Exhibition review: Anish Kapoor, Turning the World Upside Down

Kensington Gardens, London.

The camera obscura (Latin for a darkened room) is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on to a screen and was one of the inventions that led to photography. Consisting of a box or room with a hole in one side, light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside where it is reproduced, upside-down, but with colour and perspective preserved.

To come across Anish Kapoor's startlingly beautiful C-Curve sculpture in the middle of Kensington Gardens is to experience the effects of the camera obscura but without the darkened room. Walk towards the highly polished concave surface of stainless steel and the surrounding lawns, autumn trees and people will appear upside down like a child's vision of Australia, where everything is topsy-turvy. Move around to the bulging convex facade and the world will be the right way up again.

Clouds, dog-walkers, babies and bikers all pass across the silver screen in a filmic version of real life. The players in this pageant stroll on and off stage passing, only for a moment, like the shadows in Plato's cave. "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more," Macbeth despaired. What is real? What is a chimera? asks Kapoor in these mirroring multiplications and inversions of our surroundings, which pose questions about our very existence.

From the first encounter with these four stainless steel structures placed within Kensington Gardens, we are reminded that the world is rarely what it seems. As Alice discovered in the looking glass, reality is a slippery concept. The symbolism of the mirror is ancient; from Narcissus to Snow White, it is an image that has caught the human imagination.

Legend has it that in 212 BC Archimedes repelled the Roman fleet, laying siege to the island of Syracuse by using a multitude of flat mirrors that acted like a huge concave mirror to direct the sun's rays to burn the attacking Roman fleet. In the 17th century, Newton realised that mirrors rather than lenses could solve a problem called chromatic aberration. By using curved mirrors in telescopes the integrity of light could be maintained rather than defracted. For 2,000 years geometry had been flat but by the 19th century mathematicians had overturned Euclid's thesis that the angles of triangles had to add up to 180 degree and that parallel lines did not meet. Kapoor's curved reflective surfaces reveal the universe as it really is, a place where light warps and bends and things are not what they seem.

Sitting in the Round Pond in front of Kensington Palace is a polished red dish like a vast setting sun, which reflects the movement of the clouds above. As with the human mind, images float across its surface, staying a while and then drifting away. Though Kapoor is, presumably, not responsible for the swans that swim around it, he must have been aware how their white forms sailing past are a perfect visual complement to his primary red.

The placing of Kapoor's sculptures in the park is critical. The long vista leading down to Kensington Palace accentuates the sense of infinity within the works' reflected surfaces. Elsewhere Non-Object (Spire), a reversed trumpet shape that echoes his Tate Marsyas, sits among the trees, its silver skin covered with rain drops: part religious icon and part futuristic form. As you walk towards it a second spire is reflected in the base of the larger. When you arrive up close it disappears like a mirage in an oasis. So much of Kapoor's work is dependent on the involvement of the viewer.

Walk across to The Longwater and there you will come across another Sky Mirror, a vast sphere standing like some huge satellite dish where a Henry Moore sculpture once stood. On a grey day it looks inert but when the light plays across its surface, boundaries between sky, reflection, reality and dream are blurred.

From his early pigment sculptures that constructed deep voids, Kapoor has asked questions about the nature of existence and belief. He investigates what we hardly know, turning the world upside down and inside out to extract meaning. It gives us a glimpse at the mysteries both of the human imagination and the universe we inhabit.

Until March 2011

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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

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 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood