philosophy

Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

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Although it’s not a comedy I can see this novel appealing to fans of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Lots of philosophy, weirdnesses (technical term) of time and space, and it’s not too heavy (i.e. it’s got its share of farce and sarcasm, you can tell it’s a British novel). Having said that, as well as being a Douglas Adams fan I do have a degree in theoretical physics which included as many philosophy modules as I could access, so I may be part of a niche target audience. Mobius Dick is one of the few books I’ve come across where the main character is a theoretical physicist, which is actually what swayed me when I picked it up in a charity shop last summer, having heard of neither the book nor the author. Speaking as a partial insider then, I don’t know how much you’d have to be comfortable with the idea and philosophy of quantum mechanics to get into this. If ‘what would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse’ is just a string of words to you then you might find it a bit hard going (and potentially uninteresting).

There is also an undercurrent of thriller, with some peculiar goings-on at a nuclear research facility in Scotland that we as readers want to get to the bottom of. I read almost the entire book on a return train journey to Liverpool, becoming immersed and zipping through the pages, whereas OneMonkey (who also has a degree in theoretical physics, sorry) found it hard to get going because it chops and changes between different times and places and people, with chapters from fictional memoirs interspersed as well.

Part of what I saw as the Dirk Gently aspect was the key question of coincidences – are they significant or do we only ascribe them meaning when they chime with us? Alongside the recurring motifs of Moby Dick (and its author), the composer Schumann, and the physicist Schrödinger, coincidences and many-worlds hypotheses are the philosophical meat of the novel. It takes in the topics of re-lived lives, the nature of time, the nature of dreams and reality, causality, attractors in space-time folded time, and of course: What would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse? If that list is freaking you out, then maybe it’s not one to add to your To Read list, but if you like philosophy and the accidents and what-ifs of history then you’ll probably like being made to think by this book.

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Fiction as a thought experiment

The final event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was another Comma Press one. For a few years they’ve had a project where a writer gets paired with a scientist: the scientist briefs the writer on a particular topic, the writer writes their story which is somehow linked to it, and the scientist then provides an afterword. The latest anthology of these stories (due out next month) is called Thought X, and is concerned with thought experiments.

Having spent a total of 9 years at 3 universities immersed in maths and theoretical physics, I hadn’t realised that thought experiments were anything other than an everyday matter or that the concept might be unfamiliar to people (I can’t think why people complain about academia being disconnected from the real world…). There are a variety of different sorts of thought experiment, some just an ‘imagine you have a…’ to get people to grasp a concept, others that either stop you from having to do an experiment (because you’ve worked it through logically via your imagined scenario) or that highlight a flaw in a theory by showing that there would be some contradiction if you thought your way through it in this case.

We heard extracts from three of the stories respectively based on the grandfather paradox in time travel, Laplace’s demon, and Schrödinger’s cat. Each thought experiment gave the author an existing narrative (e.g. there had to be an element of time travel and it had to involve some version of killing your own grandfather) around which to base their own narrative. Each of the three stories were different in tone and setting, and it sounds like it should be an interesting book.

To follow the readings, Professor Steven French of the University of Leeds (coincidentally Mark the artist’s academic grandfather i.e. his PhD supervisor’s PhD supervisor) talked about the importance of thought experiments in science, the history of Schrödinger’s famous cat and the many-worlds theories of quantum mechanics, as well as literature as a thought experiment. Which made me think science fiction is almost always explicitly a thought experiment – what happens if we increase global temperatures, what happens if there’s a scarcity of resources, what happens if we develop this technology? A good cue to go write some.