Master of the currents: pint-sized Bobby is the shy hero of My Teacher Is a Monster!
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Pranksters and ponies: the best new children’s books for summer

What should you pack for the summer holiday?

For children as for adults, the best time to read is during the summer holidays. But what to pack?

Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster! (Macmillan, £11.99) may bring back fearful memories of school for five-plus, but is an otherwise witty, elegantly expressive picture book from the author of Mr Tiger Goes Wild. There’s a touch of Maurice Sendak in his hero’s discovery that monsters are not always what they seem. We have all been the terrified, pop-eyed Bobby at some point, but beleaguered teachers trying to control a class will welcome his discovery that the fearsomely tusked, green-faced monster who shouts at him for misbehaving morphs into a kind young woman after he rescues her favourite hat.

A perfectly horrid picture book, In One End and Out the Other by Dr Mike Goldsmith (Red Shed, £8.99), will cause howls of rude delight as it goes into the fundamentals of excrement. The flaps conceal useful information (“A plastic carrier bag can take 1,000 years to decompose”) for future citizens, but there’s enough toilet humour to make it irresistible for four-plus.

Philip Reeve’s Goblins, Philip Ardagh’s The Grunts and Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon books all have delightful new instalments out this summer, but for the nine-plus football-mad reader, Morris Gleitzman’s Extra Time (Puffin, £6.99) is a comedy with brains and heart. Matt is a teenage football genius, and his struggles are narrated by his younger sister – and manager. Will he rediscover “the joyful spirit of the beautiful game”, or will his academy training destroy it?

David Almond’s Klaus Vogel and the Bad Lads (Barrington Stoke, £6.99, nine-plus) is about a gang whose pranks are fairly innocent until a scrawny, musical kid from East Germany turns up and becomes the focus for the gang leader Joe’s persecutions. Almond has a huge talent for describing the eternal battle between what is vile in human nature and the still, small voice of moral courage.

It is this voice that also comes through in Esme Kerr’s The Glass Bird Girl (Chicken House, £6.99). Edie is an orphan, sent to boarding school to keep an eye on Anasta­sia, the dreamy, vulnerable daughter of a wealthy Russian prince. Naturally, the old-fashioned Malory Towers setting (“You will find, in the end, that it’s a relief not to be in touch with the outside world,” the head teacher tells Edie) brings with it bullying, but what emerges is a web of deception with its roots in Edie’s mother’s past. Sensitively written, this is a cut above most fiction for girls of nine-plus.

An enchanting historical novel for 11-plus is Runaway by Marie-Louise Jensen (Oxford University Press, £6.99). Back from America in Georgian England, Charlotte dresses up as a boy after her father is murdered. She’s friendless and penniless but her love and knowledge of horses win her a job as a stable-boy at a grand house. Jensen’s storytelling verve and eye for period detail make her read like a cross between Black Beauty and Georgette Heyer. Our spirited heroine overcomes a prized horse’s colic, her own tendency to attract trouble (“You fight like a girl,” she keeps being told) and a growing attachment to the young steward who offers her fair employment but fails to penetrate her disguise. With a dash of class war in the brew, it’s an addictive read.

Joanna Nadin’s Eden (Walker, £6.99) is set in Cornwall and has undertones of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. We know from the start that a beautiful house is burnt, and that Evie’s cousin Bea has died. Her grief, guilt and gorgeous narrative voice make this a memorable psychological suspense novel about first love – and first hate – for 12-plus, particularly girls.

Even more gripping is Helen Grant’s Demons of Ghent (Corgi, £7.99, 13-plus). It carries on characters from Silent Saturday, but also stands alone as a modern Gothic thriller that is never predictable. Grant is uniquely comfortable among YA authors with Continental characters and settings, and this story about a Flemish serial killer blends superstition and psychosis with visceral terror as its spiky heroine, Veerle, is pursued by a zealot who believes he is inspired by a 600-year-old painting.

Few teenagers face the problems of Sophia Bennett’s narrator in The Castle (Chicken House, £6.99). Peta doesn’t believe her soldier father is dead, and when a boy rings her to pass on a private mathematical joke, she embarks on a nail-biting quest to find and rescue her dad. Though it’s not published until August, this is one of the best thrillers for 12-plus I’ve read since Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. Peta is both a  believable modern teenager and an action heroine of jaw-dropping courage. So, too, is her mysterious friend Jamal, a slave on the Mediterranean island hideaway of a billionaire. This half-starved, intellectually brilliant boy is a Muslim hero who is trying to save not only his own life but his timid sister’s, in an adventure that deserves a sequel or two. Happily there is no tiresome love interest, though there are mild irritants: why make up a pseudonym for Facebook?

Ever since her 2009 prize-winning debut, Threads, Bennett has combined social conscience and emotional intelligence with hilariously accurate depictions of the fashion and pop music scenes. This one is outstanding, and will fill a holiday with zest.

Amanda Craig is a novelist and children’s books critic

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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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