When the duck starts taking off, you know it was a really bad idea to drop acid in the Chinese

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

I’ve shifted my business back to Wong Kei. As regular readers of this column will be aware, the realest restaurant meal I eat – in terms of both its Heideggerian thrownness and my own helpless habituation – is a plate of barbequed pork and crispy pork rice, with a dish of Chinese vegetables in oyster sauce, washed down with a pot of green tea. I’ve been eating this meal week in, week out for over 30 years in a series of restaurants around Soho in London.

I began in Man Lee Hong on Lisle Street in the late 1970s. When that establishment closed in the early 1980s, I shifted to Wong Kei – then in the mid-1980s I upped sticks to China China on the corner of Gerard Street, where I remained for almost two decades until it changed ownership and became one of those hateful all-you-can-eat buffets. Forced out in the early Noughties, I scurried down Newport Place to the Canton, where I was perfectly happy until a couple of years ago the gaff was sold from under me and the quality of its hog dropped precipitately. Homeless for a while, I wandered the streets disconsolately, toying with esoteric Chinese medical practices – cupping, candles stuck in my ears, twisted roots to resurrect my own . . . twisted root – until a few months ago, on impulse, I returned to Wong Kei.

I’d been gone so long the entire establishment – all four storeys – had upped sticks and moved. True, it has only shifted a few yards into Wardour Street but in many ways the new Wong Kei is worlds apart from the old. I remember my late lamented mate Smiler telling me about a grim episode in the old Wong Kei. He’d gone in to eat a nourishing congee in the throes of a serious heroin withdrawal, and on impulse thought he’d ask the waiter if he knew of a good acupuncturist who could alleviate his suffering. Some things in Wong Kei – such as the vertiginous language barrier – don’t change, so Smiler mimed the insertion of needles; perhaps a little too vigorously, because the waiter began nodding his head, then led Smiler through a back exit into an adjacent basement where a rather fearsome Tong-ish type offered him an ounce of smack at a knockdown price.

My own drug experience in the old Wong Kei was equally bizarre. I’d been with a friend at the Notting Hill Carnival, where, oppressed by the crowds, we had retreated to the top of one of the structures in the Meanwhile Gardens adventure playground. Up there it seemed like a good idea to drop some acid. My friend – who was and remains an impatient fellow – couldn’t wait for the major hallucinogen to come on, and so suggested that we hightail it into town and have a Chinese meal. Ensconced on the top floor of Wong Kei – with time decelerating to the ever-so-’umble leg rubbing of a fly that skulked beside a stray grain of rice wearing the face of Uriah Heep – my foolish pal ordered dish after dish. Then, as they began to arrive, each one more phantasmagorical than the last – glacéed giblets, chickens feet in birds’ nests, three flattened flying ducks – he got the fear and fled, leaving me to settle my own rebelliously fluttery stomach and the bill, before clawing my way out into a London full of ghosts of the civil dead.

But as I say: that was then – and this is now. Wong Kei’s new premises have none of the outright seediness of the old. This is a handsome building in the art nouveau style – Sara Bernhardt laid the foundation stone, Henry Irving the coping stone, and according to an English Heritage blue plaque on the facade, it was for many years the premises of one Willy Clarkson, wigmaker and theatrical costumier. I once unveiled a blue plaque for H H Munro (Saki), the prose laureate of the unheimlich. It was in Mortimer Street and the chairman of the relevant committee, Loyd Grossman, came along to conduct me on to the scaffolding outside the inventor of Sredni Vashtar’s former rooms. I had no idea what to expect from the own-label presenter of Masterchef, but Grossman was charming – never more so than when the two of us had to clamber across a desk at which its occupant continued to work (the flat is now an accountants’ office). How apt, we both remarked.

Perhaps if everyone in government had eaten at Wong Kei, there’d have been no need for them to suspend the putting up of these helpful identity pucks – my bill came to £10 including a tip. Then I did something bizarre, and asked the guy at the till what Wong Kei meant – a piece of information I’d failed to solicit since Thatcher’s first term. “Famous,” he said. And there we have it.

Crispy duck in the window of a China town restaurant. Photograph: Getty Images

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

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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