Thursday 12 April 2018

The atomic weight of doubt

by Antonia Senior

Some years ago, I was the unlikely editor of a Science magazine. I commissioned Bill Bryson to write about the search for the Higgs Boson particle, and I tagged along with him on his research trip to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

It was extraordinary. I remember most the scale of the place. A cathedral to Physics, with columns of steel and copper, buttressed by webs of wire and cables. The physicists, cycling though collaboration and rivalries, settled in hierarchies that were impenetrable to this lay observer.

A temple to the atom, then. And to man’s desire to understand the two great mysteries of existence – the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small.

A modern cathedral

I have been thinking about this a lot recently because the technology might be extraordinarily modern, but the pre-occupations are not new. In researching my new book, set in Ancient Rome, I have been reading a fair amount of Roman philosophy. One argument between the Epicureans and the Stoics recalls that temple to the atom – as it concerns the nature of the universe, and the role of atoms within it.

The word atom means ‘uncuttable’, and it was coined by the pre-Socratic philosophers Democritus and his master Leucippus in the 5th century BC. Everything, they argued, is composed of invisible tiny particles. This atomic view of the world was seized upon by Epicurus, the father of the Epicurean school of philosophy.

The great Epicurean poem by Lucretius, The Nature of Things, explains the Epicurean position. These atoms create all things without a governing deity. There is no over-arching plan – no design. The atoms are in perpetual motion, and they bump and swerve in a perpetual cycle of destructive creationism. “If they were not in the habit of swerving they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collisions would occur, nor would any blows be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.”

The Stoics reject this notion. For them, the existence of beauty, harmony and perfection in nature must argue for a creator deity. The universe makes no sense without a directing Mind. The Epicureans do not deny the existence of Gods; rather they deny that the Gods created the world. Epicurus claimed that the Gods resembled men. The Stoics have a grander, vaguer sense of a giant, designing mind behind the intricacies of the universe. Men resemble God, rather than the other way round. The primitive substance of the universe is a divine essence known as pneuma. This pneuma is part of the reason of the creator God. The human soul comes from this Divine Reason. In effect, the Stoics reach for the infinite and the Epicureans for the infinitesimal.

As Cicero’s stoic mouthpiece says to his Epicurean friend in “The Nature of the Gods”: ‘When we Stoics say that the Universe both coheres and is altered by the work of nature, we do not regard it as being like a clod of earth or a pebble, or something of that kind that lacks organic unity, but rather to be like a tree or a living creature which does not present a haphazard appearance but bears clever evidence of order and similarity to Human design.”

To paraphrase, Lucretius and Cicero, very, very baldly – here are two schools. In the Red corner: the universe as accident. Colliding atoms, random chance, humanity as an unexpected consequence of a constantly moving and changing natural phenomenon. In the Blue corner: the beautiful, harmonious universe as the brainchild of an unknowable, unreachable Mind.

Does this argument seem familiar? Creationism versus evolution anyone?

Cicero: waiting for God

The Romans and Greeks had no physical ability to prove or disprove the nature of the building blocks of the universe. No multi-billion pound collider to smash matter smaller and smaller. Is it significant that they reached for giant and tiny, just as we do with all our technological bravura?

One thing that reading philosophy has taught me is that my mind is very tiny. The one thing that my flirtation with particle physics taught me is that my mind is also entirely ill-equipped to understand the universe. In particle physics, things can exist and not exist at the same time. Time itself is not necessarily linear. Our experience of the lived universe is utterly at odds with its inner logic (or, as processed through the human experience, lack of logic).

Standing in that secular cathedral, next to Bill Bryson, I did not know that 2500 years ago, philosophers were wrangling with all that the LHC sought to explain. We think we are so clever, do we not, each generation? Cleverer than the one before. Yet the older I get, and the more I read, the more I lose faith. The nature of the universe – the prize sought at CERN, and in the Stoa and the Academy, - is like the silver path thrown by the moon on black water. The closer we think we’re getting, the faster it retreats.

Perhaps, when they interpret all the data from all the experiments they carry out at CERN, they will find pneuma after all. It was only in the nineteenth century that chemists rediscovered the Democritus’ atomic theories and used them to explain the results of their experiments into matter.

Who knows, maybe someone is watching. The Epicureans believe that human souls have an atomic weight, and that after death the atoms disperse into the void, to collide afresh elsewhere. This sounds more likely to me, but, as I’ve said, I fully accept that this is an article of faith, encircling a kernel of ignorance. The Stoics tend more to a belief in an intact soul. At some point, the natural universe will dissolve into a sort of divine fire – everything will lose its physical incorporation to become one soul.

So perhaps, if the stoics are right, the souls of Zeno and Epicurus, Lucretius and Cicero are watching – locked in a perpetual, ethereal battle about the nature of Things. Waiting for the divine fire to end the universe and our speculation about it. There is one certain “uncuttable” element in all this: as long as man exists, and the universe exits, one will speculate about the unknowable other. Oh, and Bill Bryson is as lovely in person as he is on the page. Which was a relief.

1 comment:

Michelle Ann said...

This reminds me of the work of Bishop Berkeley, the 18th century philosopher. He said that mankind is limited to what it can understand of the universe by the limits of its five senses - even animals often have better hearing, sight and navigational skills. I thought of this when I read of dark matter - we have no evidence it exists but the maths on the big bang don't work without it being there.