But for Einstein, Niels Bohr may have been seen as the greatest scientific mind ever – but he still comes out of it much better than Salieri in Amadeus. Bohr won his Nobel Prize the year after Einstein. As well as being a genius, this great Dane was, as they say in death notices, a devoted husband and father. He was also a great teacher. He told his students to treat every assertion that he made as a question. Einstein says: ‘He utters his opinions like one perpetually groping and never like one who believes he is in possession of definite truth.’
There are obvious limits on our ability to understand the universe at either end – atoms and galaxies. The major work of Niels Bohr was to work out the structure of the atom. He said to Heisenberg, who discovered the principle of uncertainty, that:
When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.
This is terribly important. As explained by Jacob Bronowski, what Bohr was saying was that when it comes to atoms, our language is not describing facts but rather is creating images. What lies below the visible world must in some sense always be imaginary, ‘a play of images’.
There is no other way to talk about the invisible – in nature, in art, or in science. When we step through the gateway of the atom, we are in a world which our senses cannot experience.
Einstein said that he rarely thought in words. What we think that he meant was that in his work and at his level, he generally thought not in words but in mathematics. His job was to find the relevant laws of the universe. He was fond of saying that ‘God does not play dice.’ One day Bohr responded: ‘Stop telling God what to do.’
Even where we think that we understand the meaning of words describing events in the universe or in history, there is a separate question of the extent to which we come to grips with comprehending the scale of what is being spoken of. Do we really have an understanding of how an atom is made up? Do we really have an understanding of the size of a galaxy when as far as we know, it may have disappeared millions of years ago, but it is just that news of that disappearance is yet to reach us? Are we able to come to grips with the brute fact that more than 20 million Russians died during World War II, or that more than six million people were murdered in what is called the Holocaust, or that some historians have given up trying to count how many millions died under Mao? Can we come to grips with the economy of China, or the fact that China builds the equivalent of the city of Brisbane every day?
To go back to the world of physics, one mathematician said that ‘I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actually philosophy.’ New ideas in physics give us a different view of reality. What we are told now is that the world cannot be fully separated from our perception of it. Newton took God’s eye view of the world. Einstein took the view of each of us – the world is what we see and is relative to each of us. We cannot know what the world is like of itself – we can only compare what it looks like to each of us by talking about it. Jacob Bronowski summed it up as follows:
But what physics has now done is to show that that is the only method to knowledge. There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. That is the human condition; and that is what quantum physics says. I mean that literally.
Some say that Gödel made illusory the notion of truth in mathematics. These are humbling thoughts about the power of thought. Bohr indeed was a philosopher, even if he said that they all talked nonsense.
A biography of Bohr I read after Christmas referred to a sometime priest called Steno as the only prominent scientist to be beatified who said (in Latin):
Beautiful are the things we see
More beautiful those we understand
Much the most beautiful those we do not comprehend.
Bohr wrestled a lot with his own relativity. He understood, he thought, that whether an object behaves as a participle or a wave depends on how you look at it – what kind of experiment you use to assess it. You may hardly be able to ‘see’ either. He believed that you cannot always separate thought from emotion. He used a difficult word ‘complementarity.’ He referred to old truths, such as ‘we are spectators as well as actors in the great drama of existence’ and ‘if we try to analyse our emotions, we hardly possess them any more.’ The relativity comes in when you try to try to draw the line between subject and object.
Bohr was like other great wrestlers like Michelangelo, Luther, Beethoven, or Ibsen. And he was that most beautiful gift – a decent, modest hero. And God bless him – he gave us a glimpse of mystery in science, at least as deep as the mystery of religion; and in so doing he stuck it right up those arrant God-deniers who want to abolish all magic – and who even claim to have the answer!
If you promise not to tell anyone, I watched a bit of the new pyjama game final last night. I wanted to see Jacques Kallis in what I think will be his last visit. He is as tough as Steve Waugh. I also wanted to see if KP is earning his money. He is, and I have no doubt that he is enjoying his cricket and being part of a team for the first time in a very long time. The young Australian Muslem was a revelation in correctness. The bits I saw were therefore encouraging, but I turned it off before the end. I am trying to acquire this technique with red.
We must brace ourselves for disaster in the U S. On the Democrat side you have a moral disaster and a managerial trainwreck. The other side is unspeakable. Trump has done a deal with Palin. I infer that there is a deal that Trump bought Palin’s endorsement with a ministry. She chose environment. She can stand on her Alaskan shoreline with an AK47 and see the visible disproof of global warming. Good Republicans – and there are some – fear Cruz more than Trump. Cruz has two things that Trump doesn’t – brains and an agenda. In a nation that slaughters its children in the name of ideology, we are entitled to be terrified. If this most decent nation thinks that it will be able to reel in one of these galahs – on either side – if elected, let them reflect on what happened to a people who thought that they could the same with a brutal clown that Trump so closely resembles.
Mussolini still needed their [the moderates’] help, for most of the liberal parliamentarians would look to them for a lead. He also took careful note that chaos had been caused in Russia when representatives of the old order were defenestrated en masse during the revolution: fascism could hardly have survived if the police, the magistrates, the army leaders and the civil service had not continued to work just as before, and the complicity of these older politicians was eagerly sought and helped to preserve the important illusion that nothing had changed.
The liberals failed to use the leverage afforded by his need for their approbation. Most of them saw some good in fascism as a way of defending social order and thought Italians too intelligent and civilised to permit the establishment of a complete dictatorship. Above all, there was the very persuasive argument that the only alternative was to return to the anarchy and parliamentary stalemate they remembered….Mussolini had convincingly proved that he was the most effective politician of them all: he alone could have asked parliament for full powers and been given what he asked; he alone provided a defence against, and an alternative to, socialism. And of course the old parliamentarians still hoped to capture and absorb him into their own system in the long run; their optimism was encouraged by the fact that his fascist collaborators were so second-rate.
Here is the myth of the strong man cleaning the stables. Does that not seem to be word for word a correct rendition of how decent Germans probably reacted to Hitler? Still today you will find Christian apologists for Franco, and not just in Spain, who say that his fascism was preferable to republican socialism. Mussolini had the other advantage that for reasons we now regard as obvious, no one outside Italy could take Mussolini seriously. As his biographer reminds us, Mussolini was, rather like Berlusconi, seen as an ‘absurd little man’, a ‘second-rate cinema actor and someone who could not continue in power for long’, a ‘Cesar de carnaval’, a ‘braggart and an actor’, and possibly ‘slightly off his head.’ There is Trump. Churchill always took Hitler seriously; he could never do that with that Italian buffoon.
A Bad Day
If I say that of tomorrow, I will just sit back and wait for an Abbottism about what I might wear on my arm. So I won’t. From 2015, 26 January will be looked back on as the day when Tony Abbott came out. It was on that day that the Prime Minister of Australia formally announced that he was crackers.
In the meantime, Australians like me are resigned to popping up daisies before this nation reaches the stage reached by the United States on 4 July 1776.