Nobel Prize For Physics 2016: The Wonderland Way

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 was awarded to David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.


Told in the story of An Evening In Wonderland, topology is explained as thus:

It is said that hell is where the mind is. His Ouma told him that in her dark, forbidding Voortrekker way. And hell was indeed where PW currently resided. He could find no peace, and took to prowling the long corridors of CERN at all hours, checking on the progress of the all-night experiments that ran here in the vast, sleepless underground labyrinth.

“You look haggard, Professor,” Alice remarked, surveying his hooded eyes and hair that stood on ends as he ran his fingers countless times thorough it. He looked more like an angry Mohican than a world famous professor of theoretical physics.

Blerrie hell,” he laughed self-consciously. I must build myself a quiet room in my brain.”

It was good to speak to her, he thought, because she understood. She understood all of him. And much, much more.

And so, they talked. They discussed the quietest place they could build on earth.  A box to which a very strong vacuum pump is attached to remove all air molecules so that there is no sound. The box is suspended off the ground so that it is insulated from both sound and vibration. And it is lined with thick steel walls so that there are no wifi, radio waves or anything.


“I would be able to sleep then,” PW joked. “No demons can get into that box.”

“You forget, my dear Professor, that there will be elementary particles popping in and out of existence disturbing you in your insulated box, because nothingness is actually not empty. It is teeming with the potential for life, for matter, because nothing does not exist.”

Strange matter, and matter than can exist in strange states.

And indeed, the latter is the gist of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics winners’ research topic: matter that can assume strange states. Matter in these strange states plays a big role in superconductivity and superfluids, where it flows with almost zero resistance at low temperatures.

The three guys who won the big prize this year used topology to study these weird phenomena. Why topology and what is topology?

Well, simply because topology simplifies things. It is the maths of shapes, but unlike geometry, it is a lot simpler and whole lot more relaxed. Measurement and accuracy don’t really matter in topology, unbelievable as it may sound.

Because the only thing that really matters in topology: is holes, namely how many holes you’ve got. A teacup with a handle and a donut is the same thing topologically because both have one hole each, and if made from squidgy rubber material, you can morph one into the other.


Basically, it is about what you can do with squidgy rubber ball, donut, pretzel, complicated knots…depending on how many holes you want in your model. But apart from the number of holes, the type of holes are also taken into account: the hole you get from cutting through a length of ribbon (1-D), punching a hole through a piece of paper (2-D) or the hole inside a balloon (3-D) are examples of different types of holes.

So what’s the big deal?

This is it: using this unbelievably simple model, scientists can begin to understand and explain the behaviour of really complex stuff (and predict new phenomena), because an average substance may contain a trillion trillion atoms, all interacting with each other.

“Gee, all this talk makes me feel like eating a donut,” PW said with a grimace, playing idly with a rubber band on his desk, wondering how many holes he can make out of it.

“Eating won’t help, because you can’t hide from your thoughts, Professor,” Alice said wisely.  “You just have to make peace with them, like untie the Gordian knot.”



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?

The unseen universe within

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.

Higher dimensions

It is difficult – if not near-impossible – for human beings to visualise higher dimensional space.  It is like explaining colours to a man born blind, as the protagonist PW said in his lecture in Chapter One. We are not able to visualise higher dimensions because of lack of evolutionary opportunities, i.e. our ancestors had no need to think what a 4-D space looks like, because savage beasts did not jump out at them from the higher dimensions.

Also, our relationship with our world is built on what we can see, and as we can only see 3-D, so we are stuck in a 3-D reality. Most of us go through life without missing the ability to see higher dimensions: we are content with the colours of the seasons and the shapes of modern architectures.

But imagine if you can…..

Early one October morning, when we were walking the dogs on the beach in Sandown on the Isle of Wight, I came across this structure under the old pier. If you stand at the right spot, you will see an infinite number of cubes receding into infinity.

For me, it is a lot like a a four-dimensional hypercube, known as a tesseract. Basically, the tesseract is an extension of the 3-D cube to one more perpendicular axis, and it is the simplest form of higher dimensional structure. Imagine being inside a tesseract! It would like being in a room with each window opening to a different time and space, like in the film Interstellar.  If you want to watch a pure tesseract movie, here it is:

If you want to develop your spatial abilities, try drawing a tesseract. It is just a cube within a cube:

Untitled copy 2

And here is a lovely youtube clip about unwrapping a tesseract:

An invisible orchestra

All entities vibrate, spin, move and hum their most fundamental level. This is the vibrancy of life. The space that you perceive as empty is actually a force field, a very busy zoo indeed, of particles coming in and out of existence and strings vibrating to some unseen conductor’s wand. Even seemingly inanimate objects – like the table, plastic cups, moon rocks, thoughts – possess this vibrancy, because all that we see in our material world is made of immaterial things once we move deeper into the realms of atoms and subatomic particles. At its most fundamental level, the Universe and all that we experience in it, is just a symphony of vibrating strings, creating a coherent music that becomes our reality.