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Nicholas Mee - Four Way Interview

Nicholas Mee studied theoretical physics and mathematics at the University of Cambridge.  He is Director of software company Virtual Image and the author of over 50 multimedia titles including The Code Book on CD-ROM with Simon Singh and Connections in Space with John Barrow, Martin Kemp and Richard Bright. He has played key roles in numerous science and art projects including the Symbolic Sculpture project with John Robinson, the European SCIENAR project, and the 2012 Henry Moore and Stringed Surfaces exhibition at the Royal Society. He is author of the award-winning popular science book Higgs Force: Cosmic Symmetry Shattered. His latest title is Celestial Tapestry.

Why mathematics?

Mathematics has its own inner beauty. But it also represents far and away the most powerful set of intellectual tools that we have and it contributes enormously to our understanding of how the universe works and our place within it. Furthermore, it enables us to control and manipulate the world with great precision.

Just consider how we are communicating now via our computers, which are really nothing more than glorified adding machines. Each key stroke that I make is immediately encoded as a sequence of noughts and ones; as is every pixel on the screen, every operation in the software running on the machine, and every pulse that is communicated to another such machine. But not only that, the design of every component from the touch-screen to the memory to the processor required the use of mathematics, as did its engineering and its manufacture. And even beyond that, mathematics is required to explain how all the subcomponents operate down to the quantum mechanics describing how bunches of electrons tunnel through the transistor junctions etched on the processor chip. 

Mathematics is all-powerful and all-pervasive in the modern world. 

Why this book?

First, I would like to mention my good friend John Barrow who died a few days ago. I was so sad when I heard the news, and I will always treasure the memories of the times I spent with him. He was a great inspiration and I would like to dedicate Celestial Tapestry to him.

In the dim and distant past I wrote a multimedia CD-ROM called Art and Mathematics and this led to my first meeting with John over twenty years ago. This resulted in us working together as part of an art and science project called Connections in Space. Since then I have been involved in several other art and maths projects, and, in a way, Celestial Tapestry is a culmination of these projects. It’s a bit quirky and idiosyncratic. But it visits many varied topics where the threads of art, maths and spirituality intertwine.

I always feel that the historical and cultural background is important in opening the door to maths and science, so I like to include human stories about how our current understanding of these subjects came about. For instance, fractals and computer art are well known today. But the idea of fractals can be traced back to the musings of Gaston Julia, a French-Algerian mathematician who was in hospital recovering after suffering a seriously disfiguring injury during the First World War. Another remarkable story is that of Alice Stott Boole who explored four-dimensional geometry as a hobby, while living as a housewife in late Victorian Liverpool. Her brother-in-law’s writings about the fourth dimension would have a profound impact on the abstract art movements of the early twentieth century. 

What’s Next?

Recently I have been looking at nuclear physics and attempting to paint a broad picture of the world-changing consequences of the discovery of radioactivity and the nucleus. Of course, any mention of the word nuclear invokes thoughts of weapons of war and reactor meltdowns, such as Chernobyl. But I have been writing a series of blog articles on the Quantum Wave website that aim to present a more rounded view of the history and applications of nuclear physics.

Understanding matter at a deeper level – the nuclear level – has had a much more positive impact on our lives than is often appreciated. The discovery of the atomic nucleus transformed our understanding of physics, but it also transformed chemistry, by explaining what distinguishes one type of atom from another and by providing the first full understanding of the Periodic Table. The consequences for other sciences were equally dramatic, radioactive dating turned geology into a historical science. This is how we know precisely when the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid. It was sixty-six million and thirty-eight thousand years ago plus or minus eleven thousand years. Similarly, radiocarbon dating has transformed archaeology by giving us a time-frame for the development of human cultures, and isotope analysis reveals amazing insights into people who live long ago – what they ate and where they lived. It tells us, for instance, that the Amesbury Archer buried close to Stonehenge was not a local, he had travelled there from Central Europe. 

Astronomy was also transformed by nuclear physics, as it explained for the first time how the stars shine. Then there is nuclear medicine, which has major applications in medical imaging, as well as the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Twenty million imaging procedures a year are carried out using the element technetium which does not exist naturally on Earth: it is derived from nuclear fission products created in nuclear reactors.

At the moment I have only covered these subjects as blog articles, but in the near future we are intending to film videos on these topics for my YouTube channel The Cosmic Mystery Tour. Currently, we are working on bringing the sound quality up to BBC standards.

What’s Exciting You at the Moment?

The most amazing breakthrough in recent years has been the advent of gravitational wave astronomy. Collisions between black holes cause space to reverberate like the ringing of a bell. And these vibrations in space produced on the other side of the universe are now being detected by machines such as LIGO in America, VIRGO in Italy, and KAGRA in Japan. Black holes no longer exist simply in the realm of fantasy. They are studied every day by astronomers around the world.

In the 1960s Roger Penrose showed that black holes are an inevitable consequence of Einstein’s theory of gravity – general relativity – and just this week he has been rewarded with a Nobel Prize for Physics. This is shared with Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel who proved that a supermassive black hole with a mass of four million Suns resides at the centre of our galaxy. Over numerous years they mapped out the paths of stars orbiting this supermassive black hole.

But, as supermassive black holes go, the one at the centre of our galaxy is just a baby. We know of many others with masses that are several billion times that of the Sun. One of the deep mysteries of the cosmos is how they grew so big in the limited time available since the Big Bang. We can look forward to a lot more exciting news about black holes in the near future.


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