When the baggy, pill-popping Mancunian, party set of the late eighties declared that it “isn’t where you are from, it was where you are at, ” little did they know just how universally apt such a colloquial phrase was. Brian Clegg, in this case both from and “at” Swindon, sets the scene for his engaging talk by explaining the importance of knowing where you are “at”…sorry, where exactly you are located.

It’s all relative, that’s the point and in terms which satisfy the laymen, who I suspect make up the majority of the audience, but with enough meat on the scientific bone for those better versed, he explains the concept of relativity, the importance of how something is viewed and how if interacts with regards to its location and the location of everything around it.

Once the idea of frames of reference is bedded in the mind of the listener and we have taken on board how the scientific world over time has moved from solid, immutable absolutes to a few basic, flexible concepts such as absolute zero, light and nothingness he gets to the centre piece of the talk. Nothing less than building a universe from scratch!

Obviously it is a universe of thought, after all the Arts Centre stage isn’t that big and I suspect the planning applications would prove to be a bit of a pain, so using those few basic but important building blocks he describes the surprisingly few things (things and stuff being wonderfully low brow terms for surprisingly complicated ideas, but you take the maths out of science and you end up with more manageable concepts, philosophies and words like stuff) that are the essence of the universe.

 

I’m not that scientifically driven, if I see a sunset I think of poetic descriptions rather than quantum mechanics but Brian’s talk, like the book I am now flipping through, is perfect if you want something to think about but not frazzle the brain, a popularist and everyman introduction to a subject many would consider too scary to even approach. And if any proof was needed the fact that I spent the next hour in the pub opposite chatting to a couple of complete strangers discussing our relative experiences (pun intended) of this intriguing talk.

I guess in the same way that I don’t need to know exactly what is going on under the hood of a car to discuss driving, this talk proved that I don’t need to know my quark from my elbow to explore the grand concepts of the universe. Maybe this was the equivalent of Top Gear for the wannabe physicist. Only without the hyperbole…or the casual racism!

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