It is said that youth is wasted on the young, and it is absolutely true. I went up to Oxford on scholarship when I was in my twenties, and I don’t think I pushed the envelope as far as I could. I wish it had been now. I would have made so much more of the same opportunities if they came my way today.
In my twenties, I had lots of small babies hanging off me, I had a part-time job to pay for what the scholarship could not cover, and I had a lot of practical things on my mind (like getting a well-paid job). But saying that, I was excited to be working at the Scanning Proton Microprobe Unit, which is based at the Nuclear Physics Department on Keble Road. After edgy Manchester, Oxford with its dreaming spires was like walking into a surreal filmset of a movie like Shadowlands. I loved the little church opposite my window, I loved the wide boulevards of St Giles, I loved the higgledy-piggledy bookshop, the Eagle & Child pub beloved of Lewis Carroll, I loved the Brown Cow, I loved my college, which was St. John’s. They all opened my eyes to something beautiful, that inspired me to write, in particular, this very Oxford book.
And in some strange way, I enjoyed being in the ‘dungeon’, where the accelerator and detector lived. Day in, day out, we would fire protons at a wide gamut of targets, and spend many more days processing the results in the hope of seeing ‘something’.
That is the exciting thing that I did not realise until much later on: there is such a rich universe that exists within ours. We could only see them indirectly through detectors which translate into data. But boy, what data! I wish I knew more, appreciated more.
Catching Infinity is about a theoretical physics Professor who was trying to solve the last remaining scientific conundrum: why Einstein’s General Relativity and the newer theories of Quantum Mechanics don’t fit in with each other to make the perfect picture? They should, as they both have been rigorously tested over many decades by countless high-calibre scientists spending billions of taxpayers’ money – yet these two vastly opposing world-views remain standing squaring each other off. The Professor goes on a merry dance to find the solution. Is there one?
His journey actually started when he was eight years old, when he was still an awkward, gawky kid from the veld. He was the type of kid who asked a lot of questions (that was what I was like!) and his Oupa built him a particle accelerator deep in the Eastern Transvaal. Yes, it can be done! You can build one in your backyard for U$1,000. (*I am trying to persuade Thomas to let me build one in our small garden).
And to me, that is the excitement and passion I feel for this book, the journey of discovery and self-realisation that involves every single human being. The story takes readers through this eight year old farm boy’s beginnings (when he was wearing over-sized tackies inherited from his older brother, peering through his Oupa’s old binoculars at the stars over South Africa) to the man who built ‘an accelerator so large that it can be seen from the skies’. In that journey, he saw stars and galaxies so large that they were unreal in our physical reality. He also saw unreal particles (the quarks and leptons) that our material reality is made up of.
Please come with me, through the pages of Catching Infinity, on my belated walk through this magical realm that IS our reality.