Alice-in-Wonderland worlds, David Clark

The Elegant Universe of Albert Einstein: The Collected Lectures of the Royal Society of New Zealand E=mc2 Series Broadcast on National Radio
Awa Press, $24.99,
ISBN 0958262926

Are Angels OK? The Parallel Universes of New Zealand Writers and Scientists
Paul Callaghan and Bill Manhire (eds)
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 100864735146

The Elegant Universe of Albert Einstein is based on lectures given by a group of eminent New Zealand scholars to commemorate the centenary of Albert Einstein’s golden year, 1905 – the year Einstein, in a series of monumental research papers, ushered in a new era in science. It is essentially a “teaser” to encourage the reader to delve further. Thus, for example,  the first contribution, Matt Visser’s “A Short History of the Universe”, summarises cosmology post-Einstein in a mere 16 pages. I am sure most readers will want to go further, having had an initial taste of cosmology from Visser’s passionate exposition.

Hamish Campbell’s contribution tells the fascinating story of “Discovering the Age of the Earth”. Biblical scholars had suggested that the formation of the Earth could be dated back to 4004BC. But the discovery of fossils suggestive of major biological extinctions called such a modest age into question. There is no more fascinating story of the fossil hunters than that of Gideon Mantell and his wife Mary Ann. The Mantells discovered a massive tooth, which was the first of a new creature type we now know as dinosaurs. What I had never known, until I read it here, was that the Mantells’ son Walter spent many years in New Zealand, and that the iconic dinosaur tooth now resides in Te Papa. New Zealand also figures prominently in the accurate dating of the Earth, thanks to Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of alpha radiation. By measuring the relative abundances of key elements in rock samples, Rutherford estimated the age of the Earth at at least 4500 million years.

In “Einstein and the Eternal Railway Carriage”, Lesley Hall and Richard Hall combine fascinating biographical details of Einstein’s life with a sequence of thought experiments to ease the path into the concepts of special relativity. Einstein was a complex individual – socialist, pacifist, Zionist (he declined the role of founding president of Israel), and humanitarian. His genius could not disguise very human frailties. He was impatient (and therefore unpopular) with his students, intolerant of fellow scientists, and an unfaithful spouse. But his genius was unrivalled.

Tom Barnes’s contribution “Schrödinger’s Cat” introduces the reader to the Alice-in-Wonderland world of quantum physics, where things are never quite as they seem. The “certainty” of the human scale is replaced by the “probability” of the sub-atomic world. Here the concepts are difficult to grasp for anyone not grounded in the basics of quantum physics, but Barnes has done an excellent job, painting a mental image of the phantom world of “particles” that can apparently be in more than one place at once, can mimic both waves and particles, and can tunnel through apparently impenetrable barriers.

In Paul Callaghan’s “Journey to the Heart of Matter”, we learn of Ernest Rutherford’s massive contributions to the emergence of the primacy of physics in science. Rutherford was an inspirational figure. Nine of his acolytes followed him in winning a Nobel prize. He was one of the greatest New Zealanders. In “The Unconquered Sun”, Robert Hannah presents a fascinating history of how the concept of time and the calendar evolved in various cultures in relation to astrology and seasonal social needs. And in the final contribution, “Galileo’s Dilemma”, John Stenhouse addresses issues of science and religious belief, which have historically caused grievous conflicts (Galileo’s trouble with the Vatican being one of many notable examples). Fortunately today, in most parts of the world, science and religion are seen to be complementary rather than competing paths to “the truth”. As Einstein himself noted, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” This excellent little book beautifully conveys his sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of nature.

Are Angels OK? is unlike anything I have come across before. Eminent scientists have sometimes tried their hands (with varying degrees of success) at fiction – Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan being the best of them. And distinguished authors have dabbled in scientific matters (again, with varying success). This “blind date” between 10 noted New Zealand authors and some of the country’s finest physicists has resulted in a pick-and-mix assortment of short stories, poems and cartoons. The result is startling – but the phrase “varying degrees of success” again comes to mind.

A tip for the reader: before approaching any of the book’s contributions, go to the copious notes on p303. Pieces from each author give helpful and interesting insights into how they interacted with their scientist mentor, and what they were trying to achieve.

Scientists and musicians, and scientists and artists have worked well together in the past. Thus a successful alliance between scientists and fiction writers is not perhaps as strange as it might at first appear. Both science and writing are creative endeavours. Both require considerable imagination, and the courage to “think the unthinkable” (although scientists are denied the luxury afforded writers of fiction of “thinking the impossible”). After this successful experiment, perhaps we will see more examples of the coming together of creative individuals from different fields of human endeavour.

For this reader by far the best contribution was Elizabeth Knox’s “Unobtainium”. Had I been the publisher, I would have taken this short story as the synopsis for a full-length science-fiction novel, for which I would have paid Knox a fat advance. Such is the intricacy of the plot and the fascinating interactions of the characters that, on completing it, I immediately read it again to make sure I had not missed anything.

A surprising backdrop to the plot is the theme music from the 60s children’s TV classic Mr Ed (and to understand the subtlety of that connection you will have to buy the book). Brilliant! I found myself wanting to know more about the hero, his autistic brother, his female companion (was there a romantic link here?), and the enigmatic stranger. I wanted to understand more about the planning of the big experiment: how it developed; who supported and who opposed it; the politics; the technology …. Please Elizabeth, tell us the rest of the story.

Some of the book’s other contributions were beyond me. I found it impossible in a few cases, even with the help of the notes, to establish a clear link between the prose or cartoons, and the science they were trying to present. Many a “Kiwi-ism” will mean that non-native readers will sometimes be left in a state of even greater bewilderment. However, this will be a widely read and greatly enjoyed book, simply because of its novelty – and Elizabeth Knox’s classic short story.



David Clark, an ex-pat New Zealander who pursued an astronomy and space science career in the UK, has written 10 popular books on science. 


Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Science
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more