Popular Science and the Blimey Effect

Every so often, after a period of sinking into literary fiction, I suddenly feel a strange urge for some refreshing science reading. Indeed the cornerstones of my private library – the first books I’ve ever bought for myself, sometime around middle-school – are of the popular mathematics genre. The Prisoner’s Dilemma (William Poundstone) and The Code Book (Simon Singh) really are two of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve ever read, respectively concerning Game Theory and the history of code cracking. Later came some mathematician biographies, and soon I turned my interest towards fiction. Some years later, upon considering what it is I wish to study for my B.A., I went back to the non-fiction shelves, this time reading about language, neurology and society (I highly recommend Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language) and later popular psychology, evolutionary psychology and psychiatry (if you want to be astounded by just how weird our brains are, read anything by Oliver Sacks. Then put the book down and go: “wow.” Then read the rest of his books). Soon after that I started my studies at the university, not surprisingly in the faculty of humanities, and have been knee deep in fictional characters and plots ever since. And then, suddenly – not two weeks ago – I suddenly felt like reading something radically different.

It started, perhaps logically, with biology – a topic which I encounter every once in a while in my studies. More accurately, it started with evolution. Since Charles Darwin has been dead for quite some time now, he can hardly defend his work himself. The scientist who is currently doing most of the work in the field of popularizing Darwinism is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is somewhat of a hero of mine; not only for what he says but also because of the way he says it (oh how girlish of me). Dawkins goes well beyond explaining evolution and far into promoting it – and scientific teaching – and rational atheism – all issues which I find important. Sadly, in his work against organized religion he sometimes looks like a modern Don

Richard Dawkins preaching to the choir, it would seem

Quixote*, full of good intentions but fighting against an indestructible force. (I should point out that only some people see him that way: a frighteningly large amount of people see him as the devil). As I was saying, it’s not only about the content but also about the presentation. Dawkins is a very gifted writer with a rich and poetic language, and more importantly, with seemingly endless patience. I’m ever amazed by the way he argues his point of view in various televised interviews. Sitting in front of him is usually a creationist or another, whose words are soaked with hatred and contempt. But Dawkins never loses his cool: he waits patiently for his turn, and then presents his side ever so politely. It’s inspiring just how NICE he is. The books I’ve been reading of his lately are The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker, and I’m awaiting the arrival of The Greatest Show on Earth (how I love online shopping!). I can’t say I was converted by his work – simply because I was on the same side to begin with, long before I knew these books existed. Still, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Well written, concise, humorous and all in all a great read.  Be warned that reading and watching Dawkins begins to repeat itself after a while; but until that happens, there’s a lot to enjoy.

The next step, having realized that the beauty of evolution lies in its simplicity, was to search for the opposite: something so terribly complex that would provide a challenge in the very attempt to understand what the hell is being said. The most complex thing I could think of was modern physics. Unfortunately, it was even more complicated then I had thought, and I am forced to admit that I just couldn’t get through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, despite it being a classic and considered very easy and light. Therefore I had to result to… documentaries. Blasphemy, I know. This is a blog about the written word! Well, you know what? Someone wrote down the scripts for those documentaries, and did it very well. (Also, some of them are based on books, if that helps at all). I watched the very informative The Fabric of the Cosmos, a four-part series based on the similarly named book by physicist Dr. Brian Greene, who also presents the program. This fun (I’m not being sarcastic) show goes from Einstein’s time-space continuum and black holes through quantum mechanics and string theory, and even discusses the notion of multiverse, which is how I discovered the the “Family Guy” episode on that subject wasn’t kidding. It sounds heavy but it is explained very well, with plenty of demonstrations, jokes and special effects. Sometimes even too many, I admit (upon demonstrating time-travel: “I’ll see you later Mr. Greene…” -“Yes… A lot later!” Oh, come on). But still, a great intro to a subject which should be looked into by anyone with the slightest interest in the deepest reality of our world. Personally, I find modern physics extremely hard to grasp. It’s not the numbers and calculations that bother me – well, those too, but they can easily be avoided by just not dwelling on them – but how radically different the ideas are from our daily perceived reality. The most disturbing

The Multidimensional String Theory

part of quantum mechanics is that the information is all pointing to the randomness and instability of life at its most basic part(icle)s. I have a sort of gut feeling that things are not really random, and in fact they have a very strict order – it’s just one the we haven’t yet been able to wrap our heads around. Then again, you are listening to a student of literature, so what the hell do I know. It is also worthwhile asking whether my inclination to expect a final straightforward solution is the most human reaction there is, and whether the reason that quantum mechanics is so hard to grasp is that it defies exactly that human kind of thinking. The humanities-oriented thinker in me cannot help but think about it in these terms. What does this uncertain and uncomfortable view of nature do to us as people? Learning that we exist only as a (luckily conscious) byproduct of evolution is bad enough for our sense of meaning. Now this too? The cold reality of science is difficult to take in. Personally I find that rather than being depressing, this view of the world is wonderfully freeing. If no greater purpose exists, and my actions do not have a “grander-scheme-of-things” meaning, then I am free to produce meaning myself. I have no higher power to impress and I am completely free to do whatever I want (within reasonable humanistic values, such as never hurt anyone if you can avoid it). But that’s just me; I can definitely see how heartbreaking such realizations can be at first. As for this chaos that quantum mechanics seems to be providing: I have not yet been convinced that behind the atom – behind the electrons – behind the strings – there is no logical set of rules that puts it all together. It’s hard for me to imagine that kind of world, when I see how well the real world stays within its known set of rules (Newtonian laws etc). But I’m still waiting to be proven wrong. Either way it’s all fascinating and mind-blowing like nothing else I’ve ever read (OK, OK, like nothing else I’ve ever watched a documentary about). Here’s another great documentary – only one part long – precisely about how modern math and physics defy our human need for order, and how it is all linked to the great social and emotional turmoil of the 20th century: High Anxieties: The Mathematics of Chaos. Enjoy!


* He is like Don Quixote in the sense of fighting a battle you have very little chance of winning, not of hallucinating enemies and being overall a bit pityfull. Just making my stand clear, if it wasn’t so already when I used the word hero.