The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen
Ebury Press, £18.99
Jack Cohen: I think the headline story in this book is mine, he says a little immodestly. It’s the argument that biology isn’t just physics and chemistry with knobs on. An atom that flies in a bird does so because the bird can fly, not because the atom can fly. We like to chunter on about “working from first principles” but the honest fact of the matter is there are countless first principles. There are first principles wherever you look. My favourite analogy is the space elevator. If you can build an elevator wire stretching from the surface of the earth to a geosynchronous satellite, then the only energy cost of going into orbit is friction. This makes perfect sense once you’ve built the elevator. Before then, the idea is completely nuts, because you’re having to think about gravity and orbits and Newton’s inverse square law and all the rest of it. If you’re constantly working from first principles, you’re going to miss all the opporutunities that come along from starting at a higher level of complexity. A mitochondrion works with a sort of surreal efficiency, If generates waste heat, we can’t really detect it. It took evolutionary processes 30,000 million years to accomplish that, and if you started with the basic chemistry, you’d never get there. Lower levels of complexity may underlie higher levels of complexity, but they don’t imply them. If you wanted to be flippant about this, you’d say that biological systems transcend the laws of nature.
Simon Ings: You’re saying they’re magical?
Terry Pratchett: Uh-oh.
Jack: Well, loose talk costs lives, but I’d certainly use that word about the space elevator, or technology in general come to that. When I reach up and press a switch and the light comes on – there’s nothing about that moment that isn’t magical. When I went to America in 1963-64, to Harvard, I needed a car. I bought a cheap thing - nothing flash. And it had this button. At home I had a Rover 10, and it needed the choke pulling out and a heater putting under it in the winter to start it. Wheras this car had a magic button that said, “Cold start”. You pressed it, and a minute later, the engine started. What made it a magic button? The fact that I could work it without knowing how it worked. That’s all it takes to do magic. That’s all magic is.
Ian Stewart: Arthur Clarke said sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And then Gregory Benford turned it round and said, technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced; which creates a kind of imperative: we should develop technology to make it transparent to the user. We want our technology to be magic. It’s supposed to be magic. That’s what it’s for: to sit on your kitchen worktop, sit in your house, and make your life more interesting, or more pleasant, or more fun. And it’s fascinating and often quite amusing to realise that, in a sense, we are trying to turn Roundworld into Discworld, where things work because people want them to work. And you know, we’re getting pretty good at it.
Terry: All of us these days are looking askance at our politicians. The way things are going in the world, we say to ourselves, No one’s really in charge. No one knows what to do. Everyone’s caught up in events, everyone is beholden to lawyers and bankers. So science comes as a comfort. We’re seeing a lot more popular science these days. You can’t move for it on television. And I look on it as a sort of very decent, well-meant pornography. You can tell it’s pornography because you know the plot backwards but you keep watching anyway for the sheer pleasure of the repetition. “I know this one! I know this one really well!”
Ian:: It used to be easier. When Michael Faraday started his popular lectures, raising money for the Royal Institution, he was also performing crucial science in electricity and magnetism which led, through James Clerk Maxwell, to radio, television, and modern communications. Nowadays, you can’t drag the Large Hadron Collider in and show people how it works. The trouble is that, however accessibly you write, the people who really ought to understand this stuff, and get some ideas about it, are precisely the people who are never going to even bother to look at it. Which is where the TV programmes that look beautiful and inspire people without actually explaining very much are actually very valuable, especially in terms of reaching younger people.
Simon: Where does the Science of Discworld project sit? Are you addressing a new audience, or playing to the fans?
Jack: What we say is, we’re serious but we’re not solemn.
Ian: Working with Terry, I think Jack and I get sensitive to the value of wearing our learning lightly. When we write some pompous looking sentence, we think, Wait. Don’t take this so seriously. And one of us puts in some self-deprecating sarcastic comment, which gives people the impression that we have a more balanced view of things.
Simon: Quite often the fulsome line, the pompous line, is an expression of anxiety.
Ian: Puncture your balloons! I’ve always found that the more firmly I state my position on something, the shakier my view is. After all, the things we argue about are the ones for which there’s the least amount of evidence either way. If there’s strong evidence, we can all look at the evidence and say, well, we better stop arguing about this.
Terry: Or so you’d think. We do now have this rather awkward situation where a lot of people are saying, this evidence is wrong because it doesn’t agree with my beliefs. Climate change denial is completely absurd. I can understand why the companies that are going to suffer if we cut back on our energy use are a bit unhappy about it and are spreading propaganda, but I can’t understand why perfectly sensible people fall for it and ignore completely what the world’s scientists have been saying for the last 20 or 30 years. You can’t have a worldwide conspiracy of scientists. It’s completely absurd.
Simon: The words “cats” and the “bag” spring to mind.
Ian:: You can find an area of science which is locked into a paradigm which turns out to be complete nonsense. There are lots of examples of that. But these involve a few dozen or a few hundred scientists. They don’t involve thousands across every country in the world. It’s just silly.
Terry: In my early teens, I worked Saturdays in my local library. If certain things in my life had been different, I would probably have ended up as a librarian, and that wouldn’t have been a bad thing. While I was working on this book I was thinking about the irrational, how the irrational actually works, and I phoned up two ladies who are fans of my work and also librarians, and I asked, Do you still get the Left Ear People? It’s what we used to call them. People who come into the library looking for books, for some official sanction even if it’s just an out-of-print paperback, about beliefs which turn out to be absolutely bloody ridiculous. How the US faked the moon landings and such.
Simon: And the weirdest part is they’re inventing Illuminati and wot-not to make their lives duller. Who wants to live in a world in which people didn’t land on the moon? In what way is that better than a world in which people did?
Terry: There must have been about a billion people involved in the thing: did they all lie? I’m proud that men got to the moon. At least once, this planet threw up something big enough to shove something up there. Mankind made an effort, got to the moon, found it, was there, walked about.
Jack:: Human folly is one thing. It’s when it achieves some sort of authority that it becomes frightening. I’m terrified of Islam, the way the authoritarians have got a stranglehold on its teachings. A third of humanity is being given a narrower and narrower definition of what the world is and what they are. It’s desperate.
Simon: Well, that’s what you get with a deteriorationist religion.
Terry:: I’m sorry?
Simon: It’s deteriorationist. The jame towhidi, the society of believers, has been and gone, and all we can do is try to preserve the remains. The Americans and their constitution are the same. Long ago the Constitution made perfect sense, and now it’s getting harder and harder to interpret. It’s a similar sort of mindset.
Terry: I hadn’t thought of that.
Simon: I think it’s Christopher Hitchens.
Terry: I like it very much. The Constitution used to be this beautiful thing and time is tearing it to pieces. I like the idea that you can pursue happiness. No guarantee that you’ll catch it, of course. You might know, of course, that I’m a fan of assisted dying. The reason we don’t have it in this country is that the religious right get up against it, despite the fact that it’s taking place now in many democracies similar to our own, quite happily, without any of the terrible consequences and disasters we’re told are bound to follow from this thing. It really pisses me off. I didn’t vote for the Pope, and I genuinely do not see any reason why he should have this privileged voice in the debate.
Simon: I’m a big Dawkins fan. I think Dawkins is irate for all the right reasons. But when you three approach the same issues with humour, it does feel refreshing.
Terry: I think we need a few Richard Dawkinses just to counteract the massive propaganda machine that is organised religion. I do find it extraordinarily hypocritical when people say, “This man’s insulting our religion.” Look at what your preachers are saying to perfectly decent people who happen not to agree with you about an afterlife, a virgin birth, a whole pile of silly miracles that you seem to think are important. And as soon as you’re pressed on that, what do you do? You rush off and say, “Oh, we’re nothing to do with that. What’s important is morality.” As if people who disagree with your virgin birth story have no morals! And on the other hand one prominent Roman Catholic protested about being persecuted because there was one advert on the side of bus saying God probably doesn’t exist. I mean, how ridiculous can you get?
Jack: We’re promoting rationality as a way of understanding things. Whether you can understand everything with rationality is a different question.
Terry: For instance, I do sometimes wonder if spending billions and billions of pounds on the latest fancy collider is really a sensible use of money. Of course it’s in the nature of these things that, now I’ve said that, tomorrow somebody will find some fantastic medical treatment based on Higgs bosons or something.
Ian: The cost is a real worry, you’re right. There are all sorts of really important projects which are cheaper and are not getting funded. What is so “fundamental” about this physics, that it’s worth billions? I work in mathematics, which is criticised as having nothing to do with reality, which is complete nonsense. It has a lot more to do with reality, in terms of direct dollars-and-cents payoff, than the Higgs boson does.
Simon: Expensive projects are quite often easier to fund than less expensive ones.
Ian:: But can we can go on playing this game forever? I don’t think so. Already particle physicists are starting to say that they’re not finding anything much beyond the Higgs boson with the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC is telling us that the physics we’ve already written down seems to be correct, but we know already that there are problems with it, because it still doesn’t square properly with relativity, and it’s still not telling us what gravity is. There’s more to be discovered, and this machine is not finding it. I do wonder if the particle physics community, faced with a moratorium on big projects, might not start thinking about alternative ways to do these things. We have a precedent in the Human Genome Project, this enormously expensive multi-billion dollar project that was supposed to take years and years. Now you can sequence a complete genome in a desktop box in 48 hours for a thousand dollars.
Jack: The thing is, the biologists wanted a big-money prestigious project. Quite explicitly. They wanted their equivalent of the moon landings. They said so.
Simon: So we’re back to human folly, then. People’s short sightsightedness. Their selfishness.
Terry: Not selfishness. That’s wrong. The world is not going to hell in a handcart because we’re selfish. That’s too easy, to say that we don’t care. We do care. The problem is we can’t take what we know on board for more than the length of time it takes to worry about it. It’s almost as if we live in a fantasy…