17. The Mountains Look Like Scotland

I have seen atoms with my own eyes. At least, I’ve seen a device (a Tunneling Electron Microscope, or TEM) which fires a beam of electrons down into a material, the electrons pass through the material and are scattered, and the electronics detects the electrons and reconstructs a cross-section of the material you’ve put in there. TEMs take up a large room, and the one I used during my doctorate was in the basement of the Materials department in Oxford, and cost millions of pounds. I was looking at samples of carbon nanotubes, tiny tubes made of carbon, a bit like buckyballs – C60, one of the natural forms (allotropes) of carbon. Carbon nanotubes have what’s called delocalised pi orbitals – meaning electrons wander around the whole length of the nanotube, which can be micrometers long, and make it blurry – so it’s hard to see individual atoms, which are closer to a nanometer in size – one thousand times smaller. But sometimes the nanotubes had crystals or atoms in them, and then you could see individual atoms. Individual atoms!*

I tend to take a fairly sceptical view of physics – physics is a really really really accurate model we use to understand physical reality – but if you believe physics explains everything we see, you run into problems when you start talking about consciousness and free will and things like that. So my attitude as a young man had always been – to paraphrase Terry Gilliam – “it’s only a model”. But I saw them! Atoms! With my own eyes! Or at least, I saw the reconstruction of what we thought the patterns made on a detector meant when we thought we were accelerating electrons at a sample in what we thought was a vacuum. I started to wonder whether that made a me a weird truther, like people who had seen ghosts or the shroud of Turin or been cured by Saints’ bones.

And so this is my most travelogue-y song to date – refracted through these contrasting views of reality:

  1. Everything is made of atoms. Atoms are real. They are the same everywhere I go.
  2. Forms are almost infinitely variable. Physical objects are almost infinitely complex – no mountain is the same as any other mountain, they’re different in trillions of ways.
  3. Forms vary over time. You can never visit the same mountain twice. Human beings completely replace their cells every nine years.
  4. Every thing I see bears the past echoes of my experience; every mountain is superimposed with the image of every mountain I’ve seen before.
  5. Everywhere does look a bit like Scotland.

At least Cradle Mountain in Tasmania does, where we were, hanging out at a Tasmanian devil Sanctuary and watching them eat wallaby tail. Iceland looks a bit like Scotland. Montana looks a lot like a big version of Snowdonia. Petaluma County looks a lot like rural England.

Next week, things took a turn and I had to start finding creative ways to lie.

*there’s a wonderful video somewhere from a Japanese group that captured images of a pair of Lanthanum atoms tumbling inside a nanotube. Tumbling! But it’s over 15 years old and I can’t find it.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-2 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 1st, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1