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“Science tells you that your opinion is worthless. That’s difficult”

The NS Interview: Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, physicists

The NS Interview: Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, physicists

You've co-authored a book called The Quantum Universe. Why should we value quantum physics research?
Brian Cox:
Exploring the way that nature works is a good idea - given that we are part of it and living in it and manipulating it. Every big particle accelerator that's been built has discovered something other than the thing it was supposed to discover. That's the point of exploration: you don't know what you're going to find.
Jeff Forshaw: Solar panels, that's quantum physics. The laser is a direct exploitation of quantum physics: we wouldn't have discovered it if we didn't know quantum mechanics.

Is Britain punching above its weight in terms of scientific research?
Way above. We are second only to the US by any measure. Some 14.7 per cent of the highest scientific papers in the world come from the UK and we have 3 per cent of the research-spend and 1 per cent of the population. We are the most efficient scientific nation in the world.

What do you make of neutrinos apparently being measured moving faster than the speed of light - which would overturn Einstein?
Science should be really honest - the experimenters don't believe the result, I don't think, because it does require a big revision of our understanding of physics. But they check it, they can't find anything wrong, so the correct thing to do is publish. You shouldn't sit on results just because they're surprising.
JF: There are loads of apparent discoveries in physics - we've found the Higgs Boson a dozen times already! There's nothing wrong with that. The false alarms get weeded out.
BC: You can think of areas where that's problematic: medical research, for example, where the behaviour of people depends on the research - I'm thinking of disasters like the MMR scare. But in general science should be really naive; there shouldn't be PR spin or politics.
JF: If people are interested in science, part of the journey they'll get to enjoy is seeing false alarms and how evidence mounts until we can make a very strong statement.

How much of a responsibility do you feel to be an advocate for science generally?
A lot. I think the peer-review process is the best way we have of giving our best view on how nature works. There are no absolute truths in science. Take a so-called controversy such as climate change: the correct thing to say is that we make measurements of the climate, we look at the data, we model it and here are a range of predictions. While it's easy to point out the flaws, in general it's unarguable that science works. . . because we're not in fucking caves!

What motivates climate sceptics and the rest?
Carl Sagan pointed out that "Science challenges". And the natural human response from people who are educated, who have a title or position, is to assume their opinion is worth something. And science tells you that your opinion is worthless when confronted with the evidence. That's a difficult thing to learn. When you look back at the Greeks or Romans and think, "Why didn't they get science?", maybe it was that.
JF: As a theoretical physicist, most of my time is spent doing calculations that are wrong. It's a humbling exercise, a massive dose of humility.

How can we teach that process?
Quantum mechanics is interesting, because it's a theory that is absolutely shocking in its implications and yet not technically difficult. I think it should be taught in schools for that reason. Measurements of the world suggested something very odd - that particles can be in multiple places at once - so we developed a theory and it works. It's that process of saying: "Your preconceptions about reality are not right, because the evidence says so."
JF: Look through a window - how can you see through it? The answer is what a little kid might think: because there is virtually nothing there, it's an illusion of solidity. That's why the entire universe could fit into a pinhead, because it's empty.

One of the book's messages is not to trust your intuition. So how do you distinguish between a bonkers idea - and a bonkers idea that's right?
Experiment! Make predictions.
JF: Put a number on it. People like me calculate what we expect to see, and people like Brian are involved in experiments.

Was there a plan for your career?
No, other than I wanted to do physics.
JF: In the third year of my PhD I thought I wanted to become a schoolteacher.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
The haircut I had in 1984 - I had one of those Chris Waddle cuts, permed at the back.

Are we all doomed?
The only thing that will save us is fundamental physics, because we have to escape to a distant part of the universe.
BC: On the human timescale, the adoption of the scientific method - making rational decisions based on evidence - that's the important thing. Look at public policy, health policy, economics: there's a reluctance to be humble.

Defining moments

1989 Forshaw graduates from Oxford with a First; gains PhD from Manchester in 1992
1993 While an undergraduate student at Manchester, Cox joins the band D:Ream
1997 Cox awarded PhD at Manchester
1999 Forshaw wins the Maxwell Medal
2010 Cox presents the BBC programme Wonders of the Solar System
2010 Cox and Forshaw co-author the popular science book Why Does E=mc2?
2011 Reunited for The Quantum Universe

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The spread of Wahhabism, and the West’s responsibility to the world

In 2013, the European Union declared Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. But it's not just a “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too.

François Hollande’s declaration of war against Isis (also known as Islamic State) was, perhaps, a natural reaction to the carnage in Paris but the situation is now so grave that we cannot merely react; we also need sustained, informed and objective reflection. The French president has unwittingly played into the hands of Isis leaders, who have long claimed to be at war with the West and can now present themselves as noble ­resistance fighters. Instead of bombing Isis targets and, in the process, killing hapless civilians, western forces could more profitably strengthen the Turkish borders with Syria, since Turkey has become by far the most important strategic base of Isis jihadis.

We cannot afford to allow our grief and outrage to segue into self-righteousness. This is not just the “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too. Our colonial arrangements, the inherent instability of the states we created and our support of authoritarian leaders have all contributed to the terrifying disintegration of social order in the region today. Many of the western leaders (including our own Prime Minister) who marched for liberté in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre were heads of countries that, for decades, have backed regimes in Muslim-majority countries that denied their subjects any freedom of expression – often with disastrous results.

One of these regimes is Saudi Arabia. Despite its dismal human rights record, the kingdom has been central to western foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s and western governments have therefore tacitly condoned its “Wahhabisation” of the Muslim world. Wahhabism originated in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century as an attempt to return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, Wahhabis came to denounce all later developments – such as Sufism and Shia Islam – as heretical innovations.

Yet this represented a radical departure from the Quran, which insists emphatically that there must be “no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) and that religious pluralism is God’s will (5:48). After the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis used their immense wealth to counter the power of Shia Islam by funding the building of mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrasas that provided free education to the poor. Thus, to the intense dismay of many in the Muslim world, an entire generation has grown up with this maverick form of Islam – in Europe and the US, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

In 2013, the European Union declared that Wahhabism was the main source of global terrorism. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the narrowness of the Wahhabi vision is a fertile soil in which extremism can flourish. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wahhabi chieftains did indeed conduct violent military expeditions against the Shia but, during the 1930s, the Saudi kingdom abandoned military jihad and Wahhabism became a religiously conservative movement. Today, some members of the Saudi ruling class support Isis but the Grand Mufti has condemned it in the strongest terms. Like Osama Bin Laden, Isis leaders aim to overthrow the Saudi regime and see their movement as a rebellion against modern Wahhabism.

Military action in Syria will not extirpate Islamist extremism elsewhere. In order to be fully successful, President Hollande’s campaign must also include a review of domestic policy. France has signally failed to integrate its Muslim population. Most of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities of 13 November appear to have been disaffected French nationals. So, too, were the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Amedy Coulibaly, who hijacked the Jewish supermarket in January. All three lived in notoriously deprived suburbs of Paris and – evoking France’s colonial past – were of Algerian and Malian descent. Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning. 

As they debate the feasibility of British air strikes in Syria, some MPs have insisted that they must be accompanied by negotiation and diplomacy. Again, these cannot be conducted in a spirit of superior righteousness. There must be a recognition that the West is not the only victim of Muslim extremism. We seem curiously blind to this. Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Isis, yet this is rarely mentioned. Two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January, the Taliban murdered 145 Pakistanis, most of them children; two days after it, Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 2,000 villagers in Nigeria. Yet, compared with the Paris attack, the media coverage in the West was perfunctory. There has been little acknowledgment that the refugees whom many would seek to exclude from Europe have experienced the horrors we saw in Paris on a regular basis in Syria or Iraq. Already we seem to have forgotten that more than 40 people in Beirut were killed by two Isis suicide bombers on 12 November.

This heedlessness – a form, perhaps, of denial – does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world. The Iraq War showed that a military campaign cannot succeed if it fails to respect the sensibilities of the local people. Western governments must understand that their ­nations bear considerable responsibility for the present crisis – Isis is, after all, the product of the ill-considered Iraq War. And, as long as we mourn only our own dead, we cannot escape the accusation – frequently heard in the developing world – that the West has created a global hierarchy in which some lives are more valuable than others.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State