Sand beneath our feet

“Think of the biggest-ever room you can imagine,” she had said to him in her innocent, tantalising way. “And then think about the space outside that biggest-ever room.”

“∞ + 1,” Merlin taunted him with its digital dots, configured to needle him just so.
“How can mankind ever hope to rationalise and reconcile the biggest-ever and the smallest-ever, Alice?” He had despaired, pulling at his hair so that he looked like an angry, golden Mohican. She, the creator of Merlin, knew the answer, of course. It was in that damn book of hers.

“Because they are the same, silly!”

Oh, the blerrie English! How he hated their voices, the words they used! And he discovered, there was nothing worse than Oxford English. For instance, how can a person from Scotland go UP to Oxford? Didn’t they know their own geography, or the basic concept of up, down?

But unwittingly, he recalled the words of his Oupa from long ago:

If we were to turn the universe upside down, these stars would become grains of sand beneath our feet.


A place where there are no stars

Excerpt from Chapter 10:

He had travelled so far from his homeland in the South African veld to this godforsaken city, where the blerrie clocks, church bells and gargoyles mocked and taunted outsiders, only to discover that his boyhood dreams were a fallacy: if you look at stars from outer space, they do not twinkle or glitter at all. The enchantment that had captivated him since he was an eight-year-old boy came solely from the earth’s atmosphere refracting millions of light particles raining down upon us from the rays of a dying sun. He remembered his Oupa’s words of long ago, which suddenly made sense after all these years: real magic is to be found here on earth. He had found it many summers ago, sitting inside the hollowed out trunk of his 1,000-year-old baobab tree.

And then in the light reflected in her kaffir eyes, he glimpsed what the universe and life truly were: the totality of the universe was just infinite light spheres blowing in and out of existence like ephemeral soap bubbles, each sphere having a different size but no total volume. Even when the spheres were compressed, this totality remained infinite. To try to catch it would be like catching infinity.

He gazed heavenwards, and up there, the sword of Orion blazed one last time in the afternoon Oxford skies, piercing the shimmering, iridescent moon.

“Catch the moon, my dear Professor,” Alice said. She watched the play of shadows across his face intently. “Let go of your stars.”


Photo: Fontvieille, April 2017

Eenvoud kan so mooi zijn


Excerpt from  Chapter 11, The Jam Jar:

She paused, remembering. “With Hennie, it was always the simple things. There is such beauty in simple things, Dominee Dirk, eenvoud kan so mooi zijn. Like swimming in the waterhole on hot afternoons or sitting on the stoep at night. Boermusiek and braai. And sweet naartjes. The things that we have in abundance here. Hennie and I loved those as we had loved each other. We didn’t want complicated things like accelerators so large that it can be seen from the skies. We didn’t even want to travel. Life was good without needing to look further. I think with the right person, things just fall into place, though we were very young then. There is such sweetness in certainty, Dominee Dirk. And that can only come when life is simple, yes?”

Talking books

I love books above all else, much more than clothes, shoes and handbags. And when we moved to Asia, most of the crates that we shipped over contained books. They were like old friends and much-loved family members.

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Yet curiously, my youngest child was a late reader. We always suspect it was because she so enjoyed being read to every night that she decided not to make the effort to learn to read for herself. She once commented (joking or not, we don’t know), “I could read a long time ago, I just pretended I didn’t know how.”

In my early career, when I had to work long hours, I would count my happy days as the nights that I was able to be home to read my children their bedtime stories. Those were the magical moments of our lives, the hour after bath time, just before bed.

My Ma used to read to us too.

Years ago, when I was in my early forties, someone read me a book for the first time in my adult life. It was a book written in Italian, not published, about wartime Italy. I still could not get the story out of my mind, any more than I could get what my reader read to me. It moved me so deeply that I began writing the precursor of Catching Infinity, Ten Most Beautiful Equations in the World, for the person who read to me.

Indeed, reading out loud a.k.a storytelling is our primal behaviour. It also connects to the emotional centres of our brain, so say neurologists. I often read to my partner in the evening what I had written during the day and I think we both get a lot out of it. I think he gets to know what goes on in my mind and my day; it brings us closer. It certainly gave me a lot, as I subconsciously write for him, with each sentence I write, I look forward to reading it back to him in the evening, even if it is on Skype.

The New Yorker published a deep article on The Pleasures of Being Read To. The link is here.

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Excerpt from Chapter 3, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

“I watched you on television once, many years ago,” she continued, looking directly into his eyes. PW felt his knees weakening, and mentally thanked God that he was sitting down, or those knees of his would have surely buckled. “Your accent, I could not get it out of my head from that moment onwards. The way you sounded made the whole Relativity, multiple universes and time travel scenario more believable, more real, and at the same time, more magical. You brought these two seemingly irreconcilable realms – reality and magic –together, like how you are trying to unify the two final contradicting worldviews of our era. Einstein’s Relativity and Quantum Field Theory. How can the right hand ever fit into the left? We could never get it, not on 2D. Before you, many have tried. It’s your voice that draws people to your story, Professor, me included. There’s something about your voice. I hear it in the words you write, and something in me blooms.”

He spoke with many tongues, but his power came, not from his words or his accent, but from his mystical ability to speak directly to the subconscious mind. The subconscious occupies a larger part of the brain than the conscious, hence PW’s power over the thinking mind.

“For us Boers, the Afrikaans language symbolises more than a sequence of words. We have a special word for language. We call it taal. It’s about our identity, our history, our kultuur. It’s our gemeenskap.”

He smiled, light flickering in his eyes. “Also, storytelling is part of our human psyche, isn’t it? Our ancestors have been doing it for millions of years, sitting round the fire telling stories about mammoths and dinosaurs that they hunted. The desire to tell stories and the desire to connect with stories are part of us all. It is our evolution.”

When time stands still

He stood up and pick his wife up in his arms easily. ‘Enough of that talking, let’s go to bed.”

He knew deep down that with his old wife, there is spirituality and true beauty in all that they shared because they were simply following the set path outlined in Fibonacci’s sequence; in a world spiralling outwards with excitement, ambition and unnatural sex with his twenty-one year old mistress, he will always come home to this sameness, to this life in Die Uitkyk, living simply with his family.  Individuals don’t have an independent existence but exist only as part of an ensemble of many. Maybe that’s the meaning of life that he had been seeking, he thought: just to live each day well and love truly and deeply those who love you selflessly, to propagate that love that lies beneath all aspects of creation.

She wriggled out of his arms and kicked her shoes off. In her stockinged feet, she stood six feet three quarters of an inch tall.

“Just promise me one thing, PW,” she said as she began taking off the clothes; the way she did it with her back facing him, her head turning slightly towards him as she spoke sent his heart thudding like the hooves of wildebeest in his ribcage.

“What?” His eyes ate her hungrily. At this moment in time, he would have promised her anything and everything she asked.

Her clothes came off swiftly, deftly, until she was stood there in her lacy white panties. Where did she get those from, he wondered inconsequentially. She turned to face him, meeting his eyes steadily. “Never stop going to church, PW, even when you are far away from here. Because we have to love like we did in the beginning. All this will pass and in the end there is only the love between us that matters. And whatever we have missed with each other in the bad times like now, together we possess the precious, the real, the one true path. So don’t stress, my husband, just love.”

She put a white cotton nightie over her head, slid her arms into the sleeves and fastened the buttons.

The cynic in him wondered if life could really be that simple: just love your wife and all would be fine. And then he thought, for all the unimagined vastness and unfathomable complexities of the Universe, there are only four fundamental forces that shaped everything.

She got under her covers and held her arm out to him. He removed his trousers quickly and joined her eagerly under the covers.

‘Just hold me, PW,” she said firmly, much to his disappointment. But as they lay nose to nose, he felt a gladness permeating his heart.

“Hey,” he said softly to his wife, feeling like a seventeen-year old inexeperienced youth, like the plasjaapie he had once been all those years ago. He smiled at her in the dark and she felt, rather than saw, his smile. He stroked her hair gently, and he thought to himself, how beautifully our bodies fit together like this.

He wasn’t sure whose lips found whose, but when they met, it was sweetness itself. The tentative first touch, soft like the caress of dawn, holding the same shyness and the same smile. The hunger and the yearning were there but they were tamped down by something deeper and infinitely sweeter. His fingers undid the top three buttons of her nightie and he slipped his hand in to cup her left breast. And there his hand stayed as they fell asleep together, nose-to-nose, lips lightly touching.

I am the integrity you lost when you became like her instead of becoming truly you, she whispered in her sleep. And for once in this lifetime, the Higgs field was completely silenced in tribute to the loveliness of this purity and giving, all the particles within it stilled and the four fundamental forces were in abeyance.

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Excerpt from Chapter 15: Natural Laws

Before I sleep….

He was so tired, so very tired, when he crawled into his big bed at the Old Parsonage Inn. But despite his tiredness he wanted to do one last thing before he called it a day: he opened his laptop and connected to the Internet and to Skype, to reach out to his wife across the 8,390 miles and across the different time zones.

He was trying very hard to keep awake, smiling but his eyes were tired, soft, unfocused; his soul was beautifully opened like the unfurling of a lush fern after the rain. She, from a distance of 8,390 miles, stared hungrily at him, at the powerful well-defined muscles of his upper arms and chest visible above the crisp white sheet. My husband. How she hungered for him. The hunger was almost physical. It started like a knot in her stomach – a tightening of her insides – that made her catch her breath at its crescendo.

She said nothing.

He watched her, smiling lazily at her earnest face. Thinking to himself, “Isn’t it ironic, I have just been with my mistress yet it is my wife I long for before I go to sleep.”

She touched his face on her computer screen, her fingers moved almost in wonder, as she yearned to feel his skin beneath her fingers. Instinctively, he did the same from 8,390 miles away. He reached out to touch her on his computer screen; he touched the image of her lips. Their eyes met, they smiled at each other almost shyly. 8,390 miles away but distance was incinerated by the bytes and bits of their electronic touch.

“I’m coming home to you, Karin,” he said softly. She was not sure if he was aware of what he had just said. She knew he was in Oxford where that dirty girl was. That muloi with dirty energy who wanted her husband.

She watched him a little while longer as he drifted off to sleep, thinking to herself, love is not the passion nor the desire. It is not the adventures nor the highs. Love is the coming home when there is no more physicality. The highs of physical passion are merely incidental, waiting for love to reveal itself.

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Excerpt from Chapter 13, Inside the Higgs

On the edge

“I am possibly leaving bruises on your hips I am holding you so tight,” he said, his words jumbled up.

She revelled in the moment, marvelled at it. St Giles Oxford was totally silenced on this magical June night, as if the Universe in its entirety was built solely on their mingled breaths, their thundering heartbeats and something called Now. Physicists have long studied Time, but there has been no significant progress made on that special unit of time called Now. This perfect moment is all we ever need for the spirit to soar. The body is temporary, transient, gone very soon, and along with it, expressions of physical love. All that remains then is the spirit, the 101010010101 ad infinitum, soaring.

Her voice was soft as she quoted the words from his own book, In the Quest For Absolute Zero, “Because at the extremes is where interesting things happen. Because each trip to the edge teaches us new things and opens our eyes to new dimensions.”

PW trembled. “Yes, that is what I feel, Alice. That’s what I am feeling now, trembling on the edge.”

She said nothing.

“Like catching infinity,” he continued. “The Universe is expanding and we are always on the edge, spiralling outwards. Life wouldn’t have existed if not for cosmological inflation.”

In a static Universe, we would have long been destroyed by colliding neutron stars. In its infinite mystery, the Universe breathes and expands so that there is space for life to be. The infinite mystery is why the cosmological inflation is as it is, just right for life. The mathematics of Einstein’s General Relativity did not work until he added the cosmological constant into the equations. It was then things began to breathe.

“Can you feel my love for you?” Alice asked softly. “All that there is between us?”

PW could.

Alice whispered, “Be still, PW. The Universe is not moving. The Universe is infinite and is already everywhere, and to try to catch it would be like catching infinity.”


Excerpt from Chapter 4: The emptiness of space

Related article on life and cosmological constant can be found here.

Photo: St Giles Oxford at night.

The most difficult paragraph

The most difficult paragraph to write is the following one in Chapter 17.  The protagonist in Catching Infinity, PW Vanderleyden, had won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in higher dimensions, which brings future generations of scientists one step closer to solving the mystery of our creation and existence.

But here’s the thing: PW Vanderleyden had also been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for his raw and beautifully written books about his work and his quest for answers.

How the hell am I going to write like a Nobel Prize nominee????

Here’s my best effort:

Human beings are a species that wants and needs to know who we are.  We need to create our own “why’s”, just as we have been doing since humanity began. Of course our answers keep changing, but that doesn’t matter. The effort of creating the answers gives us meaning, a validation of our place in this Universe. Always remember that we are made of the same material as stars: oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. In fact, we are remnants of the early stars, recycled down the years. Thus, we are but pieces of matter called humans that are parts of the Universe too. We are One and when we allow ourselves to be, we put the being in human being.

Excerpt from Chapter 17: Fibonacci Is Breathing


Someone quite reputable in the book industry thought that my book was ‘weird’.  It is.

To quote Lewis Carroll, who inspired Catching Infinity:

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

Though we go on our everyday lives in pretty much the same way as our parents and grandparents did, our world has gone truly mad, if you look at it deeply.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 17: Fibonacci Is Breathing (if you don’t want to read this chapter, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the links to a couple of great external websites to show you how mad the ‘real’ world is)


These are unusual times.

The year is 2016. The global economy is but a huge air balloon, pumped up by the printing of paper money and virtual accounting that does not have a physical value. How does thirteen trllion American dollars actually look like in real life? For this is how much the world’s richest nation owes in 2015. Once upon a time, it was hard cash for real goods; going further back, it was goods for goods. Those were the good old days when people lived in a solid reality of definites and predictability as described by Newtonian mechanics.

In those days, you can walk into your local corner shop without cash, pick up a few items, the shopkeeper then writes the sum down on a little book against your name and you settle the debt at the end of the month. Now, the corner shops are all but gone: it is an entirely different ballgame today. You can speculate on the futures market, betting on crops that had not yet been grown with the money that you do not, and may never, own.


The world’s largest taxi company owns no taxis – Uber

Largest accommodation provider owns no real estate – Airbnb

Largest phone companies own no telecoms infrastructure – Skype and WeChat

Most valuable retailer has no inventory – Alibaba

Most popular media owner creates no content – Facebook

Fastest growing banks have no actual money – SocietyOne

World’s largest movie house owns no cinemas – Netflix

Largest software vendors don’t write the Apps – Apple and Google

Welcome to the new world of quantum mechanics.

A hundred years since Einstein presented his General Theory of Relativity, the world has changed deeply; there is a seismic shift in paradigm. Quantum mechanics is a new model of reality that gives us the best picture of the Universe to date. It is a picture in which many concepts fundamental to our intuitive understanding of nature no longer have meaning: Quantum mechanics is this fuzzy, unpredictable, incredibly fast world where there are no comforting and familiar definites. Because we simply cannot know: no matter how much information you obtain, the outcomes can never be predicted with certainty because they are not determined with certainty. Electrons don’t even decide which spin they are going to be until you look at them, and by looking at them with our increasngly powerful machines, we are confering reality and legitimacy upon them. It is akin to letting the quantum genie out of the Newtonian bottle.

** To visualise the ‘madness’ in a language that readers are perhaps more familiar with, i.e. money:

If you can accept this, why can’t you accept quantum madness?

A lesson in kindness

PW of the old would have scoffed. Ha! You don’t have to teach kids how to be blerrie good husbands and mothers and parents, when the time comes, they just do it, rite? It’s the most natural thing in the world!

And therein lays the sobering thought: he grew up in cold, harsh Die Uitkyk where there was not much kindness around. Success was measured terms of harvest and health, and in level of obedience to God. Thus, his father was always too busy with the farm whilst his mother was too weak and ill to get out of her sickbed to teach her sons and daughters some very important lessons in life. Like how to be good husbands, wives and parents. Like kindness.

“Your Ma’s probably right.”

They walked on. PW wrestled with the deep, disquieting thoughts that had been plaguing him for years. He decided to plough ahead and ask his son, for if a man cannot talk to his son, who can he talk to? “Do you think I am a good husband to your mother, Hennie, and a good father to you and your brothers?”

“Yes, Pa,” came the dutiful reply.

“Come on, Boy, speak the truth!”

“No. I won’t speak the truth.”

PW stopped walking and turned to face his son. “Remember the conversation we had about being brave like a lion? Think of yourself as one, and roar out your answer. Never be afraid to speak the truth, Hennie.”

“I am not afraid of you, Pa. I am not telling you the truth because Ma said truth is not worth it if it brings pain to someone. That’s the big lesson we had to learn, when to speak and when not to speak at all.”

“I am a scientist, I need to know the truth. That’s always the case with me, Hennie, I always want to find out answers, whatever they may be. The not knowing torments me.”

“In that case, Pa, you have not been good for us.” It hurt the boy to say it, but there, it was out there now. He asked for it.

My God, truth hurts. And to be told that one is not a good parent hurts more than anything.

Stung by his son’s answer, PW recoiled. “Thank you, Hennie,” he said simply, with genuine gratitude.

They walked on in silence for a bit, then Hennie spoke. “Ma said not to be angry at you, because it is not your fault. Your parents did not teach you kindness. They had tried to make you tough.”

“Yes, my parents did that. I was never good enough. There was a lot of unkindness in my childhood. But maybe that’s the Boer way, we have to grow tough children for the tough life out here.”

“Ma said it’s more important to teach children how to be kind. Because with kindness, you get better results.”

What was it that Karin said? Love is the most efficient law.

“Sometimes, people hurt you because they are hurting inside. Even if they are kind, they forget about their kindness when their own hurt is bad. Are you hurting inside, Pa? Is that why you made Ma cry?”

Excerpt from Chapter 15: Natural Laws