New book!

Before Time Existed

– A Brief Introduction To Quantum Mechanics & Cosmology

I have spent a significant portion of my life – first with my late mother, and now on my own – trying to find the meaning of life and a reason for being alive. Why are we here, going through the motions of life on Planet Earth? I never believed in the Big Bang Theory and Darwinian evolution as a framework to explain the big picture.

Both my parents were biologists and thanks to their collective efforts, I know the New Forest (Hampshire, England) as well as the back of my hand. Additionally, I did the field work for my A level Biology in the woods of Hampshire; I return again and again throughout the years to walk the same earth, acknowledging the seasons and the different varieties of wild plants that bloomed as dictated by the tilt of the earth towards the sun. I know them by heart, from the dogwoods to the lesser-knowns; I have a compost heap in my back garden as a token of healing the land; I walk the woods at night to hear the nocturnal beings speak and I have a website exhorting people to reconnect with the earth beneath their feet.

But here’s the thing … I do not resonate that deeply with this ethos. 

When I was a teenager, I did not have the eloquence to put into words what I knew with absolute certainty. Why is no one seeing It???? In my frustration, I would break into a manic run and tear through the forest, desperately trying to run so fast that I exceed the speed of light and hence disappear into a higher dimension.

My brother’s friend would run after me to bring me back, since I was lousy with direction and would never be able to find my way out of the forest. He was a big, strong, confident boy, already fully grown by his early teens, but he could never catch me that easily.

Years later, he told me that he had allowed me to run the great distances, pretending not to be able to catch me.

“I see strange things whenever I was running after you,” he said. “Sharp light piercing through the trees that pinpricked my eyes. The world looked weird in that light. More real I think.”

I was elated. Here was someone who could put into words what I saw. And more importantly, he saw It too (quirk of Fate: we are both natural mathematicians).

A decade or so later, when I was doing my doctorate in Nuclear Physics at Oxford and being forced to study physics formally for the first time (I don’t even have an O level in the subject), I wrote to him one year on a Christmas card, “Have you heard of Arthur Eddington’s experiment?”

He forgot to reply to my question, and we both forgot the unspoken magic we experienced together as teenagers. We went on to build separate lives, had children with other people, excelled in our careers.

But the need to translate the knowing within me was never quelled. I worked furiously in the language of numbers and wrote equations that bordered on madness in my spare time: I threw myself fully into motherhood, into earning money, into gardening and foraging, but that light never stopped piercing my eyes.

In 2017, I wrote An Evening In Wonderland – A Brief History of Maths, Physics & The Universe to begin to give a voice to that inner knowing, that persistent light, that my mother called imbas forosnais. The humble little book won the Purple Dragonfly Award for Young Adult Fiction. I embarked on a book tour talking about Einstein’s Relativity to A level students.

That summer, when I came home, my childhood friend had a copy of my book in his large hands. I had not seen him for several years. “Hello, Alice,” he said wryly (Alice is the name of the protagonist of the story). “Sign this book for my daughter?” 

On an impulse, I asked him to meet me in Monaco, where I would inscribe something on the book for his daughter. He was taken aback, I could tell, but asked no question. He agreed, and duly showed up in Monaco one fine morning in May.

We worked throughout the day and all night, as if possessed, writing a scientific paper. We were both qualified scientists by then, but the knowledge we committed to paper that night came out of stored the memories contained within the soles of our feet and the beats of our hearts, back from the time we raced through the New Forest as innocent teenagers, from an era when he called me ‘Mouse’.

The following day, totally spent and exhausted, and lying on the surf with the Cote d’Azur eddying around our bodies, he smiled lazily at me and said, “I know why you asked me to come to Monaco.” 

Of the hundreds of possible answers (including the cliché ones), he chose THE One. 

“Arthur Eddington,” he said simply.

My heart soared and my loneliness ended forever on the beaches of Monte Carlo with those five syllables. Eddington was the first to prove Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, effectively ending the reign of Newtonian Mechanics, but more crucially for him and I, Eddington’s experiment demonstrated unequivocally the relationship between gravity, mass and the deflection of light. 

And no other place on this planet that I know of, other than here in Monaco, where the physical factors are so intrinsically aligned that the spectrum of light is fragmented, revealing the breaks in the continuum, allowing the yet-to-be discovered frequencies to break through, pinpricking the human eye, exactly like what we experienced once upon a time racing through the trees of the New Forest. Like the aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights, but this light is right here on earth, right in front of your eyes, pulsing with life every 247 zeptoseconds.

People marvel at the intense blue of the Cote d’Azur, but it’s not just ‘the blue’, it’s something infinitely more profound: here we are, a race of people, existing for a very tiny fraction of a continuum conveniently known as Time on a decaying mass we call Earth, oblivious to the grandeur of the magic that surrounds us, until we share It with another living being.

“Do you see It?” I asked him, seeing yet again the slivers of unchartered wavelengths of light in the prisms of his sapphire irises as we sat on THAT beach, on that sweet spot where reality fragmented to reveal its magic, talking about our childhood and our children and physics, maths and the universe (topics of my first book). There were no greens, no trees, no leaves, just shards of every wavelength conceivable, in infinite combinations.

Do you see It?

“Always,” he promised. “And I’m going to build a $100m company to make the world see It.”

And it is for this very reason that I am writing a prequel to Alice’s story, Before Time Existed – A Brief Introduction To Quantum Mechanics & Cosmology. This time, the book is for his 13-year-old daughter, who is a fearsome mathematician despite being only 13: a few weeks ago, as we were waiting for her father on London Bridge, I mused to her, “Your daddy still looks like the annoying teenage boy I once knew. It’s very disconcerting. It’s as if those 40 years disappeared just like that. Time seriously screws my brain up.”

“Time?” She scoffed. “It’s just something to stop everything happening all at once.” Then grinning at me, “He says you’ll always be Mouse standing on the train platform in Winchester, waving goodbye to him and your brother, but the train never left.”