On Tuesday 19th November I arrived in Swindon, to take my mother to a meeting in the evening, before which I had a few hours booked in advance to spend in Wroughton, just a couple of miles down the road. There on a disused airfield, the Science Museum protects its cache of artefacts, most of which we probably know nothing about, including Tresor des Tresors by Nicolas Flamel. Since for me the journey is around 80 miles, by good fortune my Mum's home meant I could nip off round the corner to study some ancient alchemical history in close-up.
What I'd failed to glean from the photocopied page in London's exhibition is that Nicolas Flamel writes in French, probably because I didn't have my glasses with me at the time, smitten instead by the image of juxtaposed phoenixes and hints all around me from exhibits pointing to very interesting correlations between the alchemy of then and the new physics of now. So when I sat down on a wooden chair in the sombre, unassuming reading room of the most important library in the land, the only cushions being those on the table in front of me to support the fragile book, carefully parting pages of circa-1700 Dark Age musings written in the hand of perhaps the greatest alchemist of all time, I was disappointed to find I couldn't read a word of it.
"Never mind," I thought. "Something else will have to kill my time for the next three hours." I wasn't about to leave the den of Horus in a hurry. I didn't have an appointment to come back.
So I asked the nice librarian if I could source the library files somehow and find something else while I left Nicolas's book in the capable hands of the scannerman (I'd have most of the pages in e-format later, to decipher at leisure). He showed me how to work the library computer, but the computer was most insistent. There was only one book it would let me have access to at that time, in that room. I failed to find any other book located in the Wroughton museum using the search term ‘quantum', so I resigned myself. Along the way, however, I had discovered that Frank Close wrote a book called "Nothing - A very short introduction" which was originally published as "The Void" in 2007. I was able to read an extract from this book, held at another museum location, which said, "how the mysterious ‘aether' that was long ago supposed to permeate the void may be making a comeback with the latest research into the Higgs field. We now know that the vacuum is far from empty..."
The book which the museum computer kindly allowed me for the afternoon, muchly insisting I should read nothing else, was Fred Hoyle's "Action at a distance in physics and cosmology" published in 1974 and co-written with J.V. Narkilar. On pages 1 and 2 it talked about mass being equivalent to a combined interaction between particles (particles A and B, in the book - very dry), and not to the isolated singularity. This begs the questions not only of what gravitational force acts over the distance to connect the particles, but whether massless particles are equally capable of creating mass as particles with mass are. That might read funny to you but believe me, it's the way it came out and I'm sticking with it.
I ploughed on, to find quickly that ‘decoupling' is the selection of data in order to solve problems, leading to "the erroneous positioning of supposing that the physical laws were purely local - although many empirical choices would be needed to make such laws "work" just as many empirical choices are indeed made in modern physics". I hadn't even got to page 4.
Thermodynamic irreversibility - an asymmetry which permeates the entire Universe, meaning in Hoyle's words that "we do not have access to the whole class of all possible initial states but only to a subclass, say K...," only the K was written much more fancifully than this font will give credit to, and the authors continue in further considering the problem that;
"Although the statement of the laws of electromagnetism is fully time-symmetric, all practical applications of the laws are asymmetric. The laws are made to yield asymmetric results by means of an ad-hoc restriction to only time-retarded solutions of Maxwell's equations."
...making sense of the fact (unpalatable though it is) that histories are as flexible as futures, only we can have no sense of how the ‘other side' of history is affected because we only see a mirror of the door. Getting a sense of infinity is like getting to grips with oscillation and understanding what it means to a quantum object.
"...time-symmetric solutions of the electro-magnetic equations can yield all the observed effects, provided local problems are properly related to the universe, and [the universe] has an appropriate large-scale structure." Yes, it's certainly a large-scale structure, no doubt about that. So large we haven't a clue where it ends or how big it is, only how old it might possibly be (given our perspective of what constitutes time). Then came a curious coincidence involving physical constants and Hubble; "when velocity of light C and Planck's constant h are set equal to unity..."
Well. I was scribbling furiously. Most of what you're reading here is sitting in a notebook written in pencil - you're not allowed pens in the Reading Room of the most important library in the land. I came to Page 8.
"Repulsion as well as attraction is possible because charges and poles can exist in two species."
Oh. That was worth a moment's thought. Repulsion and attraction two sides of the same coin? Makes the Law of Attraction sound a little trite, now, as I reflect.
The text surmises that gravity can only be explored via large bodies like planets and stars, but electromagnetism is the reverse, it can only be studied in the lab. At ‘local level', in other words. The larger the object, from our point of view, the closer it is to electromagnetic neutrality.
Page 14 now, I'm skipping through looking for clues. "The retarded solution appeals to our intuition because it conforms to the usual idea of causality." In other words, we are drawn to the idea of events arising subject to the effect of a motion or a cause. The advanced solution - taking into account the ‘advance' naming of future-originating wave forms, proposes that effects arise prior to the events which cause them. I wrote in my little book, "This is in keeping with the human tendency to anticipate and to cause an effect by so doing."
"In order to be consistent with reality," Hoyle continues, "we choose the boundary condition..." leading to an equation equating, seemed it so, to the path of least resistance (not the one pictured). But with so many options on the table, Hoyle muses in front of Nicolas Flamel, "why does Nature always select the retarded one?" I ask myself why he deems Nature worthy of a capital letter, while the Universe can clearly go without such deference. I asked at the time, "Well, does she? How do we know, merely because we are choosing the path of least resistance in following clues to a conclusion, that Nature does not access many other sums over the histories of what she encounters? Who is to say that we see the full picture, when clearly we are tempted to the bonds of local, easily interpreted solutions?"
As I write now I'm reminded of the endless cycle of seeking forgiveness and spoiling each other's tents. A repetition of history which keeps on going in the same direction and getting the same results. Like circling vultures, round and round, waiting for the carcass to be left by the killer, patiently spinning on a current of air as high as ever we want to be, as everybody loves looking down, as Morcheeba sang. Going round the same cycles of war and famine and gluttony and tyranny because we're not making sense of the signs, even while the signs are there, because we don't want to see them.
They're too deep, too dark, and too much in the equation for comfort. Time to renormalise. Back to TV suppers and the sofa.
Page 16. I'm watching the clock now. I've not covered much ground with this book but I just can't skip the beats. "In the averaging process, many infinite terms cancel and we are left with a force term that is finite." May the force be with you, Darth, beloved Dark Prince out there on Twitterdom's Death Star. In other words, by cancelling out equilateral infinities, we are left with a reference to a singularity, which is subject to change through oscillation and movement, and which loses its kinetic energy as a result. As do living things, I added, as if an afterthought.
Page 18. I'm determined to skip more quickly but then.... "infinite self-interaction cannot be avoided in classical Maxwellian electrodynamics. With the introduction of quantisation, it was hoped to circumvent these difficulties." So it would appear that "quantum" was brought forth as a solution to a problem, as rabbits were introduced to improve pasture management. Like rabbits, problems quickly multiplied from this introduction and the need for cancellation of infinities arising. "Renormalisation" had to be created to contain the potential epidemic of paradoxes. In a twist to the tale, quantum theory highlights the infinite nature of interactivity and the mutually exclusive relationships between gravity, non-locality, and cause & effect.
On page 21, Hoyle gives two systems of attraction, one of elastic string drawing two particles together and the other of gravity. Elasticity ceases to be an attracting force when the string has reached its natural length, while gravity continues to attract until the particles or objects collide. According to Hoyle's deterministic equations, elasticity is a "positive definite... characteristic of most systems in the world." Like the one which holds our feet to the floor while we walk about, and makes a mockery of space travel because we clearly haven't got our heads around circumventing it yet? To us as Earth colonists, in common with all other Earth colonists, gravity is the elasticity that binds us to the planet surface. But as Tim McGee said in NCIS tonight (25th November), "We should never allow our fears or the expectation of others to set boundaries on our destiny."
Kathy is the author of Quantumology. She met up with quantum mechanics in 1997, pledging allegiance to its sources thereafter. These are her personal thoughts and testimonies.