Over three hundred people braved freezing temperatures to come to University of Leicester and attend a talk by renowned physicist, writer and broadcaster, Jim Al-Khalili. Despite picking their way through heavy traffic, it was certainly worth it as Professor Al-Khalili tackled a physicist’s view of free will in a lecture entitled Written in the Stars: How to live happily in a deterministic Universe.
The event was organised by the East Midlands Branch committee of the IOP and was hosted by the University of Leicester. Jim was introduced by branch’s Leicester centre member, Darren Wright, and Leicester University Pro-VC for Strategic Science Projects, Martin Barstow. It was the third in the branch’s series of annual prestige lectures – in previous years delivered in Nottingham by Matt Taylor from the Rosetta comet mission, and in Derby by physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster, Helen Czerski.
With ongoing discussions between neuroscientists and philosophers on the existence, or not, of free will, and with so many people, even in the so-called ‘enlightened’ West, still believing that their fate is somehow linked to the movements of the stars and planets, what does modern physics have to say on the matter of determinism and chance? Is our future preordained?
Despite the heavyweight material, Jim delivered it in his usual accessible style, while never giving the impression of dumbing anything down. He started with Newton and the idea of a “clockwork universe” where, if you know the position and state of motion of all the particles in that universe, then it should be theoretically possible to compute its state at any point in the future. Building on this he went, via Pierre-Simon Laplace and his future predicting demon*, to Einstein and his block universe of four-dimensional spacetime. Wherein, if space is 4-dimensional then someone observing from outside could see all future and past points – in the same way someone outside a 3-dimensional structure could see the whole structure.
But could quantum mechanics, resting as it does in the realms of chance and probability, provide the fuzziness that might give us back an open future, and with it our free will? Or maybe chaos theory could lend a hand in the rescue? You can watch the lecture in full below and find out the conclusions Jim shared with us.
*We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
—Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities
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