Reality is Not What it Seems – Carlo Rovelli

images-1

Reality is not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli begins with a brief history of man’s ideas about how the physical world works. It then introduces modern theories about the quantum world, and about the loop theory of gravity.

Rovelli begins in classical Greece with Democritus, who first conceived of the idea of atoms. Rovelli claims that Democritus’ reasoning still holds good today – the world cannot be infinitely divided, but is made up, finally, of small indivisible parts. Rovelli compares Democritus favourably with other Greek philosophers such as Plato, whose idea of reality is is quite absurd in comparison. He mourns the fact that we only know of Democritus through what was written about him by other ancients, as none of his work has survived.

Rovelli writes a history of physical science covering the major figures – Newton, Einstein, Rutherford, Heisenberg. This is brief and interesting. There are various anecdotes to keep the reader going, and the explanations of the science are clear and fairly easy.

He concludes each section with a simple diagram showing how these scientists and their peers conceived of the world at each stage of the process of discovery. Ideas such as space, time, particles and fields have all been used by physicists to describe reality, but the intention has always been to offer the most simplified interpretation. The introduction of quantum mechanics reduced the world to two key ideas – spacetime and quantum fields and Rovelli claims that these two have now been reduced to one. The world is made of covariant quantum fields!!

Reality is Not What it Seems is a convincing and inspiring book. Years ago I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and found there were parts I could not understand. Since then I have read many books on this subject, and they have cast some light into the darkness, but this has perhaps been the best. Here are two others:

From Eternity to Here – Sean Carroll

Why Does e=mc squared?

The issue of Schrödinger’s cat has always puzzled me. How can something exist and not exist at the same time? But Rovelli steers the reader round this issue quite simply. He then goes on to give an elegant explanation of how two particles can be linked whilst being far apart. This had been another stumbling block for me. But Rovelli makes it all very simple, and at the same time introduces the reader to some of the basics of information theory.

Rovelli goes on to explain why there is no such thing as infinity. At the smallest level, even when squashed in a black hole there is a limit to how small something can be. The size of the Planck constant, or some equation involving that, comes in there. At the other end of the scale, whilst vast numbers, beyond our comprehension may appear infinite, there is a finite number of particles.

The universe is an expanding bubble of quantum particles. Within that, like bubbles of soap, it consists of interlinked networks of matter. At the quantum level the world is a cloud of possibilities. Particles gather together in a cloud of uncertainty and become things or people. That’s all there is.

It is no surprise that as an Italian, Rovelli is quite critical of religion. I say that because the organised and politicised forms of religion must have been prominent in Italy, the land of the popes. The imposition of dogma is at the expense of true Christianity. Galileo is an example that would strike a scientist like Rovelli very hard.

For him religion is a myth, it’s just the tales the old men of the tribe tell. Only science can be true. Everything is a mystery. If science has not solved the mystery now, it will one day.

Rovelli seems very confident about this. But I’m not sure whether in the end science will replace religion. It does not look that way to me, in the USA or the Middle East! It seems there is a need for religion. Maybe that is just human weakness, or superstition.

But the environment, indeed the world, is in a parlous state,and science is just a tool. The so called myths of the Old Testament prophets, in the form of the three religions of the book, dominate the world. It is a truth that works. The clouds of particles that believe and have faith have prospered and grown, like the Bible said they would.

At times religion becomes corrupted, but we need it. It embodies the values of love, compassion and stewardship, which science can never have.

Advertisements

Waiting for Godot – Tobacco Factory, Bristol

images-1
On the top floor – The Tobacco Factory Theatre, North St Bristol

What a treat – one of my favourite plays in my favourite theatre. The Tobacco Factory is a great venue – small and intimate, with a strong local company that regularly chooses interesting plays which would rarely be performed in larger, more commercial venues, plays which educate and entertain.

Every city should have a theatre brave enough, and with enough financial support, to introduce the next generation to plays like this – that challenge the intellect and stir the emotions, that make the audience laugh out loud, but recognise the frailty of life.

Waiting for Godot is a modern classic, and you could argue that it epitomises the C20 in its rootlessness, and value neutral world.

It is in fact a theatrical embodiment of the philosophy of existentialism. Vladimir and Estragon stand and wait, but nothing happens. They live in a desolate and empty environment – in la boue (the mud) of existential philosophy – the state of nausea and anxious being that precedes realisation and the actualisation of the self. They do not know who they are. And they will never find out, because only action defines the self. You are never anything till you do something, and they never do.

In this interpretation of the play Lucky is a further example of what happens if you fail to act. If you don’t make choices, they are made for you. Lucky is constrained by Pozzo in the way that we are constrained by our humdrum and meaningless lives. He will not break free of his chains and claim his authentic self. Instead he chooses slavery and bondage. When Pozzo and Lucky return in Act 2 the fruitlessness and foolishness of this choice is shown. Pozzo is blind. They are going nowhere.

It’s ironic of course that existentialism was originally a Christian philosophy. The general tenor of Kierkegaard’s approach was that I can only know I am a Christian if I act like one. It’s actually what the Bible says. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. 1 John 5.3

Waiting for Godot can be seen as a condemnation of religion and especially Christianity. But it’s approach to religion is very shallow. It offers a neat summary of why religion is foolish – after all nothing happens! Godot never comes, there is no easy answer. It’s a kind of Govian soundbite, easy to understand, but not likely to survive a lifetime’s scrutiny. You can’t dismiss Christianity on basis of a witty metaphor and a couple of hours on the stage.

Of course the interlude with Lucky and Pozzo also introduces that other great c20 philosophy – Marxism. The ideas stretch even further back, to Rousseau – man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.

The great thing about Waiting for Godot is the elusiveness of its allusions. That is what accounts for its durability and the endless fascination it provides for the audience. It’s a metaphor for life that means something new every time you see it.

This time for me I could see Rees-Mogg in the figure of Pozzo, and the British public as Lucky. They know he will only keep them in chains: that is the job of the ruling classes, of which he is one. But they keep on coming back for more. They tie themselves to him.

This was a good production of the play. The audience laughed out loud frequently, and the lines were delivered with aplomb. Lucky was brilliant – a panting, exhausted, beaten lackey who wouldn’t put down his bags and was willingly at his master’s beck and call.

There was an Irish Vladimir and a northern Estragon – or was it the other way round? I never know which is which!! That brought a kind of vitality to their characters. I wasn’t sure if the Northern one was meant to be Compo from Last of the Summer Wine, but he had drawn a lot from that character, which was ok, but didn’t really add to the play. They were funny and at times tender, though that aspect was perhaps a little muted.

The setting was typical of the sparseness of most productions. There were bits of industrial rubbish around, and a tree made of metal. The pile of bricks two courses high may or may not have been a reference to Carl André’s bricks in the Tate gallery in the 1970s, and the controversy they created about what counts as art. Waiting for Godot certainly does.

The theatre was not quite full, which is a shame. The Tobacco Factory should be supported more. We can’t afford to lose it.

But there was a strong evidence of life. There were two audience members dressed as Lucky, and the whole audience had a young and to some extent beatnik aspect. There were some old fogies like me, but unusually we were in the minority. The Tobacco factory has brought Beckett to life for the next generation. Like Socrates, they are interrogating the world. All power to their elbow.

Dirty Glory – Pete Greig

Unknown

Dirty Glory, or Red Moon Chronicles#2, is a sequel to Red Moon Rising, and brings the reader up to date with the story of the continuing growth of the 24/7 prayer movement.

Pete Greig has an exceptional ability to bring a scene or a situation to life with a few key words or a vivid description, and this makes the stories he tells in this book credible and vivid for the reader.

He had begun as a child to pray in faith, and he describes the experiences which taught him that God was real, and that prayer could be answered.

On holiday as a young man in Portugal, at the most western point in Europe, Greig had a vision in which he saw thousands of ghostly figures rising up in prayer. He did not understand the meaning of this at the time, though it was to become clear to him in later years when he was involved in founding the 24/7 prayer movement.

In this book Greig fills in the details of the growth of 24/7 as it expanded its work into Mexico, Ibiza and the USA. The book is autobiographical, and Greig offers many personal insights. As new characters are introduced he tells the stories of how they came to God, always with the emphasis on prayer, the Bible, and God’s presence and support. There are striking stories here that show God is not concerned with past mistakes or bourgeois conformity, and Greig has a knack of bringing the characters to life with wit and humour. He is not an ordinary writer, and has considerable talent.

Greig describes his arrival in the USA where he went to develop the movement, and shares the problems he and his wife faced with family illness. She developed a brain tumour, which was an incredible challenge, to say the least! Meanwhile his infant son swallowed some of the very powerful tablets prescribed for her condition, yet miraculously avoided death. For Greig, God was always there during the trials.

Dirty Glory gives many examples of people brought to faith, and shows the power and influence of prayer in this respect.

In one university residence, due to the prayers of a single student, every member gave their life to Christ. Elsewhere a young woman set off alone to a Mexican border town to pray for the prostitutes and drug dealers living there in a neglected ghetto. It seemed a hopeless task, but she remained for eighteen months, continued to pray, and slowly became aware of the transforming effect her words were having on the lives of the inhabitants.

For Greig, Europe is the most difficult missionary field of our time. In Ibiza many young people were saved from the dangerous consequences of their own actions. Rather than being left in a vulnerable position when found helpless, ill or drunk on the streets, they were ferried back to hotels, or given other kinds of support. Gospels were distributed, and though not always used appropriately, or fully understood by the recipients, the scheme impacted on a group that is hard to reach.

The tattooed and pierced new Christians in Ibiza were not always welcomed in the local churches and so a new church was established for them. Greig explains how God was present in the decision to go ahead with this project, showing how if we listen, pray, and read the Bible, it becomes easier for God to guide us.

Greig has shown incredible faith in his own life, and explains that faith and prayer have a key role to play in the world today. The answers to prayer in the Bible were not just of their time: God is here now and will act.

This book is called Dirty Glory because Christ was here in the flesh. He had dirt in the creases of his hands, and made tables. At first, Greig claims, he probably did not make them very well!! Christ is there with us in the coal face, or the chalk face of life. Wherever it is you spend your day, that is where you are his representative, where you are his hands. You need to get them dirty for him – get involved.

God is not interested in religious activity for its own sake, but in righteousness and justice – I despise your religious assemblies – your festivals are a stench to me…But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream Amos 5: 21-23

 

 

 

 

 

Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore (and why Brexiteers aren’t really thick)

images
The Royal York Crescent, Clifton

I picked up Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore because it is set in Bristol, and concerns the building of one of the crescents in the beautiful suburb of Clifton, close to where I live. It is also set in the period of the French revolution, a current interest.

We live in counter-revolutionary times, and Brexit is a counter revolutionary force just like the British armies that fought for the crowned heads of Europe in the Napoleonic Wars.  Brexit is an attempt by the new establishment – the oligarchs and billionaires – to circumscribe the freedom of the people, and drive back the democratic gains achieved in the seventy years of quiet revolution since WW2.

The NHS, the environment, safety regulations, workers’s rights, and the political freedoms of minorities and foreigners are all threatened by this counter revolution disguised as a popular uprising. Do not think that the Tory government and its wealthy backers want anything more than the complete freedom to allow business to profit without moral constraint. They enclosed farmland, and protected landowners by raising the price of corn in those days. Now, free of the EU, they will cut wages and abolish safety regulations, cut business taxes, and starve the NHS.

But for Helen Dunmore, the political issues turn out to be quite tangential to the focus of her novel Birdcage Walk. It’s a historical novel set in revolutionary times, but the characters are only remotely involved in, and affected by, the politics of the time. The narrator’s mother is an associate of Thomas Paine, who wrote The Rights of Man. She has contacts in Paris, and hears of the events of the French revolution from eyewitnesses who contradict the mainstream news in The Times. But these are brief episodes in the novel, used to add colour, rather than its main focus.

The heroine  marries a builder whose livelihood may be destroyed because the French revolution has damaged business confidence. He has every right, by his own terms, to be mad as a snake with his wife’s mother and her colleagues, who foment revolution with their pamphlets and meetings. Yet in the novel their paths never cross. There is no dramatic confrontation, not even any discussion or dialogue. This was a disappointment to me.

But I suppose I’m due to review the book that Helen Dunmore wrote, not the one I wished she had written. By her own measures Dunmore is quite successful. She does use the details of everyday life to evoke something of life at the time, and does present an interesting mystery in a clear historical context.

The conceit of the new crescent in Bristol, begun but never finished, clearly embodies the way politics can impact on ordinary people, on ordinary life. It also provides a realistic setting and context for the novel.

But the real story of Birdcage Walk is not political. It’s about a murder, hinted at in the first chapter, and slowly revealed to the narrator and reader as the story unfolds. So the reader knows part of the truth, and wants to learn more. And the reader watches the narrator, who is potentially the next victim, discover the whole truth.

The voice of the narrator is simple and clear. The writer uses subject verb object sentences without embellishment in a way that’s meant to represent the simple intelligence of the protagonist. It makes the book very easy to read, and allows the story to lead the reader on, but it’s not very challenging, and this voice limits the writer to a pretty straightforward narrative account.

It is so simple it could even be read by Brexiteers. Sorry that was a joke! Bad taste I know. Brexiteers aren’t really stupid. They are as intelligent as the rest of us. They just don’t read the right papers. Their opinions are formed by The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Times and The Telegraph. Newspapers that are part of the problem because they are owned by the tax evading billionaires who are behind Brexit, and want to get us out of the EU before new tax legislation, to be introduced in 2019, forces them to declare income that they have hidden in tax havens till now.

Oh, and Brexiteers watch BBC News, which failed in its duty to hold politicians to account during the referendum, and continues to do so, both with Brexit and with climate change.

No, what really holds the Brexiteers back now is pride, and blind optimism. Or blind faith in jolly Johnson, in the Maybot, in wily old disgraced former Foreign Secretary Mr Fox, in daft old Davies the sugar freak, and in the rest of the lying cheating Tory party, seeking the Best Brexit for Britain without the foggiest idea of what it means, or even whether it’ll mean there’s any food on the supermarket shelves – and not really caring.

Long live the revolution – just not their revolution.

Everybody’s Fool – Richard Russo

Unknown

Everybody’s Fool is set 10 years after Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, in the same run down town in upper state New York:

Nobody’s Fool

Of course in Bath, a spa town whose waters have run dry, little has changed.  The characters’ lives run along the same rails, set down by their genes and their cultural inheritance. But now the main focus shifts from Sully, the working class anti-hero of the previous novel, to Raymer, the hallucinating Chief of Police.

Once again we meet Sully’s long time lover Ruth, and her loyal husband Zack. There is Sully’s workmate, Rub, and the bar and cafe which are the focus of local life. There have been deaths – including Wirf, Sully’s one legged lawyer friend, and Mrs Peoples, his one time 8th grade teacher, who was Raymer’s teacher too.

But there are new additions, such as the crazy dog, licking its sore balls, and peeing over the inside of his van, cruelly named by Sully after his friend Rub. Or Charice, Raymer’s assistant, and sister of his best man, Jerome Bond. Charice, allegedly with a butterfly tattoo on her backside, is ultra efficient, and so essential to the functioning of the police department that Raymer can never allow her to leave the safety of the office and actually do police work.

There is Mr Smith the mysterious arch criminal trading in drugs and poisonous snakes, Raymer’s wife, dead now, Gus’s wife Alice, mentally unstable, and her cruel former partner, Kurt. Russo is so inventive, creating characters that step off the page full of energy and life, stupid, ignorant, foolish, greedy, cruel or mad as a snake. This is a violent world, and an ugly one too, but the cruel violence of the worst characters sits alongside a quiet compassion and forgiveness that might be unexpected in Bath.

Everybody’s Fool has elements of a Greek tragedy, in that the events take place pretty much in a 24 hour period, and we never leave the twin towns of Bath and Shuyler, so there’s unity of time and place for you. But there’s no real unity of plot, as several different stories are interlaced cleverly in alternating cliffhanging chapters in a way that’s more typical of a soap opera.

The close knit relationships, the betrayals and lusts for power, the focus on madness and sanity have all the grandeur and reach of tragedy. It’s a dramatic story, that opens at a graveside, and is lit by the lightening of a summer storm. Its heroes are ordinary men, not Greek soldiers or kings, but they engage with all the universal questions. Russo has real courage in dealing with the big subjects, often taboos in fact – death, mental illness – as well as the more common themes of sex, adultery, love and friendship, where he also pulls no punches.

If this is a tragedy, it’s a Shakespearean one, full of dark comic interludes and base characters, at times unrepentant, and with base desires. There is so much to laugh at, and I laughed out loud frequently, so it’s easy to see the book as a sort of literal Comédie Humaine: all life is here, in Bath.

I really recommend Everybody’s Fool, and will probably read some more of Russo’s books, but I did think the ending was a bit too comfortable. The novel provides a bleak vision of the world, and there is a sort of darkness at its heart  – it’s a very black kind of humour and no one is safe from death, crime or corruption. Without giving too much away I’d just expected a more brutal and less compromising last thirty pages, one that reflected more the harsh world Russo describes.

 

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

Unknown

Vanity Fair has been described as the best novel about Waterloo ever written, but it actually tells the stories of Becky Sharpe and Amelia Sedley, two young women who, in the opening chapter, find themselves graduating together from Miss Pinkerton’s school, and whose paths intertwine in the years that follow. They do both find themselves in Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo, and that battle does take place during the novel, but this is a story about the seamy side of the British Empire, and not about the glorious and warlike so-called heroes who built it. In fact the men of Empire, with the exception of Major Dobbin, are portrayed throughout as weak and foolish, corrupt, lascivious, fat and stupid. And even good old Dobbin – the best of the bunch – well his name speaks volumes.

The school “graduation” of Becky and Amelia epitomises the themes of the novel. Wealthy Amelia is given a signed copy of Johnson’s dictionary by the domineering and selfish headteacher, who snobbishly claims a close acquaintance with Johnson himself. Penniless Becky is denied a copy: in Vanity Fair money and status are all, and she has neither. But the soft hearted sister of the headteacher relents, cannot be so cruel, and passes a copy of the dictionary to Becky through the coach window as they are about to depart. Becky opens the book briefly, then disdainfully throws it down onto the lawn: a shocking and rebellious act that sets the tone for her character. Becky dismisses Amelia’s concerns about upsetting Miss Pinkerton, shouting, Vive la France! Vive l’Empereur! Vive Bonaparte!

Yes – Becky is a villain, and a cold hearted one at that. But this little scene provides a significant context. She lives in a society that thinks itself a whole lot better than her, but is in fact stamped through with corruption, like Blackpool through a stick of rock. Thackeray invites us to take an alternative perspective on Becky: how else is the penniless daughter of an emigré French artist to make her way in society? Who will help her to find a husband, help her to find respectability and security? Amelia will have support from her family, will “come out” in due course, and meet the right people, but Becky will need to fight every inch of the way. So whilst she is a scurrilous, shockingly immoral character, she has no other choice. Thackeray makes this clear at the beginning of the novel, in a way that challenges Victorian orthodoxy – the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate . (From the hymn All things bright and beautiful, Published in 1848, a year after this novel.)

However, for most of the novel Thackeray adopts a more conventional moral approach. In the later stages he presents Becky both through her actions, and through the vivid use of reptilian imagery, as an out and out villain. Nevertheless, her final acts, which Thackeray allows to pass without comment, show compassion and common sense, though not hypocrisy, and she leaves immediately for Bath and Cheltenham, dens of evil and vice.

Becky’s ascent through Georgian society is typical of the picaresque novel, and offers an amusing and effective condemnation of the Britain of the time. She dallies with Amelia’s brother Jos, fat cowardly and lazy, but rich as Croesus on the proceeds of the Raj. He disappoints – too cowardly to seize his opportunity and Becky moves on to the Crawleys, members of the minor nobility who she takes for all she can. She marries into the family, but they snobbishly disinherit her husband, and ignore her. The poverty that results from this plagues Becky and her husband Rawdon, though Thackeray does not show much sympathy. Becky’s dalliances with rich men are at first ignored by Rawdon, the colonel, who is led like a sheep. In the end he disowns her at the moment when she has finally gained him an office in the Empire – a sinecure in the West Indies with a fat salary. She is left alone, and escapes to Europe where she becomes a member of the louche set that hang around foreign spa resorts, gambling. She is at her happiest here – a true Bohemian, as Thackeray says.

Meanwhile life for the Sedleys – the nouveau riche – is not easy. Bankrupted by losses consequent to Napoleon’s return from Elba, Amelia’s father is reduced to poverty, and she becomes the victim of the kind of snobbery that affected Becky in the opening chapter. But Amelia is a romantic idealist, worshipping her dead husband George, even though he is not worthy of such adoration. When Amelia and Becky meet again in Europe the truth is revealed.

Thackeray was an admirer of Henry Fielding and there are clear similarities between Tom Jones and Becky: they are both outsiders, though Tom is mostly an innocent victim of circumstance and his own weaknesses, whilst Becky is the arch manipulator. Thackeray’s narrative voice is also similar to Fielding’s – full of interjections, ironical comments and intimate asides to the reader. There is a vast array of characters, though many are caricatures: the whole novel is introduced as a puppet show in the opening chapter with descriptions that are reminiscent of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, and the novel has that kind of vitality and variety. It’s easy to think that PG Wodehouse might have drawn on some of the elements of Vanity Fair for his own novels.

Vanity Fair – a cultural icon, and a long read, but well worth it if you are determined and interested.

Sharpe’s Eagle – Bernard Cornwell

 

Unknown
Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe in the TV series

Sharpe’s Eagle was the first of Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels about Richard Sharpe, the fictional British rifleman active in Wellington’s army in Europe and India.

Sharpe’s Eagle tells the story of the period surrounding the Battle of Talavera, beginning with the army’s advance from Portugal, and culminating, despite victory in the Spanish battle, with Wellington’s retreat to Portugal.

The novel contains two or three key battle scenes, which as far as I can tell are portrayed with due reference to the actual historical facts, describing weapons, tactics and the actual strategies used by Wellington and the French, and that alone made the book interesting. In fact Cornwell claims never to have written about a battle without first visiting the site. This must have afforded him some interesting tax deductible holidays!

The burden of the novel is not actually about the struggle with the French though. It’s a novel about male heroism, and definitions of male identity, as well as a novel about British society and its interminable and damnable class divisions.

Sharpe is a down to earth working class hero with no fancy ways, and it’s hard to think of him without being reminded of Sean Bean’s portrayal: pure Sheffield working class, and a blunt northerner who calls a spade a bloody shovel. In fact I could hear Bean’s voice clearly in the dialogue at times. Cornwell himself comments on Bean’s eminent suitability for the role, and no doubt the producers of Game of Thrones identified this northern integrity and honesty when casting him so successfully as Ned Stark.

Sharpe has come up through the ranks, making officer thanks to his own experience and ability, in an army where it was usual to purchase a commission, and this places him as a working class hero amongst a bunch of namby-pamby southern types who couldn’t take the skin off a custard, never mind lead an army into battle. We observe their shallow and futile management of the troops, and their cruel and selfish behaviour almost through Sharpe’s eyes, though it’s a third person narrator. Meanwhile Sharpe’s friends are men that toil, Scots and Irish often, honest and trustworthy yeoman types.

The anti-English element of this is interesting. It’s a common literary trope for the English to be mean and cowardly, interested in personal gain and full of treachery, and is an issue I mentioned in my recent review of Pride and PrejudiceIn Sharpe’s Eagle it’s accentuated by the mistreatment of Josefina by the wealthy English officers, and Sharpe’s rather more noble romantic entanglement with her.

In the end of course justice is done, and Sharpe survives to fight on in the next instalment. This was my first Sharpe novel, and I found it an easy read with entertaining aspects, but really, as I suppose is widely accepted, it’s just a tale of derring-do, a Boys’ Own Paper story.

As a footnote, although this was the first Sharpe novel written, it is not the first in the chronological story of his life. It’s clear from reading the novel that Cornwell already had ideas about how the earlier part of Sharpe’s life would lead to this moment, though I suppose these embellishments may have been added at a later date to subsequent editions of the book.