Einstein's eyes can't see it all

Life, the Universe, God: hard as scientists might try, they will never find the whole answer A sceptical age is sure there is no soul that could depart the grey matter Everything in our own experience seems to indicate limitless variation
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The Independent Online
You know it's Christmas when somebody announces they have Albert Einstein's eyes in a jam jar. It's that kind of story - loopy but portentous, silly but somehow disturbing.

The possessor of the eyeballs seems to be one Henry Abrams, personal physician to the great physicist, who snipped them out during the autopsy back in April 1955. They came out, apparently, "clean as a whistle" and have since been kept in a safety deposit box in New Jersey. "When you look into his eyes," says Abrams, "you're looking into the beauties and mysteries of the world."

Of course another organ of the great man, his brain, is well known to be preserved in three formaldehyde vats in Kansas. Einstein being who he is, the reluctant prophet of the 20th century's religion of science, this object has attracted superstition, r e verence and even scientific curiosity.

The last is the most interesting, or at least, the most discussable. For it is assumed by some that close scientific examination of this organ, employing, perhaps, some as yet unknown technology, may one day reveal what was in there that enabled its original owner to overturn the Newtonian model of the cosmos. A sceptical age is sure there is, as it were, "nothing else" , no spirit, no soul that could have departed this white and grey matter at the point of death. So, logically, we ought to be able to find some material trace of the special and general theories of relativity, not to mention Einstein's mistaken hypothesis of the cosmological constant, and the shortcoming that kept his violin playing below the standard one might have expected.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, European science ministers have agreed to pay for the construction of the Large Hadron Collider by Cern, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics. This will take 14 years and cost £1.3bn. It will consist of a circular tunnel 27 kilometres in circumference, which will straddle the Swiss-French border. In this tube protons will be accelerated to something close to the speed of light and then crashed into each other to simulate the thermal conditions of the Big Bang at which physicists claim the whole cosmological turkey shoot got under way. Protons not being Volvos, they will then fly apart and disgorge their contents like so many crash test dummies.

This sub-atomic shunt will, it is hoped, reveal the existence of the Higgs Boson, a small and irritatingly ephemeral object that is necessary to explain the existence of life, the universe and even, apparently, Hugh Grant, though on this last point thereare dissenting voices. Even in the sub-atomic realm nothing, say these sceptics, can explain the appearance of a human physiognomy possessed of such infuriating, puppyish stupidity.

Now it has been said - by me, I think - that these vast super-colliders are the Gothic cathedrals of our time. In centuries to come tourists will travel to Geneva to gaze in wonder at this gloomy, subterranean monument to a long-dead faith. What, they will ask, were these people like? What frenzy of belief drove them to build such gigantic, costly, irrational structures while all around, people were starving and some were so poor that they could not afford multimedia PCs and were forced to work in tall buildings called "offices"? Albert Einstein - now resurrected by a cloning procedure using DNA derived from his fortunately preserved eyeballs - will try to explain about the Higgs Boson, but people will just laugh, pat him on the head and advise him to stick to the violin.

The point is that, as everyone will learn at primary school in years to come, the universe is infinite in all directions. It goes outwards for ever and it goes inwards for ever. No matter how far we gaze out into space we shall never reach an edge and nomatter how many sub-atomic particles we detect, none will ever be fundamental. Always there will be more big things; always more little things.

This is not, in truth, a particularly radical thought. Once you clear your mind of the contemporary preconceptions that make us believe otherwise, it becomes the most elementary common sense. Why should there be a limit? Why should there be edges, or boundary conditions as physicists call them? Everything in our own experience seems to indicate limitless variation and complexity - look at Labour's education policy - so it seems only reasonable to conclude that some final simplicity, some c l ear, underlying pattern is little more than wishful thinking.

I know the objections that certain physicists will raise, but I also know that most of the time most physicists are wrong. Indeed, theories in physics are so seldom right that it is probably safe for the layman to assume that physicists are wrong all thetime and simply to be grateful when, as in the case of, say, quantum theory, their wrongness appears to be creative enough to make CD players work.

Once in a while, to their credit, they can be remarkably frank about this. A couple of years ago I was involved in a six-hour discussion at a Cambridge college with philosophers, theologians and scientists. None of them made any sense at all, but then, being drunk, neither did I. One physicist, who worked at the existing collider in Geneva, was, I dimly recall, especially vehement in his dismissal of my scepticism about his discipline. Then, at 2am, his enthusiasm suddenly waned. "Actually," he said, "

y ou're right, we're making this stuff up as we go along."

At that point, perhaps perversely, my own resistance to the public money being spent on these projects collapsed. Clearly, I reasoned, these guys were human after all and, since they were in effect using their big toys to write science fiction, there co u ld be no honourable objection to letting them jump the queue for government arts money - maybe, now, from the National Lottery.

But back to the point. Once you have twigged that the universe is infinite in all directions, you will notice that a deep Prozac-like peace suffuses the mind. Suddenly you realise you no longer have to read those big newspaper pieces about irregularitiesin background microwave radiation or pore over the latest blurred shots from the Hubble telescope. No longer do you have to worry about Stephen Hawking or Richard Feynman. And, best of all, with the one exception of a book called Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, you can safely ignore those increasingly large sections in bookshops called "Popular Science". This will impoverish a few scientists, but what goes around comes around and it should, therefore, enrich a f e w novelists and poets.

You don't have to bother about these things because you will have learnt that they are no longer the last word on anything. Even when the physicists come up with their long-promised Theory of Everything we shall not, as Stephen Hawking claimed, know the

mind of God, but rather we shall simply be confronted with more evidence of the peculiar vanity of the age in which we live.

Infinite in all directions strikes me as the best possible seasonal insight. It offers peace, contentment and goodwill to all men. It is an ethical programme. It relieves Western society of the burden of its ancient pursuit of simple, unitary truth and offers instead a sense of belonging to the real, ineradicably diverse, hopelessly unfinished and unfinishable world. It takes away the pain of thinking that round the next corner or in the midst of the next proton collision may be the solutions to all ourproblems, because, of course, there can be no such solutions - at least, not to all our problems, only to the handful we invent for ourselves and which are, as a result, almost entirely irrelevant to the human condition. Maybe t h is means there can be no light at the end of the tunnel - but look on the bright side, there's no tunnel either.

But, seasonal or not, nobody will pay any attention to this insight, unfortunately. Infinite in all directions is too tough a doctrine to follow for a people brought up to believe in solutions. And the materialist conviction that Einstein's eyeballs or the Higgs Boson somehow contain the ultimate truth of existence runs too deep in the Western soul. We cannot, as a Japanese friend puts it, "go with flow", because we insist on thinking there is an end or an edge to the flow.

Never mind, it's Christmas and I do honestly think that physics is a perfectly respectable hobby for people not quite smart enough to make it in the real, infinite-in-all-directions world. So keep banging the protons together, boys, stick your eyes in jam jars if you must. And, the rest of you, have a good one.

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