Worlds within worlds: Outpost (2007) by the artist Anne Hardy. Photograph: Anne Hardy, courtesy of Maureen Paley, London
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Terry Pratchett, science and story telling

The best of all possible worlds.

Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel was published in 1983. As a wartime child in the 1940s I was already puzzling over an image of a domed world poised on the backs of three elephants that stood on a monstrous turtle. This discworld had a small temple on top of it, and the clawed feet of the turtle rested on the coils of a huge serpent, which also stretched to encircle the world, with the point of its tail in its mouth. It was reproduced in my favourite book, Asgard and the Gods, a scholarly German work on Norse myths, which my mother had used at Cambridge.

This image, and this book, provoked my earliest thinking about the nature of belief and its relation to storytelling. Where on earth did the idea of the turtle and the elephants come from? Did people really believe in them? These questions were related to the kind of embarrassed pain with which I contemplated the stories of origins I was expected to believe in, the Bible with its heaven and hell, the tale of judgement to come.

Pratchett’s new book, The Science of Discworld IV, co-written with the mathematician Ian Stewart and the biologist Jack Cohen, discusses ideas about origins and endings, cosmology and astrobiology, entropy and genetics. The idea of storytelling is not just an embroidered way of including a tale of the discussion of the “Roundworld” taking place on the Discworld. Human beings are defined as pan narrans, the storytelling ape, who exists in a dimension known as the “narrativium”. We look for causes because we think in linear sequences of words. We look for origins because we arrange our world into narrative strings with beginning, middle and end. Stewart, Cohen and Pratchett set out to puzzle us and make us think differently.

Central to their approach is the distinction made by the physicist and sciencefiction author Gregory Benford between human-centred thinking and universecentred thinking. Human-centred thinking comes naturally to human beings. “In this world-view, rain exists in order to make crops grow and to provide fresh water for us to drink. The sun is there because it warms our bodies.” From human-centred thinking comes the idea of a ruler of the universe, as well as the idea that the earth and the creatures, the sea and the oil and the forests are somehow there for our benefit. Universe-centred thinking, on the other hand, sees human beings as “just one tiny feature of a vast cosmos, most of which does not function on a human scale or take any notice of what we want”. The universecentred thinker must have what Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity to be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. This is hard and invigorating.

The writers discuss creation myths – including a number of myths about cosmic turtles and scientific ideas about origins, including the Big Bang. They discuss the evolution of ideas about evolution, recent thoughts about the relation of RNA to DNA and the idea of the curvature of space. They also consider neural networks and decision theory, and the strong and weak anthropic principles – ideas about how the physical universe is uniquely suited to the existence of human beings.

Pratchett and co also explore the psychology of belief and disbelief. They describe one way of coming to conclusions – the brain taking in new evidence, and fitting it to the knowledge and beliefs it already holds. This is what they call “System 1”, and it includes scientific thinkers as well as people with inherited religious beliefs. There are, they say, scientists who “know” that DNA is the most important part of the system, physicists who “know” that the world is moving towards entropy. “System 2”, on the other hand, is steadily analytical and sceptical – “trying, not always successfully, to ignore inbuilt prejudices”. Karl Popper’s system of “critical rationalism” held that a theory could be considered scientific if, and only if, it was capable of falsification. Stewart and Cohen claim that “scientists actively try to disprove the things they would like to be true”. They use the example of a believer in UFOs who sees disbelief in UFOs as another form of belief. “Zero belief in UFOs”, they point out, is not the same as 100 per cent belief in the non-existence of UFOs. “Zero belief is an absence of belief, not an opposed form of belief.” What they aspire towards and desire is “a disbelief system”. This is exhilarating.

I remember being on a platform where various poets and writers discussed the ways in which the arts could figure the world of the scientist. That blunt sceptic Lewis Wolpert, sitting in the audience, rose to inform the assembled artists that we would not understand any of his work were we to find ourselves in his laboratory. Some of us were indignant but I believe he was right. People like me can read what is written by those scientists who try to tell us about neurons, genes, the shape of the brain, the shape of space and time. We can respond to those descriptions but we are responding to stories, at second hand.

One of the most pleasing things about Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen’s book is the way the authors demonstrate that we don’t understand even what we think we understand. I realised, reading their account of the complex relations between RNA and DNA, that I had been guilty of holding a belief. I was very excited in the late 1970s by ideas about the “selfish gene”, and particularly by the points made by John Maynard Smith about the immutable nature of the inherited and eternal germ cell. Now the New Scientist is full of articles about newly discovered “orphan DNA”. Stewart and Cohen write:

Darwin’s tree of life, a beautiful idea that derives from a sketch in The Origin of Species and has become iconic, gets very scrambled around in its roots because of a process called horizontal gene transfer. Bacteria, archaea and viruses swap genes with gay abandon, and they can also insert them into the genomes of higher animals, or cut them out. So a gene in one type of bacterium might have come from another type of bacterium altogether, or from an archaean, or even from an animal or a plant.

The story I believed in has to be modified and rethought. When I read this, I think in a human way with a series of images, in the grammar of a story. I should not be able to recognise any gene, let alone think intelligently about it. Stewart and Cohen are very good at illustrating our incapacity to understand. They do so with images and stories. My favourite is the one they tell to make us think about the difference between complicated chemistry and the “organised complexity” of the ribosome. It is a story about caramel.

Every cook knows that heating sugar with fats, two fairly simple chemical substances, produces caramel . . .  Caramel is enormously complicated on a chemical level. It includes innumerable different molecules, each of which has thousands of atoms. The molecular structure of caramel is far more complicated than most of the molecules you’re using to read this page.

But the complexity of caramel, or other complicated polymers, doesn’t produce organised complexity, as ribosomes do. Wolpert would rightly tell me that I still don’t know anything about the ribosomes. But I am at least able now to think about the problem. And the juxtaposition of caramel and brain is unforgettable. There are delights like this on most pages of this book.

In a chapter entitled “Where did that come from?” we are invited to reflect on how we can’t think about things like the origin of an oak tree, or a child, or even a thunderstorm. They make the reader imagine thinking about clouds, the constituents of the atmosphere, static electricity, physics and physical chemistry. Most of us, they say, “will not have come across one or more phrases such as ‘saturated solution’ or ‘particle carries a tiny electrical charge’. These phrases are themselves simplifications of concepts with many more associations, and more intellectual depth, than anyone can be expected to generate for themselves.” Human beings tend to retreat from uncertainty or difficulty into belief stories, like the American Republican candidate who opposed any regulation of the markets on the grounds that this was “interfering with God’s plan for the American economy”.

Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen use their method of complicating descriptions and explanations to examine several problems with things I have trouble with believing myself, because they feel to me like human stories that tidy up our relation to the universe – the Big Bang, the existence of dark matter, entropy and the “anthropic principle”. They discuss conflicting views of the expanding universe and the steady state and cast doubt on the existence of dark matter. They are not propounding or supporting any particular theory of the shape and origins of the universe, but are rather considering evidence that complicates the explanations we have become used to. They are good at picking out the operations of what they call our “very parochial” minds, which use ideas of space and time that evolved with us. “Our view of the universe may be just as parochial as the world-bearing animals of ancient cultures were. Future scientists may view both the Big Bang and four elephants riding on a turtle as conceptual errors of a very similar kind.”

In Richard Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law, they find a tendency evident in “too many physicists” to consider physical reality to be all of reality. Feynman, they write, states that “the same kind of atoms appear to be in living creatures as in non-living creatures [sic]; frogs are made of the same ‘goup’ as rocks only in different arrangements”. Things in the biological world are the results of the behaviour of physical and chemical phenomena with no “extra something.” Stewart and Cohen agree about the “no extra something” but think that a bleak view of the world of particles and elements misses out the complexity of living things, and the things they make and use and learn from.

Entropy may not be our destiny – they see Feynman rather as Pratchett sees his undifferentiated auditors, who want to tidy everything up into packets of particles. Life, say Stewart and Cohen, has “lifted itself up into a story”. That is a metaphor – and an attractive one. It feels right, and should therefore be regarded with the necessary doubt and suspicion. They also take a mocking run at the idea of “fine-tuning”, the idea that the world has evolved as the only possible world in which humans could exist – just the right amount of carbon and water, and so on.

This “anthropic principle”, in both its strong and its weak forms, has always horrified me because it is so clearly a function of the human mind thinking in a humancentred way. Isn’t it amazing, say the Discworld scientists, that our legs are just long enough to reach the ground? Isn’t it amazing that there was a hole exactly the right size to contain that puddle? And what about a sulphur-centred form of thought?

There was one chapter I found hard to understand – on the curvature of space, round worlds and disc worlds. This was where I wished the book had illustrations – I read pages about the doughnut-shaped torus, and then had the sense to consult Wikipedia, where I could see what was being discussed. And I also needed to see the geometry of the wonderful Escher image of angels and demons.

I have become rather sad about surviving into the anthropocene age of human history, where everything is controlled and constructed by and for what the King of Brobdingnag called “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. But, paradoxically, both Pratchett’s storytelling and the resolutely universecentred perspective of the scientists make me happier to be human. I look forward to the next volume.

“The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day” by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen is published by Ebury Press (£18.99). A S Byatt’s most recent book is “Ragnarok: the End of the Gods” (Canongate, £7.99

Both A S Byatt and Terry Pratchett will be appearing at How the Light Gets In, the festival of philosophy and music in Hay on Wye. For more details, visit:  www.howthelightgetsin.org

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

ALEXEI FATEEV/ALAMY
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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

***

After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

***

The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater