Rory Ross meets an ‘unfathomable genius’ with the third highest IQ in the world who was brought up in the no-go Buttershaw housing estate in Bradford by a violent alcoholic father. Having left school at 14 with no academic qualifications, Professor Arthur Gibson is now examining and redefining our understanding of the universe whilst advising world governments in his spare time. He talks to Rory about his current understanding of what we call scientific laws: “The deep physical reality of the world is counter-intuitive or surprising. As you enlarge the scope, the identity of the world is constantly asymmetric to itself and surprising to itself in ways we do not anticipate. Scientific and mathematical laws are merely models of the world, not un-revisable truths. Even fuzziness can be a false clarity that is delusional.”
The Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University is an institution of occult influence, seat of incandescent geekery, and residence of some of the greatest minds on Earth. Corridors throb with brainpower; alcoves hum with the colloquy of giants. I’ve come to meet the cleverest man in Britain. Not Stephen Hawking – although he works here too.
A middle-aged man softly approaches and greets me like a friend. Of medium build, he has a fascinator of grey curls, mischievous eyes, and an unassuming air. Beneath his comfortably worn suit, garish socks peep out.
In his upper-floor study, I press Professor Arthur Gibson on how he rose from obscurity in inner-city Bradford to the glittering prizes of Cambridge University. It is a richly human story of how, variously thwarted in the purest Romantic tradition, he has scaled professional peaks and attained the fellowship of world leaders. At first he avoids the question, still clearly distressed by it. Then. Something yields.
Son of a ‘largely unemployed alcoholic bookie’s runner’, Gibson spent his first six years in an ‘underclass slum with running water – through a gap between the roof and moss-decorated inner walls’. He then moved to Buttershaw, near ‘The Arbor’, scene of Andrea Dunbar’s play of the same name.
Buttershaw’s privations paled beside those crafted by Gibson’s monstrous father. “He thought algebra was a, “F-ing homosexual perversion”, says Gibson. Despite this, Gibson recalls his father sitting him on the milkman’s knee, and forcing him to put his hand down the milkman’s trousers.
Gibson’s father would take Arthur, aged 7, to the pub to have a stab at bookie’s runner ‘maths’. Mistakes would be punished with lit cigarettes stubbed out on the back of Arthur’s hand, while his father’s drunk friends looked on. One kitchen altercation resulted in Gibson’s father pouring boiling oil over his mother to teach his son not to side with her. When Arthur called the police, his father threatened to slit his and his mother’s throats.
Gibson gazes sightlessly out of the window, eyes tormented with past visions. He hints at even worse abuse. I feel like an intruder.
Gibson senior took particular exception to Junior’s attempts at self-betterment. Arthur recalls, “A very large family Bible hitting his head, having been thrown from the top of the stairs with me at the bottom. Father threw it because he found I had brought it into the house and had been reading it…He did that with all books of learning.” Gibson found sanctuary in Bradford Library.
Curiously, Gibson was ‘a positive and optimistic’ child, “Qualities which my father took as a challenge to destroy – hence the, now hardly noticeable, indentations in my skull. This was part of a personality that I grew as a weapon against father… It needed deep skill to outwit him, which further enraged him.”
Side-effects of his father’s violent attempts at expunging any academic endeavour emerged whenever Gibson sat exams: fits and black-outs. ‘I have not passed any exam nor ever even properly taken one,’ he says. Chronically dyslexic, Gibson dropped out at 14, destitute of qualifications but ‘craving understanding’.
He was made to work in menswear at Burtons in order to obtain discounted suits for his father. Meanwhile, he was, ‘Turned down for an evening class in O-level English Literature with Language when a teacher said that I lacked the ability to complete it.”
Yet Gibson is preternaturally gifted to a Mozartian degree: he has a photographic memory with a polymathic twist. He would read bulimically, gorging on texts and regurgitating passages verbatim. As a librarian’s assistant at Leeds, he would surprise readers by reciting paragraphs of the volumes being returned, hoping to prompt discussion.
In 1967, Gibson went to an evening lecture at Leeds University. In the audience sat Professor Peter Geach, who had studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher. In the Q&A, Gibson jousted with the lecturer.
Geach listened silently.
Walking home, Gibson sensed that he was being followed. “A tall shambolic heavily built man stumbled after me along the dark fogged backstreet, reminiscent of some scraggy-duffle-coated tramp,” he recalls. As a child he had been so pursued in Buttershaw. Gibson’s anxieties revived after repeated sightings of this strange figure, “Almost like an echo of Frankenstein’s experiment on man”, coming after him. Gibson sounded the alarm.
The Vice Chancellor’s Office at Leeds University reassured Gibson that his alleged stalker was in fact a distinguished academic: Professor Peter Geach had been so struck by Gibson’s contribution at the lecture that, spotting the young man’s potential, he wanted to help. A lunch was arranged.
Geach asked Gibson to sit a battery of IQ tests. Arthur’s score of ‘over 210′ puts him at the farthest extremity of the bell curve; Einstein’s IQ was ‘only’ 160. Furthermore, with his rare visual and analytical memory, Arthur could multi-task phenomenally fast, while cross-connecting different subjects.
“The goldfish bowl burst”, says Gibson, “Geach spent hundreds of hours teaching me and listening to my ideas, and arranged for other staff to add to this.” Even so, recurrent phobic fits dashed Gibson’s attempt to enter Leeds University: his exam script revealed nothing but wavy lines.
When Geach and the Dean of Arts concluded that the only place for Gibson was Oxbridge, Arthur’s cause seemed doomed when the Council declined his grant.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Gibson, his prodigious gifts were receiving high-level scrutiny. Sir Alec Clegg, a specialist in gifted underprivileged children, had lobbied the Minister for Education who pronounced that Gibson would be awarded a full mature student scholarship at Cambridge.
Instead of sitting an entrance exam, Gibson was taken aside by professors and grilled on, ‘Ancient Hebrew and Ugaritic, maths, philosophy, logic, English literature, ancient Near Eastern history, Newton, linguistics and physics’. He was passed on the spot. “It felt like coming home,” he smiles, “the home I never had.”
Gibson’s relaunch in academia, and the happiness that had so strangely entered his life, allowed him full immersion in literature, philosophy, ancient Near Eastern languages, mathematics, Jurisprudence of International Law, and cosmology. He would lecture on any such subject without needing notes.
Commuting between disciplines, he has written on Semitic and Near East semantic logic, and books on ‘divine cosmology’ and ‘metaphysics’. A volume of poems, Boundless Function, was apparently praised by Samuel Beckett as a work of genius. Gibson’s present research interests include the Foundations of Mathematics, Theoretical Cosmology, Mathematical Philosophy, Wittgenstein, Quantum Computing, and Jurisprudence of Public International Law concerning government corruption and terrorism.
In retelling his story, Gibson displays no trace of affectation. He comes across as modest, almost apologetic. But he is brilliantly voluble and generous with his time. I get the full tutorial on Artificial Intelligence, quantum mechanics, Wittgenstein, and Big Data, spiced with rare insights and confidential asides, delivered with a flick of the wrist and an inflection of irony. He revealed myriad worlds as he quoted or cited – replete with page references and dates – from the Bible, Laplace, Aristotle, Gerard ‘t Hooft, Niels Bohr, Oscar Wilde, both the Russells (Bertrand and Brand) and many others.
The late Frank Kermode, the English literature scholar, described Gibson as, “Either the last Renaissance man or hopefully the first of the next renaissance”.
Kermode also said of Gibson, “He is either a genius or mad, and I don’t believe he’s mad.”
“Arthur can speak and explain about almost everything: philosophy, literature, culture, mathematics, the sciences, cosmology, religion, politics, society,” says Professor Alois Pichler, a leading authority on Wittgenstein. “What I find most impressive and rewarding: he brings it all together, speaks in one language about it. One could say that Arthur is a true metaphysician.”
Gibson embarks on a gran passeggiata. “Meet some of my friends,” he says over his shoulder, “Lovely people”. We pause at a door inscribed ‘Stephen Hawking’, but Hawking is undergoing a medical procedure. Instead we drop in on Professor Malcolm Perry, who is researching quantum gravity alongside Hawking and Andrew Strominger of Harvard. I hear the tinkle of Nobel Prizes as Perry and Gibson exchange interpretations of technical research; Perry later tells me of Gibson’s ‘significant contributions to learning in philosophy, mathematics and physics.’ In the Cosmology Common Room, where a firmament of physicists, foregather – we meet Professor David Tong, the theoretical physicist, and others.
Gibson’s ‘goldfish bowl’ has burst into an oceanic think tank of exotic species. His reputation as an ‘unfathomable genius’ has rippled out, and returned a queue of people with large interests at stake. He is presently researching, and advising on, new Big Data problems, and was recently invited by Porton Down to lead a brainstorming session.
Gibson’s network is richly heterogeneous. He seems formidably connected to individuals who oversee Britain’s security. He has advised the US Navy on ‘new 21st century threats’. “His unique value in that engagement was his ability to think counter-intuitively and to jar group paradigms,” says Bergeron. “He has been a regular sounding board for me…His contributions often draw on a kind of ‘structural Platonism’ – the ability to discern deep structures of thought that underlie and frame (and limit) the more ephemeral world of substantive argument and rhetoric.”
Yanis Varoufakis, Finance Minister of Greece in 2015, holds Gibson in Oracular esteem. They met when Varoufakis spoke at the Cambridge Union.
After the Q&A, a finely observed retort from Gibson prompted Varoufakis to invite him to dinner. They parted more than four hours later. Now, they engage in ‘spontaneous brainstorming’.
Gibson can bring out, ‘The essence of the human condition and its links with both abstract mathematical form and the laws of the universe,’ says Varoufakis, adding, ‘Mathematical philosophers of Arthur’s calibre have managed to “sense” their way to a superior understanding of global capitalism…If only economists, suffering from an irrepressible mathematics-envy, had taken their cue from…Professor Gibson, our social economies would have been in considerably better shape today.’
A recent private lunch at Trinity College for Mr and Mrs Mark Carney and two colleagues, led in meetings both with the Master and Stephen Hawking. Such occasions are typical of the, ‘Extensive series of interactions across countries, subjects and peoples,’ that Gibson conducts, ‘To show that deep abstract research is relevant for new solutions with respect to any subject’.
‘Arthur has always been committed to the idea that intelligent people can make a difference in the world of affairs,’ says Bergeron, “In particular people schooled in different disciplines…This is part of the Oxbridge model, but Arthur takes it further. He has truly been able directly to apply the insights of one field to make leaps forward within another.”
Gibson’s latest work is an edition of virgin manuscript and letters by Ludwig Wittgenstein, part of a recently discovered archive. How fitting that, having been spotted by a Wittgenstein acolyte, Gibson should reveal Wittgenstein’s legacy. He suggests a summary of Wittgenstein’s sensibility:
“The truths of logic and mathematics are not self-evident – a statement that appears in Wittgenstein’s unpublished manuscripts.”
Gibson’s own philosophy both differs from and complements Wittgenstein’s. ‘The deep physical reality of the world is counter-intuitive or surprising,’
He explains. “As we enlarge the scope of our knowledge, the identity of the world is constantly asymmetric to itself at different levels, and surprising to itself in ways we do not recognise.”
Gibson then lists certain wrinkles in reality that mock the received canon of scientific laws – “unless we more precisely refine them”. In a deep sense, he argues, ‘The machine of science hasn’t taken account of qualitative identities and original identities that are submerged below the surfaces. We do not yet have the true identities of the pervasive universal properties and the relations of what there is.”
“Great,” I think. “So the laws of science that I learnt at school, that enabled the Industrial Revolution and put man on the Moon, are in fact extraordinary patchwork hand-me-down garments of certain archaic beauty now more conspicuous for their moth holes which make up their greater part. Is a scientist about to have no clothes?”
Gibson threads his conversation with Cassandra-like warnings of impending denouements and unrecognised threats. “It’s as if the world is stuck in the later part of a pre-Armageddon game of paralysed chess,” he says. Does he see himself as a catalyst of salutary paradigm shift?Gibson responds with exquisite subtlety. “I am composing a form of counter-intuitive surprise which will expose original opportunity within the threats. Some threats are “innocently” generated by uses of propaganda that indoctrinate people. For example, Google’s ‘DeepMind’ is not a mind. The identity of the mind is not algorithmic, except where infected by mission creep in which algorithms remould and impoverish patterns of consciousness, generating counterfeit mentality – namely – actual artificial intelligence in humans. Clever counterfeits work well until, like fatigue in a bridge under pressure, or a world banking crisis with a stranglehold on progress and quality, they collapse.”
As Gibson reveals our frail and delusory grasp, he comes on like a sage or hierophant who makes the crooked straight (or less inflexibly crooked), and the rough places plain.
Drugged with ideas, I emerge feeling that I’ve peered through a hole in the time-space continuum and seen the universe anew, and that Gibson himself is one of the very wrinkles in reality that so pre-occupy him.
To be the cleverest man in Britain is ‘not to speak to Gibson’s own view’. More importantly, “Depth and originality both in mind and in life” lie at the heart of his new philosophy. “Cleverness is the least fraction of it,” he says. “Cleverness too readily becomes a polished facade that mirrors the surface of the mind rather than discovers reality.”