Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Jeans: 'like a great thought'

Born on this day in 1877 was the physicist, astronomer, mathematician and thinker about science James Hopwood Jeans. The name is very familiar to me from a plaque on what remains of a rather grand and elegant house in Westhumble, the village at the foot of Box Hill, where Sir James (as he was by then) lived for some years with his second wife, the organist and musicologist Suzanne Hock (34 years his junior). The house was bequeathed by Lady Jeans to the Royal School of Church Music, but when the college moved out the whole complex was controversially remodelled into an upmarket housing development - very nice of its kind, but most definitely not what Lady Jeans had envisaged...
  Anyway, back to Jeans. I was very struck by some remarks of his, dating back to the 1930s, that seem to me wise and prescient: 'The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter... we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.' As the philosophers would put it, mind might be the phenomenon, matter an epiphenomenon. This is from a book aptly called The Mysterious Universe.
  Jeans also likens the universe to a work of art, a painting: 'Travelling as far back in time as we can brings us not to the creation of the picture, but to its edge; the creation of the picture lies as much outside the picture as the artist is outside his canvas. On this view, discussing the creation of the universe in terms of time and space is like trying to discover the artist and the action of painting, by going to the edge of the canvas. This brings us very near to those philosophical systems which regard the universe as a thought in the mind of its Creator, thereby reducing all discussion of material creation to futility.'
  This kind of thinking I find very attractive, not least because it comes so much closer to the way it feels to be a living being in the world than more mechanistic models of the universe do. And, essentially, it lets the mystery be.


  1. That's beautiful, Nige!
    Must we then, in every sense, be very careful where we put Mind?

  2. Myself, I'm more of a fan of the forbidding materialism of the Victorian scientist (he does have some great lines!) Smells more like mysticism than mystery to me.