Friday, 6 May 2011


Readers of this diary will have perhaps discerned a tentative theme linking all the other posts. My thoughts are never far from my effort to weave maths into my understanding of our physical environment and of our universe. I'm never far away from media and have become an info junkie where TV and Podcasts are concerned. There are good and not so good resources available. The BBC and Channel 4 generally make a good fist of it, with Discovery tending towards the more populist, music video approach.

It was with some trepidation that I watched Morgan Freeman interpret the script, whilst attempting to bring a basic guide to Universe theory to the Discovery audience. 'Through the Wormhole' is (note I say 'is' as all television is now immediately recallable) the latest in Discovery Channel's canon of Whoosh Bang 'docutainment' pieces. It attempts to draw a linear comparison between three basic concepts and does so with clarity and imagination. (In as far as imagination now requires the kind of cinematography that Kubrick pioneered in 2001 and has not changed since).

Amongst the fireworks, the gravitas and the biblical references chucked in at the start, to appease those who don't hold with physics, there lies a gem. Freeman tells of a group of scientists inhabiting roughly the same time and space, who together and separately develop ideas that challenge each others concepts then come to compliment and add to the sum of all our understanding.

My maths, as some will have gathered by now, has always been a sparring partner. I was given to understand that algebra was the key to all. Without an understanding of 'Sets' then understanding of numbers was impossible. Without an understanding of numbers then calculus and trigonometry would be to me as Chinese or Serbian languages are to British Wild Flowers. 

And all the while, I failed to see what was so difficult about the concepts so described. I grasped Sets and got Venn Diagrams. My view of the world allowed the notion of difference between Apples and Oranges without trouble. There was no problem as far as I could see, with the seemingly impossible task of grouping shapes into forms and relating them to each other. The physical world was so described. I was being told what I already knew. But I was also being told that I didn't and wouldn't understand it.

It was arithmetic I didn't understand. Because I could not see why it was important to be able to perform long division in order that my comprehension of the universe be complete, I stopped looking for links.

Branded a difficult innumerate child, the only gratification I recall registering in my teachers face was when I did indeed fail 'O' level Arithmetic. A feat seemingly reserved for those in 'Remedial' classes and one that cut a notch in the stick they used to beat those unfortunates into servitude on leaving school.

Since that time, and in pursuit of knowledge and creativity, I have gradually come to love the maths I once feigned illness to avoid. There is nothing in our world that is not perfused with the essences of information common to ourselves. We are a part of many sets. Our advantage over other's is our way of seeing the resulting diagrams and making bright diversions into tools.

'Through the Wormhole', adds much to this in it's simple descriptions of the passage of understanding. We have The Big Bang as formulated on the back of Einstein and others. Expansion, currently propounded by brilliant minds at MIT, and M Theory bringing in the whole. This last, a mind expanding beauty, neither confirming nor denying previous notions but fitting all into wonderful, ultimately graspable integrity.
It is to the credit of the program makers that the term 'Wormhole' never appears in the script of the first episode.

Having viewed the program and been through a series of physical symptoms known to all thrill seekers, I wondered about how to turn this clarity and excitement into useable form. How to benefit from the story in a lasting way.

I took the puppy for a walk and we talked about up and down and sideways and how long it took to get from here to there and why.

Alfie now 'sits' much quicker. A definite side benefit.
 We decided, Alfie and me, that it was less than helpful to think about our small three dimensional space as having markedly different elements. It is, after all, only our experience of gravity that confines us to Up or Down or Sideways. If all three directions we inhabit are merely termed as 'space' it becomes easier to think about the addition of a further one direction. That thought removes the need for numbers to be involved. For now.
We walked and, in the sudden clarity that seems to enhance access to memories I remembered questioning my teacher once (and only once) about the axis that may be between x and y on a graph.
Further, I wondered was there an 'out of' the point Zero where positive and negative plot points converge. 
It may well be that he had not encountered the idea of 'x', 'y' and 'i' and probably considered the Sqare Root of minus one to be an amusing mathematician's witticism. Either way and in any and all possible events, he sneered at my ambition and turned his back. I remember that black robed back very well indeed. I also remember wishing that I could feel confident in an encouraging respomnse had I discussed my thoughts with him about Topology and the similarities between the wood on five bar gates and gravity.

So, armed with the safety of a general sense of 'surround' it becomes more possible to pull a fourth way into the picture. One that does not yet require Time but remains within our linear perception.

We play with Möbius Strips and Klein Bottles (as seen in previous posts). We enjoy having our perceptions messed about with so long as we return to the safety of comprehension at the end. I remember watching the beautiful simplicity of Carl Sagan's teaching when demonstrating how a square may be 'forced' into another dimension as it is revealed as a cube and casts a shadow on a two dimensional world. His desktop became a Flatland analogy and a little girl watching, was rapt.

I play computer games. We have come a long way from Space Invaders now in many respects. Although the necessary suspension of disbelief remains the key to their success. We are now able to become immersed in stories that require our presence, to spring into being and live with us here. The cinematic metaphor no longer applies to gaming, (beyond those magical intro sequences) and we are now offered character parts in tales without boundaries, tales that require our skills and creativity to develop and defeat or lose. Our actions are limited only to the quantum distance between pixels, as described in photons. We have access to all the dimensions we know and, due to the confines of a screen, our recreation in some more dimensions is made fact. There has not been so great a revolution in narrative entertainment since the invention of the printing press. A radio play and good book will always win out as simplicity is all when great stories are successful but we now approach Gaming in a new way. We are able to exercise our understanding of the world in ways impossible before.

'Portal 2' is, of course, in two dimensions. I literally shudder to imagine the task that faced it's programmers as they sketched out the concept way back when. We play, as the developers know, to their rules. Rules that we have agreed to adhere to as we have bought into their previous works, the Half Life series and Portal 1, which gradually abandoned the need for shooting, ducking and hiding in favour of the manipulation of your environmental dimensions. All this for entertainment. And, just as we walk, and Alfie fetches willingly, unaware of the hidden agenda that has taught him to return and sit on cue, I gratefully immerse myself in others efforts. I am entertained, delighted and informed along the way. The programmers toss me pixels. I part with cash. The payoff though, for me is much, much bigger than my wallet.

Briefly, set in a dystopian, industrial testing station, you are awakened to discover that your success in the prequel has resulted in merely starting your ordeal again...
Negotiating the various topological tests you are offered depends on your ability to manipulate your surroundings using a new physics.
Portal requires the creation of an 'In' and an 'Out' door in selective, flat surfaces. Sometimes to escape the confines of a room and sometimes to advance your understanding of the natural laws.
Using a 'Portal Gun' it is possible for example, to enter a wall and immediately exit the ceiling of the same room. The potential for adventurous problem solving geometry and topological exploration becomes enormous.
Physics remains constant. The further you fall the faster your momentum gathers and the further you may correspondingly leap as a result. There is much hilarity and there are actual 'pit of the stomach' moments as you successfully fire a portal at an approaching floor and rush headlong at twice your entry speed, onto a previously unscalable height.

And all the while, remembering that the gates you make are not merely 'holes in walls' but that they are actually 'bending space', becomes your increasingly mesmerising mantra. Correspondingly, the comprehension of inter dimensional geometry becomes tangibly 'in the world'.

Suddenly, with help from a belligerent, anxious maths teacher (see above), the abandonment of religion as a cheap salve to confusion and a computer doing what it does best, M Theory is put within the reach of the innumerate.

The journey that led to the development of M Theory was intriguingly fraught with difficulty. Having come to separate similar conclusions about their individual efforts to understand expansion as an explanation of the creation. Two scientists not only worked in tandem with their opposition in the field but used the scientific process to it's limits and beyond, in order that all predecessing information was not lost. The humility with which they greeted the condemnation of the scientific community made for a consolatory lakeside walk in the early hours, in Finland where a conference had heard their thoughts and tossed them back. A time to discuss where they may have missed the point, where the goal became the thing rather than the workings. And so Dark Energy was conceived.
And suddenly, the simple construct of a never ending cyclic system comes real. The desperate grip we have maintained on traditional ideas of 'time' is loosened. At once, it is possible to turn and face the world we live in and relinquish gods.

I am so tempted to talk here about my own humility. To make a blushing statement about my inability to grasp the bigger picture and to leave the workings to the boffins there at Cern. Why should we do that though? A understanding stands of value regardless of the numbers. And it was with a burst of pleasure that I found myself writing on the back of a magazine, in mathematical symbols with the names and dates. Reminding myself of key events and elements of the theory, arrows and equals signs and 'more than' crossings out. Here, I was joining in the dialogue. The maths made real. My mind was suddenly engaged and all this possible at last through my fantasy and hope of confluence of science and art. I seem to be a mathematician after all. And so because a common  language binds the themes.

The theory? If we are stuck with linear Time and the minuscule 'A-Tomic' nature of the Big Bang from a Singularity of infinite Density and Heat, then our minds are stuck with "Yes, but what before?". Here is the rod that I have been swiped at with by creationists in doorstep and online debate. They come from a far more powerful position, all they need to do is wait, and point at scripture. They have a strange interpretation of our common philosophy but it allows them to maintain a millenium of belief, backed up by frightened church authority and those without the stomach for a fight. Misunderstanding or ignorance are thrown back as 'Lies' and God is cited as the arbiter of reality.

This arbiter has, however only been available to us for a few thousand years. gods the world over have only flourished as a result of technology and before, it was never made clear why they only showed their faces to a few rural peasants or quite why there has been no encouragement to write the tracts that bind the faith together over and over as we gain more empirical understanding of the world.
There is no need for super nature. We are still recovering from the medieval construct of our world. We need no longer permit this halting force to stay progress.

If my understanding remains simple and I get the basic premise then, there is no need either for a Uni-verse. Any more than there was evidence for flat earth or a single solar system or a solo Milky Way. The probability of more than 4 dimensions makes more sense. Space time and gravity and light are armatures and through the incomprehensible gaps in structure, information is shared across, from small time to infinitesimally small time.

Our universe will once again become too close in time and state to another. There will be more almost instant conversions of matter as Membranes converge or touch. A bigger bang may well result and round and round we go again. Except, there is no 'again' and no 'round'. There just 'is'.

We inhabit time as we inhabit space. Equipped only for the bits that we can sense. If able to abandon those senses, even briefly. It is possible to get a wonderful impression of our suddenly enhanced position in our place. No gods, no fairies and no beginning or end. Just so.

And furthermore, as Alfie has no concept whatsoever of his origins in Spain, and the worms that inhabit his gut are ignorant of their simple place, I relish being wrong about these thoughts. Because I can. I am allowed.


StLouisMan2 said...

I think this is brilliant writing, Richard! Just brilliant! Have you penned any books prior to your retirement?

Anonymous said...

It is very helpful!

barrie hesketh said...

like a sweep through a curling wave in Calgary bay - lovely conclusion