Ian Holdsworth

My musings last week on “peak oil” drew a fair number of comments, not least a wonderfully thought-provoking essay from “Oil Lady” arguing that energy availability controls the market – not the other way round. The post that particularly caught my eye, though, came from a bon viveur commenting on someone else’s blog: “I’m more worried about peak wine than peak oil.”

This time last week I wasn’t convinced that we face “an irrecoverable fall in global oil supply by 2015 at the latest”, which is the view of the UK’s Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security. So have I changed my mind?

Well, not on that precise point. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, peak oil is not the issue. The real danger is the “oil crunch” that could well happen even if the world’s oil supplies plateau in the next few years rather than fall off dramatically.

Whatever the level of global oil production, the industrialisation of China and other developing countries is likely to open up a big gap between supply and demand. A “convulsive shock in the global economy”, as Oil Lady puts it, seems entirely plausible. Is this crunch almost upon us – as she and other campaigners warn?

I’ve been running through some arguments that offer reassurance.

Here’s the first … “we’ll just move on to other energy sources”. In the same way that “the stone age didn’t end because of the end of stones, the oil age will not end because of the end of oil,” Erik Haugane, chief executive of the Norwegian oil company Det Norske, told the BBC’s Newsnight programme last week.

Second, “there is enough coal to buy us time”. Oil’s share as a percentage of total world energy consumption is in decline – and the deficit is being made up mainly by coal. It will last another 119 years, according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, published last week. (This assumes last year’s rate of production – which, of course, may be surpassed.)

Third, “have you heard how shale gas is about to change the world?” Technological breakthroughs mean that many of the economic and technical concerns about exploiting America’s huge shale gas reserves are being dealt with, Gideon Rachman wrote in the FT last month:

“The rise of shale gas, which can be used to produce electricity, reduces dependence on domestically produced, but dirty, coal. If cars powered by electricity or gas improve, shale gas would also reduce reliance on Middle Eastern oil.”

So nothing to worry about then? Not as such. There is inertia in the system – it takes time for fledgling technologies to take on global proportions. As analyst Gregor MacDonald puts it on www.gregor.us:

America “is still running on coal and oil. And the intractability of this infrastructure is why energy transition is so hard. It is [not] serious therefore to say that it will be easy or quick to start running it on different energy sources.” (Hat Tip: Norman Talarud-Bay)

Managing the transition to new sources of energy will require solving problems of scalability and infrastructure. But even if coal takes up some of the slack, we still might not escape an oil crunch. This is because oil is not just a fuel – it has two other important markets.

As Oil Lady points out, it is also a feedstock for the production of manufactured goods, including plastics, computer components, and exotic alloys and materials. And, the nitrogen/petroleum component of the super-fertilisers and super-pesticides used on today’s giant farm-factories:

“At the moment, oil is still plentiful enough to service all of the above roles all at the same time with no conflict, But once global oil supplies start falling even just a tiny bit short of what our planet-wide industrial machine is used to, then a convulsive see-saw effect will happen whereby oil will not be able to service all three at the same time, not in as generous portions, and not consistently. When any of those three start suffering, the other two also suffer. We can try and shore up just one of them with alternatives, but there is no way we can shore up all three at once, not with today’s skimpy menu of alternatives that are just barely at our very limited disposal, and not with such precious little time left before the systemic convulsions to the global economy begin.”

So we’re stuck on oil whether we like it or not.

I’ll be visiting friends in Dorset soon. Maybe I’ll cheer myself up with a trip to the nodding donkey at Kimmeridge Bay, close to the site of a new land-based oil strike. According to the BBC, David Brunell, who owns an exploration company, has discovered seven potential multi-million barrel oilfields at the site which he believes could be “a very, very commercial situation for all people involved”. This is what is so good about onshore, he adds. “It’s quick, it’s clean, it’s easy. There is risk, but there’s less risk.”

Ian Holdsworth

I once came across a letter to a newspaper from someone who had calculated that wind turbines and tidal power might damage global weather patterns by extracting too much energy. Another reader suggested, not without sarcasm, that he should put away his solar calculator to avoid draining the sun.

Some other energy scare stories are not so easily dismissed. “Peak oil” campaigners warn, for example, that the world’s supplies of oil are about to peak and then quickly enter an irreversible decline – causing a global oil crunch. Among their number is solar power pioneer Jeremy Leggett, who this week wrote in the FT that “premature peak oil would be quite as bad as the credit crunch”.

Mr Leggett is a member of the UK’s Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, which fears “an irrecoverable fall in global oil supply by 2015 at the latest”. The taskforce fears that “if oil producers then husband resources, a global energy crisis could abruptly morph into energy famine for some oil-consuming nations,” Mr Leggett says.

There are people on YouTube who believe peak oil has already arrived. Yet, in their annual reports, many oil companies continue to state every year that they are finding at least as much oil as they are producing. If you believe such data, reserve bases aren’t shrinking and peak oil could even be receding.

Yesterday, BP published its Statistical Review of World Energy 2010. There’s a table saying that at the end of 2009 the world’s proved oil reserves totalled 1,333.1bn barrels , which should last 45.7 years if production continues at the 2009 rate.

Such figures won’t impress Mr Leggett:

“Every year, peak-oil worriers say that they doubt the Opec oil producers’ reserve statistics echoed in BP’s review, that technology can only slow depletion not reverse it, that rising oil prices do not help when it takes so many years to extract new oil from increasingly exotic locations and that global supply is heading for an imminent fall.”

I’m no energy expert, but it seems only wise to me that we should take peak oil seriously, and I’m glad that the report produced in February by Mr Leggett’s taskforce was well-received by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. Still, I don’t see how the world can be in danger by 2015.

Some of the 1,333.1bn barrels in BP’s report will be deep under the ocean, but this fact is unlikely to precipitate peak oil. Despite President Barack Obama’s moratorium on new deepwater drilling since the Gulf of Mexico disaster, such projects will eventually resume and will continue for as long as oil companies find them profitable.

The oil price will therefore be a big factor in determining when peak oil arrives. If the price goes up as supplies dwindle, then the industry will continue to explore increasingly difficult areas, and peak oil will recede. But if it goes down, then peak oil may come sooner. The only way that prices will go down if supply goes down is if demand also goes down.

This brings me back to the winds and the tides – and some wishful thinking. Leaving aside China’s growing industrialisation, a green revolution could one day cut the price of oil. With lower prices, the industry will be unable to push the boundaries of its exploration, and peak oil will be ushered in just as we drive off in our electric cars.

I’ve learnt a few things in writing this. Most notably it seems that my letter-writer may have been on the right track. Apparently wind farms can change the weather.

Ian Holdsworth

An FT reader ignited a Big Bang on our letters page a couple of Saturdays ago, raising some intriguing questions about space-time – and sparking other readers to offer their thoughts on bosons and super-symmetry as well as chickens and eggs.

Kenyon Bradt from Muncie, Indiana lit the blue touch paper by asking about the “primordial locus” of the Big Bang:

Would it have had any spatial extension or temporal duration before the outburst? … Is it possible for there to be an existence that is non-spatial and non-temporal?

These are excellent questions for my favourite fictional theoretical physicist, Dr Sheldon Cooper. With two doctorates, a master’s degree and an IQ of 187, Sheldon is the ultimate uber-geek. If anyone can help Mr Bradt probe the nature of space and time it is Caltech’s dazzling prodigy, the frighteningly obsessive Nobel-prize-winner-in-waiting from “The Big Bang Theory”.

It’s just a shame that Dr Cooper always plays Klingon Boggle at this precise time of day, which means we must turn, for the time being, to real-life “quantum gravity” physicist Carlo Rovelli of Marseille. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, though. Professor Rovelli’s ideas are quite startling enough.

Prof Rovelli says that time may not exist at all – at least at the quantum level. In an article by Tim Folger in Discover Magazine , he says: “It may be that the best way to think about quantum reality is to give up the notion of time – that the fundamental description of the universe must be timeless.”

Time, he says, could be an “emergent property” that comes into being only when you look at the bigger picture. (A good analogy is temperature, which doesn’t exist for an individual molecule but emerges as a collective property when lots of molecules bump around together.)

I can feel my inner Sheldon stirring, but Prof Rovelli hasn’t finished yet. In the article, he also does away with space:

If time and space are one day shown to consist of quanta, the quanta could all exist piled together in a single dimensionless point. “Space and time in some sense melt in this picture,” says Rovelli. “There is no space any more.”

So much for the final frontier, I hear Sheldon say - and just when I was putting the final touches to a grand unified theory of everything.


Prof Rovelli’s theorising is only one way of interpreting quantum reality and, at first blush, killing off time and space may seem somewhat extreme. But it’s hardly unprecedented: you only have to look at the history of western philosophy. In several centuries of metaphysical thinking there’s a lot less to space and time than meets the eye. As often as not, both are explained – or explained away – in terms of our mentality.

Neither time nor space is substantial for Gottfried Leibniz. Rather similar to Prof Rovelli’s “single dimensionless point” is the “monad” – the non-extended, immaterial, indivisible entity that Leibniz believed to be the ultimate building block of the world; a mental atom.

For Immanuel Kant, space, time and causality are projections of our cognitive apparatus and have no reality independent of human experience. They are not part of the underlying nature of “things in themselves”, the noumenon, to which we can have no access.

Yet, according to Arthur Schopenhauer, who held similar views to Kant on space and time, there is a way to explore “things in themselves” – and that is to look inside one’s own self. He did – and claimed to glimpse ultimate reality in a unifying, homogeneous, ghastly impulse, which he called the “will”.

I suspect Sheldon would be kicking up a fuss at this point: “Oh dear Lord! Philosophical argument is no match for ‘Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock’. Just think what these great men could have achieved if they’d spent less time navel-gazing and more time concentrating on comic books.”

(Dr Cooper is slowly unravelling the mystery of humour and sarcasm, which for him is much more difficult than string theory.)

There is a serious point here though … about whether in the 21st century we want to be materialists, idealists or dualists; and the relative importance we give to mentality.

Consciousness is a conundrum – both for quantum physicists (cf the much misunderstood Schrodinger’s cat) and for neuroscientists. Some of the latter are happy to equate consciousness with neuronal activity, but no one can yet explain why the physical firing of neurones should be accompanied by the subjective experience of awareness. “Why aren’t we zombies?” in the words of philosopher David Chalmers.

And consider this circularity. On the one hand we are told that our thinking arises in some unexplained manner from the activity of electrons in the brain synapses. On the other, electrons themselves are probability waves that exist as localised particles only when they are measured or observed – and what is observation but an act of consciousness?

So the nature of consciousness is wide open. Is it primitive? Or derivative? Or in some ways, both? (There may be different kinds, after all.) To my mind, mathematical thinking seems unchangeable, universal, elemental, fundamental, timeless; while our sensory notions of time and space could be “emergent” – but who knows from what?

What we think about consciousness will affect how we think about space and time. Kant talks of his own philosophy as a sort of Copernican revolution in reverse – putting human cognition at the centre of things. Both he and Schopenhauer agree that, without an observer, the universe is devoid of space and time.

But perhaps our misapprehension of existence goes even deeper.

In his ontological philosophy, Martin Heidegger says we have forgotten what it is to exist – what “being” is. Primarily, we are not subjects trapped inside ourselves looking out at a world of external objects. Rather, we are beings existing in a world of being. Most of the time we are too busy getting on with our activities to pay much attention to things like tables, chairs and door knobs. We pay them full attention only when things go wrong or we feel in contemplative mood. The rest of the time such objects have a sort of transparency for us.

Now that I’ve had my mind expanded by Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer and Heidegger, not to mention Sheldon, the Big Bang seems rather beside the (single, dimensionless) point unless hooked up to our present perception and thought. If our universe existed on its own for several billion years before conscious life, it lacked the reference points that human minds bring to it: there was no sense of relative scale; or of time passing. Time might as well run through such a place all at once – on extreme fast-forward.

Did the Big Bang make a noise? This is a cosmological variant of that ancient puzzle, “When a tree falls over in the woods and nobody’s there, does it make a sound?”

The answer to the Big Bang version of this question is “Yes” … but only because we are still “hearing” the noise today in the form of background microwave radiation. I’ve always been convinced that the answer with respect to trees is “No”, provided no one left a recording device in the woods.

So back to Mr Bradt’s primordial questioning. Is it possible for there to be an existence that is non-spatial and non-temporal? I’d say that, even though we sometimes think spatially, any idea “inside” our minds – such as “justice”, “pi” or “Sheldon’s mother” – is not actually extended in Euclidean space or in non-Euclidean space-time. Yet our non-extended minds somehow endow the universe with extension, duration and scale as well as separateness or objectivity. The world “out there” is neither big nor small, old nor young, except for our perception. Take our emergent sense of appearances out of the equation and space-time loses its scaffolding, like closing a children’s pop-up book.

I hope you had a happy “Star Wars Day” yesterday, Mr Bradt. May the 4th be with you!

Ian Holdsworth

I never realised I was such a hard-hearted brute until I tried out the online “deficit-buster” on FT.com.

It allows you to play chancellor and simulate the UK’s next three-year spending review. You swing the axe – and the deficit-buster tells you all the gruesome consequences in terms of human discomfort.

Before I knew it, two million families with an income of more than £24,400 had lost a benefit worth around £1,000. And all because I thought “means-testing” child benefits was an easy option.

Ian Holdsworth

How many economists does it take to change one’s mind about when to cut the UK’s public deficit?

Twenty wrote an open letter to the Sunday Times last weekend calling for public spending cuts to start this year – the position favoured by the opposition Conservative party.

But 60 appear on the FT’s letters page this morning – in two separate letters – to back chancellor Alistair Darling’s view that it would jeopardise a fragile recovery to cut the deficit before 2011.

For some reason, Googling my question mainly produces vaguely familiar answers involving light bulbs.

Still, one or two are worth wheeling out again:

1) How many economists does it take to change a light bulb?

Given 1,000 economists there will be 10 theoretical economists with different theories on how to change the light bulb and 990 empirical economists labouring to determine which theory is the “correct” one, and everyone will still be in the dark.

2) How many Keynesian economists?

All of them. Because then you will generate employment and more consumption, dislocating the aggregate demand to the right.

3) How many Chicago School economists?

None. If the light bulb needed changing , the market would have done it already.

4) How many mainstream economists?

Two. One to assume the existence of the ladder and one to change the bulb.

5) How many Marxists?

None – the bulb contains within it the seeds of its own revolution.

Ian Holdsworth

With his talk of shifting paradigms, Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, can change the way one views the world.

I feel a palpable bond with Michael Skapinker who writes in the FT this week about revisiting Kuhn’s 1962 book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.

Yet ask me to name the thinker who has affected me the most, and there is only one candidate – the sage of Springfield, Homer Simpson.

“Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true,” says Homer in “Lisa, the Skeptic”, a 1997 episode of America’s cleverest animated sitcom.

Homer himself must surely have been reading another philosopher of science – the epistemological anarchist Paul Feyerabend.

A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1958 to 1990, Feyerabend penned books with titles such as “Against Method” and “Farewell to Reason”.

Going well beyond the paradigms of Kuhn, the “falsificationism” of Karl Popper, and the attempts of Imre Lakatos to resolve perceived conflicts between the two, Feyerabend rejected the existence of universal methodological rules. To him, science was no more “scientific” than crystal-ball gazing or writing poetry. His mantra was “anything goes”.

Homer understands this. If only facts weren’t meaningless, he says, then you could “prove” things. He might have added that not only can nothing be proved from so-called “facts” but, equally, nothing can be disproved.

Take “Duff Beer” Homer’s favourite drink. The proposition that Duff, Duff Light and Duff Dry are, in fact, all the same beer (as indicated to Simpsons viewers on a Duff Brewery tour in the episode “Duffless”) is clearly of no consequence. And Homer does well to remain oblivious.

No experiment exists that could establish, with rigorous certainty, that any beer is the same as any other beer. All observations are perceptual experiences couched in the language of a pre-existing hypothesis. And the senses are unreliable guides, anyway, especially after a couple of pints of Duff.

As Homer surely knows, the word “science” is derived from “scio”, Latin for “to know”. So, strictly speaking, nothing we build on the flimsy foundation of our fallible senses is “scientific” – not geology, not astrophysics, certainly not economics – as FT readers recognise.

In 1981, before Homer Simpson was a gleam in Matt Groening’s eye, I was travelling across America by Greyhound bus. In Utah I sat next to a chap for a couple of hours who turned out to be a philosophy PhD student from University of California, Berkeley.

After a few conversational cul-de-sacs I mentioned Paul Feyerabend, and his eyes lit up. Within seconds we, too, had formed a palpable bond. Excitedly, he scrambled about his person and brought forth a treasured scrap of paper from a musty corner of his wallet. It was a personal note to him from Feyerabend.

I don’t quite remember the context, but it said: “I have sawn off the branch on which I sit, and am now enjoying the pleasures of freefall.”

Rather like our present-day economics.

Ian Holdsworth

It is counterintuitive but sometimes a logjam is just what you need to get things done. On my way to Liverpool Street station last night, for example, I couldn’t cross a busy road for ages – until the traffic went into gridlock.

Might the same principle apply to the UK government’s ablity to cut the UK deficit in the not unlikely event of a hung parliament?

If, after the general election expected in May, no party has enough MPs to form a government, we could end up with a coalition of ministers forced to sit and reflect on each other in a cross-party traffic jam. Traditional opponents, under pressure to interact constructively, might just conceive the best of all possible plans to cut the deficit.

Well … we can all dream. But the City isn’t quite so upbeat.

Ian Holdsworth

Google famously brandishes the informal motto: “Don’t be evil”. This reminds me of a sign I saw in Britain’s Lake District last summer: “Be nice or go home”.

As you might expect, the customers in the Grasmere tea shop were all very nice, though I doubt most had been monitoring their demeanour as they tasted their toasted teacakes. Google’s slogan, on the other hand, was conceived as an internal touchstone for debating corporate ethical behaviour. I can picture the US search group’s senior executives pondering it for hours before making key decisions such as the one this week to end the controversial censorship of its search engine in China, at the  risk of being thrown out of the country.

It is clear that deep soul-searching accompanied the decision in 2006 to block certain websites in the first place. This was always a controversial deal: without such restrictions Google would not have been able to set up a local Chinese service at all. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was one Google executive who had reservations at the time.

No doubt the company tries to be utilitarian. But its motto is inevitably a hostage to fortune, providing an easy target for critics.

Take for instance the company’s Book Search project. This audacious drive to scan all the world’s books to create a universal online library, has not surprisingly riled many of the authors, rivals and governments it could affect.

On Tuesday the French government threatened to eject Google from a project to digitise the collection of the French national library, unless the internet group radically changed the terms of its book-scanning project.

A few days before Christmas, American science fiction writer Ursula le Guin resigned from the Authors Guild, one of the US groups that Google is working with, lambasting it for making a “deal with the devil”.

And on January 6, three writers’ groups sent an open letter to those members of the US Congress who are also published authors, taking issue with the revised Google Books Settlement, which provisionally settles the class-action law suit brought against Google in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. “It isn’t fair,” the letter claims. “There are millions of book authors in this country who could be locked into an agreement they don’t understand and didn’t ask for.”

On Slate last year, Tim Wu, a fellow at the New America Foundation, suggested there was no need to fear Google. He put the case well:

We are talking about a venture to provide online access to books that, by definition, are unpopular. It’s great for a researcher like me, but as a commercial venture it is almost certainly a perpetual money-loser. Everyone (even Google itself) seems to have forgotten that there is a reason that libraries aren’t generally run for profit.

And in December, Daniel Clancy, engineering director of Google Books, told American broadcaster PBS:

There’s nothing we’re doing that prevents anyone from doing the exact same thing. And the one thing that I strongly think is the wrong answer is that we should lock all this stuff up, so that nobody can discover and use these books.

But these arguments won’t wash with Gary Reback, attorney for the Open Book Alliance, whose membership includes Google’s rivals Microsoft and Amazon.com. In the same excellent PBS video, he says:

What Google is proposing here is not like any library you have ever been to. It’s not a public library. It’s a private library. And it’s being run for profit, big profits. Google is going to charge university scholars, ordinary people, even schoolchildren, to get access to books that Google copied without the permission of the publisher or the author.

Another gripe deserves a mention: last weekend Google was forced to apologise to authors in China whose books it had scanned without permission.

What an unusual turn of events: an apology – and then Google stands up to China on censorship. Good and evil are so much easier to disentangle in Grasmere.

Ian Holdsworth

Anyone remember the Amstrad PC1512?

It was an inexpensive personal computer that enjoyed great success in the late 1980s. Rumours went round that it had a problem with overheating. Not true – but that didn’t prevent a blip in public confidence. Amstrad chief Sir Alan Sugar (plain Alan in those days) didn’t waste much time arguing the toss. He relaunched the product with a built-in fan. I remember him saying it was completely unnecessary, but that if people “want it with pink spots, it’ll have pink spots, just so long as they buy it”.

Children’s fingertips weren’t at stake with the PC1512 – but this week’s story that pushchair maker Maclaren had recalled 1m of its products in the US, after accidents involving 12 children, made me recall my days as a computer journalist.

Alan Sugar defused his perceived problem swiftly and effectively. It didn’t matter to him that there wasn’t a real defect with the product. He understood that his brand was in danger and offered a phantom fix.

By contrast, Maclaren initially bungled its treatment of non-American customers. Instead of offering all owners a hinge cover as part of a formal product recall, as in America, it simply warned non-Americans not to let children stick their fingers in the hinges as they opened the pushchairs.

Even in America, chief executive Farzad Rastegar, appeared to criticise parents, insisting the brand was among the safest in the industry and the injuries were due to those in charge of the pushchairs failing to take proper precautions.

Statistics do not reassure consumers when something so horrifying is involved, John Gapper said in Thursday’s FT. Maclaren’s safety standards were higher than cheaper rivals, he noted. After meeting a shaken Mr Rastegar for lunch in New York on Tuesday, he concluded that the company did not have “a bad story to tell” but it had done “a poor job in telling it”:

The consumer heard “amputation” and that was enough … Now Maclaren is backtracking under pressure from consumers and retailers and saying that anyone can have the hinge cover if they ask for it. The company might have avoided a lot of potential damage to its brand and its reputation by employing its common sense more quickly.

The Harvard Business Review editors’ blog agrees that a luxury brand built over years was tarnished in one day “thanks to what may be misuse of the product, not an inherent defect”.

But it is impressed by how the company dealt with the situation in America at least.

… it did the right thing in the US. It contacted the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Office of Compliance and asked for its help in conducting a recall under the Fast Track Product Recall Program. That saved the CPSC from conducting a detailed evaluation of the product, and allowed the company to get out in front of the story as it hit the press.

HBR trawled its archives for a 2001 case study about a fictional baby stroller manufacturer deciding what to do after a highly publicised accident involving one of its products. Four experts offer advice such as “call the babies’ families” and “announce the recall in paid advertisements”.

Time is less generous, saying Maclaren was guilty of a “stumbling response online”. It considers the company’s predicament in the light of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook:

“Anything relative to child safety tends to be off-the-charts viral,” says Pete Blackshaw, a brand consultant for Nielsen Online. According to Blackshaw’s data, new mothers are three times more likely than others to use social media and start blogs …

A “safety first” message is the first thing to pop up on the Maclaren website at the moment. And a video the company sent to the Walletpop blog shows the proper technique for opening and closing the strollers.

As yet there are no plans for a stroller with pink spots.

Ian Holdsworth

At 48 I’ve probably left it too late to win Wimbledon or join Fabio Capello in South Africa next year to help England lift the World Cup. But I still harbour secret hopes of conjuring up the definitive explanation of physical reality in a grand theory of everything, and from there it would be a mere quantum jump to the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, the chair once held by Sir Isaac Newton.

(OK, I admit I was disappointed with my C grade Higher Maths A-level in 1979, but it would have been a different story if I’d remembered that the curve of a washing line is called a catenary – and on a good day I might have known that!)

Last week I learnt of a new setback for my cosmological ambitions.

I’d been pipped to the Lucasian post by one of the world’s most brilliant theoretical physicists, a founding father of string theory called Michael Green. He succeeds some of the greatest names in the history of science – not just Newton, but Charles Babbage, Paul Dirac and Professor Stephen Hawking, who’s had the job for the last 30 years.

I was devastated to be overlooked, but I’ve already adjusted. My new plan is to use the internet to make sure I’m ready when the position comes around next time.

The late American astronomer Carl Sagan is still a good place to start. I can just about follow his explanation on YouTube, from a television show way back when, of how to think in four dimensions.

But 10 or 11 dimensions is the norm for today’s proponents of M-theory, which is scientists’ best shot so far at fusing the two main theoretical foundations of contemporary physics: Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the quantum mechanics of Max Planck.

I don’t mind admitting I’ve lost sleep trying to visualise more than three dimensions. Here’s my best (Euclidean) stab at it so far:

Imagine a cube. Then imagine it packed with an infinite number of infinitely small light bulbs, so that every point in the cube can have its brightness turned up and down independently. That’s your fourth dimension – x, y, z and “b” for brightness. Superimpose further sets of infinitely small lightbulbs to represent other variable qualities – such as “spiciness”, “slinkiness”, “sassiness”, whatever takes your fancy – and you can twiddle imaginary knobs to mix in as many dimensions as you like.

If only Carl Sagan could do the video for me: How to escape from inside a cube whose “solid” walls exist only at one particular level of brightness (or even “sassiness”).

But apparently our universe is stranger even than this. According to string theory, we’re unaware of dimensions other than space and time because they are “curled up very tightly”.

So that’s farewell to Euclidean geometry then. I remember from my schooldays that if you draw a triangle on the surface of a sphere the angles in its corners will add up to more than 180 degrees – and that if you travel in any direction on that surface you’ll follow a curl back to your starting point. I must have been listening after all.

But how to visualise the multiple curled-up dimensions of M-theory?

Perhaps a cube packed with an infinite number of infinitely small combination locks. Each lock has a number of separate dials spinning from zero round to nine and then on to zero again, and each dial represents a curled-up dimension.

Cambridge’s new Lucasian professor has his own imagery. In a 1986 article for Scientific American, Michael Green wrote:

The idea of unobservably small dimensions can readily be understood by considering a simple, two-dimensional analogy. A hose is a two-dimensional surface that appears to be one-dimensional when it is observed at scales too coarse to resolve its thickness. In superstring theory it is likely that the size of the six curled-up dimensions is approximately the same as the length of the string. The world appears to have three spatial dimensions in the same sense that the string acts like a point particle.

Well I understand the first part. It seems I have a lot more studying to do. Warm congratulations on your appointment, Mr Green.

FT dot comment

FT dot comment is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Politics, economics, high finance and morality – this blog addresses the issues being considered by the FT’s comment team, and their thoughts.

FT dot comment: a guide

Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.