Science Seen Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand the physics of your world.

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Staying Sane


Knowing how the universe began leads inexorably to the question: Why did it begin? So I’m writing Volume two.

Would I be sweating this if I had known that it could drive me crazy? First to go there was American critic, poet and author extraordinaire Edgar Allan Poe. Always borderline-unstable, having penned Eureka, a prose poem on the universe’s origin, in 1848 he ordered up a million copies and said he could now die happy. Die he soon did, in strange circumstances. Yet a century and a half later, American critic and scholar Richard Hodgens would say Poe’s physics was ‘generally sound for the day’.

The next to contemplate the subject and write of it (in 1946) was Belgian mathematician, physicist and priest, Canon Georges Lemaître, father of the Big Bang theory. He seems to have stayed sane, but Swiss mathematician and philosopher Ferdinand Gonseth wrote in the Preface to Lemaître’s book:

From the very fact that it touches one of the fundamental elements of mental equilibrium, and could not touch it without transforming it, the cosmogonic problem has its dangers.
It is not certain beforehand that the mind which ventures beyond regions where it has found, temporarily perhaps, an equilibrium, will immediately return to a stable position.

David Bohm, an American physicist and friend of Einstein and the Dalai Lama, wrote the book on Quantum Mechanics and then came up with a competing theory. In 1991, with his new magnum opus nearly finished, he became obsessed with the quantum state of the infant universe. He sank into deep depression from which he never recovered.

All this gets me thinking about thinking. And then thinking about that. . . . Soon one can find oneself in infinite regress. Infinity and its math seem to be deeply embedded in conceptions of the universe (this is wrong, says Volume two in draft, a mental struggle in itself). They too come with warning labels. Georg Cantor, German mathematician and patron of all infinities, died in a mental institution. With, among others, Cantor in mind, the ‘father of string theory’, American physicist Leonard Susskind says he suspects ‘that infinity has been a prime cause of insanity among mathematicians.’

The origin of the universe is also intertwined with the mystery of consciousness. For example, British physicist and leading science writer Sir James Jeans once asked:

Is the world material or mental in its ultimate nature?  Or is it both? If so, is matter or mind the more fundamental―is mind a creation of matter or matter a creation of mind?

Then there’s British physicist, and long-time collaborator with Stephen Hawking, Sir Roger Penrose, who wrote the book on the laws of the universe, who says:

I believe that particular caution is to be recommended in matters of cosmology, as opposed to most other sciences, especially in relation to the origin of the universe.

People often have strong emotional responses to questions of the origin of the universe….

The last word goes to Robert Leverton, a reviewer of Time One, who quotes me quoting Lewis Carroll:

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ said Alice.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat. ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

Coming: Is there a simple answer to the vexed question of original order?


Sir James Jeans (1943), Physics and Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 2;

Georges Lemaître (1946), L’Hypothese de L’Atome Primitif, Paris: Dunod; Betty H. Korff & Serge A. Korff (trs.) (1950), The Primeval Atom, New York: D. van Nostrand Company, Inc.; Preface by Ferdinand Gonseth, p. 12;

Roger Penrose (2004), A Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, London: Vintage Books, p. 753;

Leonard Susskind (2008), The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, p. 332;

Other reading:

Edgar Allan Poe (1848), Eureka: A Prose Poem, New York: Geo. P. Putnam; Stuart Levine & Susan Levine (eds., with notes and introduction) (2004), Chicago: University of Illinois Press; (link has expired since posting)

On the origin of the universe and David Bohm’s depression: David Peat (1996), Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm, Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley;

On infinity and Cantor’s insanity: Ayalur Krishnan (2013), “The Deepest Uncertainty: When a hypothesis is neither true nor false”, Nautilus, June 6;

(Tongue in cheek) on mad Alice and the cool Cat: Robert Leverton, “Spoon fed advanced physics”, Amazon customer review, January 17, 2014;



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