Ask me about the theory of relativity and I’ll mutter something about a speeding train and a platform, Albert Einstein and patent office workers being underappreciated, before trailing off in confusion. Tell me to explain string theory and I’ll punch you in the face.
Speed = distance / time. That’s about the extent of my ability in physics. I can tell you the speed of something given the amount of time it took to travel a certain distance . . . and a calculator. But if you already had those details then why would you care how fast something was travelling?
“Hey man you’re here!”
“Damn right! Got a beer for a weary traveller?”
“Hold on a minute. When did you leave?”
“What do you mean?”
“What time did you leave your house?”
“I dunno, about 5.30.”
“Ok, and how far did you travel?”
“You know where I live?”
“Yeah, but what’s the distance? . . . preferably in metres.”
“Who cares, why?”
“I’m going to work out your average speed.”
“Fuck you, I’m going to the pub.”
Aside from this useless equation, I’m also aware of something called ‘lambda.’ It looks like an upside-down ‘Y,’ but I couldn’t tell you what it does. No, as far as I’m aware, physics is of no practical use to me whatsoever. I’m too stupid to use it. My brain doesn’t get it. But this is also the reason that I find it so interesting. When I hear about the solar system I’m like a child hearing a fairytale—fascinated, captivated, enthralled.
The problem with making a program about physics though – and probably the reason that so few of them are made – is that, while it may be a feast for the ears and the brain it is not so for the eyes. Very long complicated equations, graphs, squiggly lines, diagrams of unimaginably small particles, Stephen Hawking; in short, physics is not a very visual medium, and although the night sky is beautiful, there are only so many shots of the Milky Way that the average viewer will tolerate before switching over to watch Come Dine With Me.
To remedy this problem the BBC have attempted to fuse astrophysics with natural history in their new factual programme ‘Wonders of the Solar System.’ Or, to put it in their words, “Professor Brian Cox visits the most extreme locations on Earth to explain how the laws of physics carved natural wonders across the solar system.” What this amounts to is Professor Brian Cox subliminally piping physics into our brains while we are distracted by cascading waterfalls and aurora borealis. Funnily enough, it actually works and doesn’t, as I initially suspected, feel stitched together or forced. Some of the location links to the subject seem slightly tenuous, but there is always a link nonetheless. What’s more, it makes the programme a lot lighter. Having someone talk in lightyears, and ‘to the power ofs’ for an hour is too much for the casual Sunday night viewer to stomach, and so the travel clips and scenery shots form welcome breaks that allow the brain to recover and process the information it has just received.
My only worry is how they will sustain this blend of place and theory throughout the five parts. Perhaps they won’t bother. Maybe the last programme will just be a 45 minute lecture on Kaluza-Klein theory, finished with a 15 minute viewer phone in to discuss, ‘Fundamental forces, ‘Gravitation’ or ‘Electromagnetism,’ which is your favourite?’ . . . Let’s hope not.
Despite the fact that most of us have no real understanding of physics and no practical application for it, that’s not to say that it is of no use. Quite the contrary. To watch the beauty of our world juxtaposed with photos of a far off star in supernova—the light reaching us years after it has died, is amazing; and even more so, to hear in layman’s terms our incredible insignificance in the unimaginable massiveness of space. This is how physics is relevant to me. For an atheist, without the fairytale of a magical man in the sky, it’s about as a good a story as there is. The story of the universe we inhabit is more interesting, more elaborate, more intricate and complex than we could ever hope to create in our own minds – more often than not, it’s even more complex than we can hope to comprehend in our own minds. Take solace in not understanding it all and in the likelihood that we probably never will. It’s the perfect metaphor for human endeavour; groping in the darkness in pursuit of something that isn’t there—the non-existent prize. The unobtainable truth. The pointlessness of it all. Revel in it. Enjoy it. None of this matters. None of it matters.