Thursday 18 August 2016



Wychwood Circle seems to have got entangled with science in recent months, with the science of climate change as a background to considering the ethics, and with cosmology and the new physics getting us onto even larger questions of the universe (s).

An article in this month’s Prospect magazine is entitled The science of the inconceivable and for a discussion group like ours which often comes up against mystery, limits of knowledge, science and religion and so on, that title is a natural draw.  With a professor of nanomaterials on our guest list for 2016-17 it also seems appropriate that we move our attention from cosmology to the opposite extreme, quantum theory – which this article is all about, starting from an experiment in 2015 that links back to Einstein in 1905.

The first paragraph by Philip Ball ('Science Commentator of the Year') is worth quoting in full:

‘Late last year, an experiment carried out by scientists at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands appeared to demonstrate that one object can affect another from afar without any physical interaction between the two. The finding confirmed an idea so extraordinary that, nearly a century ago, Albert Einstein had rejected it with the dismissive phrase “spooky action at a distance”.  In quantum theory this phenomenon is known as “entanglement”, and many physicists now regard it as the most profound and important characteristic of the physical world at the smallest scales, which quantum theory describes.’

In case we might think that this is some abstruse and ignorable bit of theorising by mad scientists, Ball assures us that ‘entanglement is arguably the central mystery of quantum theory … an idea that now stands at the very limits of our ability to understand the physical world.’  There follows a 4-page article which is at the very limits of the ability of a non-scientist to follow, but the conclusion is perhaps also worth quoting:

 ‘The much vaunted “spooky action at a distance”, is, then, neither spooky nor action.  Instead, it’s one of the strangest characteristics of the physical world – and may yet turn out to be one of the most revelatory.’

This may just be good summer journalism but to a WyC mind it rings all sorts of bells of recognition and curiosity.  In an age when ‘science’ is treated by some as almost a god (the name for the associated religion is ‘scientism’), It reminds us just how much ‘science’ in fact covers a vast multitude of disciplines (rather like ‘humanities’), and maybe suggests that any one science cannot begin to explain the world we live in, that a so-called ‘theory of everything’ is probably beyond any one mind, etc.  (It might remind, let’s say for the sake of argument, outspoken biologists that realism, let alone, humility would recognise quantum physicists (for example) and maybe even philosophers, poets, artists and theologians as having some useful and unignorable contributions to make to the biggest issues of all!)

Given the magnitude of the issues we can be grateful at Wychwood Circle that a fascinating duo of scientist and artist have not only written a book, The Penultimate Curiosity, combining the history of science and metaphysics, but also agreed to come to the Wychwoods to present their thesis, which is that ‘science swims in the slipstream of ultimate questions’.   According to the FT reviewer John Cornwell those ultimate questions are (and always were) ‘spiritual, aesthetic and philosophical in nature’.  Commending the book he concludes, somewhat acidly:
‘Without espousing a particular faith or denomination, the authors have provided a much-needed antidote to the New Atheists’ promotion of science at the expense of spirituality, a campaign that has done much to coarsen and misinform public understanding of both.’

A different approach clearly informs Richard Joyner’s review in the Times Higher Education: he puts the book in the context of ‘the race for dominance between science and religion’ and though critical of their premise and their conclusion says the book is ‘well worth reading’: ‘their narrative is fascinating and this is a beautiful volume…’, he says, though he thinks their quest for meaningful answers ‘may be long and unrewarding’.

While Andrew Briggs is professor of nanomaterials at Oxford, Roger Wagner is a painter and art historian and their presentation to us – like the beautifully produced book – will be fully illustrated and we will benefit from the excellent equipment at the Village Hall in Milton under Wychwood.  The book is available from various sellers and there are also two copies at Wychwood Library: the authors have invited us to read at least some of it in advance of their visit.

Join us if you can on Sunday, October 2nd at 7pm in Miton under Wychwood Village Hall (to be confirmed) on Shipton Road, or if not in the Library (High Street, OX7 6LD).