The Suspicions of Mr Whicher on ITV: Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends

Kate Summerscale's book is very good indeed, but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

People like to say that the truth is stranger than fiction and sometimes this is the case. As events unfolded in Cleveland, Ohio recently, you felt such a sickening narrative to be beyond the realm of most crime writers. But mostly, fiction is stranger than truth, or at least less messy, more planned. It doesn’t peter out – it always has an ending – and for this reason it feels a good deal more satisfying. Isn’t this why we read, after all? Fiction, moreover, supplies answers in a way that the so-called truth often doesn’t. Much of what I know about life, especially about human beings, I picked up from novels – for which reason, I’m wary, not to say disdainful, of people who don’t read them.

I was thinking about this as I watched The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Sunday 12 May, 8pm). The first film that ITV commissioned about this Victorian detective was based on Kate Summerscale’s prizewinning non-fiction book of the same name. The book is very good indeed but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic. Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends. But ITV must have liked not only the ratings for that first film but the character of Mr Whicher, too, for it decided to bring him back. Only this time the mystery he had to solve was made up for him by Neil McKay, the talented writer of the Bafta Award-winning Appropriate Adult.              

I was all set to be scornful. The brazen cheek of it! Get your own Victorian detective, I thought, don’t gussy up someone else’s. But, of course, as television it was much better than the original. It had a proper plot, complete with red herrings and acts of derring-do (also a creepy lunatic asylum, illegitimate children, cursed families and a convent). It wasn’t quite Wilkie Collins but it was on its way. And when it ended, all was suddenly clear. The murk lifted and it was spring. Viewers could go to bed feeling that something had been resolved, unpicked like an old knot, though perhaps I’d better not say whodunnit (or whydunnit), in case this is loitering on your Sky Plus.

Paddy Considine returned as Jack Whicher, now discharged from the police on the grounds of “mental unfitness”. Opposite him was Olivia Colman as Susan Spencer, a genteel woman in search of her missing niece. Having stumbled on Miss Spencer in a tavern, Whicher offered to begin working for her as a “private inquiry agent”. As ever, they were good together, Considine and Colman (he directed her in the film Tyrannosaur). They’re two of the best criers in the business – the tears pour out of Colman like rainwater from a storm drain – and both of them have wonderful period faces: pouchy and oddly touching. The time will come when Colman makes an excellent Queen Victoria. She looks marvellous in jet.

It’s pretty clear that ITV is planning to commission more Whichers. “I think you will,” said a smiling Miss Spencer to our hero when he informed her in the film’s last moments that he wouldn’t be taking on any more cases in future. According to Hat Trick, which made it, the channel sees it “in a tradition of Cracker and Prime Suspect”. But for all that I enjoyed this second outing, they should leave it now. Cracker and Prime Suspect had an originality – a vitality – that Whicher lacks. There’s something ersatz here. Now it’s all made up, it’s as if Inspector Lestrade has leapt from the pages of Sherlock Holmes into his own stories. Writers as good as McKay have their own ideas and should be encouraged to develop them.

Paddy Considine and Olivia Colman in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Photograph: ITV.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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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