The Nature of the Universe

The first book that I read about cosmology was my Father’s copy of “The Nature of the Universe” by Fred Hoyle.   In that book Fred Hoyle explains his theory of a steady state universe, continually expanding and with new matter slowly created in the gaps between existing matter.  The theory is appealing as it avoids the need for a prime cause, and it explains the growing distances between objects.  In other words it was an alternative theory to the big bang.  (The term “big bang” was invented by Hoyle, potentially as a way of highlighting its absurdity.)

It was therefore quite interesting, having swallowed that theory first, to come across the big bang theory a little while later, and to learn about the evidence that eventually killed off the steady state idea (eg cosmic background radiation).  Looking back it was probably quite a formative experience as I had to reject a previously held theory and as such it was a very practical induction into the scientific method.

I would be very tempted to let that book be my son’s introduction to cosmology precisely so that he could go through the same process – although he’s already aware of the big bang idea.  We’ll just have to settle for the Santa Claus disillusionment event to have the same effect.

Reading around this a bit (during which, incidentally, I found this very good paper about genetic algorithms) it’s clear that the debate between the big bang protagonists and the steady staters was being played out in the public realm as well as within the journals and corridors of science.   And as this article shows there was much ideological input to the debate too with the Vatican coming out in favour of the big bang theory, precisely because it left a door open for an overall creator.

The only comparable debate I can think of being played out currently is that around the existence and human causation of climate change – but I don’t think the analogy works: I’m not seeing a scientific debate about the fact or causation of climate change.  And that leaves me wondering whether we will see any other fundamental scientific debates played out publicly – I am sure there are differing views on a wealth of ideas being tested and developed within the scientific community but they are on relatively small issues understood only to those discussing them.  Which is a shame, because perhaps it would be good for us all to see a scientific hypothesis overturned by science itself, every once in a while – just to remember that it happens.

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War in our time

I have been affected by two related things recently, which have brought the current wars much closer to home and to me.

At a Governor’s Meeting at the City Lit recently the meeting began with one of the students from our “Autobiographical Writing” course reading from his short story “A Stranger in a Strange Land” which draws on his recent time fighting the Taliban.  I can’t find it on the web to link to it, but it’s published in the collection “Between the Lines” which is an annual anthology of works from across the creative writing courses.  He speaks of surreal, but I suspect only too real, encounters with people in Helmand Province, including with the young son of a warlord killed by British troops.  The story (which is well worth reading if you can find it) finishes with an episode from his re-entry to the banality of day to day London life (hence the title – it’s not Helmand that’s the strange land, it’s coming home afterwards).  Hearing the story – its author in front of us – made it much less theoretical, more immediate.

The other item was a piece on the Today programme on Thursday with quite a long and very powerful interview by Justin Webb of former Sergeant Major John Dale who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder to an extent which seriously messed up his life.  It was a painfully sincere and moving interview – a long piece, over eight minutes, which let the story unfold in an extremely credible way (and was excellent radio).  I had arrived at my destination before the piece finished and I just sat in the car waiting and listening until the end.  Enormous credit to the charities Talking2Minds and the Royal British Legion for their work in helping him.  If you have a few minutes, listen to it here.