My first introduction to The School of Life was via a catering tent in the middle of Henham Park, Beccles. We were gathered to listen to the Sunday Sermon on switching off in the digital age led by Wired UK’s editor-at-large, Ben Hammersley. Our hymn was Ground Control to Major Tom. Mr. Hammersley played guitar. Despite the large amounts of whiskey still percolating through my system it was an enlightening way to spend a Sunday morning.
Was it coincidence then, evidence of a beautiful universe or a rift in space time that brought me back to both The School of Life and the exploration of space? I don’t know. But something tells me the award-winning physicist Frank Wilczek is gunning to find out. I preface this with two hefty caveats. One, there was no whiskey. Two, if I grasped even 10% of Mr. Wilczek’s talk (which is a reflection on my own limitations and not at all on the measured lecture, or indeed the general intellect of the room), then I will be happy in the knowledge that my world just got a little bigger.
Because the idea that most intrigued me was also the founding idea of the evening; the definition of symmetry. In physics, symmetry is characterised by invariance under transformation, that is, change without change. Before this all gets a too abstract, we were given the example of the circle. Not only is a circle infinitely symmetrical if divided through it’s centre, but that circle can also be rotating and retain it’s symmetry. Change without change.
Which got me thinking about the Möbius strip, a half-twisted strip with two surfaces but only one side, which makes it possible for you to traverse the “inside” and “outside” surfaces of the strip without crossing over an edge. From my minimal understanding it is the shape that gives us insight into how time travel might, or might not work, as well as the idea of parallel timelines and the Grandfather paradox.
And it is these infinite loops that most intrigue me in relation to narrative structures in fiction; think Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. All narratives of a most beautiful and lyrical form of symmetry that, while originating and ending in the same place, leaves neither the protagonist or the reader unchanged. Which begs the question, are the most beautiful stories cyclical? Or is it just that these narratives are the most beguiling?
Frank Wilczek was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Physics in 2004 for work he started while at university. His new book, A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design is out today.
Photo: Triakis icosahedron, fdecomite & Carina Nebula, Steve Black