2014 / Saturday

The Cuddly Atheist: A Paradoxically inclined Physicist

Anna Denejkina

Richard Fidler

Richard Fidler

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. A little old lady waddled into my carriage. “I only have one stop, dear,” she said, noticing me make room for her to sit down.

I didn’t ask her name, but we spoke. She was off to walk with a group of friends, her tiny frame weighed down by a greatly sized backpack; the final destination was a birthday picnic. Before we made it to our stop, she sang me a song, told me that every day is a positive, and that I may meet someone special at the festival. Then she wished me a good day and, slowly shuffling, moved on.

I would have preferred to spend my next two hours with her, rather than standing in line on Walsh Bay pier. My destination was Conversations: Richard Fidler with Jim Al-Khalili, but there was long line of folks ahead of me in the queue. I asked myself why I hadn’t stayed at home and listened to the event on ABC Radio.

Fidler’s guest for the live festival broadcast is the current president of the British Humanist Association, an organisation “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”. He is the author of Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science, published in 2012.

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, he is a scientist, broadcaster, writer, humanist and Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey. Al-Khalili says free will is an illusion; the universe does not, in fact, have a purpose, and that “quantum physics is beautiful”.

Today, he starts with a paradox entitled, The Riddle of the Missing Dollar. Three friends pay for one room with $30, split evenly between them, but the receptionist forgets that he should have only charged $25 for the night. The receptionist wants to return the $5, but as it cannot be evenly divided he decides to keep $2, and allocate $1 to each of the friends.

The resulting dilemma: Each of the three friends has contributed $9 towards the room. “That means the hotel has made $27 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 followed: Schrödinger’s Cat; Achilles and the Tortoise; why the night sky is dark; and the Grandfather Paradox of the time travelling murderer – which “science hasn’t quite resolved yet”. “Our universe is not the only reality,” Al-Khalili said, referring to parallel universes and finite futures and pasts. “Therefore, changing the past means you would slip into a different reality.”

Towards the end of the hour, Richard Fidler begins a conversation with Al-Khalili about his life. He has previously spoken of his “bordering on agnostic Muslim” father and Christian mother, who, two weeks after Saddam Hussein took office in 1979, 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.” Al-Khalili has not returned to his birthplace since and, to date, he does not feel a strong desire to return.

But, perhaps one day, he would like to revisit old childhood haunts. “Baghdad of the 60s and 70s – I had a very happy childhood,” he said. “We lived under a dictatorship, let’s not beat about the bush, but this was pre-Saddam. Under a benign dictatorship you just learnt to keep your head down, you learnt not to criticise the government. But, for me, as a kid growing up, English was the language indoors – we had the BBC World Service on all the time. At home we spoke English; when I stepped outside, I spoke Arabic.”

Then Fidler and Al-Khalili turned their attention to the paradox of the supercomputer, and its ability or otherwise to predict the future.

“Modern physics would tell us that –quantum mechanics aside (because 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.

To finish the show, Fidler requested the answer to the Riddle of the Missing Dollar. Al-Khalili was prepared for the groan 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.”