Busy times, 7: How the light gets in

How the light gets in, 2014

It’s that time of year again, so off to Hay-on-Wye for How the Light Gets In.

The festival has grown; I was told that ticket sales are up 50% on last year. Certainly my participation in it has grown: like last year, two panel discussions, but also a lecture about paradoxes and a short course of three lectures on infinity (the latter in their new IAI Academy, on a different but nearby site, running this year for the first time).

The train from Paddington to Newport went through mostly flat English countryside with chalk hills on the horizon. I took the chance to read through my slides, and found a couple of misprints, which I was able to correct. A tight connection at Newport (the train was pulling in when I got to the platform) took me through much more interesting scenery, the impressive Welsh hills shrouded in dark cloud, until after crossing from the Usk valley to the Wye valley we left the hills for the tamer Herefordshire countryside.

There are two festivals in Hay sharing the same week plus two weekends. When I arrived at Hereford station, three smartly dressed gents were waiting to pick up someone for the Hay festival, with laminated signs; outside, I found Nathan, a less well-dressed (but probably much friendlier) driver with a small Renault and a festival programme to identify himself. Driving to Hay the rain started and got successively heavier, but stopped when we arrived (fortunately). We saw many placenames on signposts familiar from Kilvert’s diary: Clyro, Clifford, Whitney, etc.

The festival site had a decent amount of mud, though not in Glastonbury quantities. I was welcomed, and met up with several acquaintances from last year, including Hilary Lawson (with whom I debated) and Beth Swingler (who organised my participation). I met Ed McGovern (this year’s contact) briefly but he was too busy to chat. The atmosphere was really nice. I sat in the tent and listened to a singer from Bristol who may have been Maxi Rai singing her own songs (very personal and revealing) until it was time to go and get set up.

My talk on Paradox Lost in The Ring went well, and there was no shortage of questions. Afterwards, one audience member told me that there had been a philosopher earlier in the day who said that Gödel’s Theorem had knocked away the foundations of mathematics; he had wanted to get up and protest, but didn’t do so, but he was delighted with my talk. Another audience member wanted copies of the slides for her son who is about to start a Mathematics and Philosophy degree at Bristol. (All the slides are now in the usual place.)

After chatting to several more people including a software engineer who is grabbing a second chance to learn some basic mathematics (analysis, set theory), I went and had a very nice meal. A family sat down next to me and we got into conversation (this thing happens at the festival), with the result that I was a bit late for the taxi to my accommodation. But they rustled another one up quite quickly.

The accommodation, Great Brampton House in Madley, is one of the most extraordinary guesthouses I have ever been in. A huge place in extensive grounds, it is like a bizarre mixture of stately home and sculpture museum (many of the statues are of sheep, but there others including some in classical style). I was invited to explore the house, avail myself of the complementary bar, and use the free wi-fi (and they even provided an old typewriter in my room, even older than the one I typed my thesis on in 1971).

My room was about the size of my London house (both floors!), with a four-poster bed and a huge bath. Three crystal chandeliers along the length of the room, and parallel mirrors at the ends, made a very convincing simulation of infinity! Unfortunately the rain had started, and exploring the grounds was not an option. But I very much regretted that I had forgotten my camera! (But take a look at their web page: just go there and watch the slide show!)

I went downstairs before bed, and found there David Tong (with whom I would debate on dark energy on the morrow) and Carlo Rovelli (a proponent of loop quantum gravity). We had a very interesting discussion, trying (not too hard) not to pre-empt the public discussion. At 10 we all retired to bed.

The next morning I spent a bit of time exploring the extraordinary house before the drivers arrived at 9. It contains the most amazing collection of objects, but not thrown together randomly; the guiding principle seems to be surrealism. Some of the outside walls are painted with tropical forest in bright pastel colours; on the pediments sit classical busts, one with a flowerpot on his head, another with a saw through his brain. The garden has a huge classical-style picture leaning against a tree, and another tree covered in china plates.

I was starting at 10 so had to be in the first car to leave. I was dropped at the festival entrance, checked in, and then walked up the high street, over the bridge across the Wye (quite a fine river here) and into the Riverside site. It was mainly for campers, with a yoga and massage tent, and a couple of tents for the academy.

I gave my three lectures to a virtually full house, many of the same faces as the day before, and even more enthusiastic. There were three talks: first a short history of infinity, then the question of whether the universe is infinite, and finally a discussion of how mathematicians are comfortable with the notion of infinity, with a brief trip through Cantor’s work and its aftermath. The only glitch was that I finished the first lecture too early (forewarned, I was able to spin out the other two to the right time). But the time after the first wasn’t wasted, as the students had lots of questions. Indeed, they kept me busy the whole morning.

Sometime after 1pm I managed to tear myself away and walk back to the main festival site and get myself a PieMinister pie for my lunch. (On the way back I passed one of my students going the other way, very enthusiastic about what he had just heard, and suggesting that it had all gone well.) Over lunch, I fell into conversation with a psychotherapist who ended up giving me some free advice about how to keep my busy life under control; I should learn a certain two-letter word beginning with N, and practise using it. Start with small things: “Would you like a cup of tea? No.” Then move on to bigger things. In a few years’ time, I might find myself with some time on my hands.

At 2.30 I was on again, a debate with Hilary Lawson and Eleanor Knox. They were both philosophers, though with opposed positions, which took the heat off me a bit. As happened last year, somewhat to our surprise, Hilary and I took very similar positions; but I did find the questions (such as what becomes of causality without the notion of force) a bit off-beam.

I went to the Tent and talked to several people. Hilary was very concerned that my book Sets, Logic and Categories wasn’t in the bookshop. I told him not to worry, but he went and gave them some sort of a bollocking, and perhaps it will be there next year. I was not at all worried.

Then I went and sat in the green room for a while, to write up a bit more of this (already overlong) account, and then read some email, with lots of time to spare before the last session. George Ellis sent me a link to a paper of his he had mentioned in the car this morning, debunking various classes of formal languages as contenders for natural language, on the grounds that humans don’t have infinite memory. (I had used this in my talk, though perhaps not quite in the way that George intended. I think that this theory is to tell us what various theoretical models of computation can and can’t compute, which give us bounds on what real computers can compute; an example of the use of the infinite in a very practical problem.) Anyway, George’s paper “Language Infinities” is here, and I am very happy to publicise it, since he told me he had been unable to find a journal to publish it.

I walked out into the streets of Hay to look for a cash machine, which I found very soon, even before getting to the town clock. Back to the site, I sat down outsidew the tent, and as usual fell into conversation with everyone who dropped by, which passed the time until the final debate at 7pm.

I had been going over the arguments during the afternoon. I didn’t understand dark energy but I didn’t really think anyone else did either. But in the end, George and David did make the case for dark energy a little more convincing than I had expected. I still don’t really think that re-introducing “Einstein’s greatest mistake” into cosmology is a sign that we understand what is going on. It was a very lively debate; at the end I felt I had learned something, and I hope the audience did, though it perhaps wandered off into technicalities a little too much.

Then I went to the front desk, and found three others (Carlo and his partner, and David Malone) waiting for a lift back to Great Brampton House; they said that they could squeeze another in, so I accepted. By this stage I was quite tired! So when I got there, I went up to my room, worked for a while, and then went to bed.

The next morning, with no time pressure, I got up and had breakfast. The host offered me a place in a car back to the festival; I said that, in view of busy times coming up, I should head home instead, to have time to wash the mud out of my clothes and get packed. Amazingly enough, they found me a car to Hereford within a quarter of an hour, and soon I was on my way back to London.

My final verdict: The festival exists, not to teach people things, but to show them that there are things they really want to learn. Judging from the feedback I had from many people, it was an outstanding success!

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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