Skip to main content

Peter Atkins - Four Way Interview

Peter Atkins is a fellow of Lincoln College, University of Oxford and the author of about 70 books for students and a general audience. His texts are market leaders around the globe. A frequent lecturer in the United States and throughout the world, he has held visiting professorships in France, Israel, Japan, China, and New Zealand. His latest title is Conjuring the Universe.

Why science?

Science is the only reliable way of acquiring knowledge, especially when it is supported by the austere language of mathematics. Science depends on publicly shareable knowledge, and is gradually building an interconnected reticulation of concepts and theories, which show how the very large illuminates the very small, and vice versa, and how aspects from different disciplines augment each other rather than conflict.

Why this book?

It deals with a question that lurks inside everyone and, in my view, provides a framework for understanding. Deep questions often have simple answers: I wanted to share that attitude.

As science progresses, so it is becoming prepared to tackle the great questions that have puzzled philosophers and the general public: what is the origin of the laws of nature? Were the laws imposed on the universe at its creation, could they be different? I like to think of science as being on the track of simplicity, avoiding the intellectual feather bed of postulating external clause, which is in fact even greater complexity than what it purports to explain. So, I set out to explore whether the laws of nature have an extraordinarily simple origin, which I believe is a combination of indolence, anarchy, and ignorance. These principles turn out to be extraordinarily powerful, for I argue that they imply the conservation laws (especially the all-important conservation of energy, the basis of causality), the foundation of quantum mechanics (and by extension, all classical mechanics), the laws of electromagnetism, and all thermodynamics. 

What more is there? Well, there are two other major questions. One is why the fundamental constants have their special values. That I answer by dividing the constants into two classes, the structural constants (like the speed of light and Planck’s constant) and the coupling constants (like the fundamental charge). The values of the former are easy to explain; on the latter I have nothing to say. The other deep question is why mathematics works as a reliable language for describing Nature: here I hazard a guess or two.  Overall, in this equation-free account (the supporting equations are in the safe space of the Notes), I seek to answer what puzzle many and what should interest everyone.

What’s next?

I am gradually forming a view, but it is too early to share.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

The ceaseless, but sometimes slow, advance of understanding that science provides. Every day, wonder becomes more reliable.

Photo credit: Aria Photography, Oxford

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…