Anna Denejkina

Month: May, 2014

I saw a Cuddly Atheist: The Paradoxically inclined Physicist

Written for @ The Festival

Originally published in 2014

When I got on the morning train to Circular Quay I was already running late, and the two-minute wait and the two-stop ride were annoyingly long.

In the tin can I met a little old lady who waddled into my carriage.

“I only have one stop, dear,” she said, noticing me make more room for her to sit down.

I didn’t ask her name, but we spoke. She was on her way to a walk with a group of friends. The final destination was a birthday picnic.

Her tiny frame was weighed down by a greatly sized backpack that would weigh me down. And before we made it to our last stop she sang me a song, told me that every day is a positive, and that I may meet someone special at the festival.

Walking off the train she wished me a good day and, slowly shuffling, moved on and on to find her friends.

I would have preferred to spend my next two hours with her, rather than standing in line on a pier: she could sing me songs while we ate sandwiches and cake.

Having never made a sober walk to Walsh Bay I followed a map and three rounds of asking for directions: a cackle of older women ready for a day on the town; a man selling coffee; a festival volunteer.

My destination was a two-fold line-up to get into the event.

I overheard an attendee speaking to a woman two bodies in front: This is a whole-day event; we can only let in the number that comes out.

She proposed listening to the live airing with headphones; I proposed she was a wizard.

But I did ask myself why I didn’t stay in my apartment and listen to the live airing with headphones.

Conversations with Richard Fidler began as the line shuffled to its first bend, at which point the oldest attendees in the waiting queue started sneaking into the venue through curtained walls. After sneaky glances at their friends they literally tiptoed into the show, and a small, old wave began to follow.

Hilarious, I thought, as more and more entered the space.

Finding an empty spot in the back, wooden corner with my fellow rule-breakers, I couldn’t believe the unanimous age of the crowd: not young. Silver hair littered the room as I spotted the only child in my vicinity and a man looking like the younger version of Geoffrey Rush in profile.

 

***

 

As president of the British Humanist Association (BHA) since 2013 — a UK “charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity,” — Jim Al-Khalili calls himself a cuddly Atheist, and “someone who doesn’t feel the need to tell you that what you believe in is stupid.”

Born in 1962, Baghdad, Iraq, Jim Al-Khalili is a British scientist, broadcaster, author, humanist and professor of Physics at the University of Surrey. He pronounces that free will is an illusion, that the universe does not, in fact, have a purpose and that “quantum physics is beautiful.”

Today, he is part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, discussing his latest book,  Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science, published in 2012.

Al-Khalili began with the first paradox of the hour: “The Riddle of the Missing Dollar,” the root of which was laid in three friends paying for one room with $30, split evenly, but with their clerk forgetting that he should have charged them $25 only, for the night.

The clerk wants to return the $5, but as it cannot be split evenly he decides to keep $2, and allocate $1 to each friend in the group.

The issue we are left with: “each of the three friends will have contributed $9 toward the room. That makes $27 that the hotel has made, and the receptionist has a further $2, which makes $29. What has happened to the last dollar out of the original $30?”

Chuckles washed over the audience, the answer would come at the end of the show, but bothered me over the better part of the hour.

Numerous explanations of paradoxes came in following: Schrödinger’s Cat; Achilles and the Tortoise; why is the night sky dark; the Grandfather Paradox of the time travelling murderer – which “science hasn’t quite resolved yet,” and which resulted in a few chuckles from the crowd.

“Our universe is not the only reality,” he explained, speaking of parallel universes and our infinite futures and pasts. “Therefore, changing the past means you would slip into a different reality;” that is our answer.

Coming near the end of the hour Richard Fidler began a conversation directly about Jim Al-Khalili and his life, giving glimpses into his profile.

Two weeks after Saddam Hussein’s entry into office in 1979, Al-Khalili’s family left the country in the hot summer of early-July.

“My dad knew we had to get out then, or we wouldn’t get out at all.”

Despite this playing one part of his heritage, and despite his happy childhood, Al-Khalili has not returned to his birthplace since that long-lost summer.

To this date, he does not feel a strong desire to return. But, perhaps one day, would like to revisit old childhood haunts.

“Baghdad of the 60s and 70s – I had a very happy childhood.

“We lived under a dictatorship, let’s not beat about the bush, but this was pre-Saddam… [and] under a benign dictatorship you just learnt to keep your head down, you learnt not to criticize the government.

“But otherwise, for me, as a kid growing up, English was the language indoors – we had BBC World Service on all the time; at home we spoke English; [when I] stepped outside, I spoke Arabic.”

This conversation held me like no other of the day.

 

***

 

A swift turn back to the dialogue of the paradox, Fidler and Al-Khalili discussed one of a super-computer, and its prediction of the future.

“Modern physics would tell us, that – quantum mechanics aside, (‘cause that’s constrained down to the world of atoms and I’m talking about the everyday world) – … we live in a deterministic universe. The future is fixed, but we can never predict it; we can never anticipate what would happen,” he said.

Closing the show Fidler requested the answer to the initial paradox of “The Riddle of the Missing Dollar,” an answer succinctly put in Jim Al-Khalili’s book, Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science, and one which he expected to receive a groan for from the audience:

“You see, the puzzle only sounds paradoxical because of the misleading way it is stated. The error in the reasoning is that I added the $27 dollars to the $2 taken by the receptionist… The receptionist’s $2 should be subtracted from the $27 paid by the friends, leaving $25, which is the amount in the till.”

Sun Ra Neophyte

“Vodka on the rocks, please.”

“Vodka on the rocks,” he said to the barkeep.

Hart wore his usual get-up: black winkle-pickers, warn and rugged. Black denim jeans, stained with the scratching of asphalt, following numerous falls from a skateboard as he zoomed through city traffic. A black button-down shirt and a black hat, which was now as old as the barfly sitting at the corner of the bar, looking longingly into his beer. Hart’s outfit was always accented with three things: a gold ring, shaped into a head of a lion and holding a large diamond between its scowl, (this was a ring he would never hock, “a gift from my Father,” he would say), his swindling smile, and I’m-up-to-no-good eyes which would send women into a frenzy of flirtation and panty-dropping.

We took our drinks outside the old Devonshire Street bar, now crawling with yuppies and hipsters, and us.

I’ve always romanticized the idea of drinking vodka over rocks with the stealth of a rich man, wearing a three-thousand-dollar-suit and a signet ring stamped with his family crest. Unfortunately the sipping jerked my body, but years of practice meant that I could hide the physical convulsions and keep the piercing gag-reflex on the inside.

As I took my third sip and blinked with one eye to hide the pain, I became involved in obligatory introductions and a mind-numbing conversation. These conversations are now too familiar and too scripted after years of summaries and pleasantries with people you hope to never see again, and, if you do, by some chance run into them while buying coffee, simply pretend to have a different name and make them feel that they are crazy as you take your demented high-road out.

As I stood people watching I noticed that a friend-of-a-friend, Kate, was waving at me with a flailing arm, helter-skelter eyes and a grin from-ear-to-ear.

“I was asked on a date tonight”, she exclaimed, “but I don’t like the guy, he is a bit creepy.”

“But you would get a free dinner, and can always get a head ache at the end of the night,” I said.

Our back-and-forth banter resulted in her stumbling home for a nap before her date, after which she would mysteriously develop a head ache, a stomach pain from the food she ate, begin to feel tired and start her ride on the crimson wave, all at once.

Three cigarettes later we were riding in a mini-van taxi. I remember feeling nauseated from facing the back of the van on the swift five-minute trip.

As we pulled up to the venue I was pushed and shoved by an oblivious crowd stuck in their highly excited conversations of the forthcoming entertainment. As I looked at my surroundings, it felt like time stopped and restarted in slow motion: everyone around me hosted an exaggerated smile while slowly turning their heads over their shoulders to look at the crowd who was in turn looking at them with their own I-am-devastatingly-excited grins.

I would normally associate the State Theatre with a calm commotion of ticket gathering, media pass arguments and bar line-ups. But this evening the crowd was moving along as if pushed into a cattle hold, waiting; then stumbling over each other, so slowly as if halted by unseen walls after each step.

“Is this the line for screwed up tickets?” a man yelled in my direction.

I pretended not to hear him, as I stepped and stopped, and slithered through conversations and crazy-eyes. They were everywhere, with grinning, slimy teeth. My aversion to crowds made me realize that I had forgotten to leave my apartment in far too long, preferring to sit under a blanket spying into the windows of the building across the airway.

“Two Coopers,” said Hart.

“No Coopers.”

“Two Heinekens.”

“Two Heinekens,” echoed the bartender: an elderly lady with a blonde bob now dotted with ashy roots and strands of hair.

Drinking our premium-priced cheap beers we walked further into the overwhelming setting of the theatre, which turns time to a bygone era, until you notice a t-shirt and flip-slops, styled with a well-groomed beard and a pair of round reading glasses, which promptly takes you back to 2014, Sydney.

After finding our seats and being told to turn off my flash when taking photographs, I noticed that the conversations around me signified that everyone suddenly became an expert on the history of the theatre, and its architecture.

“It’s the largest chandelier in the Southern Hemisphere,” came a voice from my left, shooting to the woman on my right who nodded in mesmerized agreement.  The Koh-I-Nor cut crystal chandelier in question is noted as the second largest in this world, and at four tonnes can cause utter carnage on this crowd. I felt safe, however, as I sat in the safe stalls, away from the chandelier’s glare.

Finally the lights turned low, and I prepared myself for the progressive, avant-garde jazz of the Sun Ra Arkestra. An ensemble that tends to be described first with a pause, then an elongated “well” and a finally a crooked smile with a simultaneous raise of the eyes, while searching for the right words.

Lead by Marshall Allen, raging on his saxophone at the age of 89, the 12-unit big band sauntered on to the stage drenched in style before an audience of the mid-aged, the young and the old. The latter finding the groove from the get-go.

Since the 50s the Arkestra has shared their experimental jazz of mythology and interplanetary music, and it was easy to spot those in the crowd who shared a deeper connection to this music than the rest, as they moved and they clapped with a palpable love.

The stage went red as I turned to look at the seats behind me. No one smiled as I spun in their direction and awkwardly pretended to look above them. “I’m not the only Sun Ra-neophyte,” I thought, as I twisted back into my chair before swiftly turning around again to see if I could catch a trance caught in a grin. But nothing, still.

I looked to the woman on my left, her eyebrows danced like little caterpillars under the bright red lights of the theatre. The stage was littered with sequins, capes, light, and embroidered hats; all glimmering under red light bulbs, crawling beams and smoke.

As I followed the music I noticed a redhead in the row in front and to my right. She was convulsing in her chair with a wide-open smile. I wished that I understood the music as she did, and then I pondered her sobriety – she could be high, after all.

“Definitely need to be on drugs for this,” Hart yelled into my ear.

The bobbing heads of white-haired punters highlighted the crowd; I found this oddly mesmerizing before I began to dread the end of the show: I didn’t want to force myself to say something pseudo-intelligent about the music to my clique for the night, or get stuck dissecting the performance to prove an understanding of jazz.

As the lights went up, Hart and I took the emergency exit and walked through the alleyway to the main street, finally leaving the crowd behind. As we stood outside I noticed the marquee had already changed. The show is over, and no one cared.

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