Brian Eno Plays the Universe
A physicist explains what the composer has in common with the dawn of the cosmos.
BY STEPHON ALEXANDER
Michael Putland / Getty Images
Everyone had his or her favorite drink in hand. There were bubbles and deep reds, and the sound of ice clinking in cocktail glasses underlay the hum of contented chatter. Gracing the room were women with long hair and men dressed in black suits, with glints of gold necklaces and cuff links. But it was no Gatsby affair. It was the annual Imperial College quantum gravity cocktail hour. Like the other eager postdocs, this informal meeting was an opportunity to mingle with some of the top researchers in quantum gravity and hopefully ignite a collaboration, with a drink to sooth our nerves. But for me this party would provide a chance encounter that encouraged me to connect music with the physics of the early universe.
The host was dressed down in black from head to toe—black turtleneck, jeans, and trench coat. On my first day as a postdoctoral student at Imperial College, I had spotted him at the end of a long hallway in the theoretical physics wing of Blackett Lab. With jet-black wild hair, beard, and glasses, he definitely stood out. I said, “Hi,” as he walked by, curious who he was, and with his “How’s it going?” response, I had him pegged. “You from New York?” I asked. He was.
My new friend was Lee Smolin, one of the fathers of a theory known as loop quantum gravity, and he was in town considering a permanent job at Imperial. Along with string theory, loop quantum gravity is one of the most compelling approaches to unifying Einstein’s general relativity with quantum mechanics. As opposed to string theory, which says that the stuff in our universe is made up of fundamental vibrating strings, loop quantum gravity focuses on space itself as a woven network of loops of the same size as the strings in string theory.
Lee had offered up his West Kensington flat for the quantum gravity drinks that evening to give the usual annual host, Faye Dowker, a break. Faye enjoyed being the guest lecturer that evening. Bespectacled, and brilliant, she was also a quantum gravity pioneer. While Professor Dowker was a postdoc she studied under Steven Hawking, working on wormholes and quantum cosmology, but her specialty transformed into causal set theory. After a couple of hours, the contented chatter gave way to Faye as she presented her usual crystal-clear exposition of causal sets as an alternate to strings and loops. Like loop quantum gravity, causal sets are less about the stuff in the universe and more about the structure of spacetime itself. But instead of being woven out of loops, spacetime is described by a discrete structure that is organized in a causal way. The causal-set approach envisions the structure of space analogous to sand on a beachhead. If we view the beachhead from afar, we see a uniform distribution of sand. But as we zoom in, we can discern the individual sand grains. In a causal set, spacetime, like a beach made up of sand, is composed of granular “atoms” of space-time.