Robbert Dijkgraaf's lecture, "The End of Space and Time?" at Gresham College, Tuesday, 20 March 2012 - 3:00pm Barnard’s Inn Hall. Internet resource at

Robbert Dijkgraaf’s lecture, “The End of Space and Time?” at Gresham College, Tuesday, 20 March 2012 – 3:00pm
Barnard’s Inn Hall. Internet resource at

Robbert Dijkgraaf’s lecture given at Gresham College in 2012 that focuses on string theory, quantum gravity, and the interface between mathematics and particle physics, bridges ideas from the various disciplines of science and arts, could be said to be have played a pivotal role in influencing the manner in which I saw the Individual in relation to space and time. Dijkgraaf takes on an evolutionary perspective to space and time, that are “near to their end”.

From the transcript of the lecture:
“If you go back in more recent history, for instance, Richard Feynman, the famous particle physicist, he has said that if you really do not know mathematics – and do not be worried, there will not be many equations today – but if you do not really know mathematics, you cannot get across the real feeling of the beauty of nature.”

“Not only did we have this unification of space and time but the next ingredient was that space, the stage, so to say, is not rigid, it is flexible, it can curve, it can shape, and it does so under the influence of energy and mass, and that is the phenomena that we call gravitation. So, anything that carries mass or energy will curve the space and time around and thereby space and time became no longer the stage, but an active player in the game. Space and time are something which has physical properties and a future in physical laws, and in fact, it is the influence of this curvature that describes the motion of particles under the influence of gravity.”

“I think the evolving universe, the Big Bang, is part of our culture, and in fact, these images and the discoveries that are made are getting more and more exact and precise. We are living in the age of precision cosmology,…”

At the social level where one perspective is to view social life as being influenced even directed by technological innovations, the ‘atomisation’ of things can also be observed in how evolving communications and information technology are allowing people to decentralise their own identities and make that effective in their job scopes where people in Scandinavia for example, can have multiple sources of incomes, from parcelling out their time to various activities, thereafter in-voiced for the services rendered.

“Physicists are in this wonderful position that they know exactly what they do not know! So, 96%, according to these computations, of the universe is either in the form of the dark matter or dark energy, which is just a fancy way of saying there is some physical phenomena that we do not understand but we see its presence, and only 4% of the universe consists of the particles that we describe in our textbooks and that we teach in our lectures about.

I often ask people in other fields, “What is your percentage of dark matter – how much do you know that you do not know?” It would be very interesting to ask this question in economics!”

“In fact, reality is even stranger. For instance, a particle can do the following thing: according to these rules, it can split in two-particles, for a very brief time, and then these two particles are combining again to another particle. These intermediate particles are called virtual particles – you can only see them indirectly. Basically, there is a rule of quantum mechanics that anything is allowed as long as you do it fast enough before it can detect it. I always feel this is something very typical to the Dutch mentality because our whole society is based on this description there, our so-called tolerance.”

Again applied to the social level, I place Dijkgraaf’s commentary about the “Dutch mentality” and their level of “so-called tolerance” in the perspective of multiculturalism and the comfortability of identifying the Self in relation to one’s immediate circles of family, friends and environment. I have no conclusions except the observation that one who is inherently multicultural will have a zero point of reference that enables the person to act with tolerance towards all others and being somewhat comfortable with the idea of uncertainty. After all, in an age of increasing precision cosmology, what we exactly know still lies in that 4%.

“So, space-time is not only curves and shapes, it is also full of life so to say. It has really a physical material that you can study, and if you take a chunk of this quantum space-time, because of all this phenomena, there is energy in it, and this energy, according to quantum theory, that is this dark energy – that is the phenomenon that cosmologists measure. So I like to joke that empty space, the vacuum, is the most fascinating thing to study in physics, but of course writing big grant proposals to study nothing might actually not come across very clear, but in fact, it is what we are doing.”

“Can this idea be tested? It can be tested in a theoretical way, and one way is in string theory.”

Here, an example of what is done in quantum physics that most other fields of discipline are uncomfortable to consider, theoretical testing. What is often preferred are empirical tests against observations of the natural world. It now comes to question, what is the ‘natural world’?

“Finally, I want to say something about the most radical way in which this is implemented, which is a theory that got quite a lot of attention two years ago by my direct colleague and friend – we wrote many papers together – Erik Verlinde. He took the ultimate consequence of this idea. He said if really gravity is not a fundamental force, if what we call curvature of space and time is, in some sense, just an illusion because, underlying, is this more quantum description, perhaps we should stop looking for a fundamental description of gravity.”

“Now, you see these two are in conflict, and I think the lesson that we are now learning is that if you really want to understand the full picture of the universe, we have already seen, we are forced, by experiments and results, to combine the largest and the smallest, so in some sense we need some kind of synthesis of these points of view of life.”

“There are two quotes I want to mention of Pauli, to his friend Werner Heisenberg. The first one, when Heisenberg discovered the first uncertainty principle, you know, the lectern can sometimes be a particle and sometimes be a wave, he wrote very enthusiastically to Wolfgang Pauli, and Pauli wrote back. This is one week after discovery of quantum theory, and Pauli says: “Well, I think I understand it: if I look with my left eye, I see a particle; if I look with my right eye, I see a wave; if I open both eyes, I become crazy!” You might feel like this!”

At the social level, it is also both ‘wave’ and ‘particle’ depending on point of reference and the phenomenon of observer interference.

A video on climate change and global warming was circulated recently. It was a news documentary produced by a media powerhouse intended to keep abreast of current global issues. The general feedback to that was that the reporting had some elements of truth in it, but it was mostly produced for commercial purposes as a means of social entertainment veiled as a worthy, moral cause. To get a relatively fuller picture to the issue, framed and portrayed as a ‘global problem’, then an investigation / analysis with a greater integration between the levels of actors will be needed, going as Dijkgraaf mentioned in relation to the study of quantum physics, from “the smallest to the largest structure imaginable”.