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An Inventory of the Invisible

11 Nov

When you come to think of it, so much of the important stuff in life is invisible. Time. Gravity. Thoughts. The human genome. Atoms. Energy. Electricity. The past. The future.

In this animated TEDTalk from 2009, comedy writer and TV producer John Lloyd gives a guided tour around everything that’s impossible to see. It’s well worth 9 minutes of your time, being as witty and stuffed full of quirky facts as you’d expect from the man who’s behind the endlessly brilliant TV show QI.

“We can see matter, but we can’t see what’s the matter.”


Scientific American blog post

27 Sep

Last week I wrote an article for Scientific American’s ‘Guest Blog’ on why physics and philosophy go together surprisingly well – click here to have a read!

A physicist flirts with philosophy (and lives to tell the tale). Credit: M. Hillier

Book review: Logicomix

2 Apr

Logicomix is a Greek book which charts the history of mathematical logic during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although this prospect may sound as enticing as a piranha pedicure, please bear with me – for this is no ordinary book about maths. There’s mystery! There’s suspense! There’s even some romance!

Logicomix has two key features which helped to propel it towards the summit of bestseller charts when it was released in 2009. Firstly, the history of logic is recounted as an enthralling tale about the men who devoted themselves to this mathematical quest. Secondly, the story is presented in a beautifully-drawn comic book form – think Tintin if he swapped his dog for an abacus.

The comic’s superhero is Bertrand Russell: philosopher, logician and all-round superbrain, whose speech to an American university in 1939 acts as the story’s backbone. Beginning with his early life at Pembroke Lodge, Russell describes his own mathematical journey and the great minds that he meets along the way.

Bertrand Russell’s Eureka moment…discovering a paradox in set theory

Logicomix works well both as a general history of logic and as a stand-alone tale about the lives of some extraordinary men: this is not just a book for mathematicians. Logic is a complex subject, and the authors do their best to make it accessible to the uninitiated reader. This was the first time I’d come across a lot of these concepts (e.g. set theory and Russell’s paradox), but the lucid illustrations helped a great deal. The book also takes regular breathers from the main storyline to illustrate discussions between the authors, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou.

A recurring theme throughout Logicomix is the apparent connection between logic and madness, not the first time that this has been noticed:

“It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some time in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel, Peano, and Post are some.” (Gian-Carlo Rota, Italian mathematician)

Among these, Cantor and Gödel play a central role in Logicomix. Georg Cantor suffered from chronic depression and spent much of his later life in sanatoriums, and Kurt Gödel died from starvation due to an obsessive fear of being poisoned. Bertrand Russell himself was no stranger to mental instability: he revealed in his autobiography that a lonely adolescence led to him to contemplate suicide and, later in life, his eldest son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Russell and Hyde

It’s this moving, challenging theme that gives Logicomix it’s depth and leaves a lasting impression. It was touching to read about the actual mathematicians responsible for the proofs and equations; their trials, successes, and seemingly endless thirst for mathematical truth. I heartily recommend Logicomix to anyone who has a passing interest in maths but is discouraged by dusty textbooks and chalky blackboards.

Ramblings about Philosophy

30 Jan

Five years ago, I wouldn’t touch philosophy with a barge pole. Physics was my subject at university, and this provided an adequate enough explanation of the workings of the cosmos. For me, philosophy was obsolete – important to the Ancient Greeks, but of about as much use today as a chocolate teapot. Who needs frustratingly unprovable ruminations on the nature of life when physics provides handy bitesize equations to describe how the universe functions. Metaphysics? Schmetaphysics.

Since then I’ve made a U-turn. Although physics is good at explaining the ‘hows’, it is admittedly not so strong for the ‘whys’. For those, we have philosophy (and religion, and maybe football).

I’m not really sure what prompted the turnaround. My first proper introduction to the topic was a short cartoon strip version of the history of philosophy. From that, I started reading about philosophers who had interesting-sounding ideas and/or horse-hugging tendencies. The first philosopher I looked into was Søren Kierkegaard, a rather dandy-looking Danish fellow who lived during the 19th Century. I was intrigued by how he maintained his Christian belief despite his existentialism, and how he maintained his wonderful quiff despite living 100 years before the invention of Brylcreem.

The fact that philosophy and physics are actually quite snug bedfellows became clear after reading a book by Werner Heisenberg called, appropriately, ‘Physics and Philosophy’, in which he discusses the philosophical implications of his uncertainty principle. His theory, that both the position and momentum of an electron cannot be determined simultaneously, opened up a can of worms for philosophers. If we can’t be certain about the properties of fundamental particles, what does that say about our knowledge of nature? This probably isn’t a question that’ll be answered over a tea break, nor one that’s a matter of life or death unless we all wake up the size of electrons (‘The Borrowers Go Quantum’), but it’s interesting nonetheless.

So scientific advance tends to pour petrol, rather than water, on the philosophical bonfire (excuse the metaphor). Whole books could be (and probably have been) written on the philosophical impacts of quantum mechanics, genetic engineering, relativity and numerous other discoveries. Physics and mathematics also both owe a large part of their existence to philosophy, developing from the ancient philosophers’ forays into understanding, for example, planetary motion and geometry. Then of course, there’s logic, a branch of philosophy that is an important discipline in mathematics and computer science.

Apart from my unfounded skepticism, there are two other reasons that I think put me off learning about philosophy. Firstly, I don’t remember studying any at school…there was religious studies and humanities, but philosophy was completely absent from the curriculum. Not even a sniff of Plato!

Secondly, philosophy has a reputation of being a high-brow subject that only academics can get anything out of. Nothing gets my goat more than intellectuals who pepper their work with long words just for the sake of it, and so maybe brief glimpses of overly-complicated texts put me off. The mark of a good teacher is someone who can explain difficult ideas using everyday language; I recently got given Bertrand Russell’s ‘History of Western Philosophy’, and it’s a gripping read, partly because he makes complex concepts so accessible. Another person who does that quite well is this quick-talking Aussie bloke I stumbled across on YouTube (you might need to watch it twice to catch everything):

Maybe my current fondness of all things philosophical is a sign that Paris (where I’ve been living for the past 18 months) is slowly infiltrating my system. Either way, I’ve not yet joined the ranks of beret-hatted, mustachioed Frenchmen who ponder over Sartre on café terraces [/cliché].

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