My sleep patterns, as I have often told you, are erratic at best. Sometimes I just have to accept that although it is stupid o’clock in the morning, I’m not going to get back to sleep any time soon.
At times like these, BBC4 is a heaven sent television channel, packed full of documentaries about obscure topics. Thursday night there was a doozie. It was about the overlap between quantum mechanics and cosmology.
This doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but it was riveting, largely because nearly all the big hitters were featured. Jocelyn Bell Burnett, the scientist who by painstaking examination of paper traces from the outputs from a radio telescope established the existence of pulsars. She’d worked with Antony Hewish on the design and construction of the scope, which consisted largely of old fenceposts and telephone wire. It all looked very Heath Robinson, but Hewish was an engineer at heart, so it worked. He saw the problem as one to be solved by an engineering approach, and it worked.
Meanwhile the theoreticians were working on stuff that Einstein had developed, namely the General and Specific Theories of Relativity, and trying to make some sense of the weird stuff that happens when the theories break down. At a really small level, things get very odd indeed because of quantum physics. I’ll not bore you with my understanding of what happens, there are better minds suited to do that. They all came out in force too.
We had archive footage of Richard Feynman, who was a real maverick in his time, and who retained his amazing brain right up till his death. Stephen Hawking was there, of course, still battling on having been given two years to live back in 1963. He always comes across as a bit of a grumpy bastard, and I suspect he’s still alive simply to piss people off.
Then we had the slugfest between the steady staters and the big bang theorists. I hadn’t realised the Big Bang theory goes back to the 1930s and a Belgian cosmologist, George Lemaitre. He reckoned it was the only sensible explanation for the redshifts of distant nebulae. Even then, Sir Fred Hoyle in the 50s and 60s was having none of it, and was a steady stater who flat out refused to accept the evidence and came up with his own crackpot explanation of what was going on.
A right good one hour of viewing. Then I managed to get back to sleep. Double result.