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Flamborough, Week 5: 4 June

What’s your favourite scientific theory? At the moment I’m torn between two. One is that black holes are stars that have collapsed in on themselves and are now exploding back into stars but, owing to relativity, too slowly for us to be able to detect it yet. The other is that time is just a way of measuring the exchange of heat from hotter to colder objects (e.g., from a hot water bottle to my feet); and that where there is no friction, no heat exchange—the orbit of the planets round the sun, for example—the whole notion of time becomes irrelevant.

Sarclet harbour

I don’t remotely pretend to understand this, of course—I just like the sheer mind-boggling wonderment of it all. Modern physics seems to be mostly equations on a blackboard, where forgetting to carry the 1 can profoundly alter our understanding of the universe; and equations and I have never really been friends. I remember being quite energised by medieval philosophy at university, right up to the point when the professor said, “If we represent the goodness of God with the symbol a, and the nature of evil with b, then we have ab equal to…” And my tentative understanding collapsed in a heap of jumbled logic, never to recover.

When I did my archive training there was a nun on the course. Her attitude to medieval philosophy was rather refreshing, dismissing it as an argument over “how many pins you could stick in the head of an angel”. (Mind you, her attitude to most things was refreshing: one day she came into the common room carrying a bunch of flowers. One of the students asked her, “Do you want something to put them in?” She eyed him appraisingly for a moment, then said, “All right, then. Bend over!”)

Dredging in Wick harbour

In gansey news I have divided for front and back, half-finished the gussets, put them on holders, and am now embarked on the back. My respect for the pattern grows apace—it’s as easy to knit backwards as forwards. (Apologies for the quality of the photos this week; as you’ll have guessed, Margaret is away just now. Normal service should be resumed next week, but it’s tricky to get the colour right on an iPhone.)

Gorse at Helmsdale

Finally this week, I’d like to share with you one of my favourite poems by Matsuo Bashō, the great Japanese poet who could say more in three brief lines than most of us manage in a lifetime. We’ve had a taste of summer in Caithness, an explosion of light and colour and, of course, birdsong. This summer poem always lifts my spirits—physicists and poets, each bringing us closer to a kind of truth:

Skylark
sings all day,
and day not long enough.

10 comments to Flamborough, Week 5: 4 June

  • Helen Koehler

    Funny, that one got me. We watch those pbs science shows too. Can’t comprehend the universe either.

    • Gordon

      Hi Helen, it’s when you realise that the universe is not only stranger than we understand, but possibly stranger than we can understand, that you have to go for a long walk or a lie down!

      I still find it hard to accept that there isn’t a standard measure of time in the universe, what Einstein called “God’s time”, and that instead everything is relative. Which partly helps to explain why I’m always late for meetings…

  • meg

    it refreshing to come across someone else whose mind is thrown into confusion by the abstract terms of a-b= etc..I always wanted to know what exactly `a` was..no -one ever told me.then I got all kind of of childish illnesses and it remained a symbol of everything peculiar in mathematics.I never caught up.i loved the kind of maths one could draw pictures about tho..that made sense and I love your gansey!

    • Gordon

      Hi Meg,

      Logic totally did for me at university. Honestly, when those equations appeared to explain St Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God I felt a profound sense of betrayal, like the time when an old friend from university, who’d dropped out to pursue his ideals of anarchism and hippiedom, turned up some years later and tried to sell us all insurance.

      I have friends who see the world in mathematical terms, and the way describe it I can see that it is beautiful (albeit a cold, austere sort of beauty). I think one of the reasons I like the ideas of quantum mechanics is that they confound the remorselessness of the equals sign, to an extent. Any science that has “maybe… maybe not… it depends…” at its heart is definitely the one for me!

      • meg

        i remember standing looking up at the stars when I was no more than seven years old and asking `but where does it finish..whats outside the universe . the concept of infinity came into my mind .I tried hard to travel out beyond an invisible boundary ..and thinking there has to be and `outside somewhere` and realising there wasn’t…that boundary is the limit that exists in our understanding…..we are pushing it little by little..but I still feel the same when I look up at the stars,that sense of incredulity of the seven year old child…awesome

        • Gordon

          Hi again Meg, when you think about the distances involved, infinity itself becomes relative I suppose. In the way that I work in a building that is intended to keep nuclear records for thousands of years, but not indefinitely—as the man from the National Archives said, it’s a whole new way of thinking about the word “temporary”!

          As for the sky, Spike Milligan, as ever, said it best:

          There are holes in the sky
          Where the rain gets in,
          But they’re ever so small,
          That’s why rain is thin…

  • =Tamar

    I am feeling greatly encouraged by the fact that such a beautiful gansey is easy to knit. The idea that time is irrelevant certainly fits with my own attitudes, both to age and to appointments (alas, others disagree).

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, time is obviously affected by relativity, which is why as I get further away from my birth it seems to be speeding up! Or as Douglas Adams said, time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so…

  • Lois

    My brain never did manage to wrap itself around algebra, and when it came to trigonometry, I met my Waterloo.

    The latest gansey is just pure genius, how could the combination possibly get any better? I always marvel how such simple patterns produce such amazing results.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, just remember there’s no such thing as trigonometry, it’s just a tale mathematicians tell children to scare them into doing long division.

      I’m sure i have some form of OCD, but I find these patterns endlessly fascinating, like a monochrome persian carpet. I just think how lucky we are that photography was invented to capture them just when they reached their most perfect expression. Plus it’s kept me out of mischief for 30 years—it’s a win-win!

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