The Music of Science

From the beginning of 2012 to the beginning of 2016 I had  a regular column for Intelligent Life, The Economist‘s bimonthly sister magazine. Intelligent life has a homepage for the column here; this is my page for them, with a few extra comments.

In September 2015, to my considerable surprise, this column got me nominated for an Editorial Intelligence Comment Award, alongside the considerably more worthy Phil Ball (@philipcball) and George Monbiot (@georgemonbiot). Phil won — go and read some of his articles here, or his blog here.

The  pieces have their flaws; but they fit together.

The wonder of quasars

January/February 2016

I think this piece may contain the longest sentence I have ever published.

That men and women can, in a few short years, take tiny smidges of data from often ill-behaved instruments around the world and judiciously combine them with a wide range of physical theory – including the demanding mathematical subtleties of general relativity – to form an account of something not only unimagined but unimaginable to anyone without the new mental equipment this joint endeavour provided: that seems to me a source of wonder greater than the vastest of astronomical numbers.

The wizardry of geoengineering

November/December 2015

Clive Hamilton, an Australian philosopher, sometimes invokes the “sorcerer’s apprentice” sequence from Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” to illustrate the dangers of using geoengineering to avert climate change. Told to clean up his master’s chamber of secrets, Mickey enchants a mop and pair of pails. As they set to work the mouse nods off, only to be woken from a reverie of omnipotence by the Stakhanovite mop’s flooding of the workshop. Things are completely out of control when the magus returns, goes Charlton Heston on the waters, and disciplines his errant disciple. The lesson for geoengineering is that there are powers with which the Mickeys of the world should not meddle.

If you accept the nitrogen revolution as a form of geoengineering, though, this story gets stood on its head…

More on nitrogen and geoengineering in The Planet Remade, or in this working paper.

The Atlantic’s expiry date

September/October 2015

Some questions fascinate because they can be answered, others because they can’t be. Knowing how the Atlantic arose falls into the first category; an origin that can, in principle, be unearthed or explained is exciting, one that is for some reason necessarily obscure or unobtainable is by and large not. Questions about where things are headed tend to fall into the second. Clear answers about future events may have practical value, but they have little else to recommend them. The undecidable future, though? That never palls, any more than a seascape can exhaust itself.

I was thinking about this column when I heard that Dave Raup had died, and I tried hard to get his plate-tectonic-resistance into it, but I couldn’t find a way, and I suspect that the column as a whole may have ended up a little unbalanced by my attempts to do so. Indeed it was one of those ones where, looking at it, I am terribly aware of the stuff I didn’t manage to fit in — there should have been a whole lot of J.Tuzo Wilson, too. Aah well.

The lightning inside us

July/August 2015 

Norman Pirie, a brilliantly eccentric biochemist, was one of the first to point out that laboratory studies revealed a continuum between life and death. These two words, he wrote in the 1930s, “still have a very definite meaning when used by poets, knackers or soldiers, but little or none when used to describe the phenomena observed in tissue culture, virus research and kinetic studies on interrelated enzyme systems.” One of the achievements of the school Nick Lane writes about is its application of this idea to the question of the origins of life, suggesting ways in which mineral membranes separating fluids with very different proton concentrations could have given rise to biological systems in which they would eventually be replaced with the sorts of membranes seen in cells today—going from pure geochemistry at the beginning to pure biochemistry at the end, with only the flow of energy constant throughout.

You can find a way to buy Nick Lane’s terrific book The Vital Question here. Pirie, of whom I am rather fond (though would probably have found immensely vexing had I known him) makes a few appearances in Eating the Sun.

Wish upon a sea floor

May/June 2015 

There is a wind that blows from the heart of dying stars, a wind so strong that it reshapes the atoms in its path and drives them out as spindrift into space. This storm-tossed spray spreads out across the galaxy, filling the space between stars. And it settles on everything. It falls on the other stars, and on the nurseries where stars are born. It falls on comets and planets. It falls into puddles. It falls into oceans. And there it settles.

Geological records of supernovae have struck me as fascinating ever since I was introduced to the idea by David Schramm (it strikes me that it might have been the last conversation we had before he died). Reading up on what’s new I was struck by the wonderful specificity of it — this particular bit of this particular rock is what matters. One of the things that’s enjoyable to me about these columns is the way in which, looked back on, I find themes in what I am saying that I’m not really conscious of at the time of writing; that specificity may be one of them — cf the gorgosaurus piece.

The magic of the gravity assist

March/April 2015

To Michael Minovitch the gravity assist was an invention to be owned. To most people it was a discovery which, once made, was just a fact about the world. It is not an uncommon tension in science. There is a time when only one mind has had an idea, at least as far as that mind knows; then there is a time when everyone thinks it. There is something wonderful about both, but the path between them is all too often strewn with arguments about priority and plagiarism, its trajectories and turnabouts far less satisfactory than the routes around the planets.

A delight in writing this was finding online the Voyager Neptune Travel Guide, which was a much valued vade mecum during a few days I will never forget. Less personally Proustian, but of much more use for most people, is Stephen Pyne’s “Voyager: Seeking New Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery“.

After I published this, my friend Bronislaw Szerszynski sent me a poem on the same subject he wrote a little while ago — with his permission, I have put it up on the blog.

Gazing at a Gorgosaurus

January/February 2015 — I actually met the dinosaur in question in London, when she was visiting the Royal Society’s Summer Exhibition before going on display in Manchester.

Gorgosaurus was a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex which, though smaller than its far more famous film-star cousin, was still considerably larger than any carnivore that walks the Earth today. It was an apex predator, a creature on which nothing else preyed. But that did not lead to a trouble-free life. This one, an immature female, had been very much in the wars. She had some fused vertebrae, a withered arm, a bunch of damage to her ribs, a broken leg that had healed. On top of all this, she had a brain tumour. Indeed, scientists who have been studying the fossil suspect that the brain tumour may have been the primary problem…

The flow of history

November/December 2014 — Some thoughts about the history of German rivers, informed by David Blackbourn’s excellent “The Conquest of Nature“, and the lessons that history may have for geoengineers

“No river…needs more than one bed,” Johann Gottfried Tulla declared, and he set about putting the upper Rhine into what he decided was its place. Its course was shortened, its flow quickened, its lines straightened. The process Tulla set in train continued through the 19th century to the 20th, constraining Germany’s rivers more and more.

This column was mostly written, by the way, in the excellent and much missed Old Loyal Britons. I wish there were more pubs in which I felt comfortable writing (The Lord Nelson in Brighton fits the bill, but its a little far off for most purposes)

The life of a designer cell

September/October 2014 — It strikes me in retrospect that this one is, in a way, a companion piece to the one on Iain and cancer from the year before.

Life’s variety hides a deep uniformity. Living things depend on mechanisms machined molecule by molecule, every atom in its place; when the machinery goes wrong, things fall apart. In the meadow as in the wheat field, in the mouse as in the elephant, in the orchid and the lichen and the algal bloom, polymerases try to make perfect copies of genes, ribosomes try to build proteins with unerring exact­itude.

Speaking up for CO2

July/August 2014 — There’s a footnote in “Eating the Sun” about how sad it is that carbon dioxide doesn’t have a more evocative name. This column takes that idea for a bit of a spin

Reduced to the 1:2 ratio of its components, it sounds unremarkable; add to that the knowledge that it is messing up the climate and who could like the stuff? But if the ancients had known of the great cycle whereby plants use carbon dioxide to store the energy in sunlight, and 
humans and other animals return it to the air, they would surely have put it up there with earth, air, fire and water. If it had been part of our sense of the world and our language, its cultural resonance would have echoed through the ages; it would be in Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer, Wordsworth and Goethe. And its role in the foundation of human history might be better appreciated.

What follows will be familiar to readers of “Eating the Sun” — and indeed to readers of “The Planet Remade”, in time to come.

Incidentally, as of now Rosie is no longer editing the column, and it will probably degenerate as a result…

The robot that moved me most

May/June 2014 — an off-cut from the special report on robotics that I did for The Economist

Kaspar is not a sophisticated droid: he wouldn’t be much cop on a production line, vacuuming the floor or helping a bunch of soldiers check out a bomb, as some other robots can. He’s really just a big doll who moves his head and arms in response to controls from a nearby keypad. His body has a range of stereotyped actions; his face is immobile except for small movements in the mouth and eyes. If you are at all spooked by ventriloquists’ dummies, Kaspar could strike you as rather creepy. To many children with autism and related disorders, though, he has proved a source of joy and insight.

Spookily similar

March/April 2014 —  Science makes things that don’t seem the same the same; it makes familiar things unfamiliar, it rewards observation. This column looks at all that in the context of the moon and its origins.

Thoughts on a fire

January/February 2014 — Nice to say a bit about my family — I’ll be back at the house in Wales where my father stared at the fire just after Christmas. If this column works, its because Rosie the editor and I were pretty good about keeping extra bits out of it.

From Bond to beards

November/December 2013 — Lasers aren’t about power, they’re about precision; that is what they offer technology, and that is how they inspire.

Working on this one I was struck by how much I leave out of these columns. Sometimes, as I was this time, I am aware of the problem as I write and edit (where are the “sharks with frickin laser beams”? Where’s the lidar mapping of the forest canopies of the  world, complete with Paul Simon reference to “lasers in the jungle”?). Sometimes it only dawns later: it was actually the illustration to the Iain Banks piece that kicked me in the head and said “You fool — there was a terrific opportunity here to evoke the endless labour of repainting/repairing the Forth railway bridge, Iain’s favourite structure, when describing the DNA stuff”.

Anyway, on lasers in the jungle, if you haven’t heard Peter Gabriel’s cover of Paul Simon’s The Boy in the Bubble, you might like to. It’s rather remarkably good (both the song and the performance)

A deadly gift from the stars

September/October 2013 — A piece sort of about, and sort of for, Iain Banks, putting cancer in a cosmic context.

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.

People have been kind about this piece; I see its shortcomings. There surely should have been a way, for example, of working in the unceasing maintenance of Iain’s beloved Forth Bridge. And I think there’s a beat missing in the last para. But there you go.

Very good other pieces on Banks in the contexts of religion, writing and science fiction: Francis Spufford in The New Humanist ; Simon Ings at Arc; Ken Macleod in The Guardian. And here is me on Iain in a previous century (which I think may have been my first attempt at something like a profile).

Hard to conceive

July/August 2013 — Slightly rant-y piece about the reluctance of people who talk about space colonies to take on the question of reproduction, or perhaps even to think about it. (See also this post on Mainly Martian). Rare among my articles in its use of the technical term “jizzship”.

Do insects weigh more than us?

May/June 2013 — Really an excuse to be effusive about  the

fun of browsing through the works of Vaclav Smil, and experiencing the sublime feeling of a world of unseemly vastness—millions of years, billions of creatures, trillions of watts—that can, for all its inhuman scale, be circumscribed by numbers and clear thought.

The third domain of life

March/April 2013 — Written in the wake of the death of Carl Woese, whose breakthrough “work was not warmly received—in fact it was mostly rejected, ignored or belittled. But it stood the test of time.” Also some questions about archaea that, because they seem fascinating to me, I consider to be under-addressed.

Starshields in the sky

January/February 2013 — A riposte to the idea that if something is actually happening, then it is no longer science fiction. I argue (or at least assert) that SF deals with a

very particular wonder, one associated with transgressing by means of technology boundaries that seemed, until [the 1920s-1950s], firmly set: … the wonder of going further, going faster, going back in time, the wonder of vanquishing death and ignorance, of bending the world to the power of the human mind, and of confronting the strangeness of the inhuman—the alien and the robot.

These days you can do that for real, but that doesn’t mean its not still science-fictional.

An elusive symmetry

November/December 2012 — Contrasting the origins of real-life quasicrystals in outer space with the origin of the idea of quasicrystals in the world of platonic forms, as accessed by the remarkable Roger Penrose. (Bonus: here is Penrose’s excellent Desert Island Discs appearance.)

Dreaming up nature

September/October 2012 — The origins of the concept of the ecosystem. This took much more of my time than a column probably should and I am not sure I nailed it, but the way in which Sir Arthur Tansley got to the concept of the ecosystem through social engagement, Freudian analysis, analogy to physics and the repudiation of holism (a term then fresh-minted by Jan Smuts) seems to me both fascinating and illuminating. Some of my colleagues differed… Earlier drafts had more ents in them.

The sound we can’t hear

July/August 2012 — Taking delight in infrasound:

The sound of the world as a whole may never rival the sight of the Earth from space as an inspiration; that people attend to its unheard sound, though, should add an extra susurrus of wonder to every seeming silence.

The genome gadget

May/June 2012 — Single-molecule sequencing technology demonstrates the “deepest insight to flow from Alan Turing’s work; that both biology and computer technology derive their power from nothing more, or less, miraculous than a string of numbers.” (I think the jury is still out on how well the MinION device used as the peg for this column delivers on its promise, but the basic point still stands).

The beauty of plankton

March/April 2012 — I have yet to write my definitive anti-birdwatching piece, which i have been threatening to write for decades now. This is in part because it would require a performance of anger that I normally don’t actually feel. Anyway, this piece goes some of the way there. And I like the opening:

Like his murderous employee James Bond, the spymaster M is a creature of arbitrary prejudice. But while Bond is mundane and joyless in his racism and snobbery, M’s targets are enjoyably unexpected.

Mars to within a metre

January/February 2012 — This is, in effect, an epilogue to Mapping Mars. “Unlike earlier spacecraft Curiosity is not going into the unknown. It is going to somewhere mapped to the last metre … Its data may surprise; its otherworldly surroundings will not. Every line of sight can be presimulated, every track will be the subject of computerised premonition hundreds of millions of kilometres away.

” To think of Mars now as a place so well known that, while it can offer new knowledge, it promises no new vistas, feels a bit like the passing of an age. [But] Mars is not diminished by becoming ever better known. Earth is ennobled.”

The wonder of KamLAND

This is a bonus: the first column in the sequence, it was never actually published, for scheduling reasons. So this is the first publication.

I’m struck that the idea which that first piece set out — that wonder in the world is a human achievement, not a given — has proved to be a pretty consistent theme of the series. The other theme seems to be teasing apart different notions of what the “world” is, which is pretty unsurprising — it’s what the books do, too. Also unsurprisingly, SF turns up a lot, in its role as a literature devoted to the creation of wonder and the defining of worlds (and, hey, because it’s me).

I hope people enjoy them.

[I’m going to update this page with new material and possibly more commentary as and when, and won’t necessarily point out the edits.]


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