• Philip J Connolly

Disability for physicists, astrophysicists and the simply curious

The Disability Resilience Network boldly goes in search of the answers to the big questions on disability.


The spatial dimensions of disability are often seen as a challenge, so much of space is inaccessible but suppose other spatial dimensions such as the sub-atomic particle level or the inter-planetary level offered not challenges but new perception on the meaning of disability. Just as life has been a progression to ever more complex lifeforms it is possible to trace this progression backwards to reveal fossils of ever simpler creatures too. As you make this journey through 4.6 billion years of history you eventually reach the fusion of two single nuclei. The fusion conferred an advantage on the resulting organism that favoured its existence at which point evolution took over. It is widely believed that a single fusion eventually spawned the whole of creation. A single fusion or unit of difference evolved all this:

Millions of years of evolution produced ever more diversity that suggests to me that diversity is the natural order of the universe. It is possible or maybe even probable that we are not the final word in evolution. In science too there is reluctance to accepting the final word. There is a willingness to model, what we know, hypothesise what we don’t know and then test it through experiments and the gathering of evidence, the model is then updated accordingly. So the model of the atom was cast by Thomson and others as a “plum pudding in which all the constituent parts were stuck together.

In 1932 Rutherford split the atom at Manchester University and gave rise to a new model with electrons circulating a nucleus of protons and neutrons.


Later Schrodinger and Heisenberg proved that particles have wave like properties and that these properties could be made the subject of mathematical calculations hence quantum mechanics.


More recently still the Hadron collider in Cern has allowed for the existence of the Higgs Bosun particle that gives atoms mass to be photographed.

Science is not the only place that makes space for the updating of models. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities does too. In the convention the definition of disability is based upon “disability being an evolving concept”. I would argue that just as atoms have a particle and a wave nature so too disability has both an individual and a group stage that can overlap within one person’s experience.


At the sub atomic level it is possible to further our understanding through experiments and even to photograph particles but things get more complex at the inter-planetary level. Einstein developed experiments in logic or “thought experiments” that allowed him to develop the general theory of relativity. I offer my own thought experiments which I invite you to test by logic. The first hypothesis goes like this: -

“We live on a so called Goldilocks planet in which the atmosphere exists at the right pressure for Oxygen to exist as a gas and for water to exist as a liquid (the just right condition in the fairy tale) so why is it that as almost the norm of every society except where it is higher due to war that around one in five people is disabled? Is there an advantage to society as a whole that this proportion of society has this experience?


Now when I look at the cosmos I see abundance; abundance of galaxies, stars and planets. I see an abundance of light. I also see an abundance of possibilities and chances that make our own existence both highly significant and highly insignificant at the same time. Significant is definitely more liberating. The universe is not based upon binary choices, light itself is a spectrum so could disability policy itself be more of a spectrum condition. Not just a choice of state provision or market supply but support to communities of disabled people to generate their own preferred solutions too. The 12 million disabled people represent abundance too: abundance of experiences, insights and knowledge, of possible collaborations and of possible resources. What would be possible if they were active players and not distant observers? There would certainly be more possibilities for everyone else because if it is true that more connectivity is a good thing for society then the digitally excluded are a brake on everyone else’s connectivity. Have the tech companies modelled the impact of this?


Many disciplines are developing new models of participation. There is citizen science in which people contribute their own measurements or observations. There is citizen journalism in which people contribute their own accounts and images. There is a citizen army of volunteers supporting the Government’s mass vaccination programme in which people contribute their time and compassion. It is my hope that the national disability strategy currently being developed by the Cabinet Office enables further developments in our understanding of disability but also supports disabled people to generate their own resources.


Finally there is the possibility for disabled people of going beyond the 5 mile distance for outdoor exercise and yet still maintaining social distance. The European Space Agency has announced their willingness to recruit female and disabled astronauts. One of the first female astronauts Samantha Christoforetti explained it thus: “In space everyone is disabled.”

Disability ought not to have limits but soon we will no longer be able to say “Its not rocket science” either.

Join the Disability Resilience Network and either develop or satisfy your curiosity.

The Disability Resilience Network is dedicated to deepening our understanding of disability and raising our aspirations as disabled people or those concerned with the welfare of disabled people.

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