British physicist Jim Al-Khalili speaks about ‘Black Holes, Wormholes and Time Machines’

DNA| Updated: Jan 21, 2014, 10:33 AM IST

Andre Borges
Jaipur: The literature festival was witness to something beyond just books, when British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili took to the stage. The author of ‘Black Holes, Wormholes, and Time Machines’ gave a lecture on the theories he explored in his book.

As soon as he started talking it was obvious that his session would be different. Jim explained that his lecture would be like an old school Science festival format which was “silly” but which would work the best. He used slides to represent whatever theories he explained and for a bit of fun, added various pop-culture references and scientific theories to his ideas and conjecture.

“The most fascinating things about science are that we can tell stories about the most fantastic worlds and the most ridiculous ideas in our universe, and explain why they work,” he said.

Jim mentioned how literature festivals are bringing together different fields such as science and mathematics into popular culture. He started his session with a blunt question, can we time travel? He continued saying that we are in a sense all time travelers. He then explained when and how Albert Einstein derived his Theories of Relativity and how they gave us a new view of space and time and the notion that breaking through the time and space barrier was possible. The theory spoke about how gravity curbs space in a way that is impossible to visualise. “The problem is our brains are three dimensional, so to visualise Einstein`s theories is very difficult, even Einstein himself had to open up to a new field of Mathematics to explore his theory,” he said.

Jim’s session was riddled with scientific technical jargon, but as the lecture progressed things began to take shape. "I might give you a headache, but I won`t apologize for giving you the headache. Because it means you`re thinking very hard about things I`ve been thinking about for many years," he said. And to break through the technicality, he used various references to pop-culture icons like Dr. Who, Back to the Future and one of the centres of his theories, The Terminator.

In a frank admission, he said that it usually took about ten sessions for his students at University of Surrey to actually believe what he was saying. He explained about black holes, dying stars and how even though about 50 years ago many people didn`t believe they existed, today they do. "Black holes are exotic objects, what goes in can`t come out. It`s kind of like the afterlife, no one knows what`s on the other side. Unless you believe in ghosts, which you should," he joked.

Each part of Jim’s session was interconnected, so while talking about black holes, he was simultaneously speaking about space, the separate nature of time and space and the already established theory of time travel. Jim used popular scientific theories like `The Twin Paradox`, `The Terminator Paradox`, `The Mona Lisa Paradox` and `The Grandfather Paradox` to try and explain the paradoxes that would occur with time travel. While explaining these theories he also explained the ramifications of them, including alternate or parallel time-lines via `The Multi-verse Theory`.

And for those who wanted to know, he also spoke about how to go about building a time machine, "I`m going to spend the last five or ten minutes of the lecture telling you how to build a time machine via a wormhole, you might want to get your notebooks out for this."

He ended his session with a message of hope. "We don`t know if wormholes exist, we don`t know if parallel universes exist, but one of the things about modern science is that there are mysteries out there. Science is all about magic and mystery. One day hopefully we`ll know the mysteries of science, until then I think it`s just fun talking about it."

The lecture, definitely vastly different from the other lectures at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, was one of the most interesting.