My Intelligent Life column on Iain’s fateful cosmic context is up here. Excerpt
Iain Banks lived for 21,662 days—the only number in any of this of which we can be certain. There are a good 10 trillion cells in a human body, maybe more. The number of times his DNA was damaged was thus in the same ballpark as the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. It’s a number that outdoes the number of stars in the galaxy by a factor of a billion.
And here are some other pieces on Banks, in the contexts of religion, writing and science fiction, by friends of his and mine: Francis Spufford in The New Humanist ; Simon Ings at Arc; Ken Macleod in The Guardian.
I notice that the Oscar prediction season has started. I can understand why this is of no interest to many sane people, but I quite enjoy it. And I may enjoy it even more this year (though that will depend to a certain extent on the movies…) This is because last year, as I blogged, the excellent Kris Tapley told his podcast sparring-partner Anne Thompson that “There’s no way to Nate Silver this kind of thing” — and this year Nate Silver plans to Nate Silver not just this kind of thing, but the thing itself.
His track record is held by some to suggest that he won’t do very well. But it seems to me that the way to measure his predictions is not against the outcome per se, but against other people making predictions, such as those pooled together at the Gurus o’ Gold site. Last year the statistical model put together by Ben Zauzmer did better than half the gurus and not as well as the other half, though this was because he felt there was insufficient data to call some of the races: on the races he called, Ben did as well as one of the better gurus. I suspect that, with more experience, more resources and quite a strong incentive to shine Nate Silver may do better than Ben.
So my metaprediction is that, if Silver chooses to predict all of the races, or a large majority of them, he will beat most of the gurus, but not all of them; the best of the gurus will do better. My further prediction is that if he keeps it up over five years, no single human predictor will beat him continuously.
And while I am at it, I predict that the predictinator will predict that Gravity will win the special effects oscar — and that it will be right.
A colleague asked me today if there was a word for planets that only have one landscape — places like Trantor, the city-planet that ruled Isaac Asimov’s Galactic Empire, or Arrakis, the desert-planet of Dune. These are a very widespread feature of science fiction, and frequently look like symptoms of limited imaginative investment: planets as a single type of place photocopied many times over and pasted onto the face of a very large sphere. In other hands, though, they can work rather well; the fact that all of Arrakis is a desert, one richly imagined, actually adds a great deal to the atmosphere of Dune, even if the ecosystem is a little hard to take seriously.
Thinking about it, I realised that, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t. Tvtropes offers “single-biome planet“, but that doesn’t have quite the right feel for a term of art to be used by fans and critics alike. So I asked a few friends by twitter, and the magnificent Roz Kaveney came up trumps with the word “monocosm”. A monocosm is any big, free-standing thing — often a planet, but possibly something else — based on a single idea or effect. Trantor and Arrakis are planetary monocosms in the most obvious way. See also Hoth and Tatooine.
More subtly (though this may be the only way in which it is subtle), Pyrrus, in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, is a monocosm of affect rather than landscape, being a planet of danger. The Space Merchants is a monocosm of consumerism. Part of the success of Avatar 2 may lie in the degree to which Pandora is revealed not to be a monocosm. Is Escher’s Print gallery a monocosm? And so on.
It seems to me that this is a word that does something which other words have not, so far, been doing, and thus adds to our abilities to express ourselves. So there it is, a gift to the world, for use in criticism, essays and discussion in convention bars: the monocosm, a Kaveneologism.
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One and half shots of Pincer botanical vodka
Shot of fresh lime juice
Half shot of St Germain
Half shot of Gomme Syrup
Dash of pastis (I used Henri Bardouin)
Shake over ice, pour into a large wine glass with a few ice cubes, add prosecco.
I don’t often note down a cocktail I have busked, but this (obviously in the Southside Fizz/French 75 family) really wowed me.
In general, I heartily recommend Pincer. I’ve had it neat and in a variety of off-dry martinis where it has excelled. A sugar cube soaked with Peychaud’s bitters and a shot of Pincers is a very good basis for a champagne cocktail. My only problem with Pincers is that the bottle is sillily dark and stops me from seeing how much I have left.
Update: I always meant to call this cocktail the Deeply Summery, but for some reason this post originally called in merely Deep. It is actually fully adverbially Deeply
Poole’s phrases “recent nature writing” and “nature writers” amount to an indiscriminate homogenisation; current nature writing is the broadest of secular churches. Oliver Morton’s engaging personal saunter through the world of photosynthesis, Eating the Sun, for example, might be more properly labelled imaginative science writing, just as Robert Macfarlane‘s literal wanderings in his masterpiece The Old Ways is really imaginative travel literature.
Quite how well I fit there, though, I don’t know. I was thinking of exploring the matter in a blog post, but then realised that to quite a large extent I have already done so on this very blog, responding to a 2007 piece by MacFarlane that talks about the essence of nature writing.
Eating the Sun is definitely “in search of some version of ‘nature’”, and it is more of a first-person narrative than I necessarily expected it to be. But it does not share “a passionate engagement with ‘the land’”. Indeed rather the reverse. One of its original aims, which I think is probably fulfilled to some extent, but perhaps not as explicitly as it might have been, was to celebrate air as the basis of life — which it is for plants and thus, indirectly, for us. One aspect of this is to encourage an appreciation that the air is universal where the land is particular — the carbon taken in by trees in Brazil has come in part from your lungs and mine, the carbon taken in by the rose on my terrace has come from all the lungs of the world, not to mention coals that have sat buried for a million centuries.
One of my reasons for writing about photosyntheses was specifically this — that it was a way to talk about the living earth that did not have to be a way of talking about specific places (though there are specific places in the book, some of which I love deeply). I find ideologies of land and rootedness worrying intellectually and hard to partake in emotionally; I suspect them of being innately regressive and conservative. One of the great opportunities of the current carbon/climate crisis is to create what might be called an ideology of air — of valuing and caring for something common to all and intrinsically global, and of creating a passionate engagement with the open sky and the endless sun.
That still holds pretty true, and I am struck, re-reading it, by how well the ideology-of-air stuff at the end sits remarkably with my current conception of what the geoengineering book needs to do.
A passage from Eating the Sun takes on a similar set of distinctions:
I am not as sensitive as I might be to the subtleties of place. I lack a capacity for the sure recognition and the ready retention of names and distinctive detail. Learning to parse the shapes of leaves or the textures of rocks does not come easily to me, and I have never lived long enough in a non-urban landscape for such things to have seeped in through the capillaries of unattended observation. Given all this, the belief that life’s nature needs to be captured at the levels of the molecule and the planet—at levels perceived by the intellect and not the senses—provides me with some succour. It is far more abstracted than traditional ways of feeling close to nature; it is argued more than absorbed. Yet though it doesn’t grow out of the experience of life in the world, I find that it still serves to enrich that experience and to render it more profound. It ties the sky to the seed and the rain to the rock in a way the details of rustic experience cannot. I can see that there is something sad about a oneness with the world that can be felt as easily—sometimes more easily—from the window seat of an hermetically sealed and environmentally damaging passenger jet than when sitting on a riverbank and picking out the trout swimming upstream. But for all that this belief is a creature of the mind, rather than a sentiment grounded in birdsong and summer scents, it has meaning to me that I cannot reduce to analysis and it has the power to move me. And I think it can enhance more traditional forms of empathy with nature. It enriches the way I see trees on a scarp, or grass in the wind, or moss on a cliff, or a star in the sky, even though I can rarely recognise the species, rocks or constellations I may be looking at. A sense of planet can amplify a sense of place.
So I am not entirely sure I really belong there — but I am more than happy to be included in Mabey’s broad church, and flattered to be singled out. As long as no one minds that I don’t know the scriptures or when to genuflect.
I have a paper up on the Geoengineering Our Climate site about “nitrogen geoengineering”. It argues that there is at least a case for seeing the human takeover of the nitrogen cycle as an act of geoengineering, and that — to some extent independently of whether you accept that case — the nitrogen takeover has lessons for people with an interest in geoengineering the climate. Some of this material will end up in chapter six of my book (eventually..) though in rather different form (which makes it worth noting that , although this is not explicitly stated on the geoengineeringourclimate.com site, I retain the copyright.)
Some people (including one referee on the paper) have responded by saying that if industrial nitrogen fertilization counts as geoengineering, then so do various other agricultural innovations, and indeed agriculture itself. I can accept that there is perhaps a continuum here, but I think its worth noting that: the nitrogen revolution depends on a specific technological breakthrough which was actively sought due to scientific and political concern about a global problem; it was implemented not in a purely bottom up way but at least in part as an act of deliberate geopolitical policy (“the green revolution”); and it has had effects on the earth system that were global in their significance. To me this all marks it out as being more akin to a piece of geoengineering than anything that had gone before, and indeed anything since.
In what ways can this historical analogue inform debates about climate geoengineering? First, it offers an existence proof. It is possible for humans to identify a global problem, create a technology that addresses that problem, and deploy it on a global scale.
It also shows that the scope of such an intervention can greatly outstrip its progenitors’ plans, and perhaps their imaginations. While Sir William Crookes did not put specific numbers on the amount of nitrogen he felt was needed when he raised the issue as president of the British Association, the scale of today’s nitrogen industry and its effects surely far outstrips the consequences he expected. This suggests that those imagining possible futures for climate engineering should take care that they imagine applications of the technology well beyond the minimum that seems to be required—not as necessary endpoints to the programme, but as plausible ones.
There are other aspects of nitrogen geoengineering that climate geoengineers should be aware of. One is that it is deployed inefficiently. Most of the deliberately fixed nitrogen does not get into crops; Vaclav Smil estimates that the overall efficiency of the global food system seen this way is less than 15%. The wasted nitrogen is not just a loss; it often does harm. Over-fertilized soils produce nitrous oxide, which destroys stratospheric ozone and is also powerful greenhouse gas. Nitrate-bearing run-off waters from agricultural watersheds stimulate algal blooms and “dead zones” in coastal seas. While nitrogen fixation has made the world more habitable by humans—more precisely, habitable by more humans—than it could be in a state of nature, it has also done significant damage to biodiversity, human health and ecosystem services in the process.
As I said, the whole thing is here. Feedback welcome, as ever.
You can imagine the start of a climate geoengineering programme in a number of ways. The way that most appeals to me is as part of a policy portfolio aimed at reducing the future risks of climate change. This would entail careful consideration of a variety of proposals for reducing incoming sunlight, research into the weaknesses of all of them and the choice of a preferred option. Then, if as the result of a deliberative process that has been going on in parallel to this, with each informing the other, you — for a suitably inclusive, legitimate value of “you” — decide that such risk management is worth trying you start implementing on such a programme, with the aim of slowly but steadily ramping up to the level of offset you have decide is wise, while continuing with other mitigation and adaptation measures.
On the other hand, a programme might be triggered by a specific event — for example, something sudden and dire happening in the Arctic. Some such events (lots of methane coming out of permafrost) might indeed be checked by prompt cooling, though you might need rather a lot of it. Other catastrophes (radical destabilisation of Greenland ice) probably wouldn’t be helped at all. But such an emergency might trigger demands for prompt climate action that politicians found hard to ignore, and climate geoengineering might be the prompt action they turned to whether or not it met the needs of the specific emergency.
I’ve always seen this as a rather worrying scenario. Much better to think carefully about climate geoengineering’s merits and dangers and build it into a portfolio of climate action than to be bounced into it as some sort of new alternative. Among other drawbacks, a programme put together in the context of a climate emergency might have to be sized so as to deliver a dramatic effect — one with a cooling that might be measured in watts per square metre, rather than something a tenth that size — right away. This seems likely to be imprudent.
A new paper by Jim Haywood and colleagues at the Met Office and the University of Exeter in Nature Climate Change brings up a new version of this question, though, one which I find intriguing. What about the use of geoengineering to counteract a natural, rather than man-made, climatic event? Continue reading