From Physics to Pari: A Continuing Search for Answers

F. David Peat

I grew up in wartime Liverpool, in a suburb of the city that was bombed night after night. But some of my earliest and fondest memories were of the earth and sky; staring up at the stars or lying on my stomach and looking at insects, grass and soil. I felt happy if I went home with earth under my fingernails—nature, matter and the physical world were warm and protective places to me.

It was at my aunt’s house that I first learned about science. My aunt had a microscope with a collection of slides. It had a little mirror at the bottom that you had to tilt to bring in the light. This was before I could read and write and so my aunt would turn over the pictures of a book, The Marvels and Mysteries of Science, with its photographs of the moon and planets, its cutaways of volcanoes, cells, the atom, and its drawings of the body as a little factory. My aunt would tell me the story behind each photograph and diagram.  I was particularly interested in the fact that we were made out of protons and electrons. It seemed to my mind, at the time, that we must all be made of electricity, which was not like any other concrete substance at all. I suppose that still remains a puzzle even today!

I experienced great delight in playing with the substances of nature. But there was another element in my childhood—the puzzles that surrounded the tensions within my family. The writer Beryl Bainbridge told me that she experienced similar mysteries growing up—she found a resolution in becoming a novelist; my solution lay in science as a means of providing answers.

Science had a lot to say about the universe. It would help me to answer those burning childhood questions. I would stare up at the streetlamp and wonder what it meant if the light where to go on forever. Did it reach the edge of the universe? And what did that mean? My teachers were books on popular science like Sir James Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe, in which I found a real sense of the imaginative side to science, a deep aesthetic feeling of how things fit together and the beauty of a scientific explanation.

University was a disappointment. I had expected more in terms of challenges and intellectual debate. Towards the end of my bachelor’s degree I began to do research work in experimental chemistry and on encountering a small theoretical problem decided to solve it myself. This brought me in contact with a theoretician, Tom Grimley, and I soon discovered that theoretical physics was my true interest.

From then on I was on a conventional career as a young scientist in Canada, applying quantum theory to molecules and solids. I lived in the world of theoretical physics but sometimes found my discussions with other scientists unrewarding: our talks together never seemed to penetrate to ‘that question that lies below the question.’ Yet when I was with artists things changed, we seemed to be able to plunge together from level to level and encounter something that was truly profound.

Engaging in scientific research was involving, but it was also important to ask what science was about and why our society devotes so much money and effort in its pursuit? The development of technology was only a partial answer. Far more essential was that encounter with mystery, with something lying at the essence of things and I felt that this attitude was something I could share with artists. This need for a dialogue continued all my life, with artists such as Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, Marina Abramovic, Janine Antoni, Sarij Izhar, Ansuman Biswas and Bruce Gilchrist.

In 1971 I spent a year’s sabbatical in London attending Roger Penrose’s seminars on twistor theory. At the same time I met David Bohm and began a series of conversations that lasted until his death. With Penrose I realised the extent to which the human imagination could explore the abstract and the beauty therein. With Bohm we began to explore the underlying foundations of quantum theory and to seek a unity of mind and matter. This resonated well with my interest in Jungian theory and the relationship between the psychologist Carl Jung and the physicist Wolfgang Pauli.

On returning to Canada I became increasingly restless with the theoretical work going on around me. I wanted to range deeper and wider, to integrate the various things I was learning. So I resigned and became an ‘independent scholar’—supporting myself by writing books and taking on research contracts. Writing books was important for it is said that if you want to learn something new you have two choices—teach a course or write a book. Books helped me to discover what it was I already knew in a subliminal way.

This period also opened the door to discussions with Native American elders, which culminated in dialogue circles with scientists involving Blackfoot, Ojibwaj, Micmaq and Iroquois. It was a period of mutual exploration of our respective worldviews and resulted in my book Blackfoot Physics. There were many things held in common amongst indigenous people—respect for the earth, seeing nature as alive, coming into relationship with knowledge, having a ‘map in the head’ (a history and worldview of a particular region) and the importance of ‘belonging’ to a certain geographical place. But it is also true that a particular worldview or science is deeply connected to the language those societies speak— ‘if you want to know our science you must know our language.’ The language was veiled for someone who had not grown up in such a community. It’s not that difficult to learn French, German or Italian for Europeans share a very similar worldview—but to learn Mohawk or Blackfoot would be to learn a very different way of thinking.

I could never ‘see’ the world of the Blackfoot but at least I could use what I was learning to look back at my own world and realise that so much of what I knew and took for granted was not inevitable but the result of particular historical and cultural constructs. This gave me a fresh perspective with which to see my own society and science.

Here I want to make an important point. There is much confusion about the notion of cultural relativism. It is true that ‘Western science’ is a construct growing out of particular European concerns and attitudes that has come, through its technology, to dominate much of the world. But from here we cannot jump to the conclusion that the results and theories of science are in some way only ‘true’ for the West.

This is not the case. The results of Western science are objective and must be ‘true’ for any culture. The freezing point of pure water, the speed of light and the second law of thermodynamics are objectively true no matter where the measurement is made and no matter the belief system of any particular scientist. Just because your worldview is different, this does not mean that water will freeze ‘for you’ at a different temperature. These facts of nature are not open to any interpretation based on cultural relativism. What is, however, relative are the sorts of questions asked and the way theories are created.

To take a case in point, the second law of thermodynamics arose following the French revolution, when the English were already advanced in the building of machinery as the result of their own Industrial Revolution. French engineers, working to improve the efficiency of machines, discovered objective laws that governed the limits of this efficiency and found they were related to the temperature differences between a heat source and sink. Thus this law, while nevertheless being objective, very much reflects European concerns at the start of the 19th century and arose out of the questions posed from a particular social and political mindset.

Imagine scientists in India who observe the efficient way in which nature extracts enormous tons of water from the Indian Ocean that later fall in monsoons to irrigate the Indian subcontinent. Such scientists, having different concerns, could well have created an alternative approach to the relationship between heat and work (thermodynamics). This science would come up with different basic concepts and different laws. In turn these laws would be equally objective and therefore testable by scientists in other cultures and with diverse belief systems.

Sciences, from whatever culture, will always have an objective side but the questions they frame and the procedures they adopt will be deeply influenced by the culture in which they flourish.

Throughout the 1990s my interest in science became increasingly about such questions as what is science doing, what is it all about, what is the meaning of the scientific mind? Can science present a complete account of the natural world or is some complementary approach required? What are the limits to knowing? Can science have an end? And what about the education of individual scientists? This seems so different from that of the humanities, for one can obtain a doctoral degree without ever bothering about the history of science or concerning oneself about the implications about what one is doing, the values, ethics and morals involved.

I moved to London and spent much of my time talking to artists and to psychologists. With artists I was concerned with the question ‘where is the matter—what is its nature in art and in science?’ and with the question ‘where is the art?’ Is it present in the artist, the art object, the observer or some complex process involving all three? A similar question was occurring in psychology—just where does the healing take place, in what special space?

But beyond this I wanted to discover the nature of that space in which there is total engagement with one’s work. That space which transcends any division between what could be called art, or music, or writing, or science, or psychology, or even the spiritual. That space that moves beyond the I and the other, the inner and outer. This was my other level of engagement with artists, indeed, I have always found the account of Cézanne painting by the river bank, moving his head from side to side, and attempting to remain totally honest to his ‘little sensations’ to be a true and accurate account of the scientific spirit.

My final move was to the small hilltop village of Pari, in Italy, where I have been living for the last six years. Probably my wife, who had always wanted to live in Italy, precipitated this, or perhaps it was the desire to live in a small community after always living in cities. Or maybe it was a challenge given to me by some Native Americans who had asked if Europeans had always been that way—with ‘hard minds’ as they called it, and seemingly disconnected from the earth. Was there a time when Europeans had also been ‘indigenous people’? Freud argued that dreams are ‘overdetermined.’ That is, one can discover a convincing explanation but that does not rule out a number of other convincing and equally ‘true’ explanations. Likewise our move to Pari, was the result of a complex web of factors.

At all events we are now part of a community of some 250 people in a village that has been around for at least 800 years. By tradition it was a place of peasant farming, a community in which the land provided everything, and commerce was based on a system of barter. It is a community in which family names go back for centuries. A daily life, which is determined by the heat of the sun and the seasons. It is a village of festivals and communal dinners. It is a community in which policies are decided as people sit around the square in the evening.

It is a good place in which to think and from which to write. With the internet I am connected with the whole world, yet I can step outside my door and almost feel I am living in the middle ages. The writer Carlo Levi once said ‘the future has an ancient heart’ and this is the motto we have adopted for the Pari Center for New Learning, a place where people can not only attend courses and conferences but also spend time to reflect on where our society and  its values are heading. Over the past year we have been asking questions about globalisation and economic stability, the role of ethics in business, the failure of the universities to fulfil their traditional role and the importance of an educational system that produces a more rounded person.

Increasingly my own reflections lead me to feel that it is time for our society to pause, to suspend the immediate desire for action and reaction to consider where it is heading and where it has come from. It is a time for each one of us to assume more responsibility for our society, our technology, and our desire for progress. I feel that what is needed is a new form of action I have called ‘gentle action.’

I have more or less come to the end of the story; at least for now. I began this journey by looking through a microscope and by gazing at pictures as my aunt turned the pages of a book, I thought about the problem of evil and my aunt explained Plato’s notion of government. I chose science as a vocation, and for many years thought hard about the nature of matter. I met David Bohm. I sat in a tepee and talked to North American elders. I visited artists’ studios and am still planning collaborative endeavours with some of them. Creative people in a variety of organizations have supported my endeavours, often simply because they liked the ideas. I came as a stranger to the village of Pari and was openly and warmly received. Our plans to create a cultural centre met with total cooperation. In turn, I have now begun to think about of such things as ethics, gentle action, and the future of the world. We have embarked on a publishing venture. Most of the good thing that occurred in my life were freely given to me through the generosity of others.

I thank you all. 

F. David Peat 2006