In the beginning – if there was one

We still don’t know exactly how the universe was created – and, given the limits of the human brain,

Fifty years ago, the American physicist Theodore Maiman created the first laser. At first, it seemed a curiosity; not even its inventors could predict the range of its uses, from eye surgery to DVD players. Likewise, some of this year's scientific advances may be transformative 50 years from now - even though we have no inkling of it today. Many concepts that seem impossible now might be realised in coming decades. But, in a still longer perspective, it is interesting to speculate whether we will reach a limit - if there are some scientific mysteries that will forever baffle us, phenomena that transcend human understanding.

Einstein said that "the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible". Our brains have not changed significantly since our ancestors roamed the African savannah, so it is remarkable that we have had any success in grasping facets of the cosmos and the quantum - both so remote from the everyday experience. Einstein would have been particularly gratified at how our cosmic horizons have expanded. We now know that our sun is one of several hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is itself one of many billion galaxies in the range of our telescopes. And this complex panorama emerged from a hot, amorphous "beginning" nearly 14 billion years ago.

In my own subject of astronomy, the controversies of my student days (such as Big Bang versus steady state theory) have now been settled. Some inferences about the early universe are now as firmly evidence-based as anything a geologist could say about the history of the earth - we know what the conditions were a second after the Big Bang. But, as always in science, each advance brings into focus questions that couldn't have been posed before.

The "beginning" itself (if there was one) is still a mystery. In the first fraction of a second, conditions would have been far hotter and denser than we can simulate in the lab. Einstein's theory of general relativity is not enough to understand what banged and why, because it treats space and time as smooth and continuous. We know that no material can be chopped into arbitrarily small pieces; eventually you get down to discrete atoms. Likewise, space may manifest a complicated grainy structure - but this is thought to be on scales a trillion trillion times smaller than atoms.

Yet there may be mysteries, too, at the largest conceivable scales. There could be far more beyond our horizon, as it were, than the vast expanse that our telescopes can observe. There could have been many "Big Bangs" - not just the one in whose aftermath we exist.

Some have speculated that other universes could exist in tandem with ours. Imagine ants crawling around on a large sheet of paper (their two-dimensional universe). They would be unaware of a similar sheet that is parallel to it. Likewise, there could be another entire universe (with three-dimensional space, like ours) less than a millimetre away from us, but we would be oblivious to it if that millimetre were measured in a fourth spatial dimension, while we are imprisoned in just three.

Final frontier

The microstructure of space, and the true extent of physical reality, are among the "open frontiers" of science: intellectual domains where we are still searching for the truth. They are in effect the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (the quantum). But only a tiny proportion of researchers are cosmologists or particle physicists. There is a third frontier, too: the very complex.

Our everyday world presents intellectual challenges just as daunting as those of the cosmos and the quantum, and that is where the vast majority of scientists focus their efforts. It may seem incongruous that scientists can make confident statements about galaxies billions of light years away, while being baffled about matters close at hand that we all care about - common diseases, for instance. But this is because living things, with intricate levels of structure, are far more complex than atoms and stars.

That said, everything, however complicated - breaking waves, migrating birds and tropical forests - is made of atoms and obeys the equations of quantum physics. But the uncertainties of subatomic physics are irrelevant to biologists; even if those equations could be solved, they would not offer the enlightenment that scientists seek.

Each science has its own autonomous concepts and laws. Problems in biology remain unsolved because it is hard to elucidate their complexities, not because we scientists do not understand subatomic physics well enough. This thought takes me back to my initial question: are there intrinsic limits to our understanding, or to our technical capability? Could some branches of science come to a halt simply because we bump up against limits to what the human brain can understand?

Physicists may never understand the bedrock nature of space and time because the mathematics is just too hard; but I think our efforts
to understand very complex systems - above all, our own brains - will be the first to hit such limits.

Perhaps complex aggregates of atoms, whether brains or machines, can never understand everything about themselves. Some aspects of reality might elude us because they are beyond human brains, just as surely as Einstein's ideas would baffle a chimpanzee.

Computers will help: future discoveries may be made by "brute force" rather than by insight. Even back in the 1990s, the higher processing speed of IBM's Deep Blue allowed it to outperform the chess player Garry Kasparov. Astrophysicists can already create a "virtual universe" in a computer and do "experiments" calculating how stars and galaxies evolve, and how our moon formed in a crash between the young earth and another planet.

Brainpower

Despite our limitations, many envisage human beings as the culmination of the evolutionary process. This doesn't seem credible to any astro­nomer, aware as they have been, ever since the work of Charles Darwin, not only of the stupendous time spans of the evolutionary past that led to our emergence, but also of the huge time-horizons extending into the future. Our sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got six billion more before the fuel runs out.

And the expanding universe will continue, perhaps for ever, becoming (according to the best current long-range forecast) ever colder, ever emptier. So, even if life were now unique to earth, there would be scope for post-human evolution - whether organic or silicon-based - on the earth or far beyond it.
It won't be human beings who witness the sun's demise: it will be entities as different from us as we are from an insect. For them, string theory and brain science might be a doddle, but they will probably be flummoxed by mysteries we cannot even imagine. l

Martin Rees is the Astronomer Royal, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a former president of the Royal Society

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special