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History Tag

Feeling, in mammals at least, is mainly controlled by lower, primitive, and more ancient parts of the brain. And thinking, by the higher, more recently evolved outer layers. A rudimentary ability to think was superimposed on the pre-existing programmed savage behaviours. This is the evolutionary baggage we carry with us into the schoolyard, into the marriage, into the voting booth, into the lynch mob, and onto the battlefield.

So, what does that tell us about our future? Will it be nothing more than a series of callous conquests – dreary repetitions of our past – with no escape for our children?

I know a story that gives me hope. A tale of a man whom I deem as the greatest conqueror who ever lived. To date, he remains one of, if not the only, powerful leader in world history who tried to conquer by way of morality. He’s the only person that I know of who lived on both extremes of the good-evil spectrum; From blood-thirsty to tranquil. His life’s saga means we can change:

About 2,200 years ago, much of the world was in the grip of absolute rulers. Their armies rampaged across the planet, bringing torture, rape, murder, and mass enslavement wherever they went.

A young man came out of an obscure backwater called Macedonia and, in less than a decade, carved out an empire that stretched from the Adriatic to beyond the Indus River in India. Along the way, Alexander the Great crushed the implacable Persian army.
At about the same time, King Chandragupta conquered all of northern India.

King Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara, assumed the throne after his death. As Bindusara’s own death approached, he intended to bequeath his empire to a favoured heir.

Legend has it that another son, one who had been rejected by Bindusara, was so ruthless in his quest for power that he murdered every one of his 99 half-brothers and in a fiery pit of coal, he burned alive the chosen successor.

Dressed in the finery that only an emperor was entitled to wear, the hated son stood before his dying father and declared contemptuously, “I am your successor now!”

This was Ashoka … and he was just getting started.

In the 2nd century BCE, the Indian emperor Ashoka initiated a reign of terror known for its new heights of sadism and cruelty. When Ashoka’s ministers baulked at his command to cut down all the fruit trees surrounding his palace, Ashoka said, “Fine, we’ll cut off your heads instead.”

His fiendishness knew no bounds.

Ashoka built a magnificent palace for his unsuspecting victims. They did not know until it was too late that deep inside the palace were torture rooms designed to inflict the five most painful ways to die. It came to be known as Ashoka’s Hell.

But that was not Ashoka’s greatest atrocity.

He now set out to complete the conquest of India that his grandfather had begun.

The nation of Kalinga, to the south, knew no peace could be made with such a madman. They courageously stood their ground as Ashoka’s army besieged the city. When they could bear no more, Ashoka sent his troops in for the kill.

As Ashoka surveyed his triumph, there was one vagabond who dared to approach him, saying “Mighty King, you who are so powerful you can take hundreds of thousands of lives at your whim,” bringing forth a toddler’s corpse from under his robes, he presented it to Ashoka, “Show me how powerful you really are. Give back but one life to this dead child.”

Who was this fearless beggar who dared to confront the vile Ashoka with his crimes? His exact identity is lost to us, but we know that he was a disciple of Buddha, a little-known philosopher who had lived almost 200 years before. Buddha preached nonviolence, awareness, and compassion. His followers renounced wealth to wander the earth spreading Buddha’s teachings by their example. This monk was one of them. And with his courage and wisdom, he found the heart in a heartless man.

Ashoka was never the same again.

He erected a pillar, one of many, on the site of his greatest crime. One of the first edicts of Ashoka was engraved on it: “All are my children. I desire for my children their welfare and happiness, and this I desire for all.”

It wasn’t that Ashoka was violating the laws of kin selection – the evolutionary strategy that favours the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a fatal cost to other distantly related species’ lives – It was that his definition of who was kin to him had expanded to include everyone.

Ashoka would govern India for another 30 years, and he used that time to:

  • Build schools, universities, hospitals, and even hospices.
  • He introduced women’s education and saw no reason why they could not be ordained as monks.
  • He banned the rituals of animal sacrifice and hunting for sport.
  • He established veterinary hospitals throughout India, and he counselled his citizens to be kind to animals.
  • Ashoka saw to it that wells were dug to bring water to the towns and villages.
  • He planted trees and built shelters along the roads of India so that the traveller would always feel welcome and animals would have the mercy of shade.
  • Ashoka signed peace treaties with the small neighbouring countries that had once trembled at the mention of his name.
  • He instituted free health care for all and made sure that the medicines of the time were available to everyone.
  • He decreed that all religions be honoured equally.
  • He ordered a judicial review of those wrongfully imprisoned or harshly treated.
  • Ashoka sent Buddhist emissaries to the Middle East to teach, compassion, mercy, humility, and the love of peace; transforming Buddhism from a small philosophical sect into a global religion.

The temples and palaces of Ashoka’s reign, and most of the pillars he erected throughout India, were destroyed by generations of religious fanatics, outraged by what they considered to be his godlessness. But despite their best efforts, his legacy lives on:

  • Buddhism became one of the world’s most influential religious philosophies.
  • Ashoka’s edicts were carved in stone in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, a couple of hundred years before his birth.
This is one of the few temples of Ashoka that survived the vandals, a cave in the hills of Barabar in India. It’s famous for its echo. Inside the temple, the sound waves of your voice ricochet off the walls until they’re completely absorbed by the surfaces of objects, and there’s nothing left at all.

But Ashoka’s dream is different. Its echo grows louder and louder with time.

Who are we? You tell me.

Embers of Heritage in the Digital Age

Tales formed a crucial part of my childhood. Growing up, I used to love going upcountry to visit my grandparents all cause of the interesting stories they had about their many years of existence on this speck of dust we call home. This is only one instance of how stories and legends shared over the flames of bonfires have always linked generations. But, in the age of screens and clicks, that connection is fraying. Don’t worry though: within the world of technology exists a modern-day tapestry to preserve our stories, ensuring they echo even on the far horizons of the Moon and Mars – someday when we settle on these cosmic neighbours.

Tales used to be shared over bonefires

Weaving Tales into the Cosmic Fabric

Stay with me… let’s consider a world in which the substance of our ancestral stories does not fade but rather evolves. Consider a virtual bonfire, a meeting place for the global (interplanetary) village to share stories not only across generations but throughout the cosmos. Picture a digital loom where history’s threads intertwine, weaving a tapestry for posterity’s gaze.

This is not a new concept to us. We started thinking about sharing our stories throughout the cosmos as early as 1977 when Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched from the NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard the Titan-Centaur expendable rockets.

These two space crafts that are now approximately 24 billion kilometres from Earth (Voyager 1) and 20 billion kilometres (Voyager 2) carry within them The Golden Record: a phonographic record that contains a curated selection of sounds and images that represent the diversity of life and culture on Earth.

The records are a time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to other civilizations that may exist out there.

Chronicles in the Cloud: More Than Just Data

Voyager chronicles aside, let’s get technical, but not too technical. Consider your narrative to be a file. It might have been passed down in your generation or one that you have collected as a hobby. Instead of this file being tucked away, it’s floating in a digital cloud, where it can scatter stories like cosmic confetti. And it’s not just words; there are images, sounds, and animations as well, making our stories the life of this virtual party.

Cultural Constellations: A Galaxy of Narratives

Every culture is represented by a star in the narrative galaxy. These stars are shining even brighter as a result of technological advancements. Imagine exchanging bedtime stories from all around the world with your new Moon friends, creating a constellation of stories that would make even the Milky Way jealous! Do you want to know what the best part is? You’d be able to interact with tales from different cultures around the world. Whether it’s the Māori or the Native Americans or even Aborigines and Early man.

AR & VR Voyages: From Campfires to Cosmic Camps

Now with all these stories available at the click of a button, put on your AR/VR goggles and enter a world where campfires are more than simply logs—they’re not even real! But what about the stories? They’re just as real as they’ve always been. Even if the fire isn’t hot enough for roasting marshmallows, you’re right there, feeling the crackling energy of stories.

10 points for Gryffindor if you can be able to talk to someone in New Zealand while you are in your sustainable city apartment in Nairobi, and ask them what emotions they are feeling at that very moment. A virtual world, given a personal touch.

Passing the Digital Torch: Where Bytes Become Legends

We need to keep our tales alive like a torch in a relay race. However, in this cosmic race, we’re not simply passing a torch, but also a legacy. Technology is more than simply a gadget; it is the link between generations. And, like a phoenix emerging from the ashes, our stories rise from the old to embrace the new, illuminating the path for future generations.

Buckle up, fellow Voyager, for we’re travelling to new galaxies with technology as our spaceship and stories as our fuel. It’s not only about storytelling; it’s about preserving our humanity in the vastness of the universe.

“Alfred, it’s spinning.” Roy Kerr, a New Zealand-born physicist in his late 20s, had, for half an hour, been chain-smoking his way through some fiendish mathematics. Alfred Schild, his boss at the newly built Centre for Relativity at the University of Texas, had sat and watched. Now, having broken the silence, Kerr put down his pencil. He had been searching for a new solution to Albert Einstein’s equations of general relativity, and at last, he could see in his numbers and symbols a precise description of how space-time—the four-dimensional universal fabric those equations describe—could be wrapped into a spinning ball. He had found what he was looking for.

When this happened, in 1962, the general theory of relativity had been around for almost half a century. It was customarily held up as one of the highest intellectual achievements of humanity. And it was also something of an intellectual backwater. It was mathematically taxing and mostly applied to simple models with little resemblance to the real world, and thus not widely worked on. Kerr’s spinning solution changed that. Given that pretty much everything in the universe is part of a system that spins at some rate or other, the new solution had relevance to real-world possibilities—or, rather, out-of-this-world ones—that previous work in the field had lacked. It provided science with a theoretical basis for understanding a bizarre object that would soon bewitch the public imagination: the black hole.

General relativity was presented to the Prussian Academy of Sciences over the course of four lectures in November 1915; it was published on December 2nd that year. The theory explained, to begin with, remarkably little, and unlike quantum theory, the only comparable revolution in 20th-century physics, it offered no insights into the issues that physicists of the time cared about most. Yet it was quickly and widely accepted, not least thanks to the sheer beauty of its mathematical expression; a hundred years on, no discussion of the role of aesthetics in scientific theory seems complete without its inclusion.

When gravity fails

Today its appeal goes beyond its elegance. It provides a theoretical underpinning to the wonders of modern cosmology, from black holes to the Big Bang itself. Its equations have recently turned out to be useful in describing the physics of earthly stuff too. And it may still have secrets to give up: enormous experiments are underway to see how the theory holds in the most extreme physical environments that the universe has to offer.

The theory was built on the insights of Einstein’s first theory of relativity, the “special theory”, one of a trio of breakthroughs that made his reputation in 1905. That theory dramatically abandoned the time-honoured description of the world in terms of absolute space and time in favour of a four-dimensional space-time (three spatial dimensions, one temporal one). In this new space-time, observers moving at different speeds got different answers when measuring lengths and durations; for example, a clock moving quickly with respect to a stationary observer would tell the time more slowly than one sitting still. The only thing that remained fixed was the speed of light, c, which all observers had to agree on (and which also got a starring role in the signature equation with which the theory related matter to energy, E=mc2).

Special relativity applied only to special cases: those of observers moving at constant speeds in a straight line. Einstein knew that a general theory would need to deal with accelerations. It would also have to be reconciled with Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, which relied on absolute space, made no explicit mention of time at all, and was believed to act not at the speed of light but instantaneously.

Einstein developed all his ideas about relativity with “thought experiments”: careful imaginary assessments of highly stylised states of affairs. In 1907 one of these provided him with what he would later refer to as his “happiest thought”: that someone falling off a roof would not feel his own weight. Objects in free-fall, he realised, do not experience gravity. But the curved trajectories produced by gravity—be they the courses of golf balls or planets—seemed to imply some sort of pushing or pulling. If golf balls and planets, like people falling off roofs, felt no sort of push or pull, why then did they not fall in straight lines?

The central brilliance of general relativity lay in Einstein’s subsequent assertion that they did. Objects falling free, like rays of light, follow straight lines through space-time. But that space-time itself is curved. And the thing that made it curve was mass. Gravity is not a force; it is a distortion of space-time. As John Wheeler, a physicist given to pithy dictums about tricky physics, put it decades later: “Space-time tells matter how to move; matter tells space-time how to curve.”

The problem was that, in order to build a theory on this insight, Einstein needed to be able to create those descriptions in warped four-dimensional space-time. The Euclidean geometry used by Newton and everyone else was not up to this job; fundamentally different and much more challenging mathematics was required. Max Planck, the physicist who set off the revolution in quantum mechanics, thought this presented Einstein with an insurmountable problem. “I must advise you against it,” he wrote to Einstein in 1913, “for in the first place you will not succeed, and even if you succeed no one will believe you.”

Handily for Einstein, though, an old university chum, Marcel Grossmann, was an expert in Riemannian geometry, a piece of previously pure mathematics created to describe curved multi-dimensional surfaces. By the time of his lectures in 1915 Einstein had, by making use of this unorthodox geometry, boiled his grand idea down to the elegant but taxing equations through which it would become known.

Just before the fourth lecture was to be delivered on November 25th, he realised he might have a bit more to offer than thought experiments and equations. Astronomers had long known that the point in Mercury’s orbit closest to the sun changed over time in a way Newton’s gravity could not explain. In the 1840s oddities in the orbit of Uranus had been explained in terms of the gravity of a more distant planet; the subsequent discovery of that planet, Neptune, had been hailed as a great confirmation of Newton’s law. Attempts to explain Mercury’s misbehaviour in terms of an undiscovered planet, though, had come to nought.

Famous long ago

Einstein found that the curvature of space-time near the sun explained Mercury’s behaviour very nicely. At the time of the lectures, it was the only thing he could point to that general relativity explained and previous science did not. Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, is one of those who sees the nugatory role played by evidence in the development of the theory as one of the things “that makes Einstein seem even more remarkable: he wasn’t motivated by any mysterious phenomena he couldn’t explain.” He depended simply on his insight into what sort of thing gravity must be and the beauty of the mathematics required to describe it.

After the theory was published, Einstein started to look for ways to test it through observation. One of them was to compare the apparent positions of stars that were in the same part of the sky as the sun during a solar eclipse with their apparent positions at other times. Rays of light, like free-falling objects, trace straight lines in space-time. Because the sun’s mass warps that space-time, the positions of the stars would seem to change when the rays skirted the sun (see diagram).

In 1919 Arthur Eddington, a famed British astronomer, announced that observations of an eclipse made on the West African island of Principe showed just the distortion Einstein had predicted (one of his images is pictured). “LIGHTS ALL ASKEW IN THE HEAVENS”, read the New York Times headline, adding helpfully that “Nobody Need Worry”. Einstein, while pleased, had faith enough in his idea not to have been on tenterhooks. When asked what he would have done had Eddington found a different result, he replied, “Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct.”

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Eddington’s result put general relativity more or less beyond doubt. But that did not make it mainstream. For one thing, it was hard to grasp. At a public event, Eddington was momentarily stumped by the suggestion that he “must be one of the three persons in the world who understand general relativity”. When the silence was taken for modesty, he replied “On the contrary, I am trying to think who the third person is!”

General relativity also seemed somewhat beside the point. The quantum revolution that Planck had begun, and that Einstein had contributed to in one of his other great papers of 1905, was bearing fascinating fruit. Together with a blossoming understanding of the atomic nucleus, it was at the centre of physicists’ attention. Special relativity had a role in the excitement; its most famous expression, E=mc2, gave a measure of the energy stored in those fascinating nuclei. General relativity had none.

What it offered instead was a way to ask questions not about what was in the universe, but about the structure of the universe as a whole. There were solutions to the equations in which the universe was expanding; there were others in which it was contracting. This became a topic of impassioned debate between Einstein and Willem de Sitter, a Dutch physicist who had found one of the expanding-universe solutions. Einstein wanted a static universe. In 1917 he added to his equations a “cosmological constant” which could be used to fix the universe at a given size.

That became an embarrassment when, in 1929, an American astronomer put forward strong evidence that the universe was, indeed, getting bigger. Edwin Hubble had measured the colour of the light from distant galaxies as a way of studying their motion; light from objects approaching the Earth looks bluer than it would otherwise, and light from objects receding looks redder. Hubble found that, on average, the more distant the galaxy, the more its light was shifted towards the red; things receded faster the farther away they were. The evidence for an expanding universe these redshifts provided led Einstein to reject the cosmological constant as the “greatest blunder of my life”.

The theory had other implications at which its architect initially baulked. In the 1930s nuclear physicists worked out that stars were powered by nuclear reactions, and that when those reactions ran out of fuel the stars would collapse. Something like the sun would collapse into a “white dwarf” about the size of the Earth. Bigger stars would collapse yet further into “neutron stars” as dense as an atomic nucleus and just 20 kilometres or so across. And the biggest stars would collapse into something with no length, breadth or depth but infinite density: a singularity.

Finding singularities in a theory is highly distasteful to the mathematically minded; they are normally signs of a mistake. Einstein did not want any of them in his universe, and in 1939 he published a paper attempting to show that the collapse of giant stars would be halted before a singularity could be formed. Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant young physicist at Berkeley, used the same relativistic physics to contradict the great man and suggest that such extreme collapses were possible, warping space-time so much that they would create regions from which neither light nor anything else could ever escape: black holes.

Oppenheimer boi

Oppenheimer’s paper, though, was published on the day Germany invaded Poland, which rather put the debate on hold. Just a month before, Einstein had written to Franklin Roosevelt highlighting the military implications of E=mc2; it would be for realising those implications, rather than for black holes, that Oppenheimer would be remembered.

In part because of Oppenheimer’s government-bewitching success, new sorts of physical research flourished in the post-war years. One such field, radio astronomy, revealed cosmic dramas that observations using light had never hinted at. Among its discoveries were sources of radio waves that seemed at the same time small, spectacularly powerful and, judging by their redshifts, phenomenally distant. The astronomers dubbed them quasars and wondered what could possibly produce radio signals with the power of hundreds of billions of stars from a volume little bigger than a solar system.

Roy Kerr’s solution to the equations of general relativity provided the answer: a supermassive spinning black hole. Its rotation would create a region just outside the hole’s “event horizon”—the point of no return for light and everything else—in which matter falling inward would be spun up to enormous speeds. Some of that matter would be squirted out along the axis of rotation, forming the jets seen in radio observations of quasars.

Disappear like smoke

For the first time, general relativity was explaining new phenomena in the world. Bright young minds rushed into the field; wild ideas that had been speculated on in the fallow decades were buffed up and taken further. There was talk of “wormholes” in space-time that could connect seemingly distant parts of the universe. There were “closed time-like curves” that seemed as though they might make possible travel into the past. Less speculatively, but with more profound impact, Stephen Hawking, a physicist (pictured, with a quasar), and Roger Penrose, a mathematician, showed that relativistic descriptions of the singularities in black holes could be used to describe the Big Bang in which the expansion of the universe began—that they were, in fact, the only way to make sense of it. General relativity gave humans their first physical account of creation.

Hawking boi

Dr Hawking went on to bring elements of quantum theory into science’s understanding of the black hole. Quantum mechanics says that if you look at space on the tiniest of scales you will see a constant ferment in which pairs of particles pop into existence and then recombine into nothingness. Dr Hawking argued that when this happens at the event horizon of a black hole, some of the particles will be swallowed up, while some will escape. These escaping particles mean, in Dr Hawking’s words, that “black holes ain’t so black”—they give off what is now called “Hawking radiation”. The energy lost this way comes ultimately from the black hole itself, which gives up mass in the process. Thus, it seems, a black hole must eventually evaporate away to nothingness.

Adding quantum mechanics to the description of black holes was a step towards what has become perhaps the greatest challenge in theoretical physics: reconciling the theory used to describe all the fields and particles within the universe with the one that explains its overall shape. The two theories view reality in very different ways. In quantum theory, everything is, at some scale, bitty. The equations of relativity are fundamentally smooth. Quantum mechanics deals exclusively in probabilities—not because of a lack of information, but because that is the way the world actually is. In relativity all is certain. And quantum mechanics is “non-local”; an object’s behaviour in one place can be “entangled” with that of an object kilometres or light-years away. Relativity is proudly local; Einstein was sure that the “spooky action at a distance” implied by quantum mechanics would disappear when a better understanding was reached.

It hasn’t. Experiment after experiment confirms the non-local nature of the physical world. Quantum theory has been stunningly successful in other ways, too. Quantum theories give richly interlinked accounts of electromagnetism and of the strong and weak nuclear forces—the processes that hold most atoms together and split some apart. This unified “standard model” now covers all observable forms of matter and all their interactions—except those due to gravity.

Some people might be satisfied just to let each theory be used for what it is good for and to worry no further. But people like that do not become theoretical physicists. Nor will they ever explain the intricacies of the Big Bang—a crucible to which grandiose theory-unifiers are ceaselessly drawn. In the very early universe, space-time itself seems to have been subject to the sort of fluctuations fundamental to the quantum world (like those responsible for Hawking radiation). Getting to the heart of such shenanigans requires a theory that combines the two approaches.

There have been many rich and subtle attempts at this. Dr Penrose has spent decades elaborating an elegant way of looking at all fields and particles as new mathematical entities called “twistors”. Others have pursued a way of adding quantum bittiness to the fabric of space-time under the rubric of “loop quantum gravity”. Then there is the “Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything”—which isn’t. As Steven Weinberg, one of the unifiers whose work built the standard model, puts it, “There are so many theories and so few observations that we’re not getting very far.”

Dr Weinberg, like many of his colleagues, fancies an approach called superstring theory. It is an outgrowth of the standard model with various added features that seem as though they would help in the understanding of space-time and which its proponents find mathematically beguiling. Ed Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, Einstein’s institutional home for the last 22 years of his life, is one of those who has raised it to its current favoured status. But he warns that much of the theory remains to be discovered and that no one knows how much. “We only understand bits and pieces—but the bits and pieces are staggeringly beautiful.”

This piecemeal progress, as Dr Witten tells it, offers a nice counterpoint to the process which led up to November 1915. “Einstein had the conception behind general relativity before he had the theory. That’s in part why it has stood: it was complete when it was formulated,” he says. “String theory is the opposite, with many manifestations discovered by happy accident decades ago.”

Entangled up in the blue

And the happy accidents continue. In 1997 Juan Maldacena, an Argentine theoretician who now also works at the IAS, showed that there is a deep connection between formulations of quantum mechanics known as conformal field theories and solutions to the Einstein equations called anti-de Sitter spaces (similar to the expanding-universe solution derived by Willem de Sitter, but static and much favoured by string theorists). Neither provides an account of the real world, but the connection between them lets physicists recast intractable problems in quantum mechanics into the sort of equations found in general relativity, making them easier to crack.

This approach is being gainfully employed in solving problems in materials science, superconductivity and quantum computing. It is also “influencing the field in a totally unexpected way,” says Leonard Susskind, of Stanford University. “It’s a shift in our tools and our methodology and our way of thinking about how phenomena are connected.” One possibility Dr Maldacena and Dr Susskind have developed by looking at things this way is that the “wormholes” relativity allows (which can be found in the anti-de Sitter space) may be the same thing as the entanglement between distant particles in quantum mechanics (which is part of the conformal field theory). The irony of Einstein’s spooky quantum bête noire playing such a crucial role has not gone unremarked.

There is more to the future of relativity, though than its eventual subsumption into some still unforeseeable follow-up theory. As well as offering new ways of understanding the universe, it is also providing new ways of observing it.

This is helpful because there are bits of the universe that are hard to observe in other ways. Much of the universe consists of “dark matter” which emits no radiation. But it has mass, and so it warps space, distorting the picture of more distant objects just as the eclipse-darkened sun distorted the positions of Eddington’s stars. Studying distortions created by such “gravitational lenses”—both luminous (pictured, with Einstein) and dark—allows astronomers with the precise images of the deep sky today’s best telescopes provide to measure the distribution of mass around the universe in a new way.

A century ago Albert Einstein changed the way humans saw the universe. His work is still offering new insights today.
Einstein boi

Another form of relativity-assisted astronomy uses gravitation directly. Einstein’s equations predict that when masses accelerate around each other they will create ripples in space-time: gravitational waves. As with black holes and the expanding universe, Einstein was not keen on this idea. Again, later work has shown it to be true. A pair of neutron stars discovered spinning around each other in the 1970s are exactly the sort of system that should produce such waves. Because producing gravitational waves requires energy, it was realised that these neutron stars should be losing some. And so they proved to be—at exactly the rate that relativity predicts. This indirect but convincing discovery garnered a Nobel prize in 1993.

As yet, though, no one has seen a wave in action by catching the expansion and contraction of space that should be seen as one goes by, because the effects involved are ludicrously small. But researchers at America’s recently upgraded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) now think they can do it. At LIGO’s two facilities, one in Louisiana and one in Washington state, laser beams bounce up and down 4km-long tubes dozens of times before being combined in a detector to make a pattern. A passing gravitational wave that squashes space-time by a tiny fraction of the radius of an atomic nucleus in one arm but not the other will make a discernible change to that pattern. Comparing measurements at the two sites could give a sense of the wave’s direction.

Step into the light

The aim is not just to detect gravitational waves—though that would be a spectacular achievement—but to learn about the processes that produce them, such as mergers of neutron stars and black holes. The strengths of the warping effects in such cataclysms are unlike anything seen to date; their observation would provide a whole new type of test for the theory.

And history suggests there should be completely unanticipated discoveries, too. Kip Thorne, a specialist in relativity at the California Institute of Technology and co-founder of LIGO, says that “every time we’ve opened a new window on the cosmos with new radiation, there have been unexpected surprises”. For example, the pioneers of radio astronomy had no inkling that they would discover a universe full of quasars—and thus black holes. A future global array of gravitational-wave observatories could open a whole new branch of observational astronomy.

A century ago general relativity answered no one’s questions except its creator’s. Many theories are hit upon by two or more people at almost the same time; but if Einstein had not devoted years to it, the curvature of space-time which is the essence of gravity might not have been discovered for decades. Now it has changed the way astronomers think about the universe, has challenged them to try and build theories to explain its origin, and even offered them new ways to inspect its contents. And still, it retains what most commended it to Einstein: its singular beauty revealed first to his eyes alone but appreciated today by all who have followed. “The Einstein equations of general relativity are his best epitaph and memorial,” Stephen Hawking has written. “They should last as long as the universe.”

The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was ‘us’, at least potentially. There was no longer ‘them’. The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers. They too tried to establish an order that would be applicable to everyone everywhere.

During the last three millennia, people made more and more ambitious attempts to realize that global vision. Let us begin with the story of the greatest conqueror in history, a conqueror possessed of extreme tolerance and adaptability, thereby turning people into ardent disciples.

This conqueror is money.

People who do not believe in the same God or obey the same king are more than willing to use the same money. Osama Bin Laden, for all his hatred of American culture, American religion and American politics, was very fond of American dollars.

How did money succeed where gods and kings failed?

In order to understand why, consider a hypothetical case. Assume that when regular trade opened between Mali and the Mediterranean, Malians were uninterested in gold, so it was almost worthless. But in the Mediterranean, gold was a coveted status symbol, hence its value was high. What would happen next? Merchants travelling between Mali and the Mediterranean would notice the difference in the value of gold. In order to make a profit, they would buy gold cheaply in Mali and sell it dearly in the Mediterranean. Consequently, the demand for gold in Mali would skyrocket, as would its value. At the same time, the Mediterranean would experience an influx of gold, whose value would consequently drop. Within a short time, the value of gold in Mali and the Mediterranean would be quite similar. The mere fact that Mediterranean people believed in gold would cause Malians to start believing in it as well. Even if Malians still had no real use for gold, the fact that Mediterranean people wanted it would be enough to make the Malians value it.

Similarly, the fact that another person believes in cowry shells, dollars, or electronic data, is enough to strengthen our own belief in them, even if that person is otherwise hated, despised or ridiculed by us. Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief because, whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.

That’s how money works. Cowry shells and banknotes have value only in our common imagination. Their worth is not inherent in the chemical structure of the shells and paper, their colour, or their shape. In other words, money isn’t a material reality – it is a psychological construct. It works by converting matter into mind. But why does it succeed? Why should anyone be willing to exchange a fertile rice paddy for a handful of useless cowry shells? Why are you willing to flip hamburgers, sell health insurance or babysit three obnoxious brats when all you get for your exertions is a few pieces of coloured paper?

People are willing to do such things when they trust the figments of their collective imagination. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted. When a wealthy farmer sold his possessions for a sack of cowry shells and travelled with them to another province, he trusted that upon reaching his destination other people would be willing to sell him rice, houses and fields in exchange for the shells. Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

Why do I believe in the cowry shell or gold coin or dollar bill? Because my neighbours believe in them. And my neighbours believe in them because I believe in them. And we all believe in them because our king believes in them and demands them in taxes and because our priest believes in them and demands them in tithes. We accept the dollar in payment because we trust in the US secretary of the treasury. The crucial role of trust explains why our financial systems are so tightly bound up with our political, social and ideological systems, why financial crises are often triggered by political developments, and why the stock market can rise or fall depending on the way traders feel on a particular morning.

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

Money is based on two universal principles:

  • Universal convertibility: with money as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge.
  • Universal trust: with money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project.

These principles have enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively in trade and industry. But these seemingly benign principles have a dark side. When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand.

Human communities and families have always been based on the belief in ‘priceless’ things, such as honour, loyalty, morality and love. These things lie outside the domain of the market, and they shouldn’t be bought or sold for money. Even if the market offers a good price, certain things just aren’t done. Parents mustn’t sell their children into slavery; a devout Christian must not commit a mortal sin; a loyal knight must never betray his lord, and ancestral tribal lands shall never be sold to foreigners.

Money has always tried to break through these barriers, like water seeping through cracks in a dam. Parents have been reduced to selling some of their children into slavery in order to buy food for others. Devout Christians have murdered, stolen and cheated – and later used their spoils to buy forgiveness from the Church. Ambitious knights auctioned their allegiance to the highest bidder while securing the loyalty of their own followers by cash payments. Tribal lands were sold to foreigners from the other side of the world in order to purchase an entry ticket into the global economy.

Money has an even darker side. Although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it. We do not trust the stranger or the next-door neighbour – we trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust. As money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace. Hence the economic history of humankind is a delicate dance. People rely on money to facilitate cooperation with strangers, but they’re afraid it will corrupt human values and intimate relations. On one hand, people willingly destroy the communal dams that held at bay the movement of money and commerce for so long. Yet, on the other hand, they build new dams to protect society, religion and the environment from enslavement by market forces.

It is common nowadays to believe that the market always prevails and that the dams erected by kings, priests and communities cannot long hold back the tides of money. This is naïve. Brutal warriors, religious fanatics and concerned citizens have repeatedly managed to trounce calculating merchants, and even reshape the economy. It is therefore impossible to understand the unification of humankind as a purely economic process. In order to understand how thousands of isolated cultures coalesced over time to form the global village of today, we must take into account the role of gold and silver, but we cannot disregard the equally crucial role of steel. Enter politics . . .

Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business right here in East Africa.

In the following millennia, it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.

Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on Earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens and usually caused immense misery to other animals.

In the last few decades we have at last made some real progress as far as the human condition is concerned, with the reduction of famine, plague and war. Yet the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before, and the improvement in a lot of humanity is too recent and fragile to be certain of.

Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles – but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea of what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

Our ancestors understood origins by extrapolating from their own experiences. How else could they have done it? So the Universe was hatched from a cosmic egg, or conceived in the sexual congress of a mother God and a father God, or was a kind of product of the Creator’s workshop—perhaps the latest of many flawed attempts. And the Universe was not much bigger than we see, and not much older than our written or oral records, and nowhere very different from places that we know.

We’ve tended in our cosmologies to make things familiar. Despite all our best efforts, we’ve not been very inventive. In the West, Heaven is placid and fluffy, and Hell is like the inside of a volcano. In many stories, both realms are governed by dominant hierarchies headed by gods or devils. Monotheists talked about the King of Kings. In every culture, we imagined something like our own political system running the Universe. Few found the similarity suspicious.

Then science came along and taught us that we are not the measure of all things, that there are wonders unimagined, and that the Universe is not obliged to conform to what we consider comfortable or plausible. We have learned something about the idiosyncratic nature of our common sense. Science has carried human self-consciousness to a higher level. This is surely a rite of passage, a step towards maturity. It contrasts starkly with the childishness and narcissism of our pre-Copernican notions.

And, again, if we’re not important, not central, not the apple of God’s eye, what is implied for our theologically based moral codes? The discovery of our true bearings in the Cosmos was resisted for so long and to such a degree that many traces of the debate remain, sometimes with the motives of the geocentrists laid bare.

What do we want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish. You might think that grown-ups would be ashamed to put such disappointments into print. The fashionable way of doing this is not to blame the Universe—which seems truly pointless—but rather to blame the means by which we know the Universe, namely science.

Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign. Its conclusions derive from the interrogation of nature and are not in all cases predesigned to satisfy our wants.

We recognize that even revered religious leaders, the products of their time as we are of ours, may have made mistakes. Religions contradict one another on small matters, such as whether we should put on a hat or take one off on entering a house of worship, or whether we should eat beef and eschew pork or the other way around, all the way to the most central issues, such as whether there are no Gods, one God, or many gods.

If you lived two or three millennia ago, there was no shame in holding that the Universe was made for us. It was an appealing thesis consistent with everything we knew; it was what the most learned among us taught without qualification. But we have found out much since then. Defending such a position today amounts to willful disregard of the evidence, and a flight from self-knowledge.

We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident.

Our time is burdened under the cumulative weight of successive debunking of our conceits:

  • We’re Johnny-come-latelies
  • We live in the cosmic boondocks
  • We emerged from microbes and muck
  • Apes are our cousins
  • Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control
  • There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere.
  • On top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.

The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. We are lost in great darkness, and there’s no one to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course, we’re tempted to shut our eyes and pretend that we’re safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream.

Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors:

  • We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang and plumb the fine structure of matter.
  • We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star.
  • We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth.
  • We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our own origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects.
  • We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death.
  • We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions.
  • We communicate at the speed of light and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half.
  • We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars.

To our ancestors, there was much in nature to be afraid of—lightning, storms, earthquakes, volcanos, plagues, drought and long winters. Religions arose in part as attempts to propitiate and control, if not much to understand, the disorderly aspect of nature.

How much more satisfying had we been placed in a garden custom-made for us, its other occupants put there for us to use as we saw fit? There is a celebrated story in the Western tradition like this, except that not quite everything was there for us. There was one particular tree of which we were not to partake, a tree of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding and wisdom were forbidden to us in this story. We were to be kept ignorant. But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. This was the origin of all our troubles. In particular, it is why we no longer live in a garden: We found out too much. So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming swords were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever.

There is in this Universe much of what seems to be designed. But instead, we repeatedly discover that natural processes—the collisional selection of worlds, say, or natural selection of gene pools, or even the convection pattern in a pot of boiling water—can extract order out of chaos, and deceive us into deducing purpose where there is none.

The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a parent to care for us, to forgive us for our errors, and to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.

If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.