philosophy

Alice and Jacqueline face the impossible

York Festival of Ideas is just drawing to a close for another year, but this week I joined Alice Courvoisier there for the third time to deliver an evening of thought-provoking entertainment (such has always been our aim, anyway).

We were supposed to be joined by Carolyn Dougherty this time (sadly she had to pull out at the last minute) so it was much more of a straightforward lecture format than our 2016 offering on the theme of time (which mixed myths, my fiction, history of science, and some proper physics) and a complete departure from our 2015 blend of myths and stories. Alice’s hair seems to get a bit shorter each time, but I can’t present the evidence because everyone was too engrossed to take photos this year (by which I mean, OneMonkey couldn’t make it and no-one else thinks of these things), which also means you don’t get to see the flabbergasting size of our audience. We were in a bigger venue this year, with stewards on hand to bring us coffee and supervise the Q&A (thank you to the students who gave up their time to do this) and I had a mild panic when I heard 88 tickets had been booked. They didn’t all turn up, but we still had a bigger audience than I was anticipating.

This year we were Facing the Impossible in Physics, according to the title of our talk, and (to paraphrase from my notes) we tried to get the audience thinking about science in a way they might not have thought about it before, by looking at how the notion of ‘impossible’ can change depending on when and where we are, and how the prevailing scientific view can change radically.

kepler-solar-system-1

Kepler’s Platonic Solid model of the solar system

Between us we did an accelerated history of celestial mechanics, with me tackling the part from the dawn of time (metaphorically speaking) to Kepler in 1609, and Alice presenting Newton to Poincaré at the turn of the 20th century, which gave her an excuse to play a clip of this video illustrating the concept of the sun moving as well (because we usually see it as static, with planets whizzing round it), with some suitably grandiose music.

I talked about experimental validation and bias, thought experiments, and provisional truths, while Alice pointed out that we have to trust something, and rattled through a history of Western views on the nature of matter. As a brief overview that might sound a bit dry but the audience seemed engaged and enthusiastic, and we had to curtail the Q&A after about half an hour because we’d over-run our slot and the next guy needed to start setting his presentation up! In fact Alice and I, as well as Mark the artist (who was there to provide moral support but also to critique us in his capacity as a philosopher of science) chatted to interested members of the audience for at least a quarter of an hour outside the lecture room afterwards as well, which made me feel like we’d achieved our goal of getting people thinking. A special mention must go to the physics student who boosted my ego by asking if there was an accompanying book available downstairs at the Waterstones stand… (maybe next time).

If you were there, thank you. If not, I’ll leave you with one of my thoughts from the evening:

In this age of the distrust of experts I don’t want to imply that scientists – even long-dead astronomers – don’t know what they’re doing. But I do want to emphasize that they’re not infallible, they’re not pure objective calculating machines, and the history of science isn’t a single-track road that’s sitting there just waiting for the brambles to be hacked away so the carefree physicists can skip along it arm in arm past all the handy signposts saying ‘Truth this way’.

Advertisements

Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

wp-1485024083764.jpg

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.

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.