The A La Carte Universe Terry Statham

Created by Terry on 15/01/2016
The À La Carte Universe

Strange title eh? All will be revealed.

We were invited to a talk at The Ethical Society, Conway House, Red Lion Square,
on Sunday morning, 22.1.06. The talk was to begin at 11:00am, which is a bit
early for me, especially on a Sunday. Anyway, we made it there with five minutes to spare. Luckily, traffic was light and we don’t live far from Central London, so no real problem.

The guy giving the talk was Felix Pirani, Emeritus Professor of Rational
Mechanics, Kings College, London. To the uninitiated, he’s a cosmologist
(retired). We know Felix: he was the partner of a friend of my other half, who
sadly died just before Christmas (Felix’s partner, that is). Since retiring,
he’s taken up sculpting and mosaics, and he’s not bad at doing them either. He’s
also written some kids’ books and one or two other publications (look him up).

For 11:00am on a Sunday, the place was fairly busy. Just to explain, it’s
basically a humanist society with a long history, and has a surprisingly wide
programme of events. Many of the rooms were adorned with old wooden panelling
and, as we were in the library, the walls were lined with books. There must have
been about 100 or more people in the room, fairly crowded, but everyone was seated. I must say some of the people looked like what they no doubt were, eccentric academics. To a one, I would suggest, they were all atheists of one sort or another.

Felix is striking. He’s now about 80, balding with a long white beard, but fully
in command of his intellect and the visual aids equipment he used to illustrate
his talk. Before he even began, a voice piped up, “What does À La Carte mean?”.
He explained that an à la carte menu was a long list of what was available, in
this case, theories (only scientific ones), explanations of the origins of
us, life and everything. You pick your theories and take your chances.

The subject is so vast you couldn’t cover everything in an hour, so he gave us a
general talk on how things stood currently. First, he familiarised us with
numbers, as we were going to be looking at sub-atomic particles to the size of
the “known” universe. He mentioned a googol (10 to the power of 100), a
googolplex (10 to the power of 10 to the power of 100) or, more rationally, 10
to the power of googol. Yes, a huge number. He also mentioned numbers to minus
powers, but they were much smaller (smile). He discussed how old our solar
system was and that we only had 5,000 million years left before the sun turned
into a red giant. He suggested that by that time the human race should arrange
to be elsewhere. Laughs all round, but he meant it. He went into our nearest
neighbours, Proxima Centauri (a mere four light years away) and that the light
from the sun we see has taken about nine minutes to reach us, the point being
that we never see the universe as it is, but merely as it was when the light it
emitted reached us.

Apparently our galaxy (of which we are on one of its arms about 30,000 light
years from the galactic centre) is pretty big. Some estimates put it at 100,000
light years across and 3,000 light years deep (a sort of spinning, flattened
disc). The next nearest galaxy is Andromeda, and galaxies are associated in
local clusters. I can’t remember exactly, but the most distant objects we can
see are 10 billion (10,000 million) light years away, in whatever direction we
look, which gives the universe a diameter of 20 billion light years. After that
… well, after that there are various theories, most of which I’m not qualified
to explain (nor do I understand most of them).

Needless to say, Felix went on to say that Stephen Hawking used to be one of his
students and that he didn’t necessarily agree with or understand some of his
conclusions, but that despite having doubted the existence of black holes, he
now accepted they existed. He mentioned, in passing, that there is believed to
be a huge one at the centre of our galaxy. He went into Fred Hoyle’s Steady
State Theory, the Big Bang and the infra-red radiation left over from the Big
Bang, how we know stars are moving away or towards us (their red shift), the Big
Crunch, string theory (including wormholes), the expanding universe and
something called the ‘multiverse model’ of the universe. Felix expanded on this
one because it was, he felt, a significant development. The consensus is that
the conditions following the Big Bang were just right for the universe we exist
in to appear; any slight deviation in conditions would have produced a totally
different universe with different fundamental particles, and hence no US.

So we covered the lack of a unified theory of physics, something Felix had
worked on in his younger years. Apparently they are still unable to include
gravitational theory into a unified theory, but should anyone doubt the
existence of gravity (and its associated theory) they should (as the Ethical
Society’s librarian said) go to the top of a cliff and step off. Apparently
(quick change of subject), only 4% of the mass of the universe can be accounted
for by the atoms in all the observable mass; 96% of the universe is composed of
‘dark matter’. What it is, or where it is, never became clear. Any offers?

We were now approaching the end of the talk. Einstein got a mention: “God does
not play dice!”; “God may be subtle, but he is not malicious!”. The last
statement was in good German. (Yes, Einstein was German!) We discovered that
Felix’s view was that we live in a mega-universe, that contains sub-universes.
The sub-universe we live in with the sub-atomic particles that make it all up is
unique and probably not replicated in the other sub-universes that have other
different sub-atomic particles or even none, depending on the conditions in
them, no doubt set up by their own big bangs. However, the extent of the
universe we live in is massive and leaves lots of room for lots more theories
and exploration.

Anyway, the talk ended about 12:45pm, when we had tea and biscuits. These
humanists really know how to live. They had a choice of Rich Tea, Milk Chocolate
Digestives or Plain Chocolate Digestives. I thoroughly recommend their society.
My final conversations (over the tea and biscuits) were with a weird-looking guy
(looked like the inventor out of 'Back To The Future') who explained he was into
pedal-powered aircraft and hovercraft!!! And as I was leaving, I was introduced
to a young woman who was apparently a satanist who was heavily into physics. Hey

We had lunch opposite the British Museum, then went on to see a film, ‘The
Constant Gardener’. Strange day.
Terry Statham January 2006