Choose-your-own adventure

Reading The Importance of Small Decisions by Michael O’Brien, R. Alexander Bentley and William Brock for New Scientist, 13 April 2019

What if you could map all kinds of human decision-making and use it to chart society’s evolution?

This is what academics Michael O’Brien, Alexander Bentley and William Brock try to do in The Importance of Small Decisions. It is an attempt to expand on a 2014 paper, “Mapping collective behavior in the big-data era”, that they wrote in Behavioral and Brain Sciences . While contriving to be somehow both too short and rambling, it bites off more than it can chew, nearly chokes to death on the ins and outs of group selection, and coughs up its best ideas in the last 40 pages.

Draw a graph. The horizontal axis maps decisions according to how socially influenced they are. The vertical axis tells you how clear the costs and pay-offs are for each decision. Rational choices sit in the north-western quadrant of the map. To the north-east, bearded capuchins teach each other how to break into palm nuts in a charming example of social learning (pictured). Twitter storms generated by fake news swirl about the south-east.

The more choices you face, the greater the cognitive load. The authors cite economist Eric Beinhocker, who in The Origin of Wealth calculated that human choices had multiplied a hundred million-fold in the past 10,000 years. Small and insignificant decisions now consume us.

Worse, costs and pay-offs are increasingly hidden in an ocean of informational white noise, so that it is easier to follow a trend than find an expert. “Why worry about the underlying causes of global warming when we can see what tens of millions of our closest friends think?” ask the authors, building to a fine, satirical climax.

In an effort to communicate widely, the authors have, I think, left out a few too many details from their original paper. And a mid-period novel by Philip K. Dick would paint a more visceral picture of a world created by too much information. Still, there is much fun to be had reading the garrulous banter of these three extremely smart academics.

Come on, Baggy, get with the beat!

Reading The Evolving Animal Orchestra: In search of what makes us musical by Henkjan Honing for New Scientist, 6 April 2019

The perception, if not the enjoyment, of musical cadences and of rhythm,” wrote Darwin in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, “is probably common to all animals.”

Henkjan Honing has tested this eminently reasonable idea, and in his book, The Evolving Animal Orchestra, he reports back. He details his disappointment, frustration and downright failure with such wit, humility and a love of the chase that any young person reading it will surely want to run away to become a cognitive scientist.

No culture has yet been found that doesn’t have music, and all music shares certain universal characteristics: melodies composed of seven or fewer discrete pitches; a regular beat; a limited sequence of rhythmic patterns. All this would suggest a biological basis for musicality.

A bird flies with regular beats of its wings. Animals walk with a particular rhythm. So you might expect beat perception to be present in everything that doesn’t want to falter when moving. But it isn’t. Honing describes experiments that demonstrate conclusively that we are the only primates with a sense of rhythm, possibly deriving from advanced beat perception.

Only strongly social animals, he writes, from songbirds and parrots to elephants and humans, have beat perception. What if musicality was acquired by all prosocial species through a process of convergent evolution? Like some other cognitive scientists, Honing now wonders whether language might derive from music, in a similar way to how reading uses much older neural structures that recognise contrast and sharp corners.

Honing must now test this exciting hypothesis. And if The Evolving Animal Orchestra is how he responds to disappointment, I can’t wait to see what he makes of success.

The most blatantly artificial landscape in Europe

Why do the Lakes generate such strong feeling? Because they’re endangered? Or because they’re already spoiled? Spoiled how? By afforestation, by sheep, by the clumsy application of preservationist aspic? They’re not what they were, on this we can agree. But what were they? At Windermere Jetty, alongside elements of familiar Lakeland lore — steam kettles, childhood boating holidays, Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat mounted on one wall — other, more disconcerting aspects of the region are revealed: the Lakes as mining region, as testbed for new technologies, as strenuously guarded zone of wartime production…

Mucking about on Windermere for FT Magazine, 31 March 2019

“Bloody useless at objects. Bloody brilliant at space”

Playing Lunatick by Antony Gormley and Priyamvada Natarajan for New Scientist, 27 March 2019

VISIT The Store X, a venue for art and design in London’s West End, and you are in for quite a journey. Wearing an HTC Vive headset, you are given an island to explore in Lunatick, a glossy, game-like virtual-reality experience that starts at Kiribati in Micronesia. For a while, you have the run of the place by means of hand controllers, although producers Acute Art plans to use EEG to let you control it with your thoughts.

Don’t get too comfortable. Wandering past a stone platform triggers the space elevator. It lifts you gently off your feet, then propels you through the stratosphere. This long, beautiful and increasingly uncanny transit carries you into the void between the moon and Earth.

Take a breath. Look around you. The geometrical relationship between the sun, Earth and its moon unwinds around you as time skews and the moon swells. Before you know it, you are skating around lunar crater rims, plummeting into craters, flying high, until, losing control again, you are flung into the sun.

Lunatick is the first joint work by British artist Antony Gormley and astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan from Yale University. Natarajan visualises the accretion history of black holes, and maps the granularity of dark matter by studying the way it bends light – a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. But she couldn’t resist the idea of giving space a sensual dimension by making the vastness and loneliness of the cosmos tangible.

Artist and scientist bonded over their early love of science fiction. H. G. Wells’s 1901 novel The First Men in the Moonwas Natarajan’s contribution: a fictional journey powered by the mysterious gravity-less mineral cavorite. Gormley, in his turn, recalled C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy that began with Out of the Silent Planet, in which a man travels the solar system pinned in a coffin.

Both influences emerge clearly enough in Lunatick, but the real star of the show isn’t fictional: it is the flyable lunar terrain wrestled into shape by Rodrigo Marques, Acute Art’s chief technology officer, from data sent back by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. “There’s something both moving and funny about skating over the surface of the moon,” says Gormley. “I’ve got very fond of skiing along the ridges then down into the crater bottoms.”

Gormley’s art is popular globally, not least because people find it easy to grasp. Never mind the cosmological and philosophical dimensions: what strikes the viewer is how he renders, in solid matter, the building blocks of our lives.

Gormley has been making sculptural art out of wireframes and voxels (three-dimensional pixels), even as architects and games designers having been moving away from model-making into a purely virtual 3D design space. “Until recently, I had no idea what a voxel was,” says Gormley, who has spent more than five years making oddly expressive low-resolution sculptures assembled from cubes and cuboids. His wireframe experiments (assembled from real wires and rods) are older still, dating back to the late 1990s.

Why has Gormley chosen to enter the virtual realm now? First, Lunatick was a chance to explore a medium that, he says, is “bloody useless at objects and bloody brilliant at space”. Objects, ultimately, are bodies: VR is hobbled because it can’t convey their mass and tactility. But space is different. We perceive space primarily through seeing, which means VR can convey scale and immensity to a sublime degree.

But why should an artist best known for exploring the sculptural possibilities of the human body (particularly his own) be keen on disembodied space? The image of body-as-spaceship crops up intermittently in Gormley’s work, but rarely so urgently. He says he is haunted by an image of long-haul flight, where the shutters are down and everyone is watching movies: virtual versions of human life.

“I want this piece to say to people, ‘Break out!’,” he says. “Of course we get very obsessed with human matters. But there are bigger affairs out there. Recognise your cosmic identity!”

The three-dimensional page

Robert Fludd’s black square from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617-21), depicts the void immediately prior to creation. Et sic in infinitum (“And so on to infinity”) run the words on each side of this eloquent blank. Thinking 3D explores territories where words tangle incoherently and only pictures will suffice — then leaps giggling into a void where rational enquiry collapses and only artworks and acts of mischief like Fludd’s manage to convey anything at all.

Visiting Thinking 3D: Leonardo to the present at Oxford’s Weston Library for the Financial Times, 20 March 2019

Teeth and feathers

Visiting T. rex: The ultimate predator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for New Scientist, 13 March 2019

PALAEONTOLOGY was never this easy. Reach into a bin and pick up a weightless fossil bone hardly smaller than you are. Fling it into the air, in roughly the direction indicated by the glowing orange light. It fixes in place above you with a satisfying click. Add more bones. You are recreating the head of the most fearsome predator known to natural history: Tyrannosaurus rex. Once it is complete, the skull you have made makes this point nicely – by coming after you.

The American Museum of Natural History is 150 years old this year. One of its collectors, Barnum Brown, discovered the first fossil remains of the predator in Montana in 1902. So the museum has made T. rex the subject of its first exhibition celebrating the big anniversary.

The game I was playing, T. rex: Skeleton crew, is also the museum’s first foray into virtual reality. It is a short, sweet, multiplayer game that, if it doesn’t convey much scientific detail, nonetheless gives the viewer a glimpse of the first great puzzle palaeontologists confront: how to put scattered remains together. It also gives a real sense of the beast’s size: a fully grown T. rex (and they could live into their late 20s) was more than 12 metres long and weighed 15 tonnes.

An extended version of this game, for home use, will feature a full virtual gallery tour. It has been put together by the Vive arm of tech firm HTC. Early on, in its project to establish a name in the cultural sector, the company decided not to compete with the digital realm’s top dog, Google Arts & Culture. Google, at least until recently, has tended to brand its efforts quite heavily because it brings a wealth of big data to its projects.

HTC Vive, by contrast, works behind the scenes with museums, cultural organisations and artists to realise relatively modest projects. By letting the client take the lead, it is learning faster than most what the VR medium can do. It cut its teeth on an explorable 3D rendering of Modigliani’s studio in the Tate Modern in London in 2017 and created an immersive exploration of Claude Monet’s approach to painting in The Water Lily Obsession, now a permanent feature at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The trick, it seems, is to focus, to make immersion and physical sensation the point of each piece. Above all, the idea is to slow down. VR isn’t a traditional teaching aid. The Monet project in particular revealed how good VR is at conveying craft knowledge.

But if, instead, a VR installation delivers a brief, memorable, even magical experience, this, too, has value. Skeleton crew is a powerful prompt to the imagination. It isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, the star of this show. The models are the real draw here. Traditionally fashioned life-size renderings of tyrannosaurs big and small, scaled, tufted and sometimes fully feathered, their variety reflecting the explosion of palaeobiological research that has transformed our understanding of millions of years of Mesozoic fauna over the past 20 years. We can now track trace chemicals in the material surrounding a fossil so precisely that we even know the colour of some species’ eggs.

T. rex: The ultimate predator certainly delivers on its brash, child-friendly title. Terrifying facts abound. T. rex‘s jaws had a maximum bite force 10 times that of an alligator – enough not just to break bone, but to burst it into swallowable splinters.

But the really impressive thing about the show are the questions it uses to convey the sheer breadth of palaeontology. What did T. rex sound like? No one knows, but here are a mixing desk and some observations about how animals vocalise: go figure. Is this fossil a juvenile T. rex or a separate species? Here is a summary of the arguments: have a think.

Staged in a huge cavern-like hall, with shadow-puppet predators and prey battling for dear life, T. rex: The ultimate predator will wow families. Thankfully, it is also a show that credits their intelligence.

This God has taste

The Guardian spiked this one: a review of I am God by Giacomo Sartori, translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall (Restless Books)

This sweet, silly, not-so-shallow entertainment from 2016 ( Sono Dio, the first of Giacomo Sartori’s works to receive an English translation) takes an age before naming its young protagonist. For ages, she’s simply “the tall one”; sometimes, “the sodomatrix” (she inseminates cattle for a living).

Her name is Daphne, “a militant atheist who spends her nights trying to sabotage the Vatican website,” and she ekes out a precarious professional living in the edgeland laboratories of post-industrial Italy. The narrator sketches her relationship with her stoner dad and her love triangle with Lothario (or Apollo, or Randy — it doesn’t really matter) and his diminutive girlfriend. His eye is sharp: at one point we get to glimpse “the palm of [Daphne’s] hand moving over [Lothario’s] chest as if washing a window.” But the narrator keeps slipping off the point into a welter of self-absorbed footnotes. Daphne interests him — indeed, he’s besotted — but really he’s more interested in himself. And no wonder. As he never tires of repeating, with an ever more desperate compulsion: “I am God”.

This is a God with time on his hands. Not for him a purely functional creation with “trees of shapeless gelatin broth, made of a revolting goo like industrial waste. Neon lights that suddenly flick off, instead of sunsets.” This God has taste.

Why, then, does he find himself falling for such an emotionally careless mortal as Daphne? Could it be “that this gimpy human language hasn’t already contaminated me with some human germ…?” Sly comic business ensues as, with every word He utters, God paints Himself further into a corner it will take a miracle to escape.

The author Giacomo Sartori is a soil specialist turned novelist and one of the founders of Nazione Indiana, a blog and cultural project created to give voice to Italy’s literary eccentrics. Italy’s stultifying rural culture has been his main target up to now. Here, though, he’s taking shots at humanity in general: “They’re such hucksters,” he sighs, from behind the novel’s divine veil, “so reliably unpredictable, immoral and nuts that anyone observing them is soon transfixed.”

Of course, Sartori’s theological gags could be read just as easily as the humdrum concerns of a writer falling under the spell of their characters. But there’s much to relish in the way God comes to appreciate more deeply the lot of his favourite playthings, “telling a million stories, twisting the facts, philosophizing, drowning in their own words. All vain efforts; unhappy they are, unhappy they remain.”

Slightly fleshy, slightly scabby, cast adrift

Exploring Matthew Day Jackson’s show Pathetic Fallacy at Hauser & Wirth Somerset for the Times Literary Supplement, 26 February 2019

The New York-based artist Matthew Day Jackson takes mixed media seriously. Behind the techniques and materials, the molten lead and the axe handles, the T-shirts and laser-etched Formica, Jackson’s aesthetic sees the world not as a continuum but as a mass of odd juxtapositions. Since his first big solo show in 2004, he has intertwined the grotesque and the beautiful. Every ten years, he paints a picture of himself as a corpse, but the majority of his work is mischievous, holding the autobiographical and the cerebral in an uneasy balance.

Hauser and Wirth, an international gallery with a strong educational remit, regularly brings its spikier artists to its property in Bruton, Somerset, to stay, work and reflect. The residencies come without strings, there are no prescribed outcomes, and one suspects there’s a certain mischief in who gets chosen. First to arrive, in 2014, was the (intermittently scary) video artist Pipilotti Rist. Seduced by her surroundings, she came up with sensuously observed close-ups of bodies and leaves in intimate proximity. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But it’s a risk for the gallery, and a challenge for the artists who stay here, that the landscape round about is so ridiculously seductive.

Showing next door to Matthew Day Jackson, Eve, an exhibition of paintings by the Somerset-based artist Catherine Goodman, is unashamedly paradisal. Even its edge of Freudian melancholy proves heartwarming in the end.

What on earth will Jackson, a cerebral city-dwelling proponent of an aesthetic he dubs the “horriful”, do with all this serried loveliness? He says that at first he found the landscape hard to read. “It’s more like urban space”, he says. “Everywhere you look, you can trace how humans have engaged with this place.” He can’t get over the time-worn depth of the lanes here. There’s no equivalent back home: “Maybe in Oregon and Wyoming, you can find tracks still rutted by wagon wheels”.

Predictably, for an artist who’s spent his career mapping the failures of American utopianism, Jackson has responded to the beauty around him by mourning its passing. His Solipsist collage-paintings of silk-screened Formica zoom out to encompass large swathes of the planet. Seen from various orbital viewpoints (the images are based on photographs taken by NASA astronauts) four elements emerge. Mine workings strip the Earth back to, well, its earth. The hopelessly polluted Ganges and the virtually vanished Ural Sea stand for water. Smoke plumes from forest fires give a shape to air. Yellowstone Lake inhabits a caldera that, if it erupted, would consume most life on Earth.

Each landscape, weirdly colourized (“Formica limits your colour palette”), laser etched with precise contours and subtle, uninterpretable boundary lines, resembles a computer-readable map. “Over” it (or, to be literal about this, embedded in it) is the flattened image of a satellite, made of cast lead.

The fact that the satellite observing the view is itself melted into the picture suggests a colossal foreshortening. There’s something suggestive of Jean Dubuffet, too, in the way the texture of the satellite is employed to convey a radical flatness. There’s no shade here, no occlusion, no hint of curvature. Human activity and human destiny are being measured and metricized to the point where even the planet has nowhere to turn.

Jackson’s flower paintings in the next room continue the theme: vases of hallucinatory Formica and fabric blooms, backlit by unearthly aurorae that may reference the tie-dye fad of the early 1970s but are more likely – given the way this show is going – something ghastly to do with nuclear testing.

The paintings work with the Astroturf floor and Jackson’s experimental, sculptural furniture to explore the idea that we only ever see things through their use. This isn’t a human foible: living things generally only sense what is relevant to their survival. So if Jackson is holding humanity to account here, it is a gentle and considered judgement. “What we most want is to feel that we exist”, he says, as we contemplate vanished seas and shredded mountain ranges. “We want not be lonely. Hence the appeal of metrics: they give us a sense of accomplishment.”

It can be a nuisance, having the artist around when you’re viewing a show. I was initially thinking about our greed and rapacity, and now, looking at these spoiled and garishly mapped earths, all I can see is our pathos: how we are polishing our rock down to the granite, just so we can glimpse ourselves in it.

Pathetic Fallacy is a well-chosen title for this show. John Ruskin coined the phrase to have a dig at the emotional falsity of poets who made clouds weep and trees groan. Jackson’s show is more in the spirit of Wordsworth’s defence of the practice, arguing that “objects . . . derive their influence not from properties inherent in them . . . but from such as are bestowed upon them by the minds of those who are conversant with or affected by these objects”.

In other words, we impose ourselves on the world because we feel we are the only meaning makers. On the way out, I pass more pictures: flattened lead satellites, cast in moulds made of corrugated cardboard, twine, sawdust, glue. This close, they appear slightly fleshy, slightly scabby, cast adrift, and travelling out into space.

A world that has run out of normal

As global temperatures rise, and the mean sea-level with them, I have been tracing the likely flood levels of the Thames Valley, to see which of my literary rivals will disappear beneath the waves first. I live on a hill, and what I’d like to say is: you’ll be stuck with me a while longer than most. But on the day I had set aside to consume David Wallace-Wells’s terrifying account of climate change and the future of our species (there isn’t one), the water supply to my block was unaccountably cut off. Failing to make a cup of tea reminded me, with some force, of what ought to be obvious: that my hill is a post-apocalyptic death-trap.

Reading The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells for the Telegraph, 16 February 2019

11 April 2019: Smart Robots, Mortal Engines

Come to Cinema 3 at London’s Barbican Centre, where I’ll be kicking off a season of Stanislaw Lem on film with the Brothers Quay, artists Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal, and Dr Mark Bould, author of the BFI Classics monograph on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

We’ve got some short films kick off the evening at 6.45pm on Thursday 11 April. More details here.