How some light got in


By some terrible misunderstanding, I only got to spend one day at the “How the light gets in” festival in Hay-on-Wye. Next year, I will have to organise things better! A music and philosophy festival, it certainly lived up to expectations! But they had booked my train tickets, so that I only spent five hours at the festival, of which two were on stage.

The night before was the farewell party for one of my colleages, going off to Cape Town. I drank more wine than I should have done. But I managed to rise above adversity and put on a reasonable show at the festival.

The trains they had booked me on were via Newport. On the way out, there was a three-quarter hour wait for the connection in Newport (and yet the journey time was still less than the direct train via Oxford); on the way back, it was a much tighter connection.

The driver sent to meet us at Hereford found he had one more passenger than he had expected; so we had a cosy journey up the Wye valley to Hay. Seeing Hay Bluff and the ridge put me in mind of one of my favourite walks, from Abergavenny to Hay along the top of the ridge, with views over England on one side (neat farmlands with fields and hedges) and Wales on the other (gloomy mountains). I will have to do it again someday soon!

Arriving at the festival, I checked in and was told that there would be someone to take me back to Hereford at the end of the day, and then I was taken to the Green Room to pick up my envelope. There were several uncollected envelopes, and the names on some of them were a bit intimidating: Ken Livingstone, Esther Rantzen, A. S. Byatt.

The envelope contained meal tickets, so I went to the Pie Minister stall and got a Deerstalker pie (venison and bacon). My lunch companion told me that she had loved mathematics as a child but had been firmly told “girls don’t do maths”; so she became an accountant instead. Now in her sixties, she has decided the time has come to do a maths degree at the Open University.

Then I listened to a couple of songs from Chris Pattemore in the acoustic tent while I waited for the time to go to the Green Room to be wired up.

Outside the Green Room I found David Malone (who is chairing both of my debates) and one of the other participants in the debate on infinity, Julian Barbour. We talked about the format, and soon the other panellist, Laura Mersini-Houghton, and Beth Swingler, who had “recruited” me, showed up. We got our microphones and went to the Hall for the debate.

The format of the debates was that, after a brief introduction, each panellist has four minutes to set out a position, and then the argument begins. There are some themes, and David would bring us back to these if the debate foundered or wandered too far from the topic; but mostly we just went our ways. The two cosmologists had very different views; I felt like piggy-in-the-middle. But it was a good set-to, and soon we came to audience questions and the end, and Beth came back and gave us each a sunflower.

My position was essentially that, while physicists might have problems with infinity, mathematicians have pretty much got it sorted out. But I was able to put my argument against the idea that an infinite universe must have infinitely many earths just like ours – maybe the number of possible earths is a larger infinity than the size of the universe!

Then back to the briefing and wiring up for the second debate, titled “This debate has no name”, about self-reference. I expected this one to be more difficult, as it featured a philosopher (Hilary Lawson) and a literary theorist (Patricia Waugh). Reading Hilary’s opinions beforehand, I assumed we would be at one another’s throats right from the start, and he told me later than he had thought the same. My view is that mathematicians have used self-reference paradoxes creatively (notably Kurt Gödel, of course), whereas he was saying that they show a systemic weakness in our whole world view. But it turned out that he was concerned with the relationship between the world and our modelling of it, whereas my mathematical universe lacks a lot of the messy detail of the world.

We certainly found ourselves in agreement on the subject of Borges.

I have put a written version of my starting statement here.

After that there was a short time to drink a glass of champagne while the three panellists continued their discussion (David had to go and chair another debate on “why there is something rather than nothing”), before I had to go to meet my driver. He was taking Esther Rantzen to her hotel and then Michael McIntyre and me to the station; we sat in the back talking about Galois theory.

Then a pleasant journey back to London through a glorious evening, seeing a sun dog, the sun appearing to rise from one of the cooling towers at Didcot power station like a glob of molten lava, and finally a fiery orange sky reflected in the river at Reading.

This is not the only Hay festival; but the other one, I believe, has much more a celebrity culture, whereas this one is mainly concerned with provoking good discussions. The name of the festival is taken from a line in a Leonard Cohen song, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”, and I hope I did help to let a little light in.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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