29 June 2009

The idea of Italy and quantum theory

Just as important as choosing a good holiday book is timing the finishing of your old book, so you can dip into your new read as the plane prepares for takeoff. For my recent trip to Italy, I mistimed this slightly, and ended up finishing off a book on quantum theory* as I travelled to Verona. So as I jetted off, I was trying to wind up thoughts on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Bosons versus Fermions, and the non-existence of gravity ahead of a weekend of sightseeing and opera.

But actually it was a better complement for the visit than I had thought, as I sat in Verona airport during a 2.5 hour delay caused by, apparently, nothing at all. As you will all no doubt know, there is a contradiction at the heart of quantum theory - whereby particles can not only be in two states at the same time, but in two places at the same time. Furthermore, the whole universe is held together by the balance of matter and anti-matter, particles and anti-particles who annihilate each other upon meeting. To many scientists, the only way to adequately explain the freaky things that happen at the atomic level is the existence of parallel universes.

If this is true, then somewhere there is another Britain made of achingly beautiful cities, serving delicious, cared-for food, with a history for creating passionate art and a language that sings to the soul. Similarly, there is an Italy where transport turns up roughly where and when it should, where you can rely on things to be open when they say they will be, and the prime minister doesn't own half the media. I can go to Italy to enjoy the things that depress me about Britain, and come back in time for relief from the things that would drive me to despair living in Italy. For me Italy and Britain are particle and anti-particle, spinning in opposite directions, locked in partnership as proof of their own identity and, ultimately, their own existence.

* = "Quantum Theory cannot hurt you", Patrick Chown (faber & faber, 2007) - highly recommended.

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