… and we are allowed to listen. At least, that’s the way this dialogue comes off, betweennovelist Ian McEwan and theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed. Snips:
NA-H: There’s a very common metaphor for describing the Higg’s particle. It’s this idea of the universe filled with something and the little ball bearing or whatever it was passing through the fluid picking up some inertia. That’s a good example of a metaphor that gives some sense of what’s actually going on. There’s a difficulty with metaphors, which is that you can’t take them too far – they’re not literally what’s going on. And often when that analogy is used there’s some clever person in the audience, normally a 12-year-old kid, who puts up their hand and says “Excuse me, isn’t that just like the ether? Didn’t you guys learn anything?” And that’s when we have to say: “Trust us. It’s something that fills the universe that’s not like the ether” and so there’s always a limitation to metaphors. It is possible to explain some of these things. This is one of the wonderful things about fundamental physics. The essential ideas are simple. The possible answers to essential open questions are more complicated but the essential issues are deep and they’re simple to state. And with some patience it’s possible to address them head on and get a sense for what’s going on without all the details of the mathematics. But it requires a very engaged audience and it can’t be done casually.
Hey, we’d trust you on the Higgs boson if it wasn’t for the space aliens hiding in our DNA.
Then we get to “What is the common ground between art and science? And how is Beethoven like Darwin?”:
IM:Science has had a huge effect on my own sense of the world. It certainly has helped me along the way to a general global scepticism about religion. The world of faith is inimical to the world of science and in that sense science has helped me want to write books every now and then that celebrate a full-blooded rationalism. It’s one of our delightful aspects and it informs what we try to do with our laws and social policy. We don’t succeed a lot of the time. And we despair of human relationships at the most private level when they’re irregular or contradictory. We demand even of our lovers a degree of coherence and behind that lies a notion of consistency and rationality. Enduring Love was actually a novel wishing to oppose the romantic notion that abstraction and logic and rationality and science in particular was a cold-hearted thing, a myth I think which began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We need to reclaim our own sense of the full-bloodedness, the warmth of what’s rational.
In a time when so much high science is dedicated to denying evidence in favour of preferred beliefs, it’s interesting that rationality, often experienced as a cold shower, is here marketed as something warm and fuzzy.
That implies less familiarity with the brand than in former times. Perhaps due to less need, amid the growing incoherence of life in the multiverse.