Albert Einstein, whose general theory of relativity is still fueling new work. Photo: -/AFP/Getty Images
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What’s up with gravity?

Cheer the discovery of the gravitational wave when it happens. But don’t be fooled: gravity will remain our greatest mystery for a long time yet.

Get ready for a lot of Einstein love. This year marks the centenary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which describes how gravity works. Sort of.

It does enough, for instance, to predict the existence of gravitational waves – ripples in space caused by objects moving within it. Not that we have ever seen one. US scientists have just celebrated the completion of their latest gravitational wave detector, which will turn on later this year. They hope to use them to spot the shaking caused by cataclysmic events, such as the collision of two black holes or a supernova explosion.

No one doubts that the waves do exist. Whether our detectors will prove sensitive enough to see them is another matter. Even if they do, it will be a hollow victory. General relativity will have ticked another box but it won’t advance our basic understanding of how gravity works. The truth is that this remains a mystery.

What we do know is that when you throw a ball up in the air, it returns to earth. That’s because the ball and the earth possess a quality called mass: a way of quantifying how difficult it is to accelerate something, to get that ball moving, or to change its path, or stop it. We can describe how something that has mass will move under the influence of something else with mass by calculating the geometry of the object’s gravitational field using Einstein’s mathematics.

Put simply, anything with mass warps the space (and time) around it, and an object travelling through this warped space follows a curved path. In the case of the ball, that means falling back down to earth. In the case of the earth moving past the sun, it means moving in an elliptical orbit rather than a line. After this, we’re hand-waving. Yes, we can do calculations and we can make predictions of phenomena that this warping of space and time will create. But gravity remains our least-understood force – by a very long way.

Take its weakness. The ball falls to earth, but a fridge magnet doesn’t fall off the fridge, even with the mass of the whole planet pulling on it. That’s seven million billion billion kilos losing out to a magnet the size of a coin. If you want to write down how much stronger than gravity the electromagnetic force is, you’ll need a 1 and 40 zeroes.

What’s more, our theory of magnets is much more complete than our theory of gravity. Gravity aside, we can describe all the forces using a mathematical description known as quantum field theory – a framework that lays out how energy, mass, space and time work together to create the forces we see in the universe. According to this theory, particles borrow energy thanks to the “uncertainty principle” of quantum mechanics, using it to create particles that pop in and out of existence. This is no flight of fancy: these “virtual” particles have been found for all the forces. They are the photon, the gluon and the W, Z and Higgs particles.

But we haven’t come close to finding anything that would constitute the “graviton”. Although we can understand the basic electromagnetic and nuclear forces that give us atoms, chemistry and all our electronic gadgets, we don’t have a bottom-up understanding of why a ball falls back to earth.

So cheer the discovery of the gravitational wave when it happens. But don’t be fooled: gravity will remain our greatest mystery for a long time yet.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times