Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Foster Wallace, Roberto Calasso's Baudelaire and Nick Barratt's history of London's suburbs.

Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest who ended his own life in 2008, claimed that nonfiction is harder to write than fiction “because nonfiction is based in reality – and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex." This posthumous collection of essays on what Wallace described as the “total noise” of contemporary life has been met with mixed reactions. Whilst critics are united in praising Wallace's idiosyncratic talent, opinions differ on whether this collection should have been published this way, if at all.

In a review that raises the issue of what rightly constitutes an author’s oeuvre, Leo Robson writes in this week’s New Statesman: “it is […] a shame that there now exists in book form evidence of Wallace as a practitioner of modest journalistic undertakings”. He considers the collection to be unrepresentative both of the author’s talent, and what he would have wished: “Wallace had shown how he wanted his non-fiction to be treated and it didn’t involve the conversion of emphera in to filler. In other words, if Wallace had survived long enough to preside over a further collection, it is unlikely that he would have looked like this.”

In contrast, Nat Segnit of The Independent, praises a work that, for him, “brims with jewels of insight and expression.” Whilst Robson objects to a prose which, at times, seems to contradict what we know of Wallace’s actual life, Segnit is appreciative of his “digressions and feedback loops of obsessive self-correction”.

David Annand writing in The Telegraph concedes that only some of the collected pieces “belong firmly in Wallace’s first rank” and that, at worst, “there’s something a little desperate about including a throwaway one-pager on Zbigniew Herbert” in this collection. However,  he concluldes that the “the spirit which animates Wallace’s essays" provides ample examples of what Annand calls “David Foster Wallace moments”- “when you get halfway through a sentence and gasp involuntarily, and for a second you feel lucky that there was, at least for a time, someone who could make sense like no other of what it is to be a human in our era.”

La Folie Bauedelaire by Roberto Calasso

The phrase “la folie Baudelaire” has its origin in an article written by Sainte-Beuve, Baudelaire’s contemporary and nemesis, which decried the poet as a drug-addled rascal, unsuitable for admission to the Académie Française. Whilst critics agree that Alastair McEwan's translation of Calasso's extended essay is succesful in evoking some of the idiosyncrasy of the "monstre sacré", they are divided on the effectiveness of the Italian's "ornate" writing style.

Keith Miller of The Telegraph warns that this work is less useful than Baudelaire’s Wikipedia page in communicating the “salient facts” of the 19th- century poet’s life, he writes “this is in no sense a biography”. However, for Miller, what the book lacks in factual detail, it makes up for in its evocation of Baudelaire’s otherness: “This book, sublimely untouched by 20th-century thought […], and imperiously indifferent to any revisionist impulse is essentially content to leave him [...] magnificently marooned on his Asiatic isthmus, the king across the water. “

John Simon in the New York Times finds himself frustrated by the obscurity of Calasso’s prose, he writes: “ the book fluctuates between criticism and biography, which is fine; what is lacking, however, is a clearly conveyed thread that unites all this material.” Though he says that Calsso’s writing can be “quite impressive”, he concludes: “the translation into English seems correct enough”, but that the “obscurantism” could do with translation into “perspicuity”.

Emma Hogan, writing in the Financial Timesagrees that Calasso “sometimes [...] strays too far into the realms of whimsy”. She judges that the author manages to “capture the shifting, overlapping world [of 19th-century Paris]” without getting “overwhelmed by his own material”. The “stories of supporting characters” are celebrated by Hogan, who writes that “such details, combined with [Calasso's] ear for a lyrical phrase, make La Folie Baudelaire a joy to read.”

Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs by Nick Barratt

Nick Barratt’s Greater London charts the development of London’s surrounding land, and the role it has played in the creation of the inner city. Its scale is ambitious, spanning a period from the first century AD up to the present day. John Carey in the Sunday Times confirms that Barratt is successful in “[collecting] facts on a prodigious scale”, managing to capture “London’s spectacular growth.” For Carey, however, Greater London, fails to fulfill its self-professed aim “to celebrate the suburbs”. He argues that Barratt fails to properly represent the human element of the development it charts: "What is missing […] is a sense of how people feel about their suburbs, and what they treasure in suburban life.”

Rebecca Armstrong, writing in the Independent, is more convinced of the breadth of Barratt’s work, which she says performs an “excellent impression of a far-reaching, in-depth yet broadly-based history of London.” Though she concedes that there are parts of the book which would require one to be “enamored of local politics” in order to best appreciate them, in general she findsit to be both informative and entertaining: “You don’t have to be a Londoner to enjoy this heroic tale of people – of bricks and train-tracks – triumphing to the detriment of green space.”

David Foster Wallace pictured in 1997 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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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