I am a physicist

tove jansson tähtitorni


To me, science was always defined by Tove Jansson’s picture of the Observatory in the Lonely Mountains, from Comet in Moominland: scientists in an observatory high in the mountains, tiny creatures with huge telescopes, cast long shadows on the silent walls as they gaze at the stars, alone with the night.

And perhaps my reality isn’t so different in its way: the reality of the student sitting up late into the night, poring over timeless equations, and notes more timelessly human, typeset in LaTeX. Listening to In Flames’ Dialogue with the Stars, and holding my own dialogue with the stars.

We define for ourselves the meaning of truth, and find the answers in what we cannot know.

We play with numbers, and suddenly a world builds itself out of them. We create a language to express our ideas, and the language acquires life, and creates new ideas for us to express.

We listen for the underlying song of the universe, and experience the ecstatic loneliness of understanding time.

We are theoretical physicists.

(Read more about the #iamaphysicist day here!)


A defence of laziness

Worn, dappled afternoons, delicately brown around the edges. The exquisite twentieth-century binding of Hamiltonian afternoons.

It is on these afternoons that I feel closest to the gentle curving at the heart of the world of Platonic forms. On these afternoons that I feel part of the highest endeavour of man, one with the quest of the ages.

Laziness: the highest ideal of human existence. The art of insinuating oneself unobtrusively into the fabric of the universe. The pursuit of the elegant and the expedient. (At higher levels of intellectual endeavour, aren’t those two almost synonymous?) But let us distinguish between the implicit and the explicit. The explicit inclusion of the ideal in our theories would lead us to embrace as equivalent ideals the sustainable and the non-invasive.

It was laziness that led man to invent the wheel. The quest to avoid work leads man to his highest intellectual triumphs. No lazy man would choose to fight a war with his neighbour when he could have him over for non-strenuous conversation instead.

It’s laziness that leads electrons to travel every path that exists to see which takes the least work. Come to think of it, laziness is actually the governing principle of the universe.

My quest as a scientist is to balance a curious interest in disentangling by hand the threads of the universe with an equal interest in seeking the high, the pure, the Platonically convenient. I’ll let my thoughts wind their way into the complexities of infinite infinitesimals without the officious hindrance of effort. Of such are the songs of existence born.

Possibly I met you yesterday. In fact I’m inclined to think it of significant probability. Significant or non-negligible, I don’t mean important, just large. Hm, I suppose large things are important in their way, things you can see form part of the fabric of your thoughts. And that makes the dimensions of the universe uncurl in your thoughts a little bit more. Nice.

The gradual yielding of correlations to synonyms. Resonances of light and language.

Glorious smoothnesses on the surface of a specious theory. Time rolled the curving of time to us, and we caught it with our machinery. Hello, LIGO. Are you listening to the universe?

Oh, hello. Have you come to sing to me again? I like listening. Lazy listening to the song of your movements. The universe is a complaisant conspirator.

I haven’t quite made up my mind about Einstein. For a scientist, I consider him insufficiently removed from sanity. Then again, there’s no getting away from his inarguably Aeschylean genius.

Forms live forever. That’s a long time.

But I believe in positional objectivity. I like you from the left. Well, I’m sitting on the left. No, no, I hope you’re not offended!

You mean so much to me, I couldn’t possibly pay you a compliment that wasn’t semantically defined. That would be untrue to you and the universe. How can what’s semantically perfect be incomplete?

But of course I needn’t have worried! We both hear the song of the particles. Of course you understand.

Dance of the Quarks

She held herself up with the lift of her head, feeling in the line of her arabesque for one of the flaming Platonic lines of the universe.

Then she bent her head to the turn of her thigh, arm tracing down to the waiting smoothness of her stocking.


Lightly fall feet to the ground: perfection is the inevitable accident. And they whirl and draw with the light falling on the curve of arms and necks the snow.


Feet traced the scratched floor, swept over it like eddies of snow. They rustled together in an embracing, exclusive stillness, a glimmering dry charm.

There was nothing in the universe but the leaping lines of the music and the warmth in her still, pulsing arms. And the strange lights that clothed them, that they could not see.


She stood taut as a spring along the line of her pointed toe, spin lifted so she could glance sideways at a neck, her neck. She knew that if she moved, space would wake and send lines of snow spiralling along the glittering fields her arms pointed to life. And she would spin faster and faster into the snowstorm that her arms created, that drew her pirouette into its own. But she didn’t move: she stood thoughtfully wrapped in the shadow of her reflection, and waited for another’s explosion.


Between the surface of thin frosted lights and the top of the glittering momentary hallway that the music drew into being….

Fell the flakes to the floor, swirling to the bottom of the universe where high heads and cold arms rested.


A dancer’s a stir in a breathless field of tulle and thought. The field wills me to life. I give it its life.

The symmetries of Arcadia

Arcadia is an intensely scientific play. On re-reading it, I’ve realised that one could look at it from the point of view of what physicists call ‘symmetries’.

Science suggests that at very high energies, all the fundamental forces are identical. Different particles are fundamentally identical too. A ‘symmetry’ exists between different particles and different forces. But in the observable universe, the symmetry is broken because other factors come into play. Different forces act differently, and a particle called the Higgs boson interacts with other particles, slowing some of them down more than others, giving them what we perceive as ‘mass’. (This is why some particles are heavier than others.) One of science’s puzzles is how to incorporate gravity, the fourth force, into the theory – it plays a very important role, but acts differently from the others.

We can’t test this, because the unification happens at energy scales much beyond our reach.

In Arcadia, at the higher intellectual levels, there exists a symmetry between science, literature and sex. They work the same way and are equally powerful (more on this here). Septimus explains carnal embrace and Fermat’s last theorem together, expressing equal interest in both. Hannah and Valentine, literary scholar and scientist, make a series of discoveries that lead them successively closer to the theory of the universe. In the end, they both arrive at the doom of the universe independently.

What breaks the symmetry in the everyday universe? Individuality. Personal perception. Social and technological evolution. These construct the world around us; they’re also the tools we use to understand it. The same forces influence the world around us, but they work differently. At each point, some forces are more powerful than others. One force, though extremely powerful in the observable world, doesn’t quite fit into the theory. (Sex dominates in the nineteenth century; science dominates the modern world. No-one is sure how fundamental sex is to intellectual inquiry.)

There is also a symmetry in time. Valentine and Septimus both have tortoises. Valentine and Thomasina explore the same mathematical questions with their different tools. Both Hannah and Lady Croom don’t know when they’ve received a more unusual compliment (though the compliments they respond to are very different.)

As science, literature, history and sex advance closer to the ultimate revalation, they grow more symmetrical. But there is no ultimate revelation that’s practically accessible. Our best hope lies in extrapolating the graphs and studying the unification of forces.