The One Direction film is scary to watch, but it makes a good point about teen sexuality

If anyone needed proof that sex is something girls do rather than have done to them, it's this.

If you are not a teenage or pre-teen girl, this is what you probably think about boyband fans: they're just little girls with a liking for unthreatening pretty boys; they dont care about music; all they want it something safe. To which it's worth replying: safe for whom, exactly? Watching One Direction: This is Us (the Morgan Spurlock-directed 1D documentary), it doesnt look like in the middle of a crowd of Directioners is a very cosy place to be.

Actually, it looks terrifying. Small female faces break wide open with uncontainable emotion, their mouths twist and tremble. They cry, not decorous and moderate tears of gratitude, but the shocking, howling sobs of the frantic. And then there's the noise. The noise would beat any normal person back: thousands of lungs emptying themselves in a simultaneous scream, a vast wail of wanting.

Harry, Zayn, Niall, Louis and Liam are accustomed to it, though - to a point. Sometimes, they toy with it like conductors of a dreadful orchestra: in Milan, they duck behind a balcony, listen to the noise subside, then leap up playfully to be met by another predictable rain of shrieks. But in Mexico City, Liam looks genuinely shaken at the noise which meets him when he steps out from behind a stack of amps in a half-empty stadium, hours before the show is due to start.

The noise is for them, but Liam's alarmed face says that he knows there's something in it that the band can't control. In Amsterdam, they go shopping and get mobbed. After they've taken shelter in a Nike store, Liam tells the camera, "One of them had my ear and wouldnt let go. I think she wanted to keep it. I said, you can't have that, its mine." He laughs, but he's holding onto his ear like he's relieved to find it still attached.

The fans want them so badly they would rip them apart. This is a whole crowd with a common purpose: total individual possession of their favourite band member. I asked a friend's teenage daughter if she wanted to come and watch the film. "No, I couldn't," she said firmly, "I'd be too jealous watching all those other girls meeting them."

Most of these girls are too young for them to call this mad wanting lust. They wouldn't recognise sex as the ultimate object of the feelings shaking them, and that's the safety of the boyband crush. Fixating on someone securely unobtainable lets you practice all the wildness of desire without making too many mistakes, embarrassing yourself too badly or hurting anyone too much (Liam's yanked ear is just collateral damage.)


Elated staff pose outside an official One Direction store with merchandise

And though these passions are a way of playing at having adult feelings, they're not disposable. A few weeks ago, I went to an open-air screening of Dirty Dancing. As Patrick Swayze appeared for the first time, approximately 2,000 middle-aged women exhaled Johnny as one, his the image imprinted on the gosling brain of their new-hatched lust some time in the 80s or 90s.

When I was growing up, it was Take That and Boyzone who inspired frenzy: some friends of a friend travelled from Chester to Ireland to camp on Stephen Gately's mum's lawn, because, well, contact with a few feet of distantly related turf was better than no contact at all. And when my mum was growing up, it was the Beatles. One of her most prized anecdotes is the one about the time an alarmed and ragged George Harrison, running away from fans (they probably wanted his ear), ran directly into her.

And before that Elvis, and before that Sinatra. As long as we've had mass media, we've had mass crushes on male stars. So why do still pretend that sex comes over teenage girls like some malignant force from outside? The dread word "sexualisation" is applied almost exclusively applied to girls and never to boys, and it suggests some kind of external process imposing sexuality on women. If girls never underwent "sexualisation", presumably they would remain untainted by desire. Boys, meanwhile, are assumed to just know what they want and what to do, and if any education is needed, it's to warn girls of this masculine menace.

This is transparently a disservice to children of both genders. But for girls, the damaging lesson they're left with is that sex is something done to them, not something they do. If consent even enters into this debate, it's as something girls can refuse: all the agency they're offered is the chance to say no. Yes is taken away from them and replaced with a dull acquiescence to the incontinent urges of boys. Sex stops being a collaborative pleasure and becomes a grim tussle, with men trying to take it, and women charged with keeping it locked up.

But boys and girls have just the same mix of hunger and confusion, the same questions, the same need for answers from grown-ups. And while decorous adults refuse to acknowledge that girls are not just girls, but women in training, there's a seven-decade-old industry predicated on the fact that girls will pursue a boy they like to the end of the universe. The grown-ups keep quiet, and those lungs keep emptying themselves in a howl of unrecognised need.

One Direction performing. Image: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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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