28th October 2020

What is real? It is natural to ask at the moment, with the disruption of normal routines making things seem unreal.

We know reality goes beyond what we can see. The covid virus and the threat of global warming are real, even though we can’t see them. It is a pity that the difficulty some people have in believing them is hampering our responses. Cosmic rays are real, and cause transient computer errors. And there are many trillions of neutrinos coursing through our bodies every second, happily not doing us any harm.

There are also personal realities. The academic world is very real to me, whereas the world of industry isn’t. It depends where your livelihood comes from. Maths, computing, science, books, films, models, puzzles and quizzes are very real to me, whereas pubs, parties, pop music, fashion, celebrity culture, soaps and reality shows aren’t. For most of us, Zoom meetings are unreal, but gradually start to feel more real over time.

Perhaps the most difficult to get to grips with is the reality of ideas and ideals. We treat money as real, even though it is only a convention. A critical distinction in science is between those things which are alive and those which aren’t, yet it is a distinction with a fuzzy boundary, viruses being near the boundary. And most important of all, we believe in such things as freedom, equality, justice, peace, patience, honesty, trust, respect, forgiveness, generosity and love. It seems that the most important realities are the ones which are the hardest to pin down.

Ian Holyer