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

PQ-QP = h/2πi – Uncertainty as a Fate


Ernst Peter Fischer: Werner Heisenberg – ein Wanderer zwischen zwei Welten. ISBN 978-3-662-43441-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Writing a biography of a physicist presents a challenge: Should the book focus on the person or the science? Should it try to describe a human being’s life or should it explain that person’s scientific idea? At best it tries to reconcile both, but this effort quite often fails since most recent scientific discoveries are quite complicated to explain to a layman who might have a stronger interest in the person than in his ideas. Retracing the life of Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), one of the founders of quantum mechanics, is a mission that seems right from the beginning doomed to fail.

The first chapters of the book are bound to discourage the reader. The language is clumsy at times, pompous at others. Bits of philosophical ideas about science, literature and music mix with leaps back and fro in Heisenberg’s life – a complete mess. The author tries to show off with his knowledge of German Romanticism and connects Heisenberg’s scientific ideas to Heisenberg’s Romantic outlook on the world wherever he sees fit which is confusing and totally unnecessary. However after some 80 pages, the author finds a straightforward way to explain the thinking of Heisenberg as it evolved with time and one of the rather interesting aspects of Heisenberg’s scientific studies.

Heisenberg discards the idea that there is something like an “objective reality” in natural sciences that one can observe, measure and describe. He suggests that man should try to explain natural phenomena with a theoretical model and warns at the same time that man is tempted to be guided by past experiences when building models instead of being creative and coming up with radically new models. Thinking out of the box, transcending traditional paradigms – this seems to be the supreme effort for a scientist, but also for man generally. We don’t like to change our basic assumptions of life, do we? Once you start asking questions, life can become quite messy, uncomfortable, even life-threatening.

Given that Heisenberg’s expertise was quantum mechanics and the mathematical models necessary to understand them, I cannot ignore the formula in the headline: PQ-QP=h/2πi. You do not need to understand it, but you need to understand its meaning for physics and philosophy. Basically the formula asserts a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle (a part of an atom, e. g. an electron), such as position and momentum can be known.

Taking a step back it means that the scientists changes the object of his study as he studies it, for example by trying to measure its momentum or determine its position, and thus falsifies his measurement by doing it. When talking of atoms, there are things we cannot know with precision – this was Heisenberg’s revolutionary idea. It introduced an element of uncertainty and threw over board another basic paradigm of classical physics: the law of cause and effect, which does not apply necessarily to subatomic particles. Things within the atom can happen randomly. A frightening thought? Don’t worry. Your coffee-machine is not going to break apart spontaneously, at least not because of quantum physics. However Heisenberg’s scientific breakthrough makes your iPhone and computer work, as it led after many more years to the invention of the semi-conductor. Intel inside – crystals and hopping electrons!

The book explains all this reasonably well, and at the same time gives an idea of what Heisenberg’s thoughts and feelings were when the Nazis rose to power, when the SS abused him as a “white Jew” promoting Jewish physics (Albert Einstein’s relativity theory) and how Heisenberg did not build a Nazi atomic bomb. If it weren’t for the botched introduction, I’d give the book four stars. I am glad that the author got around to solid story-telling and quantum theory for dummies. I am also glad I did not give up too soon.

Heisenberg was a keen amateur pianist and cellist. “One cannot live without music. But when I listen to music, I sometimes get the absurd idea that life could have a meaning”, he wrote in 1924. In his leisure time, when he was not crunching numbers or developing models, he liked to study challenging music written by Robert Schumann, for instance his piano cycle “Kreisleriana” (Op. 16), or Ludwig van Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas.

Satire and passion for the benefit of mankind

Two cello sonatas to please the king