In the Critics this Week

This week's books pages feature everything from Disraeli to walls, futuristic distopias to an autism memoir.

The books section this week begins with David Marquand’s glittering review of Dick Leonard’s “crowning achievement”, The Great Rivalry: Disraeli and Gladstone. Marquand begins by pouring flattery upon Leonard’s literary skill, and approach to this book.

It is written with captivating panache, packed with well-chosen quotations, full of psychological insight and, at one and the same time, readable, entertaining and illuminating.

Marquand himself then goes on to explore Disraeli and Gladstone’s own crowing achievements, from their approach to imperial affairs, to their most significant pieces of legislation. Marquand subsequently questions who Leonard himself preferred in the Great Rivalry, believing it to be Disraeli, due to Gladstone’s somewhat perturbing charisma:

Disraeli [unlike Gladstone] was not charismatic in the Weberian sense. He was more fun to be with than Gladstone, perhaps because he didn’t take himself so seriously. But by definition, charismatic leaders do take themselves seriously. They think of themselves as the vehicles and instruments of a higher cause: Gladstone’s statement after receiving the Queen’s commission to form his first government that his “mission” was to “pacify Ireland” is a good example. There is something wild, un-controlled and untethered about charismatic leadership, and that disconcerts rational moderates such as Leonard and me.

All in all, Marquand manages to produce an inventive and analytical review.

Michael Prodger continues the Disraeli theme with his review of Douglas Hurd and Edward Young’s Disraeli: or the Two Lives. Once again, Disraeli’s character is closely examined, a man with an obscuring “vividness of character”, “a Boris Johnson but with substance”.

In a precise and insightful review, Prodger praises a “concise but balanced assessment, on a man who “was always led interested in other people than he was in himself””.

In contrast, NS deputy editor Helen Lewis’ review of Susan Greenfield’s 2121: A Tale from the Next Century is far from complimentary. After examining the author’s recent fall from grace in scientific circles, Lewis launches into a cutting, and at times humorous attack on Greenfield’s debut novel.

The prose is a mess. There are errant commas, clunking clichés and banal phrases such as “tossed about in a vast sea of heightened emotions devoid of passions. Everyone seems weirdly obsessed with comparing their current situation with that in the early 21st century- “she gestured to the high-speed pod, still recognisable as a distant descendant of its predecessors from a century or two ago” - which, when you think about it, makes as much sense as a writer now describing a car as “still reminiscent of a 19th-century landau."

Lewis combines a questioning of the author’s motive, and an attack on her literary ability to produce a biting and comical review.

Owen Hatherley’s review of Marcel Di Cintio’s Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, adds a global feel to this week’s book section. Hatherley explains that Di Cintio’s travel book offers far more than just his “acute” and “vivid renderings” of landscapes. Hatherley praises Di Cintio’s “unobtrusive and erudite” historical asides, before concluding with what he sees as one of the most enduring aspects.

What is memorable in Walls is its deep pessimism. Whenever a dismantlement appears to be imminent, as in Nicosia, inertia and cynicism invariably win out over the let’s-all-hold-hands anti-politics of the UN and the NGOs. In Belfast, Di Cintio notes the removal of the “peace line” that once divided a park in Ardoyne but considers the underground wall that runs between the Catholic and Protestant sections of Belfast City Cemetery to be “a more relevant symbol than the image of little girls frolicking through a gate that opens every once in a while. The constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people are not only enduring but thriving.

Hatherley’s examination of this poignant book proves to be expansive and engaging.

Caroline Crampton completes this week’s books section with her review of Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, an inspirational and personal account which looks to enlighten readers on the reality of dealing with autism. Translated by David Mitchell and K A Yoshida, who themselves have an autistic child, Crampton delves into the book’s approach to autism. She discusses both our misconceptions, and the book’s genius in uncovering them.

Every page dismantles another preconception about autism. For a start, Higashida writes mainly in the plural- we need your help, we need your understanding- as if he is not alone but part of a great community of silent children around the world. He explains that it’s physically painful to hold back his “weird voice” (that loud, thick, over-worked diction that autistic people some-times use) because it feels “as if I’m strangling my own throat.

Reading this review in itself forces one to think on their own views regarding autism, invoking empathy and encouraging understanding.

This week's magazine also features Talitha Stevenson reviewing The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing, and Fiona Sampson on Clive James's translation of The Divine Comedy.

Also in the Critics:

  • Jason Cowley on Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews the latest collaboration between Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, At World's End.
  • All the latest in TV, radio, opera and theatre from Antonia Quirke, Matt Trueman, Rachel Cooke and Alexandra Coughlan.

This week's New Statesman is out now

An 1880s Vanity Fair image for Gradstone and MPs. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis.
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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