Chapter Excerpt

Orientation

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me.
Blaise Pascal


You are here, it says on the map in the park, the train station and the shopping centre, an arrow, usually red, pointing to some reassuringly definite location. But where is here, exactly? Children know, or think they know. On the flyleaf of a first book, I wrote out, as we all did after our own fashion, my full cosmic address — Christopher Potter, 225 Rushgreen Road, Lymn, Cheshire, England, The United Kingdom, The World, The Solar System, The Galaxy — my childish handwriting getting larger and larger, as if each part of the address I knew to be bigger and more important than the preceding part, until, with a final flourish, that acme of destinations is reached: the universe itself, the place that must locate everything there is.

As children we soon become aware that the universe must be a strange place. I used to keep myself awake at night trying to imagine what lay beyond the edge of the universe. If the universe contains everything there is, then what is it contained in? We now know, scientists tell us, that the visible universe is a region of radiation that evolved and is not contained in anything. But such a description raises too many questions that are more disturbing than the question we had hoped to have had answered in the first place, and so we quickly put the universe back in its box and think about something else instead.

We do not like to think about the universe because we fear the immensity that is everything. The universe reduces us to a nub, making it difficult to escape the idea that size matters. After all, who can deny the universe when there is so much of it? ‘Spiritual aspirations threaten to be swallowed up by this senseless bulk into a sort of nightmare of meaninglessness,’ wrote the Anglo-German scholar Edward Conze (1904—1979). ‘The enormous quantity of matter that we perceive around us, compared with the trembling little flicker of spiritual insight that we perceive within us, seems to tell strongly in favour of a materialistic outlook on life.’ We know that we must lose if we are to contest the universe.

Just as terrifying is the idea of nothing at all. A little while ago each of us was nothing, and then was something. No wonder children have nightmares. The something of our existence ought to make the nothingness that preceded life an impossibility, since we also know, as King Lear observes, that ‘nothing can come of nothing’. And yet every day in the annihilation and miraculous resurrection of the ego that is going to sleep and waking up, we are reminded of that very nothingness from which each of us emerges.

If there is something — which there appears to be — then where did that something come from? Such thoughts coincide with the first inklings we have of our own mortality. Death and nothingness go hand in hand: twin terrors to put alongside our terror of the infinite; terrors we spend the rest of our lives suppressing into the shape of our adult selves.

Humans are caught in a bind. On the one hand we know that there is something because we are each sure of our own existence; but we also know there is nothing because we fear that that is where we came from and where we are headed. We know intellectually that the nothingness of death is inescapable but do not actually believe it. ‘We are all immortal,’ the American novelist John Updike reminds us, ‘for as long as we live.’

‘What happens when I die?’ a child soon asks, a question that as adults we also put to one side. Not even a material girl in a material world would be satisfied with an answer that was restricted to descriptions of physical decay, and yet even a material answer to such a question, and indeed to all questions, will end up at the same place. What is the material of the world and where does it come from? To think about the universe is to ask again the childhood questions we no longer ask: What is everything? And what is nothing?

Seemingly all children start out as budding scientists unafraid to follow a trail of questioning to exhaustion, even if the exhaustion is usually that of their parents. Curiosity drives children to ask why? And why? And why? hoping to arrive at some final destination, like the universe at the end of our cosmic address, a final answer beyond which there are no more whys.

‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ asked the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646—1716), the question that any description of the universe must ultimately be able to address. Science attempts to answer ‘why’ questions with ‘how’ answers, invoking the dynamic of stuff in the world. But ‘how’ answers also converge on that same ultimate question: instead of asking ‘whyis there something rather than nothing?’, scientists ask ‘howdid something come out of nothing?’ In order to account for the everything-ness of the universe we must also account for the nothing-ness from which it seems to have appeared. But what could such material as the world is made of look like when it is nothing, and what possible actions could have transformed nothing into something, and something into the everything we call the universe?

For hundreds of years, and for as long as the word has meant anything, science has shown itself to be an evolving process of investigation into whatever it is that is Out There, a place of things that are in motion, and what we mean by the universe. So who better, we might think, than scientists to answer the question: Where — between the void and everything — are we?

Their replies are not always encouraging:

• ‘Man knows at last, that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance,’ the French biologist Jacques Monod (1910—1976) once wrote, with what sounds like glee that we should have finally found this out.

• ‘Science has revealed much about the world and our position in it. And generally, the findings have been humbling.’ writes Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. ‘The earth is not the centre of the universe. Our species descended from brutes. We are made of the same stuff as mud. We are moved by neurophysiological signals and subject to a variety of biological, psychological and sociological influences over which we have limited control and little understanding.’

• ‘Our true position,’ says the American physicist Armand Delsemme, ‘[is one] of isolation, in an immense and mysterious universe.’

Isolated in pointlessness: no wonder we non-scientists would rather stay indoors and watch television, or readMiddlemarch, or do whatever it is that we do indoors. If this is the universe as science describes it, then we surely want none of it. Such a description only reignites those nauseous existential fears we have suppressed since childhood.

Or are these my fears and not yours? I have friends who claim that they never think about the universe at all. And yet I can’t help but feel that such rejection — of the universe of all things! — is evidence of deep repression rather than lack of interest. Who, after all, wants to be told that they are insignificant specks in a vast, purposeless and uncaring universe? And if we do take note, it’s hard not to blame science for finding it out. These stark scientific pronouncements seem impossible to deny. Easier, then, not to think about science either, for fear of being told something irrefutable that we would much rather not know: that we do not have free will; that the mind is merely a quality of the brain; that gods do not exist; that the only reality is material reality; that any knowledge that isn’t scientific knowledge is not just worthless, it isn’t knowledge at all.

Sometimes it seems that what science is telling us is that the universe has little in common with the subjective experiences that define us as human beings. We seem to be in opposition to a universe at best uninterested in the qualities that make us human, which makes some of us think — a thought we’d presumably rather not have — that to be human is to be intrinsically separate from the source of our own creation.

To be at peace with the universe is not easy. The English mathematician Frank Ramsey (1903—1930) found a way of accommodating the universe by accommodating the idea of size itself: ‘Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does . . . My picture of the world is drawn in perspective . . . The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.’ The contemporary astronomer Alan Dressler has a similar strategy: ‘If we could learn to look at the universe with eyes that are blind to power and size, but keen for subtlety and complexity, then our world would outshine a galaxy of stars.’

Drawing the universe in human scale might remind us of the world as seen in paintings before the discovery of formal perspective, where a different hierarchy of size is imposed. In pre-Renaissance paintings, the hierarchy is based on relative spiritual importance, so that the Virgin Mary, say, looms large over the saints, who in turn dominate the kneeling donor who has commissioned the painting in the first place. For Ramsey it is humanity that is the measure of the world, not a spiritual nor a literal yardstick. But this doesn’t help us much if, putting aside all fears and existential vertigo, we cannot escape the idea that science might be all that there is, that the whole universe can be measured and brought to account. We might all too easily convince ourselves that science reduces our lives to files and card indexes, as in some totalitarian regime that believes its citizens are best subdued when they are reduced to statistics. Rigid, authoritarian, patriarchal, analytical, without emotional content: these are some of the qualities we could be tempted to ascribe to science and scientists.

But there is another side. Half a century ago, the English astronomer and physicist Fred Hoyle (1915—2001) noted, admittedly with a hint of exasperation, the curious fact that ‘while most scientists claim to eschew religion, it actually dominates their thoughts more than it does the clergy’. Certainly most of the prominent scientists of the past were believers. A recent poll shows that perhaps 50 per cent of scientists today believe in some form of a personal God, while another poll tells us that only 30 of the hundred physicists who were asked believe that parallel universes actually exist. ‘I would like to know how God created the world,’ Einstein (1) once said. ‘I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I would like to know His thoughts. The rest is detail.’

Even hard-line materialists like the English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (b.1942) and the American physicist Steven Weinberg (b.1933) sprinkle their writings with talk of the possible nature of the God in which they do not believe. Hawking tells us that we may actually be close to knowing the mind of God, while Weinberg, even-handedly, tells us that ‘science does not make it impossible to believe in God. It just makes it possible to not believe in God.’

Science is atheistic only in so far as it means to explain nature without recourse to the supernatural. In science, nature can be mysterious but it is not permitted to be mystical.Scientists, however, need not be atheistic, nor must agnosticism necessarily rule out spirituality. If science ever explains everything, only then do the gods die. But can science ever explain everything? Hawking has proclaimed that ‘we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature’, but it is far from clear that this is the case. At the end of the nineteenth century a similar declaration was made by the American physicist Albert Michelson (1852—1931): ‘It seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all phenomena which comes under our notice.’ He could not have been more wrong. One of the most fertile periods in the history of science was just about to begin. The universe’s finest joke may be to reveal itself, as science systematically uncovers some of its secrets, as ever more mysterious.

In any case, since science has persuaded us to be agnostic about almost everything, perhaps now, in the ultimate act of modern ennui and irony, we might be inclined to be agnostic about science too. ‘Your cry of triumph at some new discovery will be echoed by a universal cry of horror,’ the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898—1956) has Galileo say in his playThe Life of Galileo. What is the cost of knowledge, we ask more and more insistently as science both creates and brings to the edge of destruction the world we live in? Sometimes the very certainty of the uncertainty that science has uncovered looks like dogmatism. Why do I feel sure that the uncertainty some scientists urge us to embrace is not what the poet Keats had in mind when he wrote of the ‘Man of Achievement . . . capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable striving after fact & reason’, a quality he named Negative Capability? For the same reason, I suspect, that I am disturbed by the wild-eyed optimism of those scientists who urge us to look to further scientific progress to put a damaged world back together again. (2) How much unrestrained scientific optimism in unrestrained scientific progress can we bear?

The scientific method, like capitalism, is always in search of new territory to exploit. Capitalism, Marx predicted, would come to an end when there were no more markets left. In our own age, the emergence of some of the largest markets in the history of civilisation makes such an end seem a long way off. And science outstrips even capitalism. We have begun to realise that there may not be so much time left for the earth, at least not as a place willing to host us. Not to worry, say the champions of scientific materialism, trust us, we are certain (well, pretty certain) that when we have conquered space we will find that there are many other places, somewhere out there, that we might claim as home. And if there aren’t, we’ll just build you a new one from scratch.

But for all the confident talk of leaving home and finding other places to live, such far-flung travel is highly speculative, hardly proper science even, given the limits set by our current understanding of the laws of nature. Perhaps the more we know about how the universe is constructed, the more reasons we will discover why we are bound to this place as our home. Putting aside all the hopes of science fiction, and science theory so speculative it might as well be fiction, it seems more realistic to suppose that we are unlikely ever to travel beyond the solar system, perhaps not even so far. Mankind hasn’t walked on the moon for over a generation, and we are just beginning to realise that even such short astronomical hops can cause considerable psychological trauma. It is far from clear what we would have to become — some sort of man-made post-human form perhaps — in order to live somewhere else. It may be that we are peculiarly suited to the earth, and such knowledge might force us to take better care of it. In 2006, Stephen Hawking wrote that the best hope for the future survival of mankind would be to abandon the earth and look for a new home. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to have a Plan B.

I want to know what this universe is that attracts and repels me, and which is described by a methodology that also attracts and repels. I am attracted to science for its power, beauty and mystery, and its call to live in uncertainties; I am repelled by its power, nihilism and smug material certainty. Perhaps these polar extremes might be reconciled if I can begin to understand what it is that scientists are doing when they do what they do.

At school, the relationship between science and nature (the universe as it appears on our doorstep) never came into it. I’m not even sure I ever made a connection between what went on in the laboratory and what goes on in the natural world as it manifests itself around us. In physics, the world was simulated with ball bearings and electrical hardware (where are they in the forests and the highlands?); in chemistry, we peered at reactions between chemicals that are hardly ever found out in the open; and biology, which purported to be about the living world, seemed to be more about cutting up things specially killed for the purpose. Science appeared to be about beating a reluctant world into some sort of submission. And then there was mathematics, how did that fit in? I once heard someone claim it as the queen of the sciences, but what did that mean? I gathered, somehow, that mathematics was meant to underpin science in some way, but no one in the maths department — where mathematics was thought to be too grand to have anything to do with the laboratory — was letting on.

My experience of science at school was traumatic enough to make me feel like an outsider, but not sufficiently traumatic to snuff out entirely my outsider interest in what it is that science does. It’s not difficult to feel outside science: even scientists can be excused for feeling excluded. Long gone are the days when ‘the laws of the universe were something a man might deal with pleasantly in a workshop set up behind the stables’. (3) Rocket-launched observatories and particle accelerators that cost billions of dollars and take years to construct have put paid to the wider democracy of science. (4) Mathematicians have always made up an exclusive club but even that club is now broken up into sometimes tiny splinter groups. There are mathematical proofs that take years to check, and these are only understood by the handful of mathematicians involved in the process of verification or by those who constructed the proof in the first place. If scientists themselves are entitled to feel excluded, how much more do we, poor puzzled onlookers, peer through a glass darkly?

At school I discovered I had a modest talent for math ematics. It was Miss Church, the mathematics teacher, who educated (5) me: literally brought something forth, the opposite of the process that forces information in and is sometimes mistaken for education. So it was maths for me at university, a subject to which, I soon realised, I was never going to make an original contribution. Being OK at mathematics is like being an OK cook or an OK pianist: a yawning chasm separates the amateur and the professional. The truly gifted begin beyond the point where amateurs leave off. Good meals may result from slavish devotion to a recipe, but where are the new recipes to come from? Although there was a time when I could produce Einstein’s relativistic equations, or prove Gödel’s theorem from scratch, I had little idea what it was that I was doing when I reconjured these profound insights into the nature of reality. After years of education, I was no closer to understanding what it is that scientists do when they do what they do. Part of the problem is that most scientists are happy just todowhat it is that they do without questioning what that is exactly. They are not interested in philosophical conundrums, to which their likely response is, as the American physicist Richard Feynman (1918‒1988) wittily put it, ‘Shut up and calculate!’ Scientists are pragmatists. (6) If it works, philosophical considerations are superfluous. The American theoretical physicist Lee Smolin (b.1955) goes further. He has declared that ‘in science we aim for a picture of nature as it really is, unencumbered by any philosophical or theological prejudice’. (7) But how can science be divorced from philosophy and theology, as if a poisoned river runs between it and other forms of enquiry? Historically, science developed out of philosophy and creation stories, and what science now knowsisour modern creation story. In that river is exactly where I want to be.

I went back to university for what turned out to be a last gasp of formal education: a course in the history and philosophy of science, begun as a doctorate but soon abbreviated into a single year. My strongest memory of that year is of a remark made by the head of department, which I remember partly because he immediately disavowed it, and partly because I associate it with my continued feeling that I was on the outside of the world I meant to inhabit. He wondered what it would be like to teach the piano knowing that the only two physical variables are the speed and the force with which the keys are hit. Pausing for a moment, he wondered if, perhaps, there might in fact be only one variable — force, alone — given that the action of the piano is fixed. My heart leapt with interest. Here was a possible bridge across the river. ‘But we stray into aesthetics,’ the professor concluded, and changed the subject. And so at the end of the year I took away my Master’s degree and ventured, not much wiser, out into the wider world.

Eventually, I settled down as an editor working with various writers, some of whom wrote about science and others about the vicissitudes of the human heart. And for a long time I was happy enough to have found an accommodation between two worlds.

Like many who have come to writing latish in life, it took a crisis (8) to get me here. I realised that I could either go on trying to find someone to write the book I wanted to read, or I could write it myself. Being an outsider might even be something I could turn to my advantage.

Is it possible for a layman to find a path through the universe science describes? I hope so. We do not feel so excluded from any other of mankind’s truth-seeking enterprises. We may or may not understand some of the products of contemporary art, but at least we feel entitled to an opinion. ‘I could do better myself at home’ is never a response to the latest scientific theory, but perhaps we might be more inclined to venture an opinion on, say, the Large Hadron Collider, if we knew a little about what a particle accelerator is and what this one might achieve. We might even beentitledto an opinion given its cost, not just in dollar terms but to our current physical descriptions of reality. There are, of course, places to go to find out such information — specialist magazines and designated pages in certain newspapers — but my imagined reader feels excluded even there. She longs to take a walk across the universe but does not know from where the journey sets out, let alone where such a journey might end. She does not have the benefit even of my limited scientific background, but shares my desire to find out what science does, and is drawn, as I am, to what it is that science has to tell us of the world out there, no matter how painful such knowledge might turn out to be. Scientists have dared to venture out into the universe for centuries, armed only with a clock and a ruler. Perhaps that’s why madness is a quality particularly associated with these fearless adventurers. With these magic wands in hand we can follow, not too cautiously, but cautiously enough to avoid madness and confidently enough to live up to T. S. Eliot’s maxim: ‘Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.’


(1) There has been much speculation about Einstein’s religious views. It appears that he did not believe in a personal God, but his views are perhaps best understood by reference to what he actually said. The word God is dotted about his writings.

(2) It has been suggested that we might reduce global warming by injecting sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, or by pumping cold water from the bottom of the ocean to the surface.

(3) The German-born English novelist Sybille Bedford (1911‒2006):A Legacy(1956).

(4) There is, in fact, still plenty of science that can be done in a shed, but the pursuit of the laws of the universe has become expensive.

(5) Educate: from the Latin words ‘e’ (from) and ‘ducere’ (to lead).

(6) Like Gwendolen inThe Importance of Being Earnest(1895): ‘Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.’

(7)New Scientist, 23 September 2006.

(8) Crisis: a turning point, a time of distress. Greek, fromKrinein, to decide.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe by Christopher Potter
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