’t matter how many times I read about electricity or magnetism or light or colour, only the most basic scientific facts stick. I thought I might get on better with genetics but a book on that was way beyond me.

    On the other hand if I hadn’t read these sort of things, I would never have known that Tycho Brahe died when his bladder burst at a royal function when he was too embarrassed to go to the toilet. (I thought people in those days were much less squeamish that we are.) This is something which I have managed to retain in my memory for many years, and which I think is something I would have better not knowing.

    Cheers, Caro.


  6. Thank you all for your comments, and may I apologise for having taken so long in responding. I keep putting it off till I feel more alert mentally, but as that isn’t going to happen for some time, i may as well reply as best i can now!

    Alan (i.e. the Alan who is not Alan Boshier): there are some excellent books on science out there, and, not having read them all, I am in no position to recommend any one over another. The best thing to do iis to have a good browsing session in a bookshop, and try out a few.

    Alan Boshier: You got me quite excited when you mentioned Jordan Curve Theorem, but I don’t know that i want to get into silicon technology…

    But you’re absolutely right, of course: the subject is important and beautiful, and, yes, I should have a better understanding of it. the main problem is that the older I get, the more I realise that my primary interests are literary, and, given various work and family commitments, and given the very limited time I have when my mind is sufficiently alert, I tend to find myself with my nose in a Shakespeare play or a Henry James novel rather than in science books. But I’d rather know something about it than nothing at all: a little learning need not be a dangerous thing when one is aware just how little that learning is!

    Maureen: I haven't yet had a look yet at Ken Robinson's RSA speech, but I shall certainly have a look at it once I've finished posting this. I agree with you about the generosity of idea-sharing on the internet: I have gained much from the internet over the years – not least some very good friends.

    Tom: Despite my academic background (I studied physics as an undergraduate, as I said, but then I switched to operational research for my postgraduate studies), I too have come to feel that I don't really have an aptitude for these things. Or, rather, that my primary interest is literature. But I still do find myself enthralled by the abstraction of mathematics. Our boy is now studying for his A-level in mathematics, and I do enjoy going through his work with him. The other day, I came across that equation:

    e to the power (i x pi) = -1

    and I just couldn't help reflecting on how beautiful that was: the three most mysterious numbers in mathematics – e, i and pi – all knit together in a simple, elegant equation. Yes, I know it's basic for any mathenmatician – but it's very beautiful all the same.

    Caro: many of these scientists and mathematicians were striking personalities, and yes, I too find it interesting to read about these people – if only to get some idea of what sort of people they can be who are capable of such extraordinary feats of the intellect. I particularly love the story of the young Heisenberg saving up to go to Vienna to attend one of Schrödinger's lectures – not because he admired Schrödinger, but because he wanted to heckle him!

    On the topic of astrophysics, I find it striking that despite acknowledging that we can never come remotely close to even an adequate understanding of the universe, scientists nonetheless continue to expend all their effort and energy in trying to understand just that little bit more. There is something wonderfully quixotic and romantic about the enterprise, and seems to me to embody humanity's finest qualities!


  7. Posted by Peter Gino Marchese on December 17, 2011 at 10:08 pm


    May I offer my thanks for leading to a branch of mathematics I never in my wildest dreams did I think I would understand
    In a blog of yours you mentioned the function e^(i pi) =-1 which I found with careful Goggling to be Euler’s equation with a simple way to evaluate it.
    I know now a little bit about Euler !




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