Interview – Matthew Wright

On my list of regular blogs to visit is the one written by New Zealand historian Matthew Wright. His interests, however, don’t just lie in the past but the present and future too, mixing current science with science fiction. When his book of essays came out examining the curious side of quantum mechanics, Explaining Our Weird Universe, I had to pick up a copy and this led to me wanting to know more, not just about the science but the ideas behind writing the book.

When physicists and cosmologists talk about time are they talking about the same thing the layperson recognises as time? I don’t mean space-time, but the concept of some dynamic phenomenon that can be measured rather than simply experienced.

There’s a lot of confusion between personal perception of time and the way time works in relativistic and quantum senses. Actually the time physicists refer to is quite different from what we perceive in an everyday sense. The everyday human experience is grounded in what we see around us and in the way we experience that immediate environment. In those personal terms, time is certainly a perception – it stretches and shrinks depending on what we’re doing, but these are products of our own flow of consciousness. That style of perception doesn’t reflect the physical reality of time as an integral part of space-time – which is also stretchy, but not in the same way.

I have heard of some physicists who are starting to consider the possibility that time doesn’t exist. If you separate time from the speed and nature of light what form does it take?

Just now there are efforts to unpick Einstein’s space-time concepts as part of the attempt to reconcile quantum with determinist physics. But just as Einstein’s equations refine Newton’s, but don’t dislodge them, so too I think any new theory has to take into account what Einstein reported. The basics of both General and Special Relativity have been absolutely proven to be true, every time, every test. If General Relativity wasn’t true, for instance, your cellphone couldn’t locate itself via GPS – because the satellites are so precise they have to account for relativistic frame-dragging. So we’ve repeatedly proving Einstein was right, every time we use our phone locator or GPS.

Illustration of the expanding universe over time

You’ve written so many books about history, what inspired you to write Explaining Our Weird Universe?

I’ve always been interested in physics and cosmology – I switched from physics and music to history when I got to university. For me they are all aspects of the same thing: my attempt to understand how things we see around us. That journey leads me in all kinds of directions.

Can you remember the first encounter with quantum mechanics that made you sit up and take notice?

I didn’t understand it. So I had to find out.

Do you think physicists will ever answer the questions about matter and energy, or are we doomed to find ever-infinetisimal forms of particles and energy?

I think we’ll always have mysteries – mathematically, you can’t fully analyse a system of which you are a part. So, empirically, we can’t ever unlock the last secrets. I think of it like an onion skin: we’ll keep peeling back the layers, but there’ll always be something to discover, or questions we can’t answer. And that’s good. If we didn’t have unanswered questions, life would be boring.

My own novels deal primarily with the supernatural, but I like to offer possible scientific explanations for strange phenomena. Do you think there’s anything paranormal that might have a scientific explanation?

I think some of what we regard as paranormal has a scientific explanation. Here in New Zealand spooky ‘earthquake lights’ were often reported during night-time earthquakes. These were rubbished by the scientific community until some were caught on a traffic camera in Christchurch. Now we have an explanation: it’s the piezoelectric effect. Similarly, the unease some feel prior to a quake – mirrored by animals and birds – is a product of low-frequency vibration preceding the event. But a lot of the ‘paranormal’ is merely our mind at work – real enough, perhaps, to the observer, but which has no actual existence.

Earthquake lights over New Mexico (photo Doug Aghassi)

Complex scientific ideas often fall foul of the limitations of language, eg black holes are neither black nor holes. How do you think this affects research into the more esoteric areas of quantum mechanics?

Artist’s impression of a supermassive black hole with outflowing jet of particles (illustration NASA/JPL-Caltech

I think the choice of words is pivotal to the way ideas are received – and often mis-received – at popular level. The whole idea of Schroedinger’s Cat, for instance, was a thought-experiment, but it’s been taken popularly as representing the way things really work. Actually they don’t. The conflation of observer participation with quantum decoherence is another pop-misconception – leading, as I explain in Our Weird Universe – to the idea that humans are required to make the entire 46-billion light year diameter observable universe work. It’s very egocentric of us, a classic human view flowing from the fact that our personal realities are moulded by our immediate experiences, and it’s hard to abstract them. But abstract them we must: physics doesn’t require our existence, however much we fancy that it does.

Some might say mathematics is the language of science. To a layperson like me the way physicists twist and manipulate mathematics sometimes looks like cheating to make a theory work. How do we know the maths is correct at such an extreme level?

As I see it, maths is a symbolic language for expressing and analysing concepts, and we have to accept the expertise of those who speak it. That said, it isn’t an end in itself: it’s merely the vehicle. Einstein had to get a new branch of maths developed to express General Relativity – tensor calculus – but, as he said himself, anybody at all should be able to understand the concepts he was describing, without the maths. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my book. It was Stephen Hawking, I think, who suggested that for every equation a book loses a thousand readers, and I’ve taken that on board.

Do you think science-fiction authors would benefit from a better understanding of physics or are they allowed some artistic license?

The most famous police box in the world! (Photo copyright

A lot of SF authors are solid on the science – classically, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, and I’d also point to Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle’s Into Deepest Space, which was really an exploration of Big Bang physics as understood back then. But real physics usually makes for a boring story, so there’s a balance between good story-telling and scientific credibility. My take – which I’ve applied in my own fiction – is to ground the story in real physics as a device for making the necessary ‘hand-waving’ credible. On the other hand, what always counts is story and character. Look at Dr Who, of which I’ve been a huge fan since Troughton days. The amount of real science in it is zero, but who cares? It’s a fantastic story and the concept is wonderful – it just works. And boy, do I wish I had a TARDIS.

What has been the reaction to Explaining Our Weird Universe amongst your peers in New Zealand?

I’ve had no feedback at all.

Do you have an instinct regarding the Grand Unified Theory, and if so what would be the discovery that marries quantum physics to Newtonian physics?

This has been the biggest challenge in physics since the early twentieth century. Einstein figured they’d missed something, and he was probably right. I think we’re still missing it – to me, none of the efforts to produce a credible GUT have rung true. There’s no question that we have gaps in our understanding. Dark matter and energy, for instance, have been invoked to explain the huge divergence between the rate of expansion of the universe and the amount of mass required for that rate to exist. To me, though, it just doesn’t ring true – that in order to explain what we see in terms of current theory, we have to assume there’s not only a type of mass and energy that can’t be detected, but that it forms the vast majority of all matter in the universe. To me that suggests a problem with the assumptions we’re making.

It’s not the first time physics has done this – look at the ‘ether’, which was required to explain light propagation in a vacuum – but which couldn’t be detected and was eventually shown to be a theoretical illusion. Physics had missed something: and when that missing part – wave-particle duality – was discovered, the elephant in the room went away. I suspect dark matter and energy will go the same way. There have been various approaches, such as Berkestein’s relativistic interpretation of the MOND theory, that resolve what we observe without invoking dark matter or energy. Or there might be something wrong with our assumption that the laws of physics are constant across the universe. I suspect that if we can resolve these issues, we’ll also reconcile quantum and determinist dissonance, but I think we need more empirical data first.

Albert Einstein photographed in 1921

You understandably credit Einstein with so many contributions to our knowledge of physics, but who would you say are the overlooked or unsung heroes of physics and cosmology?

All physicists, including Einstein, built on the work of their peers and of earlier science. We can name individuals – Dirac, Bohr, Maxwell and so on – but their work’s entwined and it’s hard to look at one without reference to another.

What will you cover in the next book? Any clues?

I’ve got a social history of the New Zealand experience in the First World War coming out in three weeks, and a general history of my home district being published in October. Beyond that I’ve got a contract to write a book on the Treaty of Waitangi, our founding document. I’ve got plans for a Book 2 of ‘Our Weird Universe’, but it’ll depend on sales of the first.

Many thanks to Matthew for taking time out to answer my questions. Learn more about his books by following the links below.

  • Visit Matthew’s WordPress blog HERE
  • You can buy Explaining Our Weird Universe from Amazon HERE
  • And explore more of Matthew’s writing from his author profile on Amazon HERE

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