Unlikely Connections

1. Beer and quantum mechanics
2. Holism and a South African Prime Minister
3. From Star Wars to Starlab

It has been said that creativity resides in bringing together what may seem at first to be unrelated.

The Surrealists believed that the essence of beauty was ‘a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’.

Often some stretching and shoe-horning is involved to make connections mesh, but here are three rather quaint links.

Unlikely connections 1

Beer and quantum mechanics

"Of course you want to write about beer," said Touch de Clercq, Starlab’s Marketing Manager, and the designer of this website. "Every writer who comes to Belgium wants to write about beer."

"But I want to write about the supreme importance of beer to quantum mechanics," I said.

"Oh," Touch said. "No, true, nobody has written about that."

About 80 years ago, a physicist called Niels Bohr needed to establish an Institute where he could work on discoveries in the quantum realm which were too astounding for words. (That is literally true in his case. He had immense difficulty finding the language for the conduct of subatomic particles. He had immense difficulty finding the language for anything, as it happens)

At such times, it is always helpful if some millionaire or mega-rich organisation sponsors the necessary research.

Well, a big company did appear, and sponsored the lot: visits by some of the world's greatest physicists and thinkers, who were given space for experiments, time for lengthy discussions, even a treasured ping-pong table. It was out of work done at that legendary Institute that there emerged Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the vast majority of the early, dramatic revelations of quantum mechanics.

The money funded one of the greatest revolutions in the history of science

And it all came from Carlsberg. Who make beer.

Postscript: Chris van den Broeck, a quantum physicist? received his first paycheck at Starlab, and e-mailed us all, saying that at the last place he worked, when newcomers got their initial salary they would organise a little party. "As good an excuse as any to get together," he continued, "and get drunk."

What was this last den of iniquity? Why, the University of Leuven, for centuries one of the most respected academic establishments in the world. And his colleagues were all high-level physicists. You would have thought that they needed to keep their minds clear for all those calculations. No, said Chris, even their computer terminals were named after beers.

Now most of us have come to accept that we exist within 4 dimensions. Physicists these days these days may well have to consider 11 or 12 dimensions. And, what’s more, some of them actually believe in what is known as the ‘many worlds’ interpretation. Yet, bravely, they do not consider getting drunk to be redundant.

And it is probably right and proper that from time to time the less abstemious members of the physics community raise a glass or several in honour of beer.

Unlikely connections 2

Holism and a South African Prime Minister

The modern fad of Holism – most often applied to magic, medicines and massage - is just the rehashing of a very old idea from the Chinese, the Babylonians, the Hebrews and the Homeric Greeks

But the term - and a version of the philosophy - was devised and written down in 1926 in a book by a soldier and lawyer who was also twice Prime Minister of South Africa. His name was Jan Christiaan Smuts. Pause for laughter at the name. Move on.

[Explanatory note: Holists are people who are interested in the whole picture – except when it comes to the letter ’w’. And as time goes on more and more holists are likely to come of the (w)ood(w)ork.-
[Strictly speaking holism is a principle stating that a ‘part’ is understandable only in its relationship to the ‘whole’, and that the ‘whole’ is greater than the sum of all the ‘parts’.-
[If you do not have the kind of mind that enjoys complications skip this paragraph, but, the way it was originally put, each ‘parts’ was actually called a ‘whole’, and all of those ‘wholes’ that make up other ‘wholes’ go to make up a ‘wholeness’ that is greater than the sum of the ‘wholes’. You may now wish to lie down for an entire day]

The media – in Britain and South Africa at least - will undoubtedly be commemorating the fact that the Boer War commenced 100 years ago on October 11th 1899.

Jan Christiaan Smuts was one of the Boer Commandants, and by 1902, he was keen to make peace with the British. Since the British had herded the Boer women and children into the world’s first concentration camps, persuading the Boers to accept a peace was no easy task, but he succeeded.

The British came to love him. Within twenty years Smuts had become a British statesman, a general, and then South Africa’s Prime Minister. His statue stands now in Parliament Square, opposite Westminster Abbey, just yards from that of Winston Churchill.

It was in 1926, after losing an election and with time on his hands that he wrote his book, ‘Holism and Evolution’.

Holism does seem to be reaching out towards Eastern philosophy.

And it just so happened that, visiting from eastern climes, in South Africa between 1893 and 1913, the most powerful opponent Smuts faced was a brilliant Indian lawyer; None other than Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi.

Smuts, an averagely racist Afrikaner, in reply to Gandhi's campaign for Indian rights, spoke out against the ‘Asiatic cancer’ which was ‘gnawing the bowels of civilisation’ (!)

Poetic justice was done in the late nineteen forties. An Indian representative to the very United Nations which Smuts had helped to create, spoke about the racism of Smuts and his South African regime.

It was especially embarrassing since Smuts had a tremendous reputation. He had helped to establish the British Commonwealth, the League of Nations and the United Nations. He had warned against Nazism and against the bomb. And he had written the great human rights Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations.

It would be too neat to create a symmetrical irony by saying that ‘holism’ emerged out of ‘apartheid’. In fact the greater irony is that the racist Smuts was defeated by the adherents of apartheid, who considered him too liberal.

Smuts gave general currency to the term ‘ecology’ as well. But he was himself in some ways out of tune with nature. Time and again thinkers provide us with these ironies.

The Holist was divided within himself.

Unlikely connections 3

Star Wars To Starlab

A Starlab Researcher writes:

I was actually in the movie Star Wars. Playing a very small part. No big deal, really.

It’s just that people still ask me about it, and I get at least one letter a week asking for an autograph. If anything wakes a conversation up – especially when I am teaching in the States, it’s hearing – that is, teasing the hell out of me – about Star Wars.

No, I was not a shaggy beastie. All I’ll say is that only one line of what I said remains in the movie

I have done a great many other things in my life. But often in mid-sentence someone will gasp: ‘Were you really in Star Wars?!’

I try to turn the conversation around, try to talk about the Power of Myth and so on. But a much more pertinent storytelling exercise. Sum up a person’s life in a single sentence, the way families do, as in:

  • ‘He peaked at kindergarten’,
  • ‘She was a minor poet’,
  • One I actually heard in England: ‘He failed and went to America’

Well, you know what I don’t want my sentence to be…

That’s why I am at Starlab. See that guy. He works for Starlab.

(He’s also done a couple of other things here and there)

NEXT WEEK: What it was like filming Star Wars