I can report that the Belgian coast is an excellent holiday destination, especially if excursions to Bruges (phenomenal) and Brussels (pretty interesting) can be added. The first stop on our Brussels trip was at the Atomium – the famous architectural masterpiece built originally for the 1958 Expo. We were assured by our tour guide that this building shows what things look like “if magnified very big.”
To be fair, our guide was perfect on history, culture and local knowledge. To be even more fair, she was only confirming an impression held by the majority of people – that underneath reality as we perceive it there is a reliably solid world of atoms held together by equally solid bonds. These may be intangible but, apart from that, are fairly simple.
The Atomium is a great architectural monument but this impression of simple solidity was false, according to the science, even when it was built. Even more so today, we are aware that reality is a complex interweaving of fields, which may sometimes be considered, paradoxically, as particles. Friendly old fields like gravity and electromagnetism may be understood as the exchange of virtual particles.
On the cosmic scale, we now have to imagine dark energy and dark matter – so-called because they are undetectable in any direct way. Ideally, the Atomium should represent probability with its parts moving around somewhat, perhaps disappearing altogether now and again. However, this would be off-putting to tourists, who like to know that the bar will definitely be there when they reach the top of the escalator.
According to the official Atomium website the structure “…has a rare quality of lifting everyone’s spirits and firing their imagination.” I agree – but if we are to talk about the structure of things then our imaginations need a supplementary picture. My candidate for the job is the Belgian bun.
This pastry offers an image of a more or less uniform dough with occasional sultanas representing galaxies. At a subatomic level these could be the quantum foam and virtual particles respectively. The overall shape represents the curvature of space-time. I’m not sure what the icing does, so it shall simply be explained by calling it ‘dark icing’. Incidentally, the Belgian bun is not to be found in Belgium, but there is something similar known as the “Swiss Biscuit” – this speaks eloquently of the dual nature of our perception of reality.
This is all good fun, but with a serious point. In our culture it is not the findings of science that have the greatest influence, but the general perception of what science says. My bun illustration has just as much merit from a scientific point of view as the outdated idea that the Atomium represents the underlying structure of reality “if magnified very big” – but we have been so indoctrinated with a mechanical understanding of reality that anything else seems ridiculous.
It also seems ridiculous, of course, to think of a universal mind, of the sort we often call God, interacting with a strictly mechanical universe. Those steel spheres and tubes shout out ‘impersonal’. It seems to me that scientists have been quite careful not to make too public the paradigm shift that took place in the twentieth century, which moved away from the old certainties into new areas which seem to have mystery built into them. I wonder why?
Image of Atomium © http://www.atomium.be – SABAM 2012 – photographed by the author.