From Quarks to Black Holes and Back

Marcus de Sautoy: Ce que nous ne saurons jamais (English title: What We Cannot Know, translation by Raymond Clarinard) ISBN 978-2-35087-405-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Warning: If you don’t like abstract thinking, don’t buy this book. If you cringe at the sight of an even simple mathematical formula, don’t start reading this book. If you think an electron is a weapon from “Star Wars”, stick to science fiction and don’t loose you time pretending to read this book. Nobody will believe you anyway. However, if none of the above is true and if you are interested in the limits of human knowledge, in questions about the (in)finity of the universe, the place of God in cosmology or the prelude to the Big Bang, then and only then, do read this book.

The book is well written. It is well researched. It does not shy away from controversial discussions, absurd conclusions and highly hypothetical models of what was, is and will be. It offers a contradicting look into the past and a fuzzy view of the future slong with a disputed assessment of the present. It is full of facts about theories, theories about so-called facts, formulas and though experiments and entertaining jokes.

“What We Cannot Know” is written by a mathematician, who plays the trumpet (rather well it would appear) and the cello (not so well, if we believe de Sautoy). De Sautoy is an official atheist obsessed by his dice and the question of God. This alone sounds promising and makes it worthwhile to hear what he has to say. I shall not attempt to write a synopsis of this book. I would have to rewrite it, which would make no sense at all, would it? I will just enumerate a few topics from a scientist’s everyday life about which humanity knows little and about which it will perhaps never know everything.

The subdivision of the atom for instance: protons, neutrons, electrons and, one level deeper, the quarks. Easy stuff. Unknown and unimaginable some 100 years ago. Can we go deeper and divide matter even further? Can we smash the quark and “look” inside to see what’s in there and what holds it together? We don’t quite know how much we (don’t) know. Space is next. It expands with unequal speed. Why? For how long already? Will it contract at some point? We can’t say. Is it infinite? Some say humanity is inherently unable to answer that question.

What about time? Since we cannot prove it, we BELIEVE that time started to come into existence at some point, but will it ever end? And how exactly did it come into existence? Some respected researchers believe that time is an illusion, just as others believe that any form of “confirmed” knowledge is an illusion. Science is what happens after we have proved that one theory is wrong and before we publish a new one. Or so it would seem.

How about aliens – should we look for them? If there is some kind of intelligent life in outer space different from ours, we should expect it to be more developed. SETI might be a risky bet. Do we really want to meet something more clever than us? Finally conscience. What is it? Where is it located in the brain? How does it start? Can it transcend death? Or be emulated by Artificial Intelligence? We don’t know. In a more general way, our brain and the way it works are one of the biggest mysteries of all. I think, therefore I am, you may say with René Descartes. Really? But who is I? Think about it. Cogito, sed sum?

We know so little despite 10,000 years of scientific research, religious experiences and philosophical debates. We strive to gain insight, instead we discover the dimension of our ignorance, the limits of our thinking. De Sautoy takes the reader on an exciting trip through the history of science and into its possible future, showing us the known unknowns and trying to figure out ways to identify unknown unknowns.

“What We Cannot Know” is one of those books that I had been looking for for a long time, and it was not me who found it. The book rather found me, since I did buy it initially not for myself. Once I had started to read it, I had a hard time to put it down. Understanding how knowledge grows and why in certain areas we fail, is truly fascinating. Realizing that this question cannot be dissociated from the question of God (or any other supposed Creator) makes it even more interesting. A delight for an armchair philosopher like me!

De Sautoy was once asked which piece of music he would like to be able to play, and he chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites. An excellent choice since Bach’s music is full of intricate maths:

Resting body and soul in Bach’s geometry

Voltaire and the Value of His Parables

Voltaire contes

Voltaire: Romans et contes. ISBN 978-2-070-10961-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Having explored the life of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, I was a curious about the man’s works, and since I am busy reading two other French poets, I decided to start with Voltaire’s novels. After all one should not judge people by their appearance or life style, but by their works. The present collection features among many others the three major parables “Micromégas”, “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme”. Faint memories from my time at school made the title “Candide” seem familiar – so much for the value of my French literature classes.

The best I can say about Voltaire’s novels is that the intention of the author is clear: to transport a message about tolerance, freedom of speech, a fair society and rational judgment. A message against idolatry, superstition, religious dogmatism and tyranny. Unfortunately, Voltaire’s narrative style has not stood the test of the time in my opinion. As with Rabelais, that I have covered in an earlier post, the pompous language and the repetitive pattern of the novels did not speak to me. I found them tiresome and boring.

I understand that Voltaire was under several constraints: the fashion of the day, his century’s ideas of aesthetics and censure. And for the readers of the 18th century, his language and his narrative style were just perfect. His books sold well, his theatre pieces were performed a lot, at least in those places were Voltaire had not made himself too many influential enemies. But what is the value of his novels today? And has Voltaire’s narrative style not become an obstacle to the transmission of his message?

For experts on French literature, Voltaire’s novels “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme” are memorials of the French Enlightenment, of a glorious cultural past. They will revel in it and condemn in a very un-Voltairian way those who dare have another opinion. For the common reader of today, I suppose Voltaire’s parables are a less thrilling experience, with the exception perhaps of those parts that show Voltaire’s cruel sense of humour and his hate for zealots. In “Candide” – please note the reference to optimism in the full title – the hero kills two Catholic priests and a “choleric Jew” over the span of a few pages.

From a philosophical point of view, Voltaire’s subjects of fate, the opposition of free will and necessity is interesting. The German philosopher Leibniz had put forward the idea that God being a perfect being could only have created a perfect world. Leibniz also thought that every effect has a necessary cause, ruling out randomness or the idea that life as such could be absurd, meaning that Man would need to give his life a meaning.

Voltaire violently attacked the idea of the best possible world as he saw a world full of misery, intrigue and fighting. How could such a world be perfect? Where does it leave Man’s freedom? In “Zadig”, Voltaire shows how human disasters can reveal a positive effect, hidden to the common mortal, but visible to those who believe. The way Voltaire narrates the adventures of his (anti-)hero Zadig makes it however clear that he mocks any such argument.

Candide, the hero who lend the novel his name, is an eager debater and thinker. He survives countless adventures that demonstrate how cruel life on earth is, showing that there is plenty of meaningless suffering (i.e. slavery), episodes that make him openly question Leibniz’ postulates. His way out: “Allons cultiver notre jardin!” Let’s go gardening! Candide’s concluding words can be interpreted in two ways. In a literal way, Candide actually wants to work in his newly acquired garden and achieve personal happiness through manual labour – working heard without reasoning or debating. In a more figurative way Voltaire extolls us to deal with present-day problems, making this planet a better place on the basis of rationality.

Whatever one may think about the form of Voltaire’s novels, he puts forward a key question that may occupy our minds today just as it occupied Voltaire’s mind: To what degree is Man truly free? He may no longer suffer under the tyrannical policy of a king or the oppression of religion, but is he free? The many down-sides of a globalized economy, the manipulative power of social media, the fast degrading of our environment put Man’s freedom to control his destiny to a severe test. No, we are not living in a perfect world, and we should not ignore the many challenges humanity faces or try to explain them away. And Voltaire’s answer is still valid: to fight for a better world on the basis of sound and fair judgment.

François Couperin, French grandmaster of the harpsichord and composer of the French Royal Court under Louis XIV, was a contemporary of Voltaire. And you may judge yourself whether Couperin’s piece “Le Parnasse, ou l’Apothéose de Corelli” has stood the test of the time better than Voltaire’s language:

Italian Infiltrators at the Court of Versailles

Voltaire – A Genius, a Slave of his Passions

Max Gallo: “Moi, j’écris pour agir” Vie de Voltaire. ISBN 978-2-253-12894-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I seem to develop a certain passion for highly ambiguous people from the past: the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the Czech writer Franz Kafka and now the French poet and philosopher Voltaire. Interesting. Perhaps I am beginning to discover that most people who “made a difference” had to confront and overcome internal conflicts and a hostile environment to accomplish their mission? Perhaps I am beginning to realize that excellence always comes at a very high personal prize?

Compromise is a word I do not use very often, moderation is not a virtue of mine, my ambition is well-hidden. Voltaire did not compromise on his personal goals – becoming rich, influential and famous. He would not moderate his opinion, though he would often deny to have written what he had indeed written. And his ambition was obvious to anyone in Paris and beyond, obvious to the courts of Louis XV and Frederic II, who played him as they pleased. Voltaire in turn served the French and German monarchs and betrayed them at the same time.

Voltaire, born François Marie d’Arouet, brilliant writer of poems, essays, novels, plays, pamphlets and scientific treaties – what a man! Voltaire, liar, lackey, lover – what a life! Max Gallo, one of the most acclaimed French historians, has written an impressive biography of Voltaire. Profound knowledge coupled with a magnificent narrating style – a pleasure to read from beginning to end. If you can read between the lines, you will find out that Gallo is in love with his subject. And without making himself any judgment, Gallo leads the reader to play the role of the prosecutor, the advocate and the judge of Voltaire.

Voltaire – what a strange man he was! He could not shut up when it was prudent to stay quiet. He angered and defied his few protectors and made himself an easy prey for his innumerable enemies. He had a certain conception of truth and personal freedom he would never betray, no matter how dear he paid for it. More than once he was imprisoned, beaten, abused, more than once he had to flee abroad. His offensive defense of freedom of speech came a century too early for Europe, but Voltaire was unable not to raise his voice. Is that obsession? It is. Is it vanity? It is. And still, I have to admire him in a way: this stubbornness, this intransigence, it reminds me of someone. Voltaire, how familiar he seems to me. Surrender is not an option.

Voltaire was a man of passion. He had the passion to write, to live, to fight for the ideas of the Enlightenment, the passion for arts, the passion for a philosopher’s life. And his passions led to a great deal of personal suffering. Voltaire quickly enriched himself, he saw his personal wealth as a guarantee for his personal independence. What a delusion! He never achieved true independence because he needed the recognition by France’s aristocracy, the Prussian and the French king and the applause of the audience – a self-chosen dependency, a self-chosen source of misery.

Et l’amour dans tout cela? Voltaire would not have been Voltaire if he had not had a passion for women too. Torn between his infatuation with his niece Marie-Louise Denis and the long friendship with the Marquise de Châtelet, mistress, soul mate, friend, confident, Voltaire’s way with women left at least three people unhappy. It made Voltaire vulnerable emotionally and in terms of social recognition. Both Voltaire and Emilie de Châtelet harboured rather liberal ideas of how an unmarried man and married woman can spend their time together. Had the word “scandal” not existed before, it would have had to be invented for them. Voltaire was looking for trouble and he found it.

This said, provocation was not a goal in itself. Not for Voltaire, he was way too intelligent for such a move. He did provoke with all his passion: the Jesuits, the Catholic clergy of France, the Calvinist clergy of Geneva, his fellow-philosopher and rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau, corrupt judges and prosecutors, witch-hunters, writers siding with the clergy and tyrannical noblemen. He carried the torch of the Enlightenment and he was not afraid to carry it into the darkest corners of France.

Voltaire was a man of extreme contradictions, just like Shostakovich and Kafka. As a young man he had embarked on a quest for Truth, yet his life was marked by falsehood, his own falsehood and the falsehood of the society he lived in. Voltaire had looked for depth of thought and sought the company of the most superficial individuals in the Kingdom of France. Passion had made Voltaire blind for reality, him an admirer of rationalism. And vanity had turned him into a slave of his own obsessions.

At the same time Voltaire had noble ideals – a liberal and free society. Towards the end of his life, he had the financial means to realize a small-scale social project, to improve people’s living conditions on his estate near the Swiss border. It wasn’t all just talk, Voltaire took action to improve society. He was ahead of his time as a Frenchman, for the French Revolution would occur only after his death. But Voltaire prepared the ground. His violent campaigns against the lack of freedom, justice and fairness softened the enemy, and when the French took to the street, the monarchy quickly fell apart. Despite his obvious personal shortcomings, Voltaire was one of the most remarkable men of the 18th century.

The discrepancies between ideal and real in Voltaire’s life reminded my of one of my favourite composers, Franz Schubert. Death, in the shape of syphilis, hang like Damocles’ sword of the life of both geniuses. What would Voltaire have thought of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor “Death of the Maiden”? He might have shivered, incredulous.

Composing while Death is Knocking on the Door

Traveling back in time for a cup of tea with Goethe

Bruno Preisendörfer: Als Deutschland noch nicht Deutschland war. Reise in die Goethezeit. ISBN 978-3-86971-110-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Would like to know how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spent his day? Or in what kind of bed he slept? Perhaps you would be fascinated by the myriads of problems a traveler trying to cross Germany at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century had to face? Passport issues, the fear of being robbed, whom to bribe, how to avoid the lost or the damage of your luggage… And would you have thought of the necessity to take a pillow with you on the coach? You probably have not the faintest idea about the link between serf-bondage and the technique of ploughing a field. Nor would you know about the different schooling system, the peasants’ resistance to modern agricultural methods or and how the philosopher Immanuel Kant from Königsberg found a highly original way to quench his thirst at night without leaving his bed.

Bruno Preisendörfer has written a curious and highly interesting book in which he presents all the facets of life in Germany during the “Weimarer Klassik” (1786-2832), an era named after the intellectual aura emanating from Goethe’s residence town. The many curiosities, painstakingly researched, make this book worthwhile reading and highly entertaining. Middle-class families in Dresden for example would rather spend money on fashionable clothes than on nutritious food. Goethe’s friend Friedrich Schiller spent a sixth of his annual budget on tobacco, wine, beer, coffee and tea. And would you have guessed that magnetism had the reputation of healing all kind of ailments if only you had unconditional faith in the healer and a generous hand?

Needless to say that I laughed a lot about such anecdotes, while the plain facts and figures about extreme poverty, high child mortality rates and the working conditions in the early industrial age make our current day labour conflicts look like a walk in the park. Torture during judicial proceedings, public hangings and wide-spread censorship show a less familiar side of Germany during the Enlightenment. Traveling back in time with Goethe and Preisendörfer was a fine reading experience and a useful reminder for me not to complain too much about whatever. I live a privileged life, even compared to Goethe or King Frederic II of Prussia.

This book is about traveling and Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Goethe, wrote a wonderful song cycle about a “Winter Journey”:

Wandering to the Point of No Return

A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice