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

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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