A physicist friend of mine once had a terrible spate of misfortune. Her flat was burgled, her cat was run over, and her grandfather died, all in the same week. Needing a bit of TLC, she went to see her professor, who offered three words of advice: “Do some physics.” For most people who are in need of consolation, I suspect physics is among the last things they would consider. Tim Radford, a former Guardian science editor, wants to persuade them that the branch of science so many people find soulless and intimating can offer much spiritual balm. He makes his case in what he calls a “love letter to physics”.
Radford is a much-admired journalist: graceful, witty and adept at squeezing human interest from the driest maths. I remember once hearing him declare on stage that the public are most interested in science that’s “either exceptionally useful or totally useless”. He focuses on the latter in this book, an appreciative survey of the vast canvas on which physicists do their creative work – the entire observable universe, from the beginning of time to its end (assuming there is one).
Like all branches of science, physics is possible only because of what Einstein described as the “miracle, or eternal mystery” of the order that underlies everything. Experimenters observe and measure, theoreticians try to discover mathematical laws that describe the order. As Radford often reminds us, the laws they discover are always provisional: no sooner has a law been established than physicists start trying to improve or generalise it.
The method has been amazingly successful in generating understandings of the universe on the largest and smallest scales, though the middle ground has proved more problematic. Even the fundamental laws of physics can’t explain, for example, the shape of a cauliflower. Radford largely steers clear of this ground. Instead, he lavishes most of his awe and enthusiasm on some of the physicists’ grands projets.
He begins with the Voyager programme, which employed two robotic probes to boldly go close to Jupiter, Uranus and Saturn – sending back stunning images and vast quantities of high-quality data. Radford tells us that when he feels “more than usually desolate” and wishes to “escape from the squalor of so much human behaviour”, he thinks of the Voyager mission. He seems especially awed by the engineering feats that make it possible for mission control to make fine remote adjustments to the craft’s equipment. Parts of the book speak to a different title, “The Consolations of Engineering”, a phrase that would probably not have had as much traction in this country, alas.
Cern’s gigantic, multibillion-euro Large Hadron Collider is also one of the technical wonders of the world, as Radford explains. Thanks to the ingenuity of engineers, physicists are now able to smash subatomic particles together at such high energies that they fleetingly reproduce the conditions in the universe a trillionth of a second after the beginning of time. No less remarkable is that, among the trillions of well-known particles produced in the collisions at the LHC, experimenters discovered the Higgs particle, predicted about 50 years before. This was also a triumph for pure thought: the particle appeared in the minds of Peter Higgs and a few other pioneers before it first showed its face at Cern.
Why do wealthy societies spend good money on projects such as this? Higgs bosons and images from the Voyager spacecraft don’t do anything useful and don’t make any of us richer, as Radford acknowledges, though he has no time for such philistinism. His heart and his mind are with the Roman thinker Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, from which Radford takes several of his cues. He stands shoulder to shoulder with Boethius: philosophy can be consoling “even if it is limited to just thinking about thinking”. Beneath his jocularity, Radford is an unapologetic intellectual.
He glories in telling the remarkable story of the first direct observation of gravitational waves in 2015, almost a century after Einstein foresaw them. A huge team of astronomers detected the waves via a signal that lasted 20 milliseconds and caused a disturbance smaller than a millionth of the width of an atom – a result of two massive black holes merging violently in outer space more than a billion years ago. As Radford underlines, this discovery marked the beginning of a new type of science, in which astronomers observe distant events via the gravitational wave emitted. Meanwhile, theoreticians are trying to improve Einstein’s theory of gravity to incorporate quantum theory. When that’s done more challenges will await them – that’s the nature of the game.
For me, the main joy of physics is that it puts human beings so firmly in our place. Even if all of us – and every other living thing – died tomorrow, every quantum in the universe would carry on obliviously, doing its eternal, orderly dance to fundamental laws that we shall probably never discover. If you’re not a scientist, that thought may not be very consoling. But I’m just happy to keep on doing some physics.
• The Consolations of Physics: Why the Wonders of the Universe Can Make You Happy is published by Sceptre. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.