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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Good riddance to Boris – but the Tory party still needs to find a unifying leader

With Boris gone, Theresa May and Michael Gove are serious contenders for the crown.

UPDATE:  From the moment Michael Gove decided to run for the Conservative leadership Boris Johnsons days were numbered. This is particularly true because of the typically unequivocal comment that Gove made about Johnsons leadership capabilities or lack of them in his announcement. For Johnson has led a remarkably charmed life in both politics and journalism in recent years. Reality has finally caught up with him. It was always going to be the case that if Gove stood many who had pledged their allegiance to Johnson would, because of this lack of leadership qualities, think again. The inevitable has now happened, and Johnson, for once, has accepted reality.

Michael Gove appears, at the eleventh hour, to have learned something about Boris Johnson that anyone who has worked with him either in journalism or politics could have told him years ago: that Johnson is entirely unreliable. The leaked email in which Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, warned him of the assurances he needed to get from Johnson before pledging himself as the key supporter in his campaign turns out to have been the writing on the wall for a clear run for Johnson. Word was swirling round Westminster after the email was leaked that Johnson appeared to have offered the same senior cabinet post – believed to have been the Treasury – to more than one person in return for support. Perhaps this was down to incompetence rather than dishonesty. Gove has made his own judgement, and it is, for an intelligent and serious man, an inevitable one.

Many Brexiteers, who feel that someone who shared their view should end up leading the Tory party, will be delighted by Gove’s decision. There was deep unease among many of them about the idea of a showman rather than a statesman inevitably ending up in Downing Street. What Gove will need to do now is to persuade colleagues who had gone behind Johnson because they did not want Theresa May to shift behind him. Some of Johnson’s supporters caused enormous surprise by their decision – such as Sir Nicholas Soames, who spent the referendum campaign denouncing Johnson on his Twitter feed – and they are not natural bedfellows of his. One Tory MP told me before Gove’s decision to stand that a group of “sensible” Tories had accepted the inevitability of a Johnson victory and had decided to get around him to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. The view that Johnson is unstoppable has now been tested, and those who had made the leap to support him may now well leap back.

Following Theresa May’s very assured launch of her campaign, which radiated statesmanship and sincerity, the Brexiteers need to ask themselves what sort of candidate is going to provide the best challenge to her, for she is clearly formidable. Given the choice between a volatile buffoon taking her on or someone who is more level-headed and serious doing so, the latter must inevitably be the best option. Johnson never looked like a unifying figure, and certainly not one it was easy for rational people to imagine leading the country in an international context.

Gove’s decision not to support Johnson does not merely withdraw his personal support. It will withdraw the support of many who were prepared, reluctantly, to follow his lead and join the Johnson campaign. It has a parallel in history, which was William Hague’s decision to run on his own account instead of supporting Michael Howard in the 1997 contest after the party’s annihilation by Tony Blair. Hague won, and turned out to be a hapless leader. Gove is made of heavier metal and the party is in less perilous circumstances, so the outcome for him, should he win, ought to be better.

In the past few days a considerable portion of the Tory party has taken leave of its senses. In such a condition, envisaging Johnson as its leader was easy. Sanity and calm are now prevailing. The Brexiteers in the party – or at least that group of them resolute that they cannot have a Remainer as leader can now reflect on whether they want an act or a politician to become prime minister. At least, thanks to Mr Gove, they now have a choice.

The Johnson phenomenon

Once upon a time, often within hours of a prime minister resigning, a “magic circle” of Tory grandees would decide after “soundings” whom to send to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands as the new man. Now, the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers has sought to do what it can to emulate the process, fast-tracking the election of David Cameron’s successor so that he or she is in place by 9 September, and ignoring calls for a period of wider reflection on whom the party needs to take it forward through the uncharted waters of negotiating an exit with the European Union. Longer consideration may have been helpful, given that the party is choosing not merely its leader, but the next prime minister.

It soon appeared the main fight would be between Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Jeremy Hunt proposed himself as a “second referendum” candidate, even though the Tory party in particular wants another plebiscite about as much as it would like to put its collective head in a mincer. There was talk of two lesser cabinet ministers, Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid, presenting a “joint bid”, even though such a concept is unknown to the Conservative constitution; and others were floating around the margins. The tumult reflects the hysterical state of mind in the party: no one in Cameron’s inner circle expected the British public to disobey orders, including, one starts to imagine, Johnson. It is only the preposterous events in the Labour Party that have stopped the Tories from seeming to be completely out of control.

It has become Tory party lore that the favourite never wins, on the precept that he who wields the knife never ends up wearing the crown. Many of the Tory MPs believed nothing could prevent their colleagues voting in sufficient numbers to put Johnson in the second and final round of the contest, the one in which all paid-up members may vote. And if he got there, they felt, the outcome was even less in doubt: he would win.

Predicting this will happen and wanting it to happen are, of course, not the same thing. A distressed Tory MP told me he expected Labour sympathisers to join his party to vote for Johnson, rather as mischievous Tories joined Labour to elect Jeremy Corbyn. The rules, however, forbid such last-minute purchases of a vote: yet the sentiment shows what an equally substantial group of Tory MPs thought of Johnson’s capabilities, and explains why the anyone-but-Boris movement sprang into action the instant Cameron ran up the white flag. They knew that, for all Johnson’s failings, and there are many, he has the entertainer’s knack of making people love him. Sadly – and this is the part his adoring public doesn’t see – things can be very different when he enters his dressing room and starts to take off the make-up. As Sir Alan Duncan said forthrightly last weekend, there is the small matter of Johnson lacking the gravitas and experience to be a credible prime minister, something MPs should have the wit to take into account even if the party in the country at large does not.

The Johnson phenomenon is not the least reason why even some of Cameron’s most consistent critics did not call for him to resign if he lost the referendum. The more time the Tory party had to consider Johnson as a potential leader, and what that entailed, the better. Some MPs are angry that Cameron did not take immediate responsibility for cleaning up the mess he had helped make and preside over the exit negotiations. His colleagues feel he simply couldn’t be bothered, which is consistent with the often idle way he ran both his opposition and the government – an idleness that prevented him putting any contingency plan in place. The grand gesture, the great claim and the sweep of rhetoric are very arresting, and take little time. Following through is harder: but Cameron has a long record of not considering the consequences of words and actions, and this debacle for him is the ultimate, and most spectacular, example.

The pessimism that Johnson’s detractors felt about stopping him rested in what they knew and saw of the self-interest of their more bovine colleagues. The first concern of one group is to back the winner, and they came to think that would be Johnson (something with the status, in those circumstances, of a self-fulfilling prophecy). They also thought that should Labour find a new leader and become a serious opposition, Johnson was the man most likely to win an election. Whether that would come next spring – if the new leader sought a new mandate as Gordon Brown did not in 2007 – or in 2020, as the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act decrees, is a separate but important question. Johnson’s acolytes let it be known he would not call an early poll. He (or any other leader) would be absolutely constitutionally justified in not doing so. More to the point, you do not plot from the womb to become the Queen’s first minister only to risk chucking away the key to the Downing Street drinks cabinet after a few weeks. However, a weakened Labour Party may prove an irresistible target, and Tories recall how history would have been different if Gordon Brown had gone to the country in the autumn of 2007, as many urged him to do.

The press – and not just on the left – could well have given Johnson a hard time. His baroque private life has exhausted its capacity to shock, but there is scope to scrutinise his record of underachievement as mayor of London; or Michael Howard’s sacking him for lying; or the Times sacking him for making up quotations (from his godfather) in a story; or his offering to assist his old schoolfriend Darius Guppy in having a journalist who had disobliged Guppy beaten up. 

The manoeuvring May

Theresa May’s ambitions have been barely concealed. She has been “on manoeuvres” since the 2015 general election. She worked out that the best way to manoeuvre during the referendum campaign was to say nothing, to avoid becoming a divisive figure. Aside from some rare moments of half-hearted support for Remain, that is exactly what she did. Had she gone the other way, the leadership contest might have seemed closer, because her seniority and experience would have matched Johnson’s charisma. As it was, until Johnson pulled out, the best her colleagues believed she could hope for, barring some dramatic development, was to come second. A Times poll on Tuesday said that Tory voters preferred her to Johnson, which had the smell of accuracy about it. Activists – those with a vote – are a different matter. They appear in no mood at the moment to elect a Remainer.

Yet they are in some measure in the mood to elect a unifier. For all his attempts at sober statesmanship since the vote, Johnson (given his past) would have had to stretch credulity even more than usual to convince as one of those. The anyone-but-Boris movement has been motivated by the list of his perceived offences and character defects. Few believe he would have plumped for Leave had he thought it would lose: Johnson’s years on the rubber chicken circuit, and his mailbag from Telegraph readers in the provinces, made him more aware than most of his metropolitan colleagues of the true nature of public feeling outside the bubble. He is seen as utterly flexible in terms of principle: and, from the nature of his campaign rhetoric, as disloyal, cynical and lazy. Critics recall the number of deputy mayors (seven at one point) he required to do his last job. He is widely considered untrustworthy.

Perhaps he could have unified activists who seem near universally to admire his carefully manufactured persona: he would have found it harder to unify the parliamentary party, and would probably require a resounding general election victory before doing so. Even then, doubts born of years of witnessing his buffoonery and prevarication would be hard to allay.

The unifiers

MPs felt that two other Brexiteers had far better credentials as unifiers. The most obvious was Michael Gove, whom some tried to persuade to stand; but until today Gove had signalled his willingness to throw in his lot with Johnson.

The other increasingly discussed name in the days after the referendum was Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and, before that, economic secretary to the Treasury. Many even in her own party never thought of her as a potential leader until recent weeks: but these were weeks in which she showed her key virtues. She is intelligent and capable. She had a long career in business before entering government, and presents a happy contrast to ministers who spent their lives as special advisers before gracing the back benches. Leadsom is deeply principled but also reasonable: she abstained in the vote on same-sex marriage because she did not want to show a lack of respect to homosexuals and lesbians who wished to solemnise their relationships, but she could not support the notion because of her religious views. Remainers consider her to have performed uniformly well in debates and television interviews during the EU campaign, because she avoided personal attacks, spurious claims and wild threats.

She is popular with her colleagues. However, if she has let her name go forward she will start from the back of the field. It would require the sort of organisation that enabled Mrs Thatcher to beat Ted Heath in 1975 if she were to pull this off. However, should Johnson implode during this campaign, and she had become a candidate, she would be fabulously well placed to pick up his voters.

May would seem to be way ahead as the Remain candidate, but will have to earn that position in the hustings that will run over the summer. The dark horse is Stephen Crabb, who replaced Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, in league with Sajid Javid, a secret Leaver who called it wrongly and who is now trying to salvage his future. A self-deprecating man from a humble background and with few enemies, Crabb, who was previously Welsh secretary, reminds me of John Major, who was brought into the cabinet and rose rapidly. In a leadership campaign held in the middle of a parliament, Major won and became prime minister, trading heavily on a backstory of his unprivileged upbringing. He may be the man May must beat.

George Osborne has ruled himself out but remains relevant. He wants to carry on in government and, like the overgrown student politician he is, may be about to make an accommodation with those he has denounced for months in order to continue to hold a senior post. Also, not least because of Cameron’s laziness and casual attitude towards his party, he had exercised a substantial and growing influence over patronage and especially over senior government appointments. He had made a point of getting to know MPs on the way up, not least because he expected to be prime minister and wanted to be sure he had a clientele of loyalists to support him. He was starting to appoint his ministerial team, in effect, before becoming prime minister.

Osborne’s prospects have crashed, but his machine remains, for the moment, intact. If he has chosen wisely, he has a group of loyalists whom he can deploy in support of the candidate he chooses. However, now he can be of no use to his clients, it will be interesting to see whether they take the blindest bit of notice of him.

There was talk of Johnson making him foreign secretary, which would show an advanced sense of humour, given the role that person might have to play in the exit negotiations. Gove, if he had thrown in his lot with Johnson, might have ended up as chancellor.

The party is so fractious that the next nine weeks could provide a roller coaster: any talk of going back on the idea of strict border controls, for instance – something Johnson hinted at – could cause huge turbulence. I suspect we are about to find that conducting a leadership contest at any time is a project laced with tension; to conduct one in a climate of scarcely concealed hysteria is not least why anything could yet happen.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies