It seamlessly blends cosmology, quantum physics and AI with fundamental questions about our humanity and about our race to destroy the planet we live on. I loved that it assumed a level of familiarity with physics that made me feel I was watching a movie that transcended any expectations of its viewing demographic.
Aside from raising uncomfortable questions about our unsustainable rate of naked and undirected consumption, what struck me most from the film was how little we really know about the Universe we live in, both from an academic perspective and more gallingly from a species perspective.
Physicists have been wrestling with unifying Relativity and Quantum Mechanics since the mid-1900s. Recent developments at CERN and the Hadron Collider have encouraged optimism that we are inching closer to answers. Surely we would reach these answers faster if more people took an interest in the fundamental questions. Why do we not care about whether superstrings are the key to a Theory of Everything? Why are we indifferent to what happens inside a black hole? Why don’t we want to know what is beyond an event horizon?
The greatest leaps forward in understanding and achievement have always occurred through massive funding (whether by wealthy patrons or the state), a collective will to succeed and an environment that is conducive to breakthroughs.
A key example of the first two conditions being satisfied was JFK’s call to action in 1960. He said that, even as the Soviets were putting Gagarin into orbit and as the US’s rockets were exploding on the launchpad, the US would put a man on the moon within a decade. Billions and billions were spent on harnessing the greatest minds and the greatest pioneering spirits to achieving this seemingly unattainable goal. Kennedy also galvanised an entire nation with the now famous exhortation that we do things not because they are easy but because they are hard. With the first two in place, the third condition was now flourishing with the necessity imposed by the Cold War and the intellectual hothouse and pioneering derring-do of NASA and the astronauts of Project Mercury.
Surely today’s quest for the answers to the unknown Universe are even more pressing than the mind-blowing feat of putting a man on the Moon. Yet the sums of money being pumped into projects such as CERN is laughably small in comparison to Project Mercury. Today, 20 member states contribute only CHF 1bn to CERN, a lot of money but not nearly as much as we should be funding. It should be 100 times that. Even in this age of austerity, we can afford much more than CHF 2.2 per person per year. Why not CHF 200?
Naysayers might ask why? And this is a fair question. Does the search for the fundamental answers have utility? Of course. But that would be to miss the point. We are enriched as a species when our sum of knowledge expands. What is the utility of us having the theory of evolution? Nothing beyond the satisfaction of understanding our world better. We are better for the theory and the desire to understand ourselves and our place within the cosmos. And that is for evolution. How much more satisfying would the answers be to the questions of where the Universe came from, what is the Universe made from, what are the laws of physics and why are they the laws that they are? The answers to these would also go some way to answering the big metaphysical questions such as what is time? What is life? And ultimately, why are we here?