Tim Radford on His Love Affair With Big Physics

Tim Radford
Monday, April 29, 2019

Tim Radford edited and wrote for The Guardian's science pages for 25 years and is a past judge for the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. His 2018 book, “The Consolations of Physics,” will be issued in paperback in June.

Cosmological physics has been good to this journalist ─ and many others, too, at a guess. That is because there is already a readership. One thing you can say for sure about the universe is that it is of universal interest. It is also ultimately mysterious, but not so mysterious that you should skip the subject altogether.

This realization reached a climax of sorts for me in December 2003, when Science magazine selected new evidence for a dark, expanding universe as its “breakthrough of the year.” In the Guardian newsroom in those days, you could stroll quietly behind the front-page sub-editor’s desk and look at a screen with the draft design for the next day’s paper. If it had a photograph of a prime minister as the front-page splash, it was a slow news day.

So I suggested that I could offer a much better story. Physics could not account for 96% of the universe, and a leading journal had enshrined that dilemma as a “breakthrough.” Not only did the community of cosmologists still not know what dark matter was, the pool of ignorance had been widened and deepened by a quintessence, an anti-gravitational entity called dark energy.

Tim Radford

I could do and say these things because I felt safe with cosmological physics: I knew I didn’t understand it. But it offered me comfort and a certain spiritual ease.

I could listen to people who did understand it, ask dumb questions, marvel at the answers, and then try to quote them accurately. One of the few things I have learned in 60 years of journalism is that if you think you understand what a scientist is talking about, you won’t ask the dumb questions, and you are more likely to get the story subtly or even horribly wrong.

Another enduring lesson is that it is all very well looking at press releases, and peer-reviewed papers, and books, but there is nothing to beat meeting someone like Steven Weinberg, or Alan Guth or Martin Rees (or another 20 I could as easily name) to listen about super-colliders, or cosmic inflation, or the fine-tuning of the physical values that make our existence possible at all.

What emerges is copy you had never dreamt of writing, always the best kind of story. I am fond of pointing out that science writers – unlike sports reporters, political columnists or economics editors – are unusually privileged. They get a chance to write things that have never been written before, and even, from time to time, stories that no one could have even imagined could be written.

Courtesy: Sceptre Books

But there are other reasons why this casual love affair with big physics turned into a book with the ambitious title of “The Consolations of Physics: Why the Wonders of the Universe Can Make You Happy” (Sceptre 2018). The most compelling stories in science are often about creation: where the universe came from, where life came from, where we came from. Such questions are the subtext of religion, and art, and philosophy. They perplexed St. Augustine of Hippo 1600 years ago, and Anicius Boethius, executed by a Gothic king in Italy 1500 years ago, and who devoted his last days to addressing the same puzzles in a book, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” that inspired my own title.

So the interest is enduring, and all our learning involves a conversation with the past: that is, where we came from. We are the sum of our histories. That’s one plus. The other is that science can be beautiful, in an eye-widening, scalp-prickling way. It paints a picture of creation every bit as wonderful as, for example, Michelangelo’s ceiling for the Sistine Chapel, with this difference: that Michelangelo delivered one man’s vision, and aesthetically sublime as it is, it remains imperfect. Science delivers and continues to deliver a picture forever being amended, freshly-colored, finely-shaded, and of course still imperfect, but with what seems to be increasing authority.

A third pleasing aspect is that individual scientists might bicker, but collectively they are all engaged in a generous, open-ended chase for the great truths of the universe. Physicists started with principles we could all understand and applied them to deliver answers that are perfectly reasonable but joyfully beyond lay comprehension.

The principles include the Copernican one that we are not the center of the universe; the Newtonian one that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; the Einsteinian one that the speed of light in a vacuum is absolute; the thermodynamic one about energy always being conserved. Out of the application of these – and others – cosmologists have described a universe that must have commenced a measurable billions of years ago, and expanded to a point that can be defined, beyond which there must be more universe about which we can know nothing, because its light has not yet reached us and beyond that, yet more universe of which we may never know.

The same reasoning, applied to another set of principles involving the behavior of subatomic particles, has it clear that we need not be the only universe around. We could be just one of a multitude of universes, bubbling out of the vacuum of eternity, collapsing into oblivion again or expanding as ours must have done, but with very different physics at work in each.

Simultaneously, the same theoretical machinery has fostered hardware with which to begin exploration or test prediction. Three of these – the Voyager spacecraft now in interstellar space, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva and the LIGO gravitational wave observatory experiments in the United States – became reference points in my book, if only because all of them delivered great stories, from their launch-points decades ago, and they continue to deliver.

I have left till last the aspect of big physics that matters most to me, and that is because, in a political world that seems for the moment more than usually greedy, dishonest and mean-spirited, it in a small way illuminates the species it would be nice to claim that we are, a species capable of selfless and generous pursuit of understanding.

Nobody ever went into astronomy or particle physics or cosmology or space science hoping to get rich, although a few perhaps did. They went into science for the same reason that many of us went into journalism: for the stories it told. Science tells stories and it has always seemed to me that the Voyager mission was a perfect symbol of that selflessness and generosity. It was dreamed up, designed and dispatched more than 40 years ago by people who planned for an experiment that would outlive them, and now because it has quit the empire of the Sun might outlive not just humankind but the Earth itself and even the Solar System.

The pair of Voyagers relayed back information from which reporters fashioned stories, and went on to become a story in themselves. They sail on serenely into interstellar space, at about 16 kilometers a second, the bearers of golden records carrying the music of Beethoven and Chuck Berry and many other sounds of a tempestuous planet, and their very existence is a statement that says “We were here for a moment, and we tried to find out why.”


Associated homepage image: Simulated decay of a Higgs boson, courtesy of CMS experiment at CERN.