Sunday 3 April 2011

Nothing on TV

Last night I watched Nothing. That is to say, I caught up with part two of the excellent Jim Al-Khalili's BBC4 two-parter, Everything And Nothing, which divides neatly into Part 1: Everything, and Part2: Nothing. I love Al-Khalili's knack of taking huge and bewildering concepts and giving me the pleasing - and fleeting - illusion that I've understood them. For a while there, as his exploration of whether Nothing could truly exist, and if so what it would be, led us further into the strange outer realms of quantum mechanics and the role of matter and antimatter in bringing universes into being, I thought I'd understood what he was getting at. But in the end had I understood Nothing, or had I understood nothing? More likely the latter, but the whole thing was a joy to watch - Al-Khalali has all of boy scientist Brian Cox's gift for explication and simplification with none of the distracting and frankly annoying baggage. And, in the course of the programme, he passed on a really quite startling fact - that the great physicist (and very strange man) Paul Dirac and the great comic actor (and rather strange man) Cary Grant, then Archibald Leach, attended the same primary school in Bristol. If only they'd invited them both to a school reunion - imagine the conversation... Actually there wouldn't have been any, as Dirac would have regarded it as unnecessary and therefore maintained one of his famous silences, while his mighty mind dreamt up some beautiful equation.


  1. One of my lifelong heroes is AJP Taylor, infant terrible, amateur anarchist with a finely honed sense of the systems shortcomings, he simply stood, arms at side, a rare commodity in these days of arm waving, standing on the rim of an active volcano or sandy revolution media nobody's, and he talked, plainly, understandably, you might not have agreed with what he said but that's what makes the world go around. There you have it, despite Coxy's insistence that the great empty void out there is not empty but full of stuff, you know, science says so stuff.
    So, with the undeniable exsistence of AJP who was somthing, ergo nothing, the opposite of something must exsist, as night follows day the truth is revealed, after all Paul's big ticket was finding antimatter, in the compost bit apparantly, as well as, in cahoots with others, starting the ball rolling Fukushima wise.

  2. Dr. FARMELO: And their - the father insisted on speaking to his children only in French. And at meal times, they split into two: the father and Paul Dirac, and mother and the other two children, so that Charles and Paul were only talking in French, the others only speaking in English. Most bizarre family setup.

    In fact, in 1933, a well-informed article says that the young Dirac thought that men spoke French and women spoke English.

    FLATOW: Wow.

    Dr. FARMELO: But his father was absolutely ruthless with his son. Any kind of grammatical error and Dirac would be denied his next wish. And according to Paul Dirac, that so frightened, intimated the young Paul that he withdrew into himself and spoke only when spoken to, and very sparingly.

    I personally don't think that's the right reading of it, but that was how he saw his terrible childhood and how a man like Dirac never said a bad word about anyone, hardly. The one person he loathed was his father.

    FLATOW: Hmm. And that night in Florida State?

    Dr. FARMELO: That's when he opened up to Kurt Hofer. Yeah.

    FLATOW: Yeah. He just spewed out, just spewed for a couple hours.

    Dr. FARMELO: Well, he did, absolutely.

    (Soundbite of laughter)

    Dr. FARMELO: I mean, absolutely. I…

    FLATOW: You know, it's - somebody said, he had nothing to say until then, and then he just opened up.

    Dr. FARMELO: Yeah. And, you know, he did this. He would say nothing for hours on end, people would find it painful.

    FLATOW: Yeah.

    Dr. FARMELO: And then, once he had something he wanted to tell…

    FLATOW: Right.

    Dr. FARMELO: …to talk about, then he would open up and he would talk for an hour - sometime - on one occasion, two hours, like with Kurt Hofer, taking in - rather like Laurence Olivier declaiming from Shakespeare in perfectly carved sentences…

    FLATOW: Hmm.

    Dr. FARMELO: …that would just - that would spell out…

    FLATOW: Wow.

    Dr. FARMELO: …in this case, the pain of his childhood.

  3. Wow - thanks for that Dave. No wonder he was so... strange.

  4. Oh my god, there's a lot of effective material in this post!