Bloody marvellous

Some of the best pieces here are the most direct. In a riposte to the usual cock-and-balls graffiti found in public toilets, the Hotham Street Ladies have decorated the walls of the gallery’s gents with menstruating uteruses made of icing sugar and sweets.

Visiting the exhibition Blood: Life Uncut for New Scientist, 20 October 2017

The genius of making a little go a long way

One can taste the boosterism in the air at Illuminating India. Someone next to me used the word “Commonwealth” without irony. Would there have been such a spirit without Brexit? Probably not: this is a show about the genius of another country that very much wants to project Britain’s own global aspirations…

Visiting London’s Science Museum for New Scientist, 10 October 2017

Stalin’s meteorologist

I reviewed Olivier Rolin’s new book for The Daily Telegraph

750,000 shot. This figure is exact; the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, kept meticulous records relating to their activities during Stalin’s Great Purge. How is anyone to encompass in words this horror, barely 80 years old? Some writers find the one to stand for the all: an Everyman to focus the reader’s horror and pity. Olivier Rolin found his when he was shown drawings and watercolours made by Alexey Wangenheim, an inmate of the Solovki prison camp in Russia’s Arctic north. He made them for his daughter, and they are reproduced as touching miniatures in this slim, devastating book, part travelogue, part transliteration of Wangenheim’s few letters home.

While many undesirables were labelled by national or racial identity, a huge number were betrayed by their accomplishments. Before he was denounced by a jealous colleague, Wangenheim ran a pan-Soviet weather service. He was not an exceptional scientist: more an efficient bureaucrat. He cannot even be relied on “to give colourful descriptions of the glories of nature” before setting sail, with over a thousand others, for a secret destination, not far outside the town of Medvezhegorsk. There, some time around October 1937, a single NKVD officer dispatched the lot of them, though he had help with the cudgelling, the transport, the grave-digging. While he went to work with his Nagant pistol, others were washing blood and brains off the trucks and tarpaulins.

Right to the bitter end, Wangenheim is a boring correspondent, always banging on about the Party. “My faith in the Soviet authorities has in no way been shaken” he says. “Has Comrade Stalin received my letter?” And again: “I have battled in my heart not to allow myself to think ill of the Soviet authorities or of the leaders”. Rolin makes gold of such monotony, exploiting the degree to which French lends itself to lists and repeated figures, and his translator Ros Schwartz has rendered these into English that is not just palatable, but often thrilling and always freighted with dread.

When Wangenheim is not reassuring his wife about the Bolshevik project, he is making mosaics out of stone chippings and brick dust: meticulous little portraits of — of all people — Stalin. Rolin openly struggles to understand his subject’s motivation: “In any case, blinkeredness or pathetic cunning, there is something sinister about seeing this man, this scholar, making of his own volition the portrait of the man in whose name he is being crucified.”

That Rolin finds a mystery here is of a piece with his awkward nostalgia for the promise of the Bolshevik revolution. Hovering like a miasma over some pages (though Rolin is too smart to succumb utterly) is that hoary old meme, “the revolution betrayed”. So let us be clear: the revolution was not betrayed. The revolution panned out exactly the way it was always going to pan out, whether Stalin was at the helm or not. It is also exactly the way the French revolution panned out, and for exactly the same reason.

Both French and Socialist revolutions sought to reinvent politics to reflect the imminent unification of all branches of human knowledge, and consequently, their radical simplification. By Marx’s day this idea, under the label “scientism”, had become yawningly conventional: also wrong.

Certainly by the time of the Bolshevik revolution, scientists better than Wangenheim — physicists, most famously — knew that the universe would not brook such simplification, neither under Marx nor under any other totalising system. Rationality remains a superb tool with which to investigate the world. But as a working model of the world, guiding political action, it leads only to terror.

To understand Wangenheim’s mosaic-making, we have to look past his work, diligently centralising and simplifying his own meteorological science to the point where a jealous colleague, deprived of his sinecure, denounced him. We need to look at the human consequences of this attempt at scientific government, and particularly at what radical simplification does to the human psyche. To order and simplify life is to bureaucratise it, and to bureaucratise human beings is make them behave like machines. Rolin says Wangenheim clung to the party for the sake of his own sanity. I don’t doubt it. But to cling to any human institution, or to any such removed and fortressed individual, is the act, not of a suffering human being but of a malfunctioning machine.

At the end of his 1940 film The Great Dictator Charles Chaplin, dressed in Adolf Hitler’s motley, broke the fourth wall to declare war on the “machine men with machine minds” that were then marching roughshod across his world. Regardless of Hitler’s defeat, this was a war we assuredly lost. To be sure the bureaucratic infection, like all infections, has adapted to ensure its own survival, and it is not so virulent as it was. The pleasures of bureaucracy are more evident now; its damages, though still very real, are less evident. “Disruption” has replaced the Purge. The Twitter user has replaced the police informant.

But let us be explicit here, where Rolin has been admirably artful and quietly insidious: the pleasures of bureaucracy in both eras are exactly the same. Wangenheim’s murderers lived in a world that had been made radically simple for them. In Utopia, all you have to do is your job (though if you don’t, Utopia falls apart). These men weren’t deprived of humanity: they were relieved of it. They experienced exactly what you or I feel when the burden of life’s ambiguities is lifted of a sudden from our shoulders: contentment, bordering on joy.

A kind of “symbol knitting”

Mathematics began when practical thinkers like Archimedes decided to ignore naysayers like Zeno (whose paradoxes were meant to bury mathematics, not to praise it) and deal with nonsenses like pi and the square root of 1. How do such monstrosities yield such sensible results? Because mathematics is magical. Deal with it.

Reviewing new books by Paul Lockhart and Ian Stewart for The Spectator 

This way lies madness

Hellblade is more than a journey through a hallucinatory landscape (and hallucinatory it is, passing from flaming killing fields through sun-kissed meadows to a corridor of withered arms). It’s about a rational hero desperately trying to make sense of her world. “Most of us are pretty bad at that,” Fletcher points out.

Playing Hellblade for New Scientist, 29 August 2017

 

I know why the caged bird sings, so nuts to you

Prince Hamlet of Denmark is out to revenge his father – at least, that’s the idea. But William Shakespeare has saddled him with a girlfriend, Ophelia, and her father Polonius, an interfering old fool. A Pantalone, in other words: a man (by tradition, but the gender’s immaterial) who is losing his grip on affairs of which he was once the master. With age, the Pantalone’s sphere of action and influence becomes comically reduced. What was once a voice of authority has become a bark of comic impotence.

I’m at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock) is playing the prince, but it’s Polonius has me fascinated. The British character actor Peter Wight isn’t playing him for a fool, but as someone suffering from mid-stage Alzheimer’s. His mood swings wildly about, his silences are painful, his recollections pathetic victories snatched against the coming dark.

Wight’s portrayal is meticulous, sincere, and timely. Old age may not be a disease but it’s certainly a genetic condition, and one by one, elements of that condition are succumbing to medical research. This has had the disconcerting effect of curing all the easy diseases in order that we may bankrupt ourselves treating the recalcitrant ones. Rates of terminal cancer have plummeted, only to expose us to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

It looks like we’re all going to live to 100 before we drop dead. This pleases me, because I want to become the character described by the Athenian lawyer Solon 2,600 years ago: “so wise that he no longer wastes time on useless things, and this enables him to formulate his profoundest insights most succinctly.”

The trouble is that only a couple of hundred years after Solon, Aristotle came up with this charming formula: the old, he said, live by memory rather than by hope. Sure they have a lot of experience, but this means they are sure about nothing and under-do everything. They are small-minded because they have been humbled by life. As a result, they are driven too much by the useful and not enough by the noble. They are cynical and distrustful and neither love warmly nor hate bitterly. They are not shy. On the contrary, they’re shameless, feeling only contempt for people’s opinion of them.

Aristotle knew what a pantalone was, and he knew that being a pantalone was nothing to do with disease or infirmity. It was, and is, to do with the passing of time.

By the time I’m a hale and hearty 100, what kind of monster will I have become? Always voting the way I’ve voted; always writing the same kind of novel about the same kind of people using the same kind of dialogue; always dating the same kinds of people and always messing them up in the same sorts of ways; bringing up the same kinds of children and saddling them with the same hang-ups.

Would I want to live for ever? Probably. I just wouldn’t want to remain human forever. I don’t want to be “better than human” or “superhuman” or any of that rubbish (what does that even mean?) What I want is simple and, thanks to the passage of time, quite impossible. I want to be not bored. I want to be not burdened by experience. I want to be unfazed by life.

I realise now that I don’t know nearly enough about how other animals think. I need to read more Sy Montgomery. I need to read Marc Bekoff and John Bradshaw. I need to know what my options are, just in case the triumphant effort to healthify old age tips suddenly towards affording us everlasting life.

My best bet right now is the cockatoo. If you treat a cockatoo properly, it’ll stay a three-year-old child forever – and that’s a long time: cockatoos live into their sixties.

Don’t let me be a pompous ass, a fussy, fond old fool. Don’t make me a gull, a mark, a slippered pantalone. Let me become something else, something less than human if needs be, but better adapted to forever.

Who’s a pretty boy then?

I am

Listening to DX17

Here and there, two beams intersect, and through your headphones, two audio samples blend. As you step away from a light source, the voice in your headphones – an airman’s memoir, instructions to ground staff, a loved one’s letter, a child’s recollections – slowly fade.

It wasn’t until they were testing their system that Malikides came across the pre-history of this “li-fi” tech. Alexander Graham Bell invented it, using sunlight and a deformable mirror to send sound information across space.

Visiting IWM Duxford for New Scientist, 5 July 2017. The artist Nick Ryan showed me round his new sound sculpture, DX17.

Skin-shuddering intimacy

The rule used to be that if you wanted to study something you went out and shot it: the rifle was as much part of your kit as your magnifying glass. The Maoris of Polynesia, aware of the value Western visitors put on souvenirs, used to catch people, tattoo their faces, decapitate them and sell their heads to collectors. The draughtsman aboard Charles Darwin’s ship the Beagle had a travel box lined with the tattooed skin of dead Maori warriors.

Visiting Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, National Maritime Museum, Falmouth for New Scientist, 1 July 2017