Saturday, September 21, 2013

Fairy Tales

This week marked the opening of a film about Stephen Hawking, premiered at the Cambridge Film Festival. It's a journey through his remarkable life and a testament to what can be achieved in the face of handicaps so profound that most would have collapsed under the weight of them.
I did rather wonder where the swearing-in-church questions were, which were conspicuously absent, according to one reviewer. Hawking's status as a scientist is often spoken of in oracular terms, like Einstein's and Isaac Newton's but one rather wonders if his scientific achievements have been somewhat inflated because of his disability. Others do cosmology equally well - not very many, it has to be said, since the mathematics are impenetrably dense and I have to confess is as far away to me as the edge of the Universe. The idea of n-dimensional spaces with fancifully named abstractions such as M-Theory - the M stands for 'membrane', 'mystery', 'magic'- even 'mother' since it attempts to unite five different string theory proposals, is known to few and understood by even fewer.
A Calabi-Yau membrane. Is this what the Universe looks like?
Some suggest that if completed, the Holy Grail of physics, a theory of everything might emerge with a formula small enough to fit on a T-shirt. Hawking's astonishing achievements lie in the fact that he has the ability to hold phenomenally complex ideas in his short term memory for extended periods since it takes him anything up to half an hour to 'write down' a couple of sentences.
Eight million people bought "A Brief History Of Time". Probably a couple of hundred got further than page twenty-six and almost everybody read the last sentence...

"However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we should know the mind of God."

Which, of course, is the saving grace of the whole book. We all want to know the mind of God. This from Isaiah 40, 12-15:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
 Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?
Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counsellor?
Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?
 Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?

The "who" is rabbinical rhetoric, almost ironic, since the answer is enshrouded in the unknown, the "mind of God".

"I'll be back."
What else, therefore, do we, like the citizens of Nineveh, not know as we do not know our right hand from our left? We do not know about the afterlife, the Hereafter, the journey across the Styx, the tunnels of light, the shouts of welcome on Jordan's further bank as the processor shuts down like the winking, blinking red light of the Terminator's eye as it fades and darkens, and without power, fails to reboot.
A land far away

Most cultures have developed a mythology of continuance after bodily functions cease. Some suggest that it is a fear of oblivion, the darkness and the cold that causes mankind to construct elaborate fantasies, delusional states, predisposed and woven into the fabric of consciousness and reinforced by religious adherence and indoctrination. Others have a sense of transience. It is here that one waits, perhaps. Here is C S Lewis' bus station in a forgotten, rainy, 'grey town', the train terminus or the airport lounge. Later, the arrival of 'here' is somewhere or somewhen else. Perhaps Vladimir Nabokov's  suggestion that 'our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness' should be stood on its head. Here is the dark, the light was before it and will be after it. I am therefore guilty of the heresy of not believing that my brain deludes itself into believing instead in the eternality of its owner.

Professor Hawking concluded his biopic with a Q and A, making remark about the afterlife which misses the point, rather:

"It's theoretically possible to copy a brain on to a computer to provide a form of life after death. However, this is way beyond our present capabilities. I think the afterlife is a fairytale for people who are afraid of the dark."

Perhaps he might consider that life in the here and now is a fairytale for those afraid of the light.


  1. Stellar. Absolutely brilliant, MathMan. I will read it again a few times and possibly feel confident enough to voice an opinion. Stay tuned.

    1. Too kind, but over-generous. My son may have nailed it with his wild-eyed mystics. The latter I may claim to be. The former, not.

  2. Very good! An excellent post. I find all this string theory stuff to be too fantastical as well - far too much mathematics than is good for anyone and far too clever to be true. This from Annie Dillard: “For some reason, it has not yet trickled down to the man in the street that some physicists now are a bunch of wild-eyed, raving mystics. For they have perfected their instruments and methods just enough to whisk away the crucial veil, and what stands revealed is the Cheshire cat’s grin.”

  3. Ben, thanks. I'm inclined to think that the cat isn't grinning at all. Much like Schrodinger's, it waits for the closing of the cupboard door in a state either of mortal terror or craven embarrassment, since it, too, is quite unaware of the outcome.


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