The best and worst of British television: Benefits Britain; Fightback Britain; Unbuilt Britain

Rachel Cooke on a weird and horrible week of television on the BBC and Channel 4.

Benefits Britain; Fightback Britain; Unbuilt Britain
Channel 4; BBC1; BBC4

A weird and horrible week on television, the late-summer schedules dominated by a couple of new series so belligerently populist they might have been dreamed up in the offices of the Daily Mail (and, true to form, just hours before one of them was broadcast, the Mail splashed on it).

On Channel 4, we had Benefits Britain 1949 (12 August, 9pm), in which three current social-security claimants were required to travel back in time and “adjust”. Dear God. It goes without saying that this is a revolting idea for a documentary series and I don’t intend here to spell out the various intricacies of its stupidity and nastiness (naturally, this was the Mail’s favourite). But it was also miserably predictable, giving us two “decent” claimants (Craig, who uses a wheelchair, and Melvyn, a widowed pensioner) and one who seemed not so “decent” (Karen, a rude, shouty creature who is on incapacity benefit).

Meanwhile, on BBC1, there scuttled along an even more gruesome prospect in the form of Fightback Britain (12 August, 8.30pm), a series about how “you, the public” are “taking a stand against the bad guys”. What do you mean, you’re not taking a stand? Haven’t we all from time to time felt moved to instal a night-vision camera in our garden, in order to catch a local knicker thief as he jumps over the fence in search of laundry-fresh undies?

The knicker thief was the “funny” item at the end of a half-hour show that was otherwise dominated by stories of plucky derringdo (two lorry drivers who managed to stop a third from driving drunkenly the wrong way down a motorway) and advice about how to make your mobile phone thief-proof (in essence, get a tracking app on it). By the time it came on, I was bored to sobs – Fightback Britain’s presenters, Julia Bradbury and Adrian Simpson, have all the charisma of a couple of estate agents hell-bent on selling a particularly damp one-bedroom flat – so I can’t recall where exactly this incident happened. Suffice to say, the local police were not inclined to put a crack team of detectives on the case.

“Bring your washing in at night,” they told the victim, Leanne – which seemed fair enough to me, especially as by this point she was having to borrow knickers from her neighbours. Leanne, however, was having none of it. It’s just so convenient, putting out your washing last thing before you go to bed. Why would a girl want to do anything else?

When the film ended – thanks to CCTV, the thief was duly nabbed by Leanne’s husband, the waistband of his jeans apparently bulging with the very finest that BHS had to offer – Bradbury said earnestly to camera: “Remember, you can only film on your own property.” As if viewers everywhere were about to train CCTV on their neighbours’ rotary washing lines! And then it got worse. Turning to Simpson, she then uttered, presumably in a desperate attempt at chemistry, these dread words: “And I don’t think you need to worry about anyone stealing your pants, lovely.”

Lovely? To his credit, Simpson didn’t respond in kind (“Yes, Jules, my pants are rather skanky, aren’t they? Though I do wonder how exactly you know that. Ha ha ha.”). But nor, alas, did he look as though he wanted to throw up (presenting gigs don’t grow on trees, you know). See? I told you it was gruesome.

To soothe myself after this onslaught of ghastliness, I dived into Dreaming the Impossible: Unbuilt Britain on BBC4, which was like following a Big Mac with an ice-cold fresh peach. Oh, the relief. Presented by an architectural historian called Olivia Horsfall Turner, who has a delicately old-fashioned manner – she reminds me of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – these documentaries are about fantastical building projects that never quite got off the ground. The first film (12 August, 9pm) took in Joseph Paxton’s proposed Great Victorian Way in London, a huge glass arcade that would have followed roughly the same route as the Circle Line of the Underground, had it not been superseded by the more pressing need to build proper sewers; and Geoffrey Jellicoe’s “Motopia”, a 1,000-acre Sixties new town in which glass corridors would have separated cars from people.

It’s all amazingly interesting: the drawings and the dreams, the zeal and the bathos. How wonderful to find that Paxton’s chief inspiration in life seems to have been a particularly exotic kind of water lily and that the greenhouse he designed for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth was so vast and hot that it was known as the “Great Stove”. But the series speaks to the times, too. In our overcrowded cities, the problems these projects were intended to tackle continue unabated, while in the eyes of the architects who would solve them, the gleam is every bit as unnerving now as it must have been then.

Julia Bradbury and Adrian Simpson, who present Fightback Britain. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood