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  • H James

The Language of Nature

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.

- Einstein

It is said that mathematics is the language of God. One of the reasons for saying this is that a mathematical truth is essentially timeless. For instance if you times a circle's diameter by pi (i.e. 3.141...etc) you always get its circumference, and this has always been true irrespective of who discovers it. In fact, in a distant galaxy there are - in all probability - mathematicians who have discovered exactly the same thing. In a similar vein, we could say science is the language of Nature. For while a scientific discovery is made by a person in a particular time and place, it doesn't depend on who. The laws governing gravity for example have always been there; it just took a slight oddball character from Linconshire called Isaac Newton to set them out plainly for the world to see.

Modern science as we commonly understand it took root in Europe around the mid-16th century, partly thanks to texts preserved by Islamic scholars that found their way into 'dark ages' Europe via medieval Spain and Italy and into the hands of scholars like Galileo Galilei. What was it that made this way of thinking - a way that would eventually crystallize into the scientific method - different from what went on before? What set it apart from, say, religious or theological debates? One factor must have been a kind of bold curiosity, the need to know why certain things are a certain way beyond the bland acceptance that they are so because that's just the way they are.

Natural Philosophy, which eventually became science as we know it, has always been about asking simple but penetrating questions. When Newton allegedly saw that apple fall in his garden his question wasn't so much 'why'd that apple fall?' as 'what force attracted that apple to the ground?'. Centuries later when Einstein was ruminating on similar things, the question was along the lines of 'are gravity and acceleration the same thing?'. But you don't need to be a genius to ask the right question: a child asks why the sky is blue. The answer is, of course, usually a more complicated affair.

Another fundamental quality of science is that it aims - not always successfully granted - to take the person, or more accurately the 'ego', out of the question. Whether it can do this is another question and probably one best left for another day, but at least most of us accept that science tries to be as objective as possible. When we normally look at things we almost always project ourselves onto it in some way. Science is explicit in trying to get beyond this. It is also about not getting attached to ideas. If a theory is proved wrong for instance, it's time to move on. In fact one of the admirable things about the scientific method is its insistence on making a theory as watertight as possible - to the point of going out of its way to prove itself wrong. Nonetheless, you'd be surprised at how many scientific pioneers were not above a bit of egotism, or spot on about certain things but completely wrong about others (or to put it more fairly 'of their time' - Newton for example spent years dabbling fruitlessly in alchemy even after his successful work on gravity), the point being that not even a genius is right about everything, so maybe we can give ourselves a break now and again.


I'd argue that what has been called the 'scientific attitude' is a 'way of liberation' as much as any other written about on this site. Where the ancient Tibetans practiced 'skillful thinking' or the Zen masters 'no-mind' (mushin) the predecessors of modern science also practiced their versions of deep contemplation and disciplined thinking.

'Modern' science really began with the ancient Greeks, some of whom asked that primal scientific question: what is our reality made of? So we have Democritus, who asked how far we could break down our physical reality. He concluded that matter - solid, liquid, air - could not be divided infinitely but must stop at some point, hence the idea of the atom. You may also have heard of 'Plato's Cave' - the idea that the reality we perceive is like a shadow play on the walls of a cave, projected by some higher 'light' or dimension. There were scholars who believed that there was a higher reality composed of perfect forms - perfect triangles, perfect spheres and so on - of which this world was but an imitation. In some respects this is the appeal of maths and geometry: you get to play around with a kind of perfection not sullied by the complicated mess of human affairs. (I say 'play', though when I look at equations I tend to look like those guys in the old photos who used to stick their heads through horses' collars and pull faces).

The concept of higher dimensions may sound a little crazy but it has led to one of our most important scientific discoveries: general relativity. In the remarkable equations of relativity Einstein made use of 'four-dimensional space' - an idea initially explored by Hermann Minkowski - where time is 'folded into' to physical 3D space so to speak, and made into another space measurement. This led to the discovery that both time and space change as a particular body accelerates. For example, if we on Earth were to look at a spaceship zooming past us at close to light speed we would see all of the passengers on that craft moving extremely slowly and they would also appear 'thinner' due to time 'stretching' and length 'contraction'. On the ship however everything would appear fine - it would in fact be us who appear slow and slim - hence the 'relativity'. Additionally the craft would be gaining mass. In fact the closer to light speed the ship gets, time slows, length contracts, and mass increases up to a point where it can go no faster (which is why light speed is called the 'universal speed-limit'). This is more than theoretical conjecture: satellites orbiting the earth have relativity equations factored into their designs to account for how time changes for them relative to the surface of the Earth!

It gets weirder still when we consider, as Einstein did, that gravity is also a form of 'acceleration'. Here, the heavier the body - i.e. the more mass it has - the more gravitational pull it exerts. If it's heavy enough it will pull in matter with the equivalent acceleration of light-speed (and in the case of a black hole, will be able to pull in light itself). This will also slow time down close to the surface, so that someone close to a massive body (like a black hole) will age far slower than someone at a safe distance - an idea you may recall was deftly explored in the film Interstellar.

Finally, one of the quirks of four-dimensional space is that apparently everything moves in a straight line; planets, satellites etc. Only in our three-dimensional world everything follows curving and meandering trajectories. We could compare it to a cyclist going around a velodrome track. The cyclist is essentially traveling in a straight line; it is just that the action of gravity - forcing the track to 'bend' - makes them follow a circular path. Another analogy (from Steven Hawkins) compared an object in 4D reality as being like an aeroplane flying in a straight line over the mountains. Only what we perceive in our 3D space is the shadow of that plane moving over the hills and mountains, a shadow which appears to be following a curved and bending path. Perhaps the Greeks were onto something with their talk of shadows and worlds of perfect lines.


What is interesting for me is how these kind of mind-bending ideas stemmed from nothing more exotic than patient and logical thinking. Our culture - our stories - lead us to believe that in order to reach some revelation or other we need to embark on some mystical journey or undergo some superhuman feat of endurance or suffering; that we need to be special or have some special experience. Yet these discoveries were made, for all intents and purposes, by ordinary human beings. They were just human beings who, in various ways, managed to direct their thinking towards answering some question or other with a spirit of curiosity, persistence and open-mindedness. Obviously it is not easy to train the mind like this, which is perhaps why so many turn away from science. Rigor and logical consistency don't come naturally to all of us, and we live in a society where certain interests actively encourage us to think irrationally, emotionally and reactively; it's a hard tide to swim against. Or perhaps like me a time ago you may have sat in a classroom and had everything go completely over your head and - mistakenly - thought 'this isn't for me', and dropped out of the course. But happily for me something woke up again after many years and my curiosity was re-ignited. And so I'm struggling once more with equations but, as I'm finding out, once you're on the hard stuff you won't want to go back.

- H James, 2019

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