That would be theme of the book I read on while on holiday: “The universe in your hand. A journey through space, time and beyond” by Christophe Galfard, who was Stephen Hawking’s graduate student 2000 to 2006.
Fascinating – and baffling. For much of the time I hadn’t the foggiest what Galfard was trying to explain. I could just about understand the paragraph I was reading but no way could I explain what I had just read. Even so I was gripped.
Essentially – and this is my take on the whole subject of modern physics, there are three ways of approaching the physical world.
The first is the everyday world of common sense. Here Sir Isaac Newton is the key player. Apples fall on heads and we play billiards, relying on predictability. You can predict even though Everton have just spent £43.15million, the ball will still miss the net.
However, there is a problem: Mercury. It seems that this planet’s orbit around the sun doesn’t take as long as it should using Newton’s calculations. It’s one 500th of a second out per century.
I can’t say that ever worried me. To be honest, I’d never even noticed. But for those anoraks who do care, this was a totally unexplained and troubling observation.
It was Albert Einstein who was able to explain this by seeing the universe in a totally new way, summed up in his famous E = MC2.
And here we have the second way of seeing reality – the Very Big, one describing our universe’s structure. His two theories of relativity showed, for example, that mass and energy are actually the same thing.
Now, I could follow some of this. I had a vague understanding that as you travel close to the speed of light, time for you slows down. And that gravity is a bending of the fabric of the universe caused by the objects it contains.
However, it was Einstein who said to his students: “If you have understood me, than I haven’t been clear.” He was right.
However, there is a third way of seeing reality and this is summed up with the word Quantum. When you see this word it means that we have left the world of common-sense.
Just one example which blew my mind. You won’t understand it either – but it will blow your mind.
“The very small quantum world, it seems, is a mixture of possibilities. The quantum fields to which all particles belong are the sum of these possibilities and, somehow, one possibility is chosen out of all the existing ones just by seeing it, just by the very act of detecting it, whenever one tries to probe a particle’s nature. Nobody knows why or how this happens.”
The genius who gave us the world of the quantum is Werner Heisenberg. As Galfard explained, “Heisenberg knew what he was talking about. But like everyone else every since he did not understand it. It is beyond our intuition, it is contrary to common sense.”
I was struck by the story of American theoretical physicist, Hugh Everett III, who gave up physics as soon as he had finished his PhD in 1955 because it was too Weird, weird with a capital W. His work has since held up and he has the status of a founding father.
According to Everett, we are living in a multiverse of countless universes, full of copies of each of us. “Unfathomably many parallel universes exist where all the possibilities, all the alternative outcomes, are facts. All possibilities happen. You just do not know about it.”
And so on, as we enter the world of quarks and gluons, string theory and different dimensions. And whether there is a Theory of Everything.
However, what amazes me is how mere human beings, made of elements forged in the heat of the stars, have the capacity to understand the marvel of God’s creation using pure thought, the language of mathematics.
Brian Cox is just the latest cosmologist to conclude that the most precious, most wonderful thing in the entire incredible universe is us, human beings with the capacity to understand and with the potential to love, above all – to love the God who created us.
He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell,
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.
*“The universe in your hand. A journey through space, time and beyond” by Christophe Galfard is published by Pan Macmillan, 2015