I hated Physics at school. Even though I loved Chemistry.

Partly because the Physics teachers weren't cool, in their creased corduroys and pipe tobacco scarcely concealing their body odour. Chemistry teachers seemed normal even ranging to cool. One of them played a high level of Minor County cricket.

Then there were the classroom-labs themselves. In Chemistry your head could sink to the surface of the bench where your eyes would rest on the exciting potential contained within the bottles of acids and alkalis ranged there. In Physics, what did you have as an equivalent? Gas taps for bunsen burners, which was odd since I don't remember ever doing an experiment involving heat in Physics. Oh yeah, there was Boyle's Law I think...

So probably it came down to the fact that I understood Chemistry, whereas Physics I couldn't make head nor tail of. I could never get to grips with solenoids and circuits because I had no idea what electricity or magnetism actually were. Where they came from. And I could never get past that incomprehension of first terms. The only part of Physics I understood was radioactivity and let's face it, that's chemistry anyway!

My destiny was clearly headed down the path of Arts curricula rather than Sciences, but was advised by sciency older cousins to continue with Physics to exam level rather than Biology. I was happy to duck out of Biology before I had to take up a dissecting scalpel, so I took their advice.

But then I had to confront the same conundrum as before. A complete dearth of understanding of the subject. I was advised by the same cousins that both curriculum and exam exactly mirrored the very good textbook, Abbott's Ordinary Level Physics 4th Edition. They counselled me, all I would have to do is learn the textbook from cover to cover (except the radioactivity section, cos I understood that).

And so I did. Like times tables and Latin suffixes, I learned every page by rote. Still didn't understand a single blasted word, but I could regurgitate it in an exam. I achieved a bang middle of the road unspectacular Grade B and took my path down the Arts subjects English & History and promptly forgot every bit of Physics I had committed to surface memory. They wouldn't let me do Chemistry without either Physics or Maths, so my third A-Level was the lamentable pseudo-science that is Economics which I hated then and now looking at Governments and Bankers, doubt that it is any kind of credible academic discipline whatsoever.

After University, somewhere along the line I started reading the odd bit of popular Science. I really can't remember how I developed an interest, but it could just have been down to Stephen Hawking, whose book "A Brief History Of Time" was a real best seller that adorned bookshelves (probably unopened) up and down the land. I stumbled my way through it and gleaned very little understanding. But I continued plodding along with Richard Dawkins and Steven J Gould, about 2 or 3 titles a year max.

I had a trans-Atlantic flight and decided to give "A Brief History Of Time" another go for its duration. This time I grasped most of it, until the String Theory stuff right at the end which made my head feel like it was full of spaghetti. Or string. From that point on, Physics held less fears, though I couldn't claim to understand all of it . But Stephen Hawking had cured me of my antipathy towards Physics through his wonderful writing. Complicated thoughts expressed with crystal precision and unafraid to offer a metaphor to aid understanding. 

For in my reading as a layperson, it struck me that science was full of metaphors. Precise mathematical and algebraic formulas may describe various physical laws of behaviour, but when scientists come to try and render it in words to help us see it, their language gets quite symbolic and metaphorical. For example, Schrödinger's Cat weaves a wonderful thought experiment about cats locked in boxes containing poisons. But this exercise in logic is neither meant as a practical experiment, but more importantly, nor is it meant as a proof, unlike the quantum mathematics it relates to. It is actually meant as a rebuttal to an interpretation ("The Copenhagen Interpretation") of Quantum Theory. It was meant as a reductio ad absurdum of the cat being both alive and dead in the box, until the observer opens the box to determine which of the actual two states the cat is.  The same thing happens with "The Butterfly Effect" in Chaos Theory. The idea is not that the flapping of a butterfly's wings can cause a storm on the other side of the world, rather it is illustrative of how even a small change of starting conditions can yield significant variations which explain why something like long-range weather forecasting is so unpredictable and unreliable. To me it's interesting that whatever the maths say, these two metaphors, of a flapping butterfly and an incarcerated cat, are not themselves hard and fast proofs, but rather fanciful flights of symbolic thought and metaphor.

Scientists are making rather wonderful advances in trying to unpick the mysteries of physical existence. They're on the trail of the fundamental building blocks of matter (The Higs Boson), Field Theory, the Human Genome and theories of mind. And with all these exciting new ways of conceiving, come metaphors. The scientists have stolen a march on us artists and writers in conjuring up new metaphors such a String Theory or the nature of subjectivity as new Virtual Reality technology allows us to experience somebody else's body. I don't really understand why writers haven't stepped up to the challenge and embraced all these new bodies of knowledge, precisely because they are so rich in symbolism and metaphor. If science is trying to unpick the nature of the subjective, the objective and how the observer influences what he observes, then why aren't novels also using putting in such ideas in our narrative structures? I honestly believe it's long overdue for writers to start trying to reclaim some of the territory currently occupied by scientists. We don't have to be overly well-versed in scientific understanding, merely come armed with a sense of curiosity. "Time After Time" represents my contribution to such a task. On the next page is an extended fictional riff on "Schrödinger's Cat".


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