The paradoxes of science

In a Canvas exclusive, Eleanor Catton talks to Professor Jim Al-Khalili about physics, life, the universe and everything.

Jim Al-Khalili and Eleanor Catton.
Jim Al-Khalili and Eleanor Catton.

Not only does free will come from chaos, homeopathy is deceitful and Star Trek's transporters would have needed vats of blood and guts to work properly. Now this is the stuff of theoretical physics.

It's also the stuff of Professor Jim Al-Khalili who, when he's not playing with quantum mechanics at the University of Surrey, is taking stupidly complex science to the people via books, documentaries, radio shows, blogs and newspaper columns.

It's the role Stephen Hawking attempted with his best-selling if seldom-finished book, A Brief History Of Time, so it isn't an easy job, especially as it often bothers his mother deeply.

As a devout Christian, she sees much of his work, and his role as president of the British Humanist Association in particular, as borderline heresy.

But the good professor doesn't seem to be all that bothered. In his world, everyone can believe anything they want as long as they don't try to foist it on others.

So, by all means, take the Bible literally, but don't go teaching creationism in schools. If you think diluting an active ingredient down to invisibility will do you good, fine and dandy, just don't sell it to others until you can prove it works, and if you use your faith to limit the freedoms of others, well you can expect a polite flogging.

He was born in Baghdad in 1962 and settled in Britain in the late 70s, where he embarked on a science career that has lead to awards such as the 2007 Royal Society Michael Faraday medal, the 2011 Institute of Physics Kelvin medal and his naming this year as one of 10 Rise (Recognising Inspirational Scientists and Engineers) leaders by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). After starting out creating mathematical models for exotic atomic nuclei he is now dipping into the new frontier of quantum biology, where debates rage on the existence of free will - Al-Khalili says it does because Chaos Theory makes the future unpredictable.

As a result he's become something of a go-to man for British media when cutting-edge science needs to be translated into plain English.

Although his undeniable status as a scientist-atheist sees him compared to "Darwin's Rottweiler", Professor Richard Dawkins, Al-Khalili sees his approach as much more sympathetic.

He told the the Independent newspaper: "I am a cuddly atheist. Someone who doesn't feel the need to tell you that what you believe is stupid. Take my mother, I will tell her: 'I'm happy for you, because I know your religious faith fills a hole in your life'. I can see how important it is to her to have this faith. What right do I have to destroy it?"

He also sees no problem in taking on some of the trappings of faith - he celebrates a secular Christmas every year, even if it means the same old argument with his mother - and he was married in a Unitarian church because it "has a cultural resonance that has nothing to do with religion ... it was nice".

Then again, Al-Khalili isn't a total stranger to feeling a sense of devotion that's at odds to rational thought - he's a tragic supporter of Leeds United football club.

And we get two opportunities to hear what he has to say this month - his book Paradox, The Nine Greatest Enigmas In Science is now available and will also be the subject of his lecture as part of the Auckland Writers Festival on May 17.

As a taster, Man Booker prize-winner and possibly future sci-fi writer, Eleanor Catton talked to Professor Al-Khalili to discuss time travel, earthquakes, those transporters and more.

Eleanor Catton: Your writing is immensely readable, but it must be difficult for a physicist to translate theories and ideas into terms that non-physicists can understand.

How do you deal with that challenge?

Jim Al-Khalili: I have always enjoyed explaining stuff. Even as a student and young researcher my social group of friends was largely non-scientific and so I was used to having to explain my work without using jargon. It is also part of my personality that I derive as much enjoyment from getting others to understand a complex concept or scientific idea as I do discovering it for myself. I think the talent required by any science communicator is to be able to empathise with the audience: put yourself in their position and ask whether what you have just said or written makes sense. Not everyone can detach themselves from their own knowledge to do this.

EC: I read Paradox, The Nine Greatest Enigmas In Science to try to learn about time travel, so as to be able to write a science-fiction novel some day.

I'm curious to know how you feel about that, and whether you can bear to watch or read science-fiction.

JA: I love science-fiction. So often, sci-fi writers have been quite prophetic about ideas that only later turn out to be scientifically correct. So, no, I don't watch sci-fi movies and criticise them. They are meant to be fiction and while sometimes they treat the science rather sloppily, that's something I am able to put up with without getting hot under the collar.

In almost all sci-art cross-overs, it seems that art is used to depict the science in a new way. So it is always pleasing when science borrows from art. After all, there is a real aesthetic beauty about many scientific ideas, even in abstract mathematical equations. It is just a shame that this beauty isn't immediately obvious or accessible to all in the same way that, say, music is.

EC: You make a distinction in the beginning of your book between a true paradox and a perceived paradox: a situation that at first seems counterintuitive, absurd, or impossible, but upon further consideration proves to be explicable or resolvable. All of the enigmas you discuss in Paradox fall into the latter category. Is that always the case in physics? Does a true paradox, like "this statement is false", have to be linguistic, purely theoretical?

JA: I believe so, yes. In my view, if we encounter a true paradox in science then this is a sign there is something we haven't yet understood. Nature should not be paradoxical. So, in my book for example, the only real scientific paradox is the famous grandfather paradox of time travel. And it is a paradox because we don't yet know whether time travel to the past is possible or not.

EC: You end the book with a list of questions to which you expect science to find satisfactory answers, within your lifetime, including being able to predict earthquakes.

We in New Zealand would be very eager to see that realised, as soon as possible. How do you think or imagine this area of science might develop?

JA: Funnily enough, I have been reading up about the latest research in earthquake prediction. I am about to interview geologist Professor Zoe Shipton for my BBC Radio 4 programme, The Life Scientific, and she does a lot of work on earthquakes. It would seem that, unlike climate modelling, where you basically need bigger computers to crunch through all the data, when it comes to modelling the Earth's crust, there is just so much we still don't know. So, despite making great progress in recent decades we're still a way off being able to predict reliably when the next big tremor is going to come along.

EC: What about invisibility cloaks? Do you expect them to be impossible, or possible? What would their invention depend on?

JA: There's a lot of research on certain types of materials that can bend light in interesting ways around obstacles. We're still a long way off the sort of cloak worn by Harry Potter, but the idea is not crazy. It would have to be a combination of some sort of "smart material" that reacts with light in a special way, and nanotechnology (engineering on the molecular scale).

EC: You also put forward 10 questions that you think science will answer one day, but not in your lifetime. Can you hazard a guess, even a wild guess, as to what you believe might be the answers to these questions? Are particles really tiny vibrating strings or is string theory just clever mathematics?

JA: It's interesting that you've picked up on the fact that I list the questions in the book, but not the answers. Okay, here goes: For now I would say it's just clever mathematics. There is no experimental evidence for it at all. But the mathematics is so clever that I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't telling us something profound about the nature of reality.

EC: Was there anything before the big bang?

JA: It looks like there was, yes. The notion that our universe is just a bubble among many in a higher dimensional multiverse is very appealing philosophically. But again, there is no empirical evidence, so anyone who claims that yes, there was something before the big bang is just voicing an opinion - it's not real science and more like metaphysics.

EC: Are there hidden dimensions?

JA: If string theory is correct, then yes. The hope is that experiments at the LHC may offer hints of higher dimensions.

EC: Where and how does consciousness originate in the brain?

JA: No one knows. The nature of consciousness is still one of the big mysteries in science. But if I were permitted to offer an opinion, I suspect we will find nothing magical about consciousness. It is most likely just an emergent phenomenon that gradually comes about with complex enough computation (the so-called "strong AI" view).

EC: Can a machine ever be conscious?

JA: This follows from my previous answer: I see no reason why a computer could not be conscious (by which I mean sentient and aware of its own existence) if it were complex enough. This is because I think that human (or animal) consciousness is ultimately nothing more than software running on a biological computer. Of course we are a long way from this sort of true artificial consciousness.

EC: Is time travel to the past possible?

JA: Possibly. I could leave it at that but that would be unfair. Let me therefore say that our current best theory of the nature of time, Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, doesn't rule out time travel to the past. However, we also know that this would lead to paradoxes. The only way out is if parallel universes exist. That way, any time travel into the past would almost inevitably arrive in a parallel reality in which they can alter the course of events without causing a paradox in their original universe. Since we do not know if our universe is the only one, this issue is another one of those sitting on the boundary between physics and metaphysics.

EC: What shape is the universe?

JA: The shape of the universe is still an open question. It may be infinite, it may fold in on itself, it may be flat, or doughnut shaped. None of which I suspect is a helpful answer.

EC: What is at the other end of a black hole?

JA: Potentially another spacetime - that is, either another part of our universe or even a parallel universe. It was thought initially that the centre of a black hole was the singularity, a point of zero size and infinite density where all the original stuff of the star has ended up. Then in 1963, New Zealander Roy Kerr discovered that black holes will spin and this means their singularity would not be a point, but a ring, which, in theory, matter could pass though, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, into, um, somewhere else.

EC: Do deeper principles underlie quantum weirdness?

JA: I hope so. At the moment, quantum mechanics is the only successful theory in science that has multiple interpretations of what is actually going on. Most physicists seem to just accept this because the mathematics of the theory is so powerful and beautiful. But I cannot help but feel that we're missing something. I hope someone finds whatever it is in my lifetime.

EC: Will quantum teleportation of humans ever be possible?

JA: Never say never, I guess. But at the moment we're a rather long way from that. We can teleport a single photon of light, but that's not really very exciting. Of course, Star Trek teleportation is not possible unless all the raw materials that are needed to make up a human exist at the other end. Yuck.

Eleanor Catton appears at the Auckland Writers Festival in an hour of conversation about literary success on May 17 at 5.30pm, Aotea Centre. Jim Al-Khalili appears at the festival on May 17 at 4pm, Aotea Centre.

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