Edinburgh International Book Festival / Mysteries of the Quantum Universe

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Mysteries of the Quantum Universe and the Value of Interdisciplinary Learning

In the exclusively lay context (we all have that one outrageously ‘meta’ friend who is a little too existential), a knowledge of quantum-anything really does separate the wheat from the chaff. Unsurprisingly, and as a self-confessed lover of all things meta and existential, when I stumbled across an event which read ‘Mysteries of the Quantum Universe’, the decision to attend was a no-brainer.

At this moment, I would like to point out that my modest background as an undergraduate of medicine hardly qualifies me to shed light (I think that might be a quantum-pun) on the mystical world of quantum science. What I can try to do, however, is to share with you its conceptual roots, its practical significance, and how the collaborative effort between a theoretical physicist and graphic novelist has culminated in an outstanding contribution to popular science.

Mysteries of the Quantum Universe was the product of three summers’ worth of dense dialogue between the celebrated theoretical physicist, Thibault Damour, and the remarkable graphic novelist, Mathieu Burniat. Where Thibault’s academic brilliance would bring forth a detailed understanding of quantum science, Mathieu’s imaginative genius would capture its conceptual elegance, and though I did not leave the room with a professorial knowledge of the subject, the discussion was electric.

Quantum mechanics emerged following the invention of Edison’s lightbulb in the late 19th century, but what began as a conversation about the qualities of light, ended in a complex, inter-continental debate about the nature of reality.

Briefly, and as a gross simplification, quantum science offers an explanation of the small world (atoms and their constituent parts) which is fundamentally alternate to that of classical physics. Within the quantum idiom, a particle has both particle and wave-like qualities, but this phenomenon of dualism is totally counterintuitive to the senses. How can light, or an electron, or any subatomic particle for that matter (another pun, I think), behave simultaneously as both wave and particle? How can the essential fabric of the physical world not occupy a single, definitive co-ordinate in space-time, but instead exist in several, as an indefinite sum of probabilities? How can a cat in a nuclear reactor be both dead and alive, and how on earth can I be here at my desk typing, but also there on the couch losing at FIFA?

Einstein in his explanation of general relativity took issue with this; matter, he proved, simply cannot travel through space-time. Yet, whilst quantum science cannot be fully reconciled with ideas of relativity, on the subatomic level, both conceptually and practically, it works; it is empirically verifiable and, at least in science, is truth. In a sense, what quantum physics therefore proposes is not a singular, common reality, but instead, the potential of multiple co-existing realities; a reality which is only made material once observed, where atomic particles are not here, nor there, but both here and there.

Representing quantum ideas then, seems an impossibility – how can a phenomenon so offensive to our own sense of reality be represented in a fundamentally visual context? Ultimately, herein lies the outstanding achievement of Thibault and Mathieu’s graphic novel; not only is the product of their collaborative genius a ground-breaking exercise in interdisciplinary discourse, but so too is it a compelling and fundamentally visual account of an idea which is entirely counterintuitive to our classical perceptions of the world.

The complex chronology of quantum ideas and their practical applications is presented to us simply, artistically, and entirely more articulately than I could have ever attempted in this article. There is a world out there, and it is nothing like you have ever known, but rather than reading my futile attempt at clarification, pick up your copy of Thibault and Mathieu’s graphic novel – it really is brilliant.


This article was written by Haris Haseeb and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.

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