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Masters of the Universe


THE ROARING success of The King’s Speech across the globe perhaps underlines audiences’ love for a storyline which, on first hearing of such, might sound slightly prosaic, but which, when realised on screen, combines all the passion, angst and emotional intensity of the very best of historical dramas.

In light of such, those screenplay writers looking for inspiration from, perhaps, an unlikely source could do well to turn to science writer Jim Baggott’s absorbing ‘The Quantum Story’ (OUP £16.99).

The arcane world of particle physics – not least quantum physics – can on the face of it, seem to be an exceptionally dry one. 

Often the wallflower at the disco of life, to many, quantum physics, has suffered a little in the general public domain thanks to its nigh-on mind-boggling incomprehensibility.

But its great paradox, as with Mr Baggott’s absorbing tour de force, is that, to this day, in its sheer esotericism, lies its infinite depth and appeal.

Never mind Superman, the real masters of the universe lie beneath the Clark Kent-like alter egos of particle physicists.

Mr Baggott’s marvellous work has all the properties of a quark itself – charm, intensity, excitement, strangeness, dynamic colour, as well as a story of the curious emotional bi-poles of dizzy euphoria and crushing despair felt by the greatest minds on the planet in the search for the basic answers to what makes the universe tick.

The star of the show is the enigmatic theory itself, which defies easy explanation, but which, quite simply, is probably the most tantalising theory mankind has ever chanced to formulate.

But like the very best protagonist, its greater attraction, and that of the book, is that it also gives us a glimpse of the true heart of darkness which seems to underpin the nature of ‘reality’ itself on the very small level.

Most A-level school leavers know of Newton and Einstein and their attempts to describe the harmony of the movements of the so-called classical, large scale world; the motion of things, including the planets, the nature of space and time, light; the four fundamental forces of Nature: gravity, electromagnetism and the nuclear forces which hold atoms together.

Einstein built on Newton’s theories in the early 20th C with his special and general theory of relativity, which to many at the time (and still to this day) seemed to neatly sum up  - or at least give a very good working approximation  - as to how the known universe works.  

At the start of the century, a lot of scientists  - empiricists to the end -  perhaps had reason to feel ever so slightly self-satisfied with themselves that the universe could not only seemingly be reckoned by science, but that the nature of things might be ultimately ‘knowable’.

Then enter, like the best pantomime villain, quantum theory, which in the early years of the century, threw a (Schrodinger's) cat among the pigeons of scientific certainty.

Some scientists happened to notice that, on the very small level, things – specifically the very small elements of matter – didn’t behave as they perhaps should.

When it was found in 1900 by Max Planck that wave energy could be described as consisting of small packets or quanta, Albert Einstein and others further developed this idea to show that an electromagnetic wave such as light could be described as a particle - later called the photon.

But in trying to measure the position of very small particles, it seemed a fundamental uncertainty lie at the heart of the things.

Worryingly, scientists could not accurately pinpoint the position of the very smallest of the building blocks of existence with absolute certainty.

In fact, it seemed at the heart of the matter, particles could at best be described as only having a probability of existing in a certain place or not.

And in the precise world of physics, chance was the equivalent of a hair in the cosmic vichyssoise.

Totally counter-intuitively, some particles seemed to have the impossible ability to be in two places at the same time.

Over the course of a few years at the dawn of the 20th C, the greatest minds on the planet began to struggle with the concept that on the large scale, things seemed to operate within well-defined parameters and with a certain beauty; but on the scale of the very small, much seemed disconcertingly chaotic and totally unpredictable.

Mr Baggott eloquently describes how Einstein famously initially questioned quantum theory, with his famous quote: “God Does Not Play Dice…..”. And how, despite various attempts to debunk quantum theory by many, the theory seems unerringly accurate.

In his preface, Mr Baggott says: “ ’The last century was defined by physics. From the minds of the world’s leading physicists, there flowed a river of ideas that would transport mankind to the pinnacle of wonder and to the very depths of despair.

’This was a century which began with the certainties of absolute knowledge, and ended with the knowledge of absolute uncertainty. It was a century in which physicists developed theories that would deny us the possibility that we can never properly comprehend the nature of physical reality.

‘Almost everything we think we know about the nature of the world comes from one theory of physics [quantum theory]. ..

‘But this success has come at a price…for it has at the same time completely undermined our ability to make sense of the world at the level of its most fundamental constituents.

‘Niels Bohr claimed that anyone who was not shocked by the theory has not understood it. The charismatic American physicist Richard Feynman went further: he claimed that nobody understands it.    

‘[It] is at once mathematically challenging, maddeningly bizarre, and breathtakingly beautiful…

‘While nobody really understands how quantum theory actually works, the rules of its application are unquestioned and the accuracy of its predictions are unsurpassed in the history of science…..’ ”

And if that isn’t worth £16.99, or indeed a draft Hollywood screenplay, perhaps nothing in this increasingly chaotic world is.