Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, Pankaj Mishra and Kirsty Gunn.

Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson

How do you break the intellectual consensus that Britain is a front-line developed economy, and must lower its public and private debts simultaneously and dramatically as a precondition for a return to growth? “To deleverage simultaneously is to invite protracted depression,” Will Hutton writes in the New Statesman’s special London issue this week. “The challenge instead is to develop our economy as much as make it grow”. Hutton considers Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, with its thesis that “such epic economic mistakes have been made over the last generation, compounding those of the past 100 years, that the productive sinews of Britain’s economy – and its ability to renew that productive capacity – have shrunk to such a degree that Britain can no longer be considered a developed economy”. In many ways Britain’s reliance on foreign direct investment and an obsession with vacuous, charismatic leaders are characteristic of a developing economy. Elliott and Atkinson find a Britain wedded to a “no-strategy strategy”. And yet Elliott and Atkinson also find themselves in a predicament. They “describe what has gone wrong brilliantly but their economics is descriptive rather than purposefully analytical,” Hutton laments. “They lack a solid political economy with an accompanying vision of what a good British economy and society would look like”. Hutton urges economists to give us a convincing vision of a new kind of capitalism. Until Elliott and Atkinson can better answer the question – what is this wealth for? – “they will do no better than draw with their opponents”.

Andrew Adonis, writing in the Financial Times, also finds the argument of Going South a “brutal and eloquent” expression of declinism in the current crisis. Adonis cautions the reader: “This is a movie in black and white – mostly black”, he warns, “when shades of grey would in my view be more realistic”. Furthermore Elliott and Atkinson “have few concrete suggestions” for how Britain’s leaders can keep their country in the developed world.
The Economist is wary of how far Elliott and Atkinson are really forecasting the loss of developed-economy status. “The authors do not really suggest that Britain’s GDP per head will plummet to the levels of sub- Saharan Africa, or that the country will lose the title of “advanced” economy bestowed on it by the International Monetary Fund”, the Economist review observes. “Instead, Britain’s third-world status is signified by a bunch of qualitative factors”. The underlying analysis is sound, but the broad definitions used by Going South tend towards overstatement and allow Elliott and Atkinson “to be grumpy old men and indulge in some fierce complaining about various aspects of modern British society”.

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

The zero-sum game of the east-west clash of civilisations remains the darling of Anglophone historical polemic. Julia Lovell, writing in the Guardian, considers From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra. Mishra looks to the non-western voices telling the other side of the story – the attempts by Asian thinkers to rebuild identity after colliding with the imperialist west. From the Ruins of Empire “gives eloquent voice to their curious, complex intellectual odysseys as they struggled to respond to the western challenge”. Nor does Mishra look to indulge in broad accounts of success. “Instead, he is preoccupied by the tragic moral ambivalence of his tale”. For Mishra, there is “no triumphal sense of “eastern revenge” against the 19th century’s “white disaster”, but rather one of self-doubt, inconsistency and virtuous intentions gone badly wrong”. Mishra blends accounts of Asia’s thinkers – Persia’s Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Qichao, India’s Rabindranath Tagore – along with luminous details that “glimmer through these swaths of political and military history”, from Indian villagers naming their babies after Japanese admirals on hearing of Japan’s decisive victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, through to the history of the fez. Mishra’s conclusion meanwhile is a bleak response “to those who read China’s and India’s embrace of capitalism as a comforting sign of their reconciliation with western ways”. Mishra’s warning is one of environmental apocalypse – “the final consequence of these centuries-old collisions between Europe and America”.

Noel Malcolm, writing in the Telegraph also finds From the Ruins of Empire a fascinating exploration of the origins and consequences of Asian anti-Westernism, and the ideological legacies that we have been left with today. But he does find some aspects of Mishra’s narrative open to criticism: “The account of Asian anti-imperialism here tends to gloss over the imperialism of the Asians themselves”. Mishra’s description of Western behaviour in Asia “too often relies on the heated complaints of Asians, whose rhetoric is presented as quasi-historical statement”. But John Gray, writing in the Independent, notes how well placed Mishra is to explore the paradoxes of the east-west interplay: “Based in London but living part of the time in India where he was born and grew up, he views the rise of Asia from a standpoint that pierces through the illusions that have shaped perceptions and policies on both sides”. At the heart of Mishra’s ironic story is “the need for Asian countries to adopt western models of statehood in order to avoid being crushed by western power”. From the Ruins of Empire has no comforting message. The retreat of the west today “is unlikely to bring peace, for the Asian powers have their needs, rivalries and scores to settle”.

The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn

The elusive task of writing about music lies at the centre of Kirsty Gunn’s novel, The Big Music. Michael Bywater, writing in the Independent, observes that Gunn further magnifies the task by exploring in prose a kind of music many find inaccessible – the formal music of the Highland bagpipes. “To take that, and to show us at its heart a love-song and a lullaby: she is a brave woman even to try”. The Big Music is presented as a series of “papers” complete with footnotes which Gunn encountered while researching a piece set in the Highlands. Beyond this academic conceit, it is Gunn’s ability to live inside the music itself that makes The Big Music a masterpiece: “Gunn solves the problem she has set herself, not by writing about the music but, by some strange meticulous magic, writing within it”. Opening with John Sutherland, sixth in a line of pipers, set on finishing his own “Lament for Himself”, Gunn’s narrative, “blurred, luminous, a tightly-disciplined poem as well as a set of variations upon a theme”, is perpetually interwoven with the forms, rhythms and melody of the music.

Susan Elderkin, writing in the Financial Times, also praises the ambitious task of “attempting to recreate, no less, the inimical sound of bagpipe music” in words. “It’s an amibition that harks back to the great modernists of the 20th century”, Elderkin observes, and in that tradition, “there is also a story here, a moving one, involving emotionally distant fathers and self-exiled sons, of bagpipe music being handed down through generations, along with loves that cannot, or will not, be expressed”. Adam Thorpe, writing in the Guardian, finds that The Big Music, “its charms as subtle as a piper’s grace notes, brilliantly fulfils its own definition”. In Gunn’s story, “time devolves its tyranny to space rather than chronology, mainly through the temporal dissolutions of memory”. It is a remarkable feat: The Big Music “is not just influenced by Scottish bagpipe music, it seeks to inhabit it”.

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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