Do they get it?

Chris Impey2

Humble Before the Void, Chris Impey, Templeton Press

Science writing typically attempts just the facts. Even in works of popular science there is a chasing after certainty, an extolling of the affirmation that scientific study can bring, and little room for the potentially messy intrusion of the author’s personal story. Humble Before the Void is different in this respect. Professor of astronomy and author of How it Ends and How It Began Chris Impey here tells the story of his involvement in the Science for Monks program, which involved his travelling to India to teach astronomy and physics to a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks (partly in an attempt to get over a marriage breakdown, and to strengthen his relationship with his son who accompanies him). “Anything can happen in a roomful of Tibetan monks”, he says. He devises a number of ingeniously low-tech experiments to explain the workings at the big and small extremes of our universe to the monks. The science repeats somewhat the content of his other books, but the unique context makes this book intriguing.

He is enthusiastic, but also unsettled by the questions that his physics and his surroundings throw up, and wavers between thinking of the relationship between science and religion as complementary and thinking of them as incompatible. He worries whether the monks, despite their willingness to be lost in the moment of sometimes tedious experiments, ultimately get it. There is some sympathy between the uncertainty of quantum physics and the Buddhist wariness of human knowledge. Buddhism emphasises the interconnectedness of things, which is confirmed by scientific study of properties of the universe: for example, its beginning as a singularity, and the fact that gravity seems to reach across the universe, and that at a quantum level vastly separated subatomic particles can affect each other instantaneously (something Einstein derided as “spooky action at a distance”). Yet Impey can’t quite stomach reincarnation, and while the Buddhist idea that human lives are inconsequential and somehow unreal may have some resonance when we think about how mysterious and overwhelming the universe remains, Impey is sceptical about the Buddhist idea that painful life experiences are simply illusions, especially in the light of his divorce. His willingness to be open about this, and about the fact that science is not always exact, or all-encompassing when it comes to the meaning of life, makes this book particularly engaging.

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