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Author interview: Brian Clegg, ‘The Reality Frame’

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Without an understanding of relativity and its frameworks, it would be difficult to express engineering concepts. Brian Clegg’s book ‘The Reality Frame’ explains how a scientific theory is relevant to our everyday lives.

“How we see the world depends on where we look at it from,” says Brian Clegg, referring to what physicists call the frame of reference, and, indirectly, to the title of his new book, ‘The Reality Frame’. The problem with relativity, he believes, is that it tends to direct us intellectually to Einstein, which leads us in turn to assume that it’s incredibly complicated. “But in reality,” says Clegg, “it’s incredibly simple.” 

In order to prove this, Clegg has set out to construct a model universe, to which he adds various components such as space, matter and time, “to show how relativity is essential to understanding what’s around us”. But where Clegg’s latest book goes the extra mile is that he doesn’t stop at the inanimate universe, extending his own framework to include “humans and their position in the universe”.

He recalls how as a youngster he was fascinated by the TV programme ‘The Ascent of Man’, presented by Polish science historian Jacob Bronowski, who “really celebrated human achievement. I think scientists rather enjoy pointing out how small humans are in the vastness of the universe. But I wanted to show how having the right frame of reference is important when you’re assessing human creativity and innovation”. Seen from the right point of view, he says, “we’re not doing all that badly. And so while the book is mostly about relativity, it is also about our place in the universe.”

The one thing Clegg didn’t want to do was write, “just another book about relativity, talking a bit about Galileo and Einstein, showing the physics theories and that’s it. I wanted to give the subject context, and in this case it is the universe. So in that sense it is a book about everything and relativity is the framework for that.” It is neatly in keeping with the author’s narrative that the book itself is devised as a framework, a thought experiment that starts with a counter-intuitive proposition.

He might have chosen the famous example of a ping-pong ball bouncing on a table in a train, but instead he chose Galileo throwing a key into the air. Either will do, because the point is that, “we are so inured to the concept that the Earth is our frame of reference that we find it difficult to think in a different way”. This is why we had problems in the 16th century understanding the emerging Copernican view of which celestial bodies revolve around which. “We had to get away from a frame of reference that said the Earth was the centre of the universe and move outside that. Once we had a different frame of reference it all seemed to make more sense.” Similarly, in the case of the boat and the key, “our natural tendency is to think of the objects moving relative to the Earth”.

Having disproved old-fashioned geocentric philosophies centuries ago, we still seem to live with them in our daily lives, which is one of the reasons Clegg decided that he would start with nothingness, a concept he accepts is difficult for the human brain to understand, and one for which we routinely use the wrong words (he prefers ‘void’). “Essentially, I’m adding in basic components. There are a number of ways of doing this. But if you start with a void, there is nothing there for anything to be relative to.”

Then we have stuff (another word that the author likes because it can entail both matter and light), time, motion, gravity, life and “finally the idea of human creativity, which may seem a little odd when compared with the other elements. But, I think it’s really important not to ignore it, because having living things in the universe is the next step up.”

Which is where engineers come in. These are the people who are making sense of the universe through innovation, making things out of stuff, in order to make life better, for the most part, for humans.

“Because I am talking about relativity, I am looking into the nature of creativity and innovation, which in itself involves taking different frames of reference.” Seeing something in a new way, looking at a problem from a different angle, will lead to “a better understanding of an application or the development of a new material such as graphene and asking where we can go with it”.

Clegg continues the line of thought by saying that while the evolution of human beings might not be anything special in the wider context of the framework of the development of the universe, “we have been able to do something special as a result of our creativity and innovation, which takes us a step up from basic living. Biological evolution won’t take humans into space, for example. Only our technology enables us to do that. And that is the leap forward. I’m not saying that this is better. But it is something extra that we are capable of doing. And that adds something to the biological idea that we live to reproduce.”

Clegg, who is the author of more than 20 so-called ‘popular science’ books, is renowned for having a specific style of presenting ‘difficult’ material. A passionate advocate for the public understanding of science, he thinks that the school curriculum is “wrong” in the way it approaches the subject. “Because of that, people get put off at an early age. We ought to be changing the curriculum so that it includes stuff that will make people interested in science, but not necessarily the basics that are needed to produce scientists.

“If you get to the point where you’re doing A-level physics then you will need the ‘grunt’ basics. But for the majority it’s more important that we show them why science is interesting. Dare I say it, a frame of reference that makes it more than learning boring things about what it takes to push a block up a hill.”

‘The Reality Frame’ by Brian Clegg is published by Icon Books, £20

We read it for you: The Reality Frame

Brian Clegg’s new book is about how the universe works and, in particular, relativity. Without an understanding of what relativity is and how it works, it would be impossible for humans to have evolved to become engineers and technologists. But for anyone thinking that this is just another dry retread of Einstein’s century-old theory, think again. 
Clegg has produced a highly readable account of not only how universes start, but also an analysis of the first steps along a path that ultimately leads to human innovation. To tell his story, Clegg conducts an extended thought experiment in which he assembles reality block by block, explaining every addition and why it matters along the way.
As with all Clegg’s books, ‘The Reality Frame’ is clear, crisp and logically written, with genuine surprises on almost every page.

Extract: Galileo and the key - a matter of relativity

In order to get a feel for relativity at its basic level, we need to take a trip back to 1624 to join Galileo on Lake Piediluco in Umbria, central Italy.

According to the story, he was being rowed by several oarsmen along the beautiful lake, taking a group of friends on an outing. They were travelling across the water at a good speed by the measure of the day. Galileo is said to have asked one of his friends, named Stelluti, if he could borrow a heavy object.

Stelluti reluctantly handed over his house key to Galileo. Four hundred years ago this was not going to be a delicate little Yale key, but was a big iron object – and a one-off that would be hard to replace.

To Stelluti’s horror, Galileo took the key from him and hurled it as hard as he could, straight up in the air. The boat, remember, was being powered across the water at a considerable speed. So Stelluti was all ready to leap into the lake, fearing the boat would slip away as the key fell, leaving the precious object behind to drop into the water. His friends had to restrain him, but of course the key neatly dropped back into Galileo’s lap.

Whether this story is true is a matter of debate. Galileo accumulated plenty of tales that have little factual evidence to support them.

But what certainly was justified was Galileo’s confidence in what would become known as relativity. Stelluti had made the assumption that the fast-moving boat would slip out from under the key while the heavy metal object was in the air. However, he hadn’t thought through what is truly meant by ‘moving’. Galileo had.

Edited extract from ‘The Reality Frame’ by Brian Clegg, reproduced with permission

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