In the beginning – if there was one

We still don’t know exactly how the universe was created – and, given the limits of the human brain,

Fifty years ago, the American physicist Theodore Maiman created the first laser. At first, it seemed a curiosity; not even its inventors could predict the range of its uses, from eye surgery to DVD players. Likewise, some of this year's scientific advances may be transformative 50 years from now - even though we have no inkling of it today. Many concepts that seem impossible now might be realised in coming decades. But, in a still longer perspective, it is interesting to speculate whether we will reach a limit - if there are some scientific mysteries that will forever baffle us, phenomena that transcend human understanding.

Einstein said that "the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible". Our brains have not changed significantly since our ancestors roamed the African savannah, so it is remarkable that we have had any success in grasping facets of the cosmos and the quantum - both so remote from the everyday experience. Einstein would have been particularly gratified at how our cosmic horizons have expanded. We now know that our sun is one of several hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is itself one of many billion galaxies in the range of our telescopes. And this complex panorama emerged from a hot, amorphous "beginning" nearly 14 billion years ago.

In my own subject of astronomy, the controversies of my student days (such as Big Bang versus steady state theory) have now been settled. Some inferences about the early universe are now as firmly evidence-based as anything a geologist could say about the history of the earth - we know what the conditions were a second after the Big Bang. But, as always in science, each advance brings into focus questions that couldn't have been posed before.

The "beginning" itself (if there was one) is still a mystery. In the first fraction of a second, conditions would have been far hotter and denser than we can simulate in the lab. Einstein's theory of general relativity is not enough to understand what banged and why, because it treats space and time as smooth and continuous. We know that no material can be chopped into arbitrarily small pieces; eventually you get down to discrete atoms. Likewise, space may manifest a complicated grainy structure - but this is thought to be on scales a trillion trillion times smaller than atoms.

Yet there may be mysteries, too, at the largest conceivable scales. There could be far more beyond our horizon, as it were, than the vast expanse that our telescopes can observe. There could have been many "Big Bangs" - not just the one in whose aftermath we exist.

Some have speculated that other universes could exist in tandem with ours. Imagine ants crawling around on a large sheet of paper (their two-dimensional universe). They would be unaware of a similar sheet that is parallel to it. Likewise, there could be another entire universe (with three-dimensional space, like ours) less than a millimetre away from us, but we would be oblivious to it if that millimetre were measured in a fourth spatial dimension, while we are imprisoned in just three.

Final frontier

The microstructure of space, and the true extent of physical reality, are among the "open frontiers" of science: intellectual domains where we are still searching for the truth. They are in effect the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (the quantum). But only a tiny proportion of researchers are cosmologists or particle physicists. There is a third frontier, too: the very complex.

Our everyday world presents intellectual challenges just as daunting as those of the cosmos and the quantum, and that is where the vast majority of scientists focus their efforts. It may seem incongruous that scientists can make confident statements about galaxies billions of light years away, while being baffled about matters close at hand that we all care about - common diseases, for instance. But this is because living things, with intricate levels of structure, are far more complex than atoms and stars.

That said, everything, however complicated - breaking waves, migrating birds and tropical forests - is made of atoms and obeys the equations of quantum physics. But the uncertainties of subatomic physics are irrelevant to biologists; even if those equations could be solved, they would not offer the enlightenment that scientists seek.

Each science has its own autonomous concepts and laws. Problems in biology remain unsolved because it is hard to elucidate their complexities, not because we scientists do not understand subatomic physics well enough. This thought takes me back to my initial question: are there intrinsic limits to our understanding, or to our technical capability? Could some branches of science come to a halt simply because we bump up against limits to what the human brain can understand?

Physicists may never understand the bedrock nature of space and time because the mathematics is just too hard; but I think our efforts
to understand very complex systems - above all, our own brains - will be the first to hit such limits.

Perhaps complex aggregates of atoms, whether brains or machines, can never understand everything about themselves. Some aspects of reality might elude us because they are beyond human brains, just as surely as Einstein's ideas would baffle a chimpanzee.

Computers will help: future discoveries may be made by "brute force" rather than by insight. Even back in the 1990s, the higher processing speed of IBM's Deep Blue allowed it to outperform the chess player Garry Kasparov. Astrophysicists can already create a "virtual universe" in a computer and do "experiments" calculating how stars and galaxies evolve, and how our moon formed in a crash between the young earth and another planet.

Brainpower

Despite our limitations, many envisage human beings as the culmination of the evolutionary process. This doesn't seem credible to any astro­nomer, aware as they have been, ever since the work of Charles Darwin, not only of the stupendous time spans of the evolutionary past that led to our emergence, but also of the huge time-horizons extending into the future. Our sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got six billion more before the fuel runs out.

And the expanding universe will continue, perhaps for ever, becoming (according to the best current long-range forecast) ever colder, ever emptier. So, even if life were now unique to earth, there would be scope for post-human evolution - whether organic or silicon-based - on the earth or far beyond it.
It won't be human beings who witness the sun's demise: it will be entities as different from us as we are from an insect. For them, string theory and brain science might be a doddle, but they will probably be flummoxed by mysteries we cannot even imagine. l

Martin Rees is the Astronomer Royal, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a former president of the Royal Society

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

RALPH STEADMAN
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The age of outrage

Why are we so quick to take offence? The Private Eye editor on Orwell, Trump and the death of debate in post-truth politics.

Anyone who thinks that “post-truth politics” is anything new needs to be reminded that George Orwell was writing about this phenomenon 70 years before Donald Trump.

Audiences listening to President-Elect Trump’s extraordinary disregard for anything resembling objective truth – and his astonishing ability to proclaim the absolute opposite today of what he said yesterday – will be forcibly reminded of the slogans that George Orwell gave to his political ­dictators: Black is White, War is Peace, ­Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength (the last of which turned out to be true in the US election). But any journalist trying to work out what the speeches actually mean, amidst the mad syntax and all the repetition (“gonna happen, gonna happen”), cannot help but fall back on Orwell’s contention that “political chaos is connected with the decay of language”. And the sight of Trump praising Secretary Clinton for her years of public service in his post-election victory speech while the crowd was still chanting his campaign catchphrase of “Lock her up” was surely a perfect example of Doublethink.

No wonder Trump is an admirer of Vladimir Putin, who is an admirer of the Soviet strongmen whom Orwell satirised so well. These echoes from the past are very strong in America at present but there are plenty of them reverberating through British and European politics as well. Our Foreign Secretary managed to accuse other European leaders of a “whinge-o-rama” when they issued qualified statements of congratulation to the new president-elect, even though he himself had previously accused Trump of being “nuts”. Black is White, Remain is Leave, a Wall is a Fence, two plus two equals five: but Brexit means Brexit.

You may find this reassuring, in that we have been here before and survived – or distressing to think that we are regressing to a grimmer Orwellian age. But one of the worrying developments attached to these “post-truth” political figures is the increasing intolerance in public debate of dissent – or even disagreement – about what objective truth might be.

A great deal has been written recently about the influence of social media in helping people to become trapped in their own echo chambers, talking only to those who reinforce their views and dismissing not only other opinions, but also facts offered by those who disagree with them. When confronted by a dissenting voice, people get offended and then angry. They do not want to argue, they want the debate to be shut down. Trump supporters are furious with anyone who expresses reservations about their candidate. Pro-Brexit supporters are furious with anyone who expresses doubts about the way the process of leaving the European Union is going.

I edit the magazine Private Eye, which I sometimes think Orwell would have dismissed as “a tuppeny boys’ fortnightly”, and after the recent legal challenge to the government about Article 50 being put before parliament, we published the cover reproduced on page 25.

It was a fairly obvious joke, a variant of the “wheels coming off” gag. But it led to a large postbag of complaints, including a letter from a man who said he thought the cover was “repulsive”. He also said he wanted to come around and smash up the office and then shove our smug opinions so far up our arses that we choked our guts out.

There was one from a vicar, too, who told me that it was time to accept the victory of the majority of the people and to stop complaining. Acceptance was a virtue, he said. I wrote back and told him that this argument was a bit much, coming from a church that had begun with a minority of 12. (Or, on Good Friday, a minority of one.)

This has become a trend in those who complain: the magazine should be shouted down or, better still, closed down. In the light of this it was interesting to read again what Orwell said in his diary long before internet trolls had been invented:

 

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.

 

This was in 1942, when the arguments were about war and peace, life and death, and there were real fascists and Stalinists around rather than, say, people who disagree with you about the possibility of reconciling freedom of movement with access to the single European market.

Orwell also made clear, in an essay called “As I Please” in Tribune in 1944, that what we think of as the new online tendency to call everyone who disagrees with you a fascist is nothing new. He wrote then:

 

It will be seen that, as used, the word “Fascism” is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee [a Tory group], the 1941 Committee [a left-liberal group], Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

 

When Orwell writes like this about the level of public debate, one is unsure whether to feel relieved at the sense of déjà vu or worried about the possibility of history repeating itself, not as farce, but as tragedy again.

The mood and tone of public opinion is an important force in the way our society and our media function. Orwell wrote about this in an essay called “Freedom of the Park”, published in Tribune in December 1945. Five people had been arrested outside Hyde Park for selling pacifist and anarchist publications. Orwell was worried that, though they had been allowed to publish and sell these periodicals throughout the entire Second World War, there had been a shift in public opinion that meant that the police felt confident to arrest these people for “obstruction” and no one seemed to mind this curtailment of freedom of speech except him. He wrote:

 

The relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.

 

This is certainly true for the press today, whose reputation in the past few years has swung violently between the lows of phone-hacking and the highs of exposing MPs’ expenses. In 2011 I remember at one point a football crowd shouting out the name of Ryan Giggs, who had a so-called superinjunction in place forbidding anyone to mention that he was cheating on his wife and also forbidding anyone to mention the fact that he had taken out a superinjunction. He was named on Twitter 75,000 times. It seemed clear that public opinion had decided that his private life should be made public. The freedom of the press was briefly popular. Later the same year it was revealed that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by the News of the World, along with those of a number of high-profile celebrities, and the public decided that actually journalists were all scumbags and the government should get Lord Leveson to sort them out. Those who maintained that the problem was that the existing laws (on trespass, contempt, etc) were not enforced because of an unhealthy relationship between the police, the press and the politicians were not given much credence.

In a proposed preface to his 1945 novel, Animal Farm, Orwell wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

This is the quotation that will accompany the new statue of Orwell that has now been commissioned by the BBC and which will stand as a sort of rebuke to the corporation whenever it fails to live up to it. The BBC show on which I appear regularly, Have I Got News for You, has been described simultaneously in the online comments section as “overprivileged, right-wing Tory boys sneering at the working class ” and “lefty, metropolitan liberal elite having a Labour luvvie whinge-fest”. Disturbing numbers of complainants feel that making jokes about the new president-elect should not be allowed, since he has won the election. Humour is not meant to be political, assert the would-be censors – unless it attacks the people who lost the vote: then it is impartial and neutral. This role for comedy would have surprised Orwell, who was keen on jokes. He wrote of Charles Dickens:

 

A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. Dickens is able to go on being funny because he is in revolt against authority, and authority is always there to be laughed at. There is always room for one more custard pie.

 

I think there is also room for a custard pie or two to be thrown against those who claim to be outsiders, against authority and “the system”, and use this as a way to take power. The American billionaire property developer who is the champion of those dispossessed by global capitalism seems a reasonable target for a joke. Just like his British friend, the ex-public-school boy City trader-turned-critic of the Home Counties elite.

The emblematic quotation on liberty is from a preface that was not published until 1972 in the Times Literary Supplement. A preface about freedom of speech that was censored? It is almost too neatly Orwellian to be true, and in fact no one seems to know exactly why it did not appear. Suffice to say that it is fascinating to read Orwell complaining that a novel which we all now assume to be a masterpiece – accurate about the nature of revolution and dictatorship and perfect for teaching to children in schools – was once considered to be unacceptably, offensively satirical.

The target of the satire was deemed to be our wartime allies the Russians. It is difficult to imagine a time, pre-Putin, pre-Cold War, when they were not seen as the enemy. But of course the Trump presidency may change all that. Oceania may not be at war with Eurasia any more. Or it may always have been at war with Eastasia. It is difficult to guess, but in those days the prevailing opinion was that it was “not done” to be rude about the Russians.

Interestingly there is now a significant faction on the British left, allied with the current leader of the Labour Party, who share this view.

 

The right to tell people what they do not want to hear is still the basis of freedom of expression. If that sounds like I am stating the obvious – I am. But, in my defence, Orwell once wrote in a review of a book by Bertrand Russell published in the Adelphi magazine in January 1939:

 

. . . we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

 

Orwell himself managed to come round to a position of accepting that an author could write well and truthfully about a subject even if one disapproved of the author’s politics: both Kipling and Swift were allowed to be right even though they were not left enough. So I am hoping that we can allow Orwell to be right about the principles of freedom of expression.

In the unpublished preface to Animal Farm he writes:

 

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular – however foolish, even – entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes”. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?”, and the answer more often than not will be “No”. In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses.

 

One can test oneself by substituting contemporary names for Stalin and seeing how you feel. Putin? Assange? Mandela? Obama? Snowden? Hillary Clinton? Angela Merkel? Prince Harry? Mother Teresa? Camila Batmanghelidjh? The Pope? David Bowie? Martin Luther King? The Queen?

Orwell was always confident that the populist response would be in favour of everyone being allowed their own views. That might be different now. If you were to substitute the name “Trump” or “Farage” and ask the question, you might not get such a liberal response. You might get a version of: “Get over it! Suck it up! You lost the vote! What bit of ‘democracy’ do you not understand?”

Orwell quotes from Voltaire (the attribution is now contested): “I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Most of us would agree with the sentiment, but there is a worrying trend in universities that is filtering through into the media and the rest of society. Wanting a “safe space” in which you do not have to hear views that might upset you and demanding trigger warnings about works of art that might display attitudes which you find offensive are both part of an attempt to redefine as complex and negotiable what Orwell thought was simple and non-negotiable. And this creates problems.

Cartoon: "Voltaire goes to uni", by Russell and originally published in Private Eye.

We ran a guide in Private Eye as to what a formal debate in future universities might look like.

 

The proposer puts forward a motion to the House.

The opposer agrees with the proposer’s motion.

The proposer wholeheartedly agrees that the opposer was right to support the motion.

The opposer agrees that the proposer couldn’t be more right about agreeing that they were both right to support the motion.

When the debate is opened up to the floor, the audience puts it to the proposer and the opposer that it isn’t really a debate if everyone is just agreeing with each other.

The proposer and the opposer immediately agree to call security and have the audience ejected from the debating hall.

And so it goes on, until the motion is carried unanimously.

 

This was dismissed as “sneering” and, inevitably, “fascist” by a number of student commentators. Yet it was only a restatement of something that Orwell wrote in the unpublished preface:

 

. . . everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. Our Government, as I have already pointed out, still makes some show of respecting it.

 

This is not always the case nowadays. It is always worth a comparison with the attitudes of other countries that we do not wish to emulate. The EU’s failure to confront President Erdogan’s closure of newspapers and arrests of journalists in Turkey because it wants his help to solve the refugee crisis is one such obvious example. An old German law to prosecute those making fun of foreign leaders was invoked by Erdogan and backed by Mrs Merkel. This led Private Eye to run a competition for Turkish jokes. My favourites were:

 

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there.”

“The secret police.”

 

What do you call a satirist in Turkey?

An ambulance.

 

As Orwell wrote in even more dangerous times, again in the proposed preface:

 

. . . the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion.

 

I return to stating the obvious, because it seems to be less and less obvious to some of the current generation. This is particularly true for those who have recently become politically engaged for the first time. Voters energised by Ukip and the EU referendum debate, or by the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, or by the resurgence of Scottish nationalism or by the triumph of Trump, have the zeal of the newly converted. This is all very admirable, and a wake-up call to their opponents – the Tartan Tories and the Remoaners and the NeoBlairites and the Washington Liberal Elite – but it is not admirable when it is accompanied by an overpowering desire to silence any criticism of their ideas, policies and leading personalities. Perhaps the supporters of the mainstream parties have simply become accustomed to the idea over the decades, but I have found in Private Eye that there is not much fury from the Tory, New Labour or Liberal camps when their leaders or policies are criticised, often in much harsher ways than the newer, populist movements.

 

 

So, when Private Eye suggested that some of the claims that the Scottish National Party was making for the future of an independent Scotland might be exaggerated, there were one or two readers who quoted Orwell’s distinction between patriotism being the love of one’s country and nationalism being the hatred of others – but on the whole it was mostly: “When if ever will you ignorant pricks on the Eye be sharp enough to burst your smug London bubble?”

Those who disagreed with the SNP were beneath contempt if English and traitors if Scottish. This was matched by the sheer fury of the Corbyn loyalists at coverage of his problems with opposition in his own party. When we suggested that there might be something a bit fishy about his video on the lack of seats on the train to Newcastle, responses included: “I had hoped Private Eye was outside the media matrix. Have you handed over control to Rupert Murdoch?”

Their anger was a match for that of the Ukippers when we briefly ran a strip called At Home With the Ukippers and then made a few jokes about their leader Mr Farage: “Leave it out, will you? Just how much of grant/top up/dole payment do you lot get from the EU anyway? Are you even a British publication?”

In 1948, in an essay in the Socialist Leader, Orwell wrote:

 

Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.

 

In other words, the defence of freedom of speech and expression is not just special pleading by journalists, writers, commentators and satirists, but a more widespread conviction that it protects “the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of Western civilisation”.

In gloomy times, there was one letter to Private Eye that I found offered some cheer – a willingness to accept opposing viewpoints and some confirmation of a belief in the common sense of Orwell’s common man or woman. In response to the cartoon below, our correspondent wrote:

 

Dear sir,

I suffer from a bipolar condition and when I saw your cartoon I was absolutely disgusted. I looked at it a few days later and thought it was hilarious.

 

Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye. This is an edited version of his 2016 Orwell Lecture. For more details, visit: theorwellprize.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage