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Opinion

We need new thinking, shaken not stirred

Solutions to the problems are within our grasp. We just need to find ways to them

At the turn of the year I allowed myself to get a little lost. I became obsessed with a book called When We Cease To Understand The World by Benjamín Labatut. I read it in a fever and then went back and read it again. I told everybody who came within a mile of me to read it. I’m still diving back into sections of it. I still do not understand it.

Labatut is Dutch-born, but now resident in Chile. This fact in his biography kept being repeated when people wrote about the book; such was my growing obsession that I wondered if it was a key part of the narrative that I needed to decipher. Or maybe he just likes Chile.

The book is, ostensibly, about quantum physics. Though that’s not it. It covers the lives of key players who cracked the rudiments of quantum theory trying to dig into the theory of everything – like Heisenberg and Bohr, Haber and, of course Einstein. Though he wasn’t a fan of the quantum world.

It laces that through with details of people who deserve wider recognition, like Mochizuki and Grothendieck, names that themselves sound like elegant puzzles to be solved.

But it moves back and forth through time and war and shows the interconnectedness of all. And just when you think you’re getting somewhere, there is a reminder of the simple, absurd, contrary brutality of nature that goes beyond comprehension.

Some of the book is also fiction. Nothing is as it seems. Or everything is, in every conceivable way, all the time.

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I thought about it last weekend when I read about the Pornstar Martini problem and the death of Edward De Bono.

I’ve never had a Pornstar Martini. It’s looking increasingly unlikely I ever will. A Pornstar Martini is a cocktail made from vodka, lime and a passion fruit liqueur called Passoã. This liqueur has to be imported into the UK from the EU and is increasingly hard to come by. The FT wrote the Passoã problem story and signalled it as kind of hospitality industry canary in the mine – for them it says something about Brexit.

Here, within The Big Issue, so many people came up with so many great ideas to help us weather the storm and be ready for the next waves that crash

Certainly, there are problems within the hospitality industry. And Brexit isn’t helping. But having spoken to some hospitality industry leaders last week, it became clear there are other issues at play, like lack of availability of staff, particularly chefs who are leaving in droves, the commercial viability of some premises as lockdown measures remain, and other more general staff shortages that vary from region to region. There is no simple quick fix. We have covered this before and will again.

De Bono – thinker, academic and dial-shifter – was the man who came up with the phrase ‘lateral thinking’. (If I’d coined a phrase like De Bono I’d never give over about it. I’d print T-shirts proclaiming it, introduce myself mentioning it.) The basis of De Bono’s lateral thinking was that we could understand and help deal with the world’s problems by letting go of the analytical part of the brain that understood situations as they were and engage the creative part to meet new ones.

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If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that much lateral thinking was employed by many people to keep lives and livelihoods afloat. Here, within The Big Issue, so many people came up with so many great ideas to help us weather the storm and be ready for the next waves that crash.

And so it is that we need to allow ourselves to be open to more, much more, new thinking. Solutions to the problems, whether it be how to mix a new Pornstar Martini or how to build capital infrastructure plans to carry us through the next generation, are within our grasp. We just need to find ways to them.

In the summer of 1925, when he was wrestling with the very heart of the quantum theory problem, and also plagued by hayfever, Heisenberg took himself off to Heligoland. Barren and treeless, it’s an archipelago in the North Sea, found in the German Bight area (familiar to Shipping Forecast fans). Over a number of weeks he walked and thought and the solution came through. The future was changed for all of us.

And while it may help get around lockdown measures, I’m not suggesting that to crack the riddles we’re all now facing we each retire to an island that is loaded with prehistoric markers, living like aesthetes for a solitary summer.

That said…

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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