Higgs, John: Stranger Than We Can Imagine

The book’s proposer introduced it as a refreshing contrast to conventional histories of the 20th C with their emphasis on wars and political events.

He gave us a little background about the writer – he was not an academic, but had a varied career including working for GEC Marconi, directing children’s TV programmes, and producing video games.  Higgs claimed the idea for his book came from Salvador Dalí’s melting clock image, which made him think about connections between art and science (although Dalí himself claimed that his own inspiration came from seeing a melting Camembert cheese, not from ideas of relativity!)

Opening the discussion, one reader commented that the book reminded him of eclectic conversations in the pub, which tend to range far and wide.  He found the links rather tenuous, and so, although very enjoyable to read, the book lacked overall coherence.  One critic had apparently referred to Higgs as a plate-spinner – keeping many ideas up in the air at the same time.  Another reader characterised him as a storyteller, not a scholar.

There was some debate about Higgs’ characterisation of the 19th C as a time of relative stability.  Although it was admitted that the pace of change in the 20th C was more rapid, the view was expressed that other hundred year periods of history contained similar upheavals of ideas – for example brought about by artists, scientists and thinkers such as Galileo, da Vinci or Darwin.

Along with this dubious characterisation of the 19th C, others in the group took issue with some scientific or historical statements made by Higgs – for example his remarks on the lack of preparation of British troops for World War One.  It was felt that this slightly undermined trust in his conclusions about areas we didn’t know so much about.

Praise was bestowed on the final chapter ‘Networks’, and it was noted that in spite of gloomy predictions, the author ended on an optimistic note about humanity being ingenious enough to find a way through the global problems we are presently busily engaged in creating.  There was some agreement that he perhaps underplayed the population explosion and environmental degradation as key changes of the 20th century, even though he suggests that the 21st C may be the penultimate century for the human species.

Our conversation stayed on the topic of networks.  One member of the group, recently returned from China, reported that he was told that two million people are employed in monitoring the internet and working out what should be blocked from the rest of the population.  Apparently our own book group blog is blocked, as he tried to access it there!

We discussed the phenomenon of ‘selfies’, wondering if they were – as our generation tends to assume – manifestations of egocentrism and individualism, or, as Higgs suggests, evidence of the connectedness and community spirit of a younger generation.

We talked about the influence of online social networks, and the backlog of hidden information about such things as political corruption and child abuse in the Catholic Church that was consequently now coming to light.

We were interested in his analysis of economic ‘growth’, the mantra of politicians and economists the world over.  The narrowing down of ownership of the world’s wealth into fewer hands could in some respects be considered a retreat to the days of the all-powerful emperors that he talks about.  The new ‘emperors’ are global corporations, some of them richer than many countries.

On the topic of where power lay in the modern world, we wondered if western style democracies were adequate to the tasks ahead – referencing the recent votes to remove the UK from the EU, and to promote a dangerous demagogue to the presidency of the USA.  Our China expert compared how a high-speed rail link between Qinghai and Tibet had been completed rapidly, whereas the UK was still struggling with its HS2 rail link project over a comparatively tiny distance, because in a democracy we allow for objections to what government proposes.  We did not, however, go so far as to propose a new dictatorial system of government led by book groups.

We noted that Higgs digs up a number of interesting individuals, some of them quite obscure, who are either emblematic of some shift in thinking or deeply influential.  An example was the scientist brought back from the Gulag to lead the Russian space programme.  It was pointed out that the West was similarly secretive over some politically sensitive individuals – for example Alan Turing, now considered a seminal figure in the development of computing.

Referring to the book’s comments on the Rolling Stones and individualism, compared with the hippy togetherness represented by the later phase of the Beatles, it was pointed out that the Beatles broke up nearly fifty years ago whereas the Rolling Stones are still together!

In conclusion, we certainly agreed that the book kept us engaged, although not always convinced.  ‘Stranger Than We Can Imagine’ was felt to be interesting primarily because of the connections it made, rather than for its acuity in analysing any particular theme.  It had proved an excellent catalyst for conversation – perhaps even more so than the beers in the pub referenced at the beginning of our discussion.