Sunday, November 15, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Monday, September 7, 2009
More from the delightful Charlie Brooker ...
Contemplating the scale of the universe makes a mockery of household chores
News that the galaxy Andromeda is eating stars makes it hard to care about putting out the rubbish.
The sheer breadth of human knowledge is a wonderful thing. But sometimes it's scary. This morning I was aimlessly clicking my way around the BBC news site – which has become one of my favourite things in the world since I discovered just how much its very existence annoys James Murdoch – reading about the burial of Michael Jackson and the like, when my eye was drawn to an alarming headline.
"Galaxy's 'cannibalism' revealed," it read (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8234898.stm). This led to a story in the science section which calmly explained that a group of astronomers has decided that the Andromeda galaxy is expanding by "eating" stars from neighbouring galaxies. Having studied Andromeda's outskirts in great detail, they discovered the fringes contained "remnants of dwarf galaxies".
It took me a couple of reads to establish that Andromeda wasn't literally chewing its way through the universe like a giant intergalactic Pac-Man, and that the "remnants of dwarf galaxies" were living stars, not the immense galactic stools I'd envisaged. That was what had really frightened me: the notion that our entire solar system might be nothing more than a chunk of undigested sweetcorn in some turgid celestial bowel movement; that maybe black holes are actually almighty cosmological sphincters, squeezing solid waste into our dimension. What if the entire universe as we know it is essentially one big festival toilet?
That'd be a pretty good social leveller, come to think of it. So there, James Murdoch. You might well walk around thinking, "Ooh, hooray for me, I'm the chairman and CEO of News Corporation Europe and Asia, not to mention chairman of SKY Italia and STAR TV, the non- executive chairman of British Sky Broadcasting, and a non-executive director of GlaxoSmith-Kline", but at the end of the day you're just one of 900 trillion insignificant molecules in an all-encompassing turdiverse. And your glasses are rubbish.
Anyway, the astronomers who made the discovery about Andromeda deserve our awe and respect, because their everyday job consists of dealing with concepts so intense and overwhelming that it's a wonder their skulls don't implode through sheer vertigo. Generally speaking, it's best not to contemplate the full scope of the universe on a day-to-day basis because it makes a mockery of basic chores. It's Tuesday night and the rubbish van comes first thing Wednesday morning, so you really ought to put the bin bags out, but hey – if our sun were the size of a grain of sand, the stars in our galaxy would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and if our entire galaxy were a grain of sand, the galaxies in our universe would fill several Olympic-sized swimming pools. You and your bin bags. Pfff!
The human brain isn't equipped to house thoughts of this humbling enormity. Whenever I read a science article that nonchalantly describes the big bang, or some similarly dizzying reference to the staggering size and age and unknowable magnitude of everything, I feel like a sprite in an outdated platform game desperately straining to comprehend the machine code that put me there, even though that isn't my job: my job is to jump between two moving clouds and land feet-first on a mushroom without ever questioning why.
Perhaps astrophysics stories should come with a little warning. Just as graphically violent news reports tend to be preceded by a quick disclaimer advising squeamish viewers that the following footage contains shots of protesters hurling their own severed kneecaps at riot police – or whatever – maybe brain-mangling science reports likely to leave you nursing an unpleasant existential bruise for several hours should be flagged as equally hazardous. How can I flip channels and enjoy Midsomer Murders once I've been reminded of the crushing futility of everything? I can't even get worked up about the murders in that kind of mood. Yeah, kill him. And her. And them. Sod it. It's all just atoms in an unfathomable vortex.
Not that the few scientists I know seem to suffer. In fact, they're unrelentingly calm and upbeat, like they've stumbled across a cosmic secret but aren't telling. One of my friends is married to a quantum physicist who, sickeningly, manages to combine an immense brain with a relaxed, down-to-earth, amused attitude to everything. He once tried to explain the characteristics of different theoretical dimensions to me.
Dimensions one to four I could just about cope with. The fifth made vague sense at a push. But the rest collapsed into terrifying babble. There was no foothold. I swear, at one point he casually claimed the seventh dimension measured about half a metre in diameter and was shaped like a doughnut. That can't be right: either I've misremembered it because my brain deleted the explanation as it was going in, chewing it up and spitting it out before it could do damage, or – and this is just a wild theory – I'm too stupid to understand much in the realm of science beyond the difference between up and down, and the seventh dimension is beyond me. It might've been part of string theory (I like string theory, because I can at least hazily picture the strings). But this seventh dimension stuff was just gibberish.
God knows what the eighth dimension consists of. Probably two chalk moths and a puddle. Whatever it is, and wherever it lives, don't tell me. The dustcart's due and I don't want to know.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
It's all gone wrong. Our belief in everything has been shattered by a series of shock revelations that have shaken our core to its core. You can't move for toppling institutions. Television, the economy, the police, the House of Commons, and, most recently, the press ... all revealed to be jam-packed with liars and bastards and graspers and bullies and turds.
And we knew. We knew. But we were deep in denial, like a cuckolded partner who knows the sorry truth but tries their best to ignore it. Over the last 18 months the spotlight of truth has swung this way and that, and one institution after another was suddenly exposed as being precisely as rotten as we always thought it was. What's that? Phone-in TV quizzes might a bit of con? The economic boom is an unsustainable fantasy? Riot police can be a little "handy"? MPs are greedy? The News of the World might have used underhand tactics to get a story? What next? Oxygen is flavourless? Cows stink at water polo? Children are overrated? We knew all this stuff. We just didn't have the details.
After all their histrionic shrieking about standards in television, it was only a matter of time before the tabloids got it in the neck. Last Monday even the Press Complaints Commission, which is generally about as much use as a Disprin canoe, finally puffed up its chest and criticised the Scottish Sunday Express for its part in the Dunblane survivors' story scandal. You remember that, don't you? Back in March? When the Scottish Sunday Express ran a story about survivors of the Dunblane massacre who'd just turned 18? It fearlessly investigated their Facebook profiles and discovered that some of them enjoyed going to pubs and getting off with other teenagers, then ran these startling revelations on its front page, with the headline ANNIVERSARY SHAME OF DUNBLANE SURVIVORS.
"The Sunday Express can reveal how, on their social networking sites, some of them have boasted about alcoholic binges and fights," crowed the paper. "For instance, [one of them] - who was hit by a single bullet and watched in horror as his classmates died - makes rude gestures in pictures he posted on his Bebo site, and boasts of drunken nights out."
As I'm sure you recall, there was an immediate outcry, which was covered at length in all the papers. You remember their outraged front pages, right? All their cries of SICK and FOUL and VILE in huge black text? Remember that? No? Of course you don't. Because the papers largely kept mum about the whole thing. Instead, the outrage blew up online. Bloggers kicked up a stink; 11,000 people signed a petition and delivered it to the PCC. The paper printed a mealy-mouthed apology that apologised for the general tenor of the article, while whining that they hadn't printed anything that wasn't publicly accessible online. All it had done was gather it up and disseminate it in the most humiliating and revolting way possible. Last Monday's PCC ruling got next to zero coverage. Maybe if it had happened after the News of the World phone-hacking story broke it would have gathered more. Or maybe not. Either way, the spotlight of truth is, for now, pointing at the press.
But this is just one small part of the ongoing, almighty detox of everything. There's been such an immense purge, such an exhaustive ethical audit, no one's come out clean. There's muck round every arse. But if the media's rotten and the government's rotten and the police are rotten and the city's rotten and the church is rotten - if life as we know it really is fundamentally rotten - what the hell is there left to believe in? Alton Towers? Greggs the bakers? The WI?
The internet. Can we trust in that? Of course not. Give it six months and we'll probably discover Google's sewn together by orphans in sweatshops. Or that WiFi does something horrible to your brain, like eating your fondest memories and replacing them with drawings of cross-eyed bats and a strong smell of puke. There's surely a great dystopian sci-fi novel yet to be written about a world in which it's suddenly discovered that wireless broadband signals deaden the human brain, slowly robbing us of all emotion, until after 10 years of exposure we're all either rutting in stairwells or listlessly reversing our cars over our own offspring with nary the merest glimmer of sympathy or pain on our faces. It'll be set in Basingstoke and called, "Cuh, Typical."
What about each other? Society? Can we trust us? Doubt it. We're probably not even real, as was revealed in the popular documentary The Matrix. That bloke next door? Made of pixels. Your co-workers? Pixels. You? One pixel. One measly pixel. You haven't even got shoes, for Christ's sake.
As the very fabric of life breaks down around us, even language itself seems unreliable. These words don't make sense. The vowels and consonants you're hearing in your mind's ear right now are being generated by mere squiggles on a page or screen. Pointless hieroglyphics. Shapes. You're staring at shapes and hearing them in your head. When you see the word "trust", can you even trust that? Why? It's just shapes!Right now all our faith has poured out of the old institutions, and there's nowhere left to put it. We need new institutions to believe in, and fast. Doesn't matter what they're made of. Knit them out of string, wool, anything. Quickly, quickly. Before we start worshipping insects.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Torchwood (BBC One) (Saturday July 11th 2009)
The thing that I’ve just realised about Torchwood — and God knows why it has taken me so long — is that it is essentially very, very silly.
Why did I never notice it was silly before? How could I not have noticed that? What did I think it was — normal? This is not normal. It’s the bloke from Tonight’s the Night saving the Earth from a souped-up basement in Cardiff. In a fractionally different universe — the type Torchwood deals with all the time — it could be Des O’Connor kicking alien butt from a “special” loft in Cornwall; or Il Divo thwacking Greys in Troon. Torchwood has a level of inbuilt ludicrousness so large that it may even be the bedrock of its existence.
But despite all the silliness, or maybe because of it— after all, it never did the equally ludicrous Spooks any harm — Torchwood has gone from strength to strength. For a show that started as a cultish Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood now has an international audience — it, like David Hasselhoff, is huge in Germany, and it is BBC America’s biggest show — and has grown in prominence in the UK. From a late-night slot on BBC Three, the second series of Torchwood got bumped up to BBC Two, and last week Torchwood: Children of Earth was stripped across five nights on BBC One, essentially making July 6-11, 2009 the BBC’s “Torchwood Week”. Given its inexorable promotion through the BBC’s channels, you do wonder where the BBC will schedule the next series. At this breakneck rate, it will have to invent a special BBC Platinum First Class for it.
With five nights to play with, the scripts of Russell T. Davies and, on Wednesday, James Moran, took on an Aga slow-cook with the plot. It was your classic “aliens are coming to steal our children” scenario. Aliens make contact, demanding 10 per cent of the Earth’s children, or they will wipe out the human race. A high-ranking civil servant — Frobisher, played by the always hot Peter Capaldi — is put in charge of the crisis, which is in some way linked to a secret event in 1965. Back then, the aliens were referred to merely by a number, “The 456”. The 456 are, from their disturbing name up, clearly bad news. In all his increasing dealings with them, Capaldi does a good impression of a man gradually losing all the saliva in his body from pure terror.
Meanwhile, and obviously, Torchwood gets involved. Two major cast members died in the last series, but that’s OK, because Captain Jack is just about to pay an incredibly unexpected visit to his daughter and grandson! Yeah, that’s right. But Jack didn’t have much time to enjoy being the world’s first bisexual, immortal granddad. By the end of Torchwood Monday, a bomb sewn into his stomach had exploded, destroying the Torchwood Hub. Given that the big fact about Captain Jack Harkness is that he ends up, billions of years into the future, being the Face of Boe, the explosion raised the real possibility that this was the point at which he lost the “Rest of Boe”, and that the remainder of the series was going to revolve around John Barrowman’s head stuck in a jug.
But as Torchwood Tuesday confirmed, the power of light entertainment is so strong that in Barrowman it takes a lot more than 3kg of high explosive detonating in his intestinal tract to stop him. This is, after all, a man who can handle a Barry Manilow medley in a glitter suit, while dancing down some steps, and then do a live throw to a karaoke team of nurses from Arundel. Having been reduced to mince, although admittedly, not for the first time in his life, Barrowman managed to reassemble and then re-animate; just in time for a government hitwoman to entomb him, alive, in concrete. I know. In another world, it could have been Bruce Forsyth in there.
The next five minutes marked what will surely be the all-time highpoint of Torchwood silliness: the rest of the Torchwood team busting the concrete-covered Jack out of a secure military compound on a forklift truck. While I don’t have much hands-on experience with forklifts, I’m fairly sure their mph tops out at about 3mph, possibly 5mph, if you floor it. It seemed fairly obvious that if anywhere on the secure military compound the government assassins had been able to find even a golf cart, or a pogo stick, they could have successfully given pursuit of a forklift operated by a screaming, pregnant Welsh woman, bearing the fourth plinth from Trafalgar Square on its prongs.
But what was ultimately devastating about Torchwood Week was that, by Torchwood Wednesday, the encroaching darkness of the 456 started to crush brutally all the silly, Scooby Doo-ness out of the show. Indeed, by yesterday’s concluding episode, it was hard to imagine that Barrowman had ever starred in a two-month run of Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome, in a pair of peach-coloured satin harem-pants.
The 456, you see, materialised in the M15 building, in a glass box full of poison, screaming and ejaculating against the misty windows. Even without the screaming, Murray Gold’s orchestral theme for the 456 — dissonant, corroding, two-note brass stab, as if this was all of Holst’s Mars that could be salvaged after a nuclear catastrophe — made every scene with the 456 feel hopeless: as if they’d already won. When we finally pierced the mist, and got to see what the 456 looked like, we found that each one had a human child, stolen in 1965, bound up and living in its ribcage, like a silk-bound fly in a web; eyes bulging and black.
The aliens didn’t need the children because they were dying; a scenario in which, in our sci-fi conversant age, one is apt to think, “Fair enough, aliens”. But the aliens wanted the children inside them “because they make us feel good. There are,” the 456 explained, delicately, “chemicals.” Human children were, in short, alien narcotics. And to prevent the world’s destruction, the Government was willing to turn dealer to the 456. In a plot-move that will surely see exam results rise perpendicularly among young Torchwood fans, the Government chose the sacrificial 10 per cent on the basis of schools Sats results — “the ones who are going to spend a lifetime on benefits anyway” — and sent in the Army to round them up.
Society began to collapse. Children were bussed to collection points as their mothers wept. Ianto, Captain Jack’s lover, died in the confusion. Capaldi, unable to save his own children, quietly went upstairs into his daughter’s pink bedroom and shot his entire family. Anyone who had been watching Torchwood Friday as the prelude to a “big night out” would have silently taken off their stilettos around 9.30pm and sat silently on the sofa with a large vodka, crying.
In the end, the only way to save all the Earth’s children was to “fry” Jack’s newly discovered grandson. The boy vibrated in the centre of a metal plate, blood pouring from his nose and ears, screaming, before he died. It was an ending so unhappy that Jack teleported off the Earth ten minutes later, in much the same way that Russell T. Davies has teleported off to Los Angeles: finished with Doctor Who, leaving Torchwood’s future up in the air, and exiting on such a cold moral appraisal of humanity’s attitude to its children that you wondered if Torchwood could ever be silly again. As the 456 pointed out, we let thousands of children suffer and die every day for no reason other than indolence. At least the 456 were getting a kick out of it.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Monday, July 6, 2009
Transcript (from "In Our Time" BBC Radio 4 series with Melvyn Bragg)
Melvyn Bragg: Hello, at the end of the last century, HG Wells imagined travelling through time in "The Time Machine", the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous granus. "The sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous colour, like that of early twilight the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch in space". When he was writing, we thought time was unbending and universal and counted out by Newton's clock. A 100 years later we have Einstein and Relativity, Quantum Theory and atomic clocks. But as we stand on the cusp of the third millennium, is mankind any closer to understanding what time really is?
With me is the theoretical physicist Dr Neil Johnson from the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University. He's this years Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer on the subject of time. I'm also joined by the cosmologist, Lee Smolin, Professor of Physics at Pennsylvania State University, who's currently on a years sabbatical at Imperial College. He's the author of "The Life of the Cosmos".
Neil Johnson, what's the best way of characterising Newtonian time?
Neil Johnson: It's really a clock in the sky for all to see. Very much like in the birth of the railroad, when there was one clock in the centre of the station which set the time for the town in which the station was. It was a universal time. The Newton idea is that there is a clock in the sky for everybody in the universe to see. Everybody agrees on that time, no matter how far they are away, and no matter how... what they are doing at a particular moment, when they look at the clock.
Melvyn Bragg: So the big clock's in the sky, it's regulating life on Earth, but is it independent of it?
Neil Johnson: Yes, yes, the idea is that it doesn't matter whether you're sitting down, you're travelling around in a bus, or you're in the starship enterprise, the time is the same for everybody.
Melvyn Bragg: What was time like, as it were, before Newton arrived?
Neil Johnson: In terms of how bodies and objects moved through time, that was of course a mystery until Newton came along. People weren't sure when they looked up at the sky whether the planets moved by themselves or there was some big hand behind, trying... moving them along and while they were asleep it would put the sun down and put the moon up and bring the sun back the next day, and of course, what Newton did was show that actually objects did move in a very precise way, as this thing called "time" progressed.
Melvyn Bragg: Lee Smolin, people would say that they think intuitively about time, that Newton's clock as described by Neil Johnson, which came and set up this system was something that people... in ordinary people in their daily lives was knocking around. They saw their heart beat, they can see... they knew something was beating there. They saw children grow older, tress -leaves fall off, that sort of thing. Do you think that there is that intuition now?
Lee Smolin: We have an intuition of time, and if you think about it, there are different pieces of it. I mean we have an intuition of causality, that things are the cause of things in the future. We have an intuition of irreversibility, which is very central to us as living things that the second law of thermodynamics, the idea that things decay when left to themselves, but other kinds of things, like living things, tend to organise themselves in time, and we also have an intuition of a completely different kind of time, when we throw a ball and we watch it fly, and one of the questions for science today is which of these notions of time is really the deep one? Is there one which is behind all the others, which the others are consequences of? Is there any notion of time at all? When we get down to things is time perhaps just an illusion? And the squaring... see one of the things that makes physics so wonderful as a thing to do, is confronting one's intuition with evidence from experiment and with thinkers of the past, and having the possibility of changing one's intuition. I don't think that intuition is a thing which we're born into. There was a very different intuition of time, 500 years ago. Under Newton there was a changed intuition of time. Anybody who wants to, I think can learn relativity theory and your intuition about time genuinely changes.
You undergo a transformation. You're a different person, when you know relativity theory, which is something I'd recommend to everybody, is... not only for that but to have the experience that intuition is not a fixed thing, it can change, you can educate it.
Melvyn Bragg: Can you tell us, Neil Johnson, how Newton's idea, which was radical and regarded in his day as defining, and has defined a great deal of what we know about the world, and still does, can you tells us how radically that what shaken up by Einstein at the beginning of this century?
Neil Johnson: Einstein \tab proposed two things, really quite innocuous when you hear them. One is that, just like on a train, if you're sitting on a train at the station you momentarily kind of nod off, you wake up and the only thing you can see is another train next to you and it's moving with respect to you, and in that split second, you can't tell whether you're moving or whether it's the train next to you, and it's the idea that, well actually, all you can say is "I'm moving relative to something else". So that was the first idea, that saying that actually, all the laws of physics are the same no matter how you're moving, it's the same, there's no particular special speed or reference in the universe. In other words, I mean that's how, you know an air hostess can serve coffee on a plane, she doesn't have to correct for the speed of the plane, she just pours the coffee, because the laws of physics are exactly the same. So that's the first idea. That's not so hard to swallow.
The second idea is slightly harder, and that is the idea that -which again we go by experiment - is the idea that unlike any... anything else, speed of light is constant for whoever observes it, and it's the same value. So okay let me just explain what that means. I mean, normally if you're... you know if somebody throws a cricket ball at you, and you're stationary, you feel a certain hit in your hands as you're... as it hits you. If you're running away from it, the cricket ball reaches you at an actually slower relative speed, so it hurts less when you catch it. If you run away faster than the cricket ball - I personally can't do that - but if you did, the cricket ball would never... it wouldn't actually catch up with you. So in that sense, the cricket ball is... changes it's speed relative to what you're actually doing.
Now light doesn't do that, it doesn't matter how fast you run, you will always measure the speed of light to be exactly the same. Now how on Earth did Einstein arrive at this conclusion. what he did, he - so the story goes - he imagined himself looking into a mirror, as he approached, and going faster and faster trying to catch up with light. What would the image in the mirror look like? Because if light's like the cricket ball, of course, if he's going at the speed of light, the light will never actually leave his face, hit the mirror and get back to him, so his image will actually disappear.
But we've already said that well, there's no special... there's no way of telling whether you are moving or somebody else is moving, so if his image disappeared, he would be able to tell that he was moving and that somebody else wouldn't. He'd just make a telephone call back and say "Well my image has disappeared", and that breaks then, the first postulate, it goes against the first one. So combine those two things together, and suddenly all... you know the heavens open, the notions of time change.
Melvyn Bragg: Can you just take that on, Lee Smolin?
Lee Smolin: I think the key... one way to put the change is that as you were saying before, Newton's notion of time was what we call an "absolute" notion. As Einstein went deeper into the subject a complete repudiation of that notion of time in favour of what we call the "relational" view. The relational view is that time is nothing but an aspect of relationship between events, and any observer may carry any clock, and one can talk about a relationship between when something happens and the hand on a clock, where you are, but there's no way, without knowing a great deal more, there's no in principle reason why your clock should read the same as somebody else's clock. If we go away and we meet again, sometime in the next millennium, we... our clocks if they really accurate, will disagree, because we've moved and come apart, and that's the general case. The general case is that time is really just a measure of relationships and nothing else. There is nothing... another way to put this is that there is a kind of mystical side to physics in which sometimes I think we're looking for the reality behind the appearances of life, and in Newton's kind of physics, the reality behind the appearances was something fixed and absolute and eternal, and from Einstein onward, if there is a reality behind the appearances, it's a network of relationships to all the other appearances, of all the other observers, with nothing fixed and solid.
Melvyn Bragg: Why do you think that the question of time is such a big question, intellectually?
Lee Smolin: It's the hardest question, and time is something we experience so immediately and at the same time, it's so difficult to get at what its true nature is. The idea we have of time is also changing drastically as we speak. We live in a moment where one of the key scientific questions, which involves the unification of quantum theory and relativity and cosmology, is centred on time. The question of what time is, is the key point which is at stake in trying to, if you like finish 20th century physics, which we only have a few hours left to finish! (Mel chuckles) Which means that it's one of the very deep mysteries.
Melvyn Bragg: When Newton put the clock in the sky and it's a great simplification, but both of you seem to go along with this, so that's fine by me, it set of a great train of things, we know that the inventions, the whole civilisation in the sense of physics and engineering which grew out of that, fine.
What has grown out of this different idea of time, as Lee Smolin and you have explained it, Neil Johnson? What... how does it spread into the lives we're leading? What is the fourth dimension? Einstein said that time was a fourth dimension. How do we conceptualise it?
Neil Johnson: I don't think we do. We do see effects, or relativistic effects around us. We use them in satellite... we have to acknowledge that they exist for satellite communications, global positioning system etcetera. But we don't... this is what makes it so hard to actually accept that this could possibly happen, is because we don't see this everyday.
It doesn't matter how fast our bus is going, or our train is going...
Melvyn Bragg: Lee Smolin wants to come in.
Lee Smolin: Well can I disagree a little bit with that?
Neil Johnson: Well, sure!
Lee Smolin: Because I think that there are broad implications of these things. I don't think it's an accident, and I've discussed this with various legal scholars, and philosophers, that the systems of government that people invented in the period just after Newton, bore a lot of relationship to the Newtonian cosmos. There was a notion that there were absolute principles of justice, that individuals have rights which were defined with respect to those fixed absolute principles, behind what was... whatever was going on in the society. The individuals enter and have rights with respect to this fixed absolute background in the same way that in a Newtonian Universe, particles appear and have properties defined with respect to this clock in the universe and some sticks to measure things.
In the Einsteinian Universe and the Quantum Universe, as we're developing it, and if I can say I think one reason we may not have felt the implications of this, is that the process is not over. We are still in the midst, even the scientific community, and certainly the philosophers, of digesting the implications of this. I don't think that the broader society has yet to really digest this, but I think the implication is that we live in a world which is constructed by us, as a network of relationships. I think this has great implications for the problem of "what is really a democracy?", and its interesting that you see, in the writings of various legal scholars, first of all an interest in cosmology and relativity, and second you see that they're working out the same puzzle. If there is no absolute fixed unchanging eternal background, which provides the principles and provides the rights...
Melvyn Bragg: The Godlike clock?
Lee Smolin: ... yes, then how do we make a democracy? And how do we make a democracy - and for us Americans this is a key problem - how do we -and I think it is also for you here - how do we make a democracy in a pluralistic society?
Melvyn Bragg: How do you plug into that Neil Johnson?
Neil Johnson: Errrrm, I would go in another direction and say actually, time needs the quantum side of things to be sorted out.
Lee Smolin: Yes, here, here!
Neil Johnson: Now, (laughs) right, okay so...
Melvyn Bragg: Can you unravel that, before you go onto the next... ?
Neil Johnson: Right, okay, we were...
Melvyn Bragg: Just that one sentence "Time needs the quantum side of things to be sorted out".
Neil Johnson: Side of things... we're talking really about things that started 100 years ago. These effects of relativity, that Einstein's so famous for, are one side of things. But of course, he won his Nobel prize for something completely different, which was something to do with quantum physics, which is not related, it maybe related in the future, but it's not related immediately to the very long times that we're talking about for cosmological properties, it's related to very, very short times, related to what electrons do inside atoms, and of course, eventually what things do inside the nucleus of the atom, but let's just keep it on the scale of, you know, we're made of atoms, everything's made of atoms, these atoms contain negative charges called electrons and they zip around all over the place very very fast, but they don't zip around like billiard balls or cricket balls, they're actually... they live in this very strange, kind of undecided world of being partly a particle and partly a wave. This, actually was something that, as I said, Einstein won the Nobel prize for it, but didn't like, in some sense the monster he created, because he couldn't... he didn't accept this indeterminacy at a fundamental level in nature.
Melvyn Bragg: Isn't it true that the problem that physicists have with relativity now is, is that it accounts for time and space, but it's failed to produce a picture of the world that accounts for atoms, particles and electromagnetic fields? Is there something called... ? Roger Penrose talks about for instance... "the missing physics" .
Neil Johnson: Yes, the discussions of relativity, and space and time, black holes, worm holes etcetera as set up by Einstein have nothing, no notion of the quantum world, the very small world, the microscopic world of atoms. What goes on inside an atom? What goes on inside every atom inside us is that there is quantum science, quantum physics, and in that world, time again takes on a very strange aspect, that scientists are beginning to understand, and we don't yet understand how the time within the quantum world, within this decoherence time connects the time in our world, which is outside the decoherence time. We don't understand what really making a measurement on a quantum particle actually means.
Melvyn Bragg: Lee Smolin?
Lee Smolin: Yes I think that it's very wrong to think that 20th century physics is over, and that we have as a result, relativity and quantum mechanics. 20th century physics is under construction, and relativity and quantum mechanics and the expanding universe are different aspects of something, and we're still putting these things together, and this is the great adventure. This is the greatest adventure, I think, of physical science at the moment, is combining these things. It affects our deepest conceptions, it challenges our most intuitive ideas.
Melvyn Bragg: There's a view held by some physicists, perhaps I can cite Julian Barber as one, which coincides with the view of Parminedes in the 5th century BC. Parminedes claimed that time was a figment of the imagination, and Julian Barber's gone some way - your nodding, thank goodness I got it right - to confirming that. Now what purchase do you have on that Neil Johnson, and where does it take you?
Neil Johnson: Well on a mathematical level, I can see roughly what he's talking about, in the sense that if we decided to call time something that appears in an equation, and it doesn't appear in an equation, then maybe there is no time, I mean that's a very simplified view of it, but it all comes down to "What do you actually mean by time?". Is time as Einstein said, that which is measured by clocks, if so what kind of clocks? We are in some sense a clock as well. But the trouble is we don't all agree, and our own, our clock disagrees with itself at times. So I can see on the one hand, that it has some element of mathematical truth in it, but I don't think it gets to the heart of the issue of time, and it certainly doesn't answer for me, these questions of the quantum regime.
Melvyn Bragg: Lee Smolin?
Lee Smolin: Well, I think that Julian Barber's ideas might be true, which for me is very scary. By the way he's been enormously influential on me and many other theoretical physicists on understanding the implications of relativity and quantum mechanics on the notion of time, and he has noticed that the equations of quantum gravity, that is a theory that comes from trying to put relativity and quantum theory together, do lead to this picture in which time disappears and time turns out just top have been an illusion. So he might be right, and for me that's profoundly unsettling, I hope that it's wrong. I personally work on another version of quantum gravity, motivated primarily by the hope that Julian is wrong, and really time and especially causality is fundamental in the construction of nature and I think the only honest thing to say at this moment, is this is what's at stake when we are done making this theory, we will have a notion of time which may range all the way from Parminedes, if Julian Barber is right, to a very Brooksonian, almost biological view of time, if other people are right, and at the moment the jury is out, because this is science in progress.
Melvyn Bragg: So what are the implications of time being just a figment as Parminedes said or as an illusion as you said?
Lee Smolin: If he's right, it means that the world is a collection of moments who's coherence is not total, who's coherence is in a certain sense accidental, and it will be another aspect of our world in which things that are so central to our intuition seem to disappear in a description of it at a fundamental level.
I really hope it's wrong, and I'm really... I think it's fascinating that we're discussing this, that is that these different notions of time have been proposed by different philosophers, for centuries, probably for millennia and we live in the period in which this is going to be decided. When we are done constructing the quantum theory of gravity, only one of these notions of time will turn out to be right.
Melvyn Bragg: Is the relevance of your work in the Clarendon Lab, Neil Johnson, will that help to clarify and take this discussion forward? As I understand it, you've created twins, the same particle exists in two places simultaneously, now, how is that possible and how does that relate to the conception of time?
Neil Johnson: I think this is the fundamental issue actually. We're now going from talking about things in the cosmos etcetera, down to essentially real things in labs in... to do with real... I mean, atoms that you can control. It comes back to the issue I talked about earlier, we separated from the quantum... the spookier side of the quantum world, which Einstein always rejected, by something called "a decoherence time". Now what does that mean? Particles, fundamental particles, atoms, electrons, whatever, if you capture them in a quick enough time and start letting them get close to each other and actually what's called "interfere" or "entangle" with each other, they live in a essentially, a superposition of all possible worlds. All things that could happen, are happening at the same time .
It's only when you make a measurement on these atoms that they collapse -the wave function collapses, or the system chooses randomly one of the possible realities. What that says about time if we go back to the simple idea of a particle can be doing two things at once, it gives a fuzziness to what we call "now". Of course it's not the "now" that we perceive, because nothing in us is going fast enough to be able to get inside that time barrier, that decoherence time barrier. However, it's a now that's relevant for, for example, I mean if all possible things are going on, you can imagine building very fast computers out of this, something called the quantum computer. Well a very small quantum computer's already been built and shown to work. You can do things that in our real world seem impossible. I mean there's quantum cryptography, unbreakable secret codes, teleportation, the idea of transferring information from one point to another. All of these things are possible, and the experiments are actually being done, and that's what I find extremely exciting, and that's going to shed light on really the... this... this time barrier that separates us from actually the natural world, which is actually going on inside us all the time.
Melvyn Bragg: What do you think of this approximation to teleportation, Lee Smolin?
Lee Smolin: I think these things are fantastic and I think that what they're telling us is that the quantum world is really best understood as not a description of things that are, which is a very Newtonian way but as a description of processes in which information is somehow transmitted, but it is weird, and it's very humbling to try to contemplate what these things mean.
Melvyn Bragg: Well I feel very humble just trying to keep up with you two, but that's another matter! Can I ask, coming into the final stretch, some real brutally obvious questions, or one? Is it possible to think of time having a beginning and an end? First Lee Smolin.
Lee Smolin: That's a very good question. I find it very difficult to conceive of time having a beginning or an end, but at the very least the question has changed by what we were saying, because there no longer is that clock and let's be quite true about that, that clock for the whole universe out there is gone, it's a fantasy, and therefore it's not a question of time in the sense of that universal absolute time, beginning and ending, there are many times, because there are many histories and many observers, and then the question is more interesting, because certainly any time, any one of those may have a beginning and an end, and so we can have universes where time may end in some places and not end in other places.
Melvyn Bragg: Do you think time has a beginning and an end?
Neil Johnson: Errm, I think it's too soon to tell, but once you underestimate the problem that's involved, I mean it's like coming in after a you know, party and finding the glowing embers of the fire, and trying to work out if there was a party, how many people were there, and what time they arrived. I mean you just can't do it, you're working backwards, and you... I mean equally difficult is the end of time, actually the end of time I could see a little bit more easily, because we know as Lee mentioned earlier, this idea that the second law of thermodynamics which basically says that everything's... eggs break, everything gets more and more disordered, ultimately if everything is very, very disordered in the universe, by that I mean everything is broken up. If there's nothing happening, then in some sense time will have stopped.
I mean there are an enormous number of theories about what will happen in the future, but that I could kind of buy as well. Erm the beginning of time I actually have a little bit more, probably a little bit more of a problem with.
Melvyn Bragg: But do you think in the next millennium, Lee, you really do think that this... ? There will be a decision? It will be made, and we will know about time, something we don't know now?
Neil Johnson: I think... yes, and I think it will come soon. This is a fantastic period for the observation.. the growth in how far back we see the history of the universe, and the discovery that the universe is not eternal, that the universe that we live in, seems to have been created, at least the part we live in, in an event which is very recent, on the scale of biological evolution or geological evolution, the universe is only 3 or 4 times older than the Earth itself, than life on the Earth, than life has been on the Earth, and so we realise that everything that we see around us, the stars, the planets, has been created by processes that we see happening as we look back in time, and the observations of this are getting better and better by the year. So there's this complete change from seeing the universe as something that's eternal and always been there, to something that we see having been created. I think this is a fantastic moment to be living in. We are just at the cusp of something and it's going to be a lot of fun.
Melvyn Bragg: Well Lee Smolin, Neil Johnson, thank you very much, and thank you for listening to us, this year, this century (laughs), this millennium. See you next century, somebody's got to say it!