Friday, March 12, 2010

In Search of the Multiverse: John Gribbin in Abingdon

We had a suitably mind-expanding evening with John Gribbin at Abbey Hall on Thursday, with an exhilarating ride to the frontiers of scientific theory: the concept of The Multiverse.
John Gribbin is one of our most celebrated and respected popular science writers. Books like In Search of Schrödinger's Cat have had a huge impact on raising the profile and general level of understanding of some of the more bizarre aspects of the weird worlds that physicists and mathematicians now inhabit. It has also inspired plenty of people to get involved in physics. So when we got the opportunity (courtesy of one of our customers) to approach John for an event, we jumped at the chance.

As expected, he proved a popular choice. But the concept of the multiverse - and the implications for life in this universe - is one of the most challenging areas to get your head around. There are different interpretations and plenty of theories, some of which demand huge leaps of imagination into parallel universes and multiple dimensions. But on the evening, John acted as an extremely genial guide through the subject.

Starting with basic concepts of quantum theory (the duality of matter as both particle and wave, and the double-slit experiment) we went from the 'Many World's Interpretation' of quantum physics, through branching universes, black holes and time travel to quantum fluctuations yielding big bangs, bouncing sheet universes and M-theory. It was quite a ride.

John took questions at the end - which revealed a very well-informed audience with some suitably challenging - and at times I must admit baffling - questions. But I guess that's what you would expect given Abingdon's position equidistant between Oxford, Harwell (home of research facilities such as the Diamond Synchrotron) and Culham (home of European Fusion Research).

There were attempts to draw John into discussions on consciousness, the arrow of time, the limits to knowledge and intelligent designers. He stuck doggedly to the matter in hand, and it was a shame to draw the evening to a close. Afterwards John - and his wife Mary with whom he has co-authored many of his books - stayed to sign books, and continue to talk physics alongside the bookstall. A big thank you to John and Mary for making the journey up to Abingdon, and giving an extremely stimulating talk as part of both the Abingdon Arts Festival and the Oxfordshire Science Festival. It's a testament to John's abilities as both scientist and wordsmith that he so effectively bridges the 'two cultures' - and why he is such an effective communicator of ideas.

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