Alex James: The Great Escape

Lessons in life, the universe and everything
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'So, do you think about what shape the universe is?" "Yes, that's one of the things that I think about a lot."

"Really?"

"Yes. Have a chocolate."

I'm talking to a cosmology theorist, one of the cleverest beings in the known universe. Well, at least I'm listening, rapt.

I'm being inducted in the astrophysics department at Oxford, where I'm taking a spin as artist in residence. I've been doing the rounds of the professors, having my brain deep-fried to a crisp by new experimental evidence and theories of everything.

Science is advancing at breakneck speed. New ideas and new observations are coming thick and fast, causing the established thinking to change direction all the time. I knew the universe was expanding, but I thought the rate of expansion was slowing down. It's not. The entire universe is getting bigger faster than it ever has. That would have been enough good news for one morning, but it was just the start of a paradigm-popping avalanche of reason.

Some of the research involves billion-euro international building projects. One of the scientists, for example, is engaged in the design of a huge telescope, the biggest ever. It will be able to see planets orbiting nearby stars. She knows that the planets are there because the stars wobble, but as yet there is no way of resolving the minuscule discs of the satellites. The telescope might even be able to detect traces of life in the planets' atmospheres.

There is a glamour about the faculty and a sense that one of the doors might suddenly fly open and someone will run out shouting "Eureka!". This very department is where Jocelyn Bell Burnell has an office. Some years ago she picked up regular radio signals from deep space that suggested something out there was trying to say hello. She'd actually discovered pulsars, which are probably weirder than aliens: objects as big as footballs that weigh as much as the Sun.

I didn't even get round to talking about alien life forms until I left the building. There seemed to be so much else to think about. I did once ask Patrick Moore whether he thought the universe was home to more intelligent life than our own and he fixed my eye and said: "Definitely! We'll be as far from them as King Canute was from television." It was absolutely the scariest thing I've ever heard. I also asked him if he knew what shape the universe was and he said that he didn't, but he added that he had asked Einstein the same question and he didn't know either.

Which brings us to the gentleman I mentioned earlier. He doesn't use giant telescopes, he just has a small box of chocolate-covered coffee beans, a pencil and a mind like a sabre.

"So at what point exactly do people start having difficulties understanding this stuff?"

"Tensor calculus is pretty fiddly."

"Mmm."

"Tensor calculus is child's play compared with string theory." He has some paper, but he doesn't draw on it. He folds it into a cylinder and then bends the ends of it together to make a doughnut shape. I can follow it that far.

I didn't start to think about God until I was in bed. But I did wonder who set me here and by whose order and under what guiding destiny was this time, this place, assigned to me. Playing the bass was a doddle. This stuff's tricky.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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