Seeing the dark in a new light

True darkness, it turns out, can be experienced but does not exist. If you have been down a deep mine where the guide tells you to turn off your lamp you will have seen – in not seeing – something close to it: an utter nothingness in which your body and mind seem to shrink and expand at the same time. On a school trip to Big Pit in South Wales my entire class fell into a moment of unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated silence, a gasped amazement at the disappearance and invisibility of ourselves. Just for a moment everything vanished – and then the whooping and squealing started.  This double impulse,

Who laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round?

In 2020, an American pilot and daredevil named ‘Mad Mike’ Hughes launched himself in a homemade steam-powered rocket, hoping to achieve enough altitude to prove to himself that the Earth was flat. Unfortunately, the rocket crashed and Mad Mike was no more. ‘I’m not going to take anyone else’s word for it, or Nasa, or especially Elon Musk with SpaceX,’ he had once explained in an interview. ‘I’m going to build my own rocket right here and I’m going to see it with my own eyes what shape this world we live on is.’ In this way he became a martyr to the modern conspiracy theorist’s mantra: ‘Do your own

A feast for geeks: The Making of Incarnation, by Tom McCarthy, reviewed

Since the publication of his debut, Remainder, Tom McCarthy has established himself as the Christopher Nolan of literary fiction: his novels play with conceptual themes such as time and motion and space. C and Satin Island were both shortlisted for the Booker. His latest, The Making of Incarnation, deals with, among other things, motion-capture technology. Even the title of the science fiction film at the heart of the novel — Incarnation — has a Nolanesque ring to it. The story is knotty. As the narrator puts it: ‘Things are connected to other things, which are connected to other things.’ McCarthy fictionalises the life of the engineer and motion-studies pioneer Lillian

The windswept German island that inspired quantum physics

Helgoland is a craggy German island in the North Sea. Barely bigger than a few fields, it reaches high above the water on precipitous cliffs and is famous for its sweet air. It has a town and a harbour, and the 1,000-odd inhabitants speak a distinct dialect. In the summer of 1925, the 23-year-old physicist Werner Heisenberg went there to sort out his hay fever and solve the problem of reality. Helgoland is a slightly misleading title for Carlo Rovelli’s inspiring, chaotic, delightfully unsatisfactory book of popular quantum physics. It isn’t about Heisenberg’s months there or his mathematical insights; ‘Helgoland’ is Rovelli’s shorthand for Heisenberg’s pellucid state of mind. On Helgoland,

The joy and suffering of writing a book

Spring is coming. There was snow in the garden till last week, here in Canada, where I have been spending this strange winter. But today the sky is shining blue and the sunshine is soft and warm. I guess this is what Easter is really about. Rebirth. I have spent months without going farther than the corner food shop. Zoom winter. I have never been in the same few rooms for so long. And yet I have never been so much in touch with colleagues and friends from everywhere. I feel I have partially migrated into a semi-virtual reality. It is not too bad. It is relaxing. This week is

A singular mind: Roger Penrose on his Nobel Prize

Sir Roger Penrose was at school when he realised that his mind worked in an unusual way. ‘I thought, maybe when I go to university, I’ll find people who think like me,’ he tells me, at the beginning of what was to be a fascinating conversation, stretching long into the afternoon. ‘But it wasn’t like that at all. When I would talk to someone about an idea, I found myself not understanding a word they were saying.’ Just after we spoke, in early December, Penrose received the Nobel Prize in Physics, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he should think a little differently. But, as he explained it to me,

Things mankind was not supposed to know — the dark side of science

One day someone is going to have to write the definitive study of Wikipedia’s influence on letters. What, after all, are we supposed to make of all these wikinovels? I mean novels that leap from subject to subject, anecdote to anecdote, so that the reader feels as though they are toppling like Alice down a particularly erudite Wikipedia rabbit-hole. The trouble with writing such a book, in an age of ready internet access, and particularly Wikipedia, is that, however effortless your erudition, no one is any longer going to be particularly impressed by it. We can all be our own Don DeLillo now; our own W.G. Sebald. The model for

How time vanishes: the more we study it, the more protean it seems

Some books elucidate their subject, mapping and sharpening its boundaries. The Clock Mirage, by the mathematician Joseph Mazur, is not one of them. Mazur is out to muddy time’s waters, dismantling the easy opposition between clock time and mental time, between physics and philosophy, between science and feeling. That split made little sense even in 1922, when the philosopher Henri Bergson and the young physicist Albert Einstein (much against his better judgment) went head-to-head at the Société française de philosophie in Paris to discuss the meaning of relativity. (Or that was the idea. Actually they talked at complete cross-purposes.) Einstein won. At the time, there was more novel insight to