How matter became adventurous – Hubert Reeves and François Bon at CERN


Image source: Unesco

No more excuses – the thesis is handed in, and I have time again to do things like… catching up on ‘stuff on matter’! As promised, I checked out the Hubert Reeves talk which was webcast on the CERN website. Reeves, a French-Canadian, appears to be to France what David Attenborough is to Britain, only that his topic is astrophysics. He frequently appears on television, in magazines and newspapers, communicating science to the curious.

The talk was interesting for me both as an artist-geographer and a physics nerd. The topic of Reeves’ lecture was the relationship between the cosmos and creativity. For Reeves, the history of matter begins with our history of the history of matter: how the universe became transformed in human history from a static place that ‘always existed’ to an expanding entity which is permanently subject to changes: the ‘adventurous universe’. This realisation leads to the discovery of the creativity of matter – which, for Reeves, starts just after the Big Bang. This ‘primordial’ creativity takes off in the ‘hot soup’ of elementary particles and a handful of forces: attractions form associations and lead to the emergence of different properties, such as the elements and stars. As Reeves puts it:

‘The atoms in our bodies were created there… Our lives are inscribed in this adventure of matter-organisation. We are a chapter in this history of the universe.’

Reeves proceeds to base his idea of creativity on Democritus’ famous quote:
‘Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.’ Only that Reeves uses the word ‘play’ (‘jeu’) instead of chance. For Reeves, the playfulness of matter is what prevents monotony. (To me, this sounds a bit like Michel Serres’ description of Lucretius’ ‘clinamen’, which is another concept of something that is there to prevent a clockwork-like universe.) Reeves further sees humans as the extension of this creativity of matter, which leads him to describe the current environmental/climate change crisis as a crisis of creativity. The relationship between the generativity of matter and of humans is problematic from a social-scientific point of view. What may be constructive here is to think about the potential differences, to see how they might look. Some ideas can be found in the subsequent discussion between Hubert Reeves and French writer François Bon, which followed the lecture.

Bon’s mentioning of science giving rise not only to rational arguments, but also to narratives of enchantment led me to think about how Reeves’ vision of enchantment would compare to Jane Bennett’s use of the term and her imagination of matter. Bennett’s matter is ‘vibrant’, and our realisation of this vibrancy is making us in turn realise our ‘kinship’ with matter. For Bennett, this is a positive event which may promote a more ethical human conduct towards ourselves and our co-materiality. While Reeves could also be understood as generating an image of ‘kinship’ with matter, this relationship appears to be of a darker nature. Reeves tells us that as a physicist, he has come to know the universe as profoundly strange. Humans are limited in their imagination and their ability to grasp this strangeness with their thinking. For him, one of the reasons is that reality is potentially disconcerting: ‘There is always the spectre of fear, madness, terror, as reality might not be ordered or logical.’ He finds that science can reassure, but there is also this ‘other side’. As examples of this other side Bon and Reeves cite additional dimensions, elastic time, ‘gigantic changes that can happen in microseconds’ and the observations of the world and the universe that appear to humans as absurdities. For Reeves, ‘the main problem we are fighting with is to adapt our thinking to our observations and not our observations to our thinking.’
On the basis of this one could argue that, while we, according to Reeves, share a common pattern of playfulness and necessity, there is an anxiety surrounding the purpose of life/the universe. As science writer Marcus Chown suggests, we might find that ‘ultimately, things [may] happen for no reason at all’. What kind of starting point could this unsettling experience provide?

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