What’s It All About?


Who am I to know, with no more than a couple of science O-levels, but it seems to me that the core ‘answer’ of Professor Stephen Hawking’s new book (superstrings and p-branes) is not enormously more important than the late Douglas Adams’ suggestion in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (42, in case you have forgotten).

Cosmology and theoretical physics do not command our interest by their conclusions, which can seem both banal and incomprehensible at the same time, but by all the things they manage to say along the way, and the manner in which they say it. The ideas, the formulae, the analogies, the observational results from those huge pieces of underground engineering, the exceptional level of international co-operation, the books and the talk are part of a vision, an understanding, a culture that have proved one of the greatest contributions of our age. To the layman, it is surprisingly non-functional, non-utilitarian, unexpectedly imaginative, charming and useless in our technological civilization. It is about truth, simplicity and coherence.

Surely if it were not about truth, it would never command the money from governments nor the attention from the public that it does. It is worth reminding ourselves of this. Theology may no longer enjoy the prestige now afforded to physics, but we should be heartened by a sister science’s spectacular success. That a non-profit-making search for unusable truth can gain so much support is a refreshing antidote to the prevailing prejudice for cost-cutting and value for money.

The task of the professional physicists is to find the grand unifying theory of everything, but for us it is not generally the conclusion which interests us (the sketched possibilities can be so bland as to defy our grasp) but the truths, insights and vision we pick up along the way.

It is the opposite of the liberal humanist, multi-faith option. What matters is not that we all believe in God (so what!) but how we, passionately and argumentatively, seek to know him. Something to do with the richness of the content, an assurance that what we offer truly is, like cosmology, about life, the universe and everything, and not merely about how to be nice people in a nasty world. NT

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