I saw a Cuddly Atheist: The Paradoxically inclined Physicist

by Anna Denejkina

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.”

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