Life in the dark

Going to the dark side at London’s Natural History Museum for New Scientist, 13 July 2018:

At some point in the last couple of years, someone at London’s Natural history Museum must have decided that it should get beautiful. In 2016 Colour and Vision set a high bar; Life in the Dark shows just how far they have come.

Parts of Life in the Dark are designed by the Jason Bruges studio, which is better known for huge, open-ended generative artworks like the digital crowd massing along a 145-metre wall at Sunderland’s railway station, and the liquid-crystal digital waterfall at Westfield Shopping Centre which, years ahead of the competition, proved that bytes, set free with the right algorithms, could be just as unpredictable and fascinating as actual water droplets.

Their work here at the museum is at a more modest scale, but unobtrusive it most certainly is not. There’s a room hung with card mobiles and a complex lighting track that fills with phantom bats as you walk through it, like a sort of 3D flickerbook.

The final room of the show is lit by bioluminescent denizens of the deep ocean – or at least, their digital avatars. Hung from a false ceiling above the visitors, Jason Bruges’s complex three-dimensional, 3000-point display accurately reflects the behaviour and movement of more than half a dozen species. Naturally, there’s been some poetic licence with the light-show’s strength and density.

It’s a moot point whether visitors will appreciate the careful research that’s gone into all those different blues dangling and flashing above their heads, or whether indeed anyone will notice that the animated badger and hedgehog are programmed not to approach each other on the video wall that greets you when you enter the exhibition. The journey as a whole is what matters, as the show’s curators lead us from English woods at sunset, through caves of ever-increasing depth and strangeness, into the deep ocean where suddenly everything and anything seems biologically possible, and not always in a good way.

Life in the Dark is an extraordinarily powerful (not to say downright creepy) exercise in letting go of everything you thought was normal in nature. The possum-like aye-aye’s needle-like middle finger, tapping for grubs under the bark of night-time trees, is bad enough, and it comes as no comfort to read that “If you go into a cave in Central America, you will likely see huge mounds of guano (bat poo) covered with feasting cockroaches.”

One inadvertent effect of this show was to confirm me in my lifelong aversion to caves. Given enough time, everything that lives in them evolves to go blind. Everything shrinks. Everything bleaches itself out – except for the African dwarf crocodiles who, thanks to the guano diet of their prey, turn a sickly orange. On learning that giant centipedes, Scolopendra gigantea, hang from cave walls to pounce on passing bats, I high-tailed it to the section about the deep ocean, and where, oddly for an environment that is mostly lightless, virtually no animal is blind.

Animals that inhabit the middle ranges of the water column use bioluminescence for camouflage, matching their self-made light to the dwindling intensity of downwelling sunlight. The eyes of the spookfish Opisthoproctussp point upwards to detect prey, while mirror-like structures in its belly reflect the bioluminescence produced there, breaking up its silhouette from below.

Lower still, brittle stars, Ophiomusium lymani, flash brightly to temporarily blind predators, while others produce a gently glowing mucus to signal their toxicity. The Atolla jellyfish, confronting a predator, uses a swirling “burglar alarm” display to attract even bigger predators, triggering the deep-sea equivalent of a bar-room brawl, through which it makes an unobtrusive exit.

New nocturnal species are turning up all the time, only 5 per cent of the world’s oceans have been explored, and there are bound to be cave ecosystems still awaiting discovery. It’s appropriate, then, as well as interesting, to learn something about the researchers who’ve contributed to this show. Who knows, the unobtrusive videos in this show may inspire a new generation of researchers.

They’ll have to be a lot less squeamish than I am, though.

At the Horniman: A world in a room

Visiting the Horniman Museum’s new World Gallery for New Scientist, 26 June 2018

In the wholly reimagined, renovated, and re-hung World Gallery of London’s Horniman Museum, sharing space with cases of baffling, eye-catching objects, snatches of terse, pertinent wall information and arresting videos, somewhere between Syria and Sweden if memory serves, though it depends which way I’m looking (the gallery’s not nearly as big as its masterful arrangement of contents makes it feel – I can see Oceania from here, not to mention Asia) there stands an unassuming panel of snapshots.

They were taken one autumn evening in 2016, when visitors to the museum were asked to show off whatever meaningful personal knickknacks they happened to be carrying on them.

Coins; heirloom jewellery; a pressed four-leaf clover; a swatch of cloth. Innocuous in themselves, in the context of this new gallery, and placed (this cannot be a coincidence) at the very heart of it, these intimate photographs testify to the endless invention, boundless imagination and sheer bloody oddness of every passing individual.

I’m not sure the World Gallery really manages to explain the deep drivers of human oddness, individually or at scale. But I’ve never seen the right questions posed with such urgency, humanity, or, come to that, with such joy. The board at the entrance says we are entering a space of celebration: it’s not kidding.

There are ceremonial blades next to which the Klingon bat’leth is a butter knife. There is a gown of sea grass and bark from Oceania that Alexander McQueen would have given his eye-teeth to have sketched. There’s video from a rapper from Tibet, and baskets woven from plastic waste, and toys and masks and what looks like a fairy trumpet blown from a single piece of glass (Venetian, obviously).

It is easier, then, to write, not about what the gallery contains (it contains multitudes), but about what it does notcontain.

Horniman’s World Gallery is not particularly interested in time. It has no need to be. Cultures do not follow each other like buses. They nudge up against each other, blend and spark, wear each others’ motley, hide and then re-emerge, often thanks to a healthy dose of reinvention. First Nations cultures along North America’s Pacific seaboard were virtually moribund in 1900; they have surged since 1950. Traditional Bhutanese textiles are now all the rage on the international fashion circuit – and new-fangled local beauty pageants drive innovation. Sami reindeer herders assemble cheap Chinese barbecue kits to cook food stored in containers that have been passed down through families for literal centuries (no doubt patched till they resemble Trigger’s broom).

Nor is the World Gallery particularly interested in borders. After all, one person’s wall is another’s road: Boyd Tonkin, at the British Library’s show about the voyages of James Cook, recently reminded New Scientist readers of how a Tahitian islander Tupaia caused astonishment when, 4000 kilometres from home in New Zealand, he struck up a conversation with the Maori in a shared language.

One of the gallery’s curators described the Mediterranean to me, in much the same spirit, as a liquid continent. That’s not a newly minted metaphor – it goes back to the French poet Jean Cocteau – but it’s a pressingly topical one. Watch the video running next to a portion of the prow of a ship that once bore Syrian refugees. The glimpse it affords of a cosmopolitan seafaring community, scratching a good life out of very little, is a better advertisement for civic life than any of the politicking you’ll find inland.

Which brings us to the gallery’s final, important, deliberate, creative omission. It is not at all interested in nations. Indeed, from its global and generous perspective, the nation state can only seem a latecomer to humanity’s party, and a badly behaved one, too. As I wander through the gallery, from continent to continent, tradition to tradition and across entire seas (projected on the floor: and sure to be a hit with young children) I can’t but sympathise with the nomadic Tuareg people, whose vast desert patrimony crosses Algeria, Mali, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso; no wonder they get hardly any political recognition.

Modern nations are not simply violent at their borders, of course. Culturally speaking they wreak internal havoc, too, homogenising communities and regimenting them from the centre, not so much through force of arms (though that’s certainly an option) as through the provision of education. As the British-Czech philosopher Ernest Gellner put it in 1983: “The monopoly of legitimate education is now more important, more central that is the monopoly of legitimate violence.”

As we catch glimpses of traditions and practices that in several cases have been reduced to tourist spectacles, we should at least take comfort in the thought that, unlike endangered species, endangered practices can always, to some degree, be brought back to life.

I should at least try to explain why this gallery works as well as it does – and here I must confess myself stuck. I can’t help thinking that none of this should work, that it should all add up to an experience about as dull as a recitation of other people’s dreams. In the Trobriand Islands, a man’s worth is measured by the size of the pyramid of yams he builds in front of his sister’s house and leaves to rot. Beads mean fertility in South Africa. The Swedes are obsessed with shelving. Anthropology’s great strength – that it considers human practices objectively – is also its fatal weakness; it leaves nothing standing.

How can this gallery, this patent labour of love, care and scholarship, wear its learning so lightly? How can 3000 of the oddest objects ever fashioned by an unpredictable and grumpy ape leave visitors, not crushed by the species’ quintessential absurdity, but buoyed up, exhilarated, even to the point of tears?

In 1930, in his science fiction novel Last and First Men (1930), Olaf Stapledon imagined what the human experience would look like from a vantage point far in the future. It is a picture of futility and tragic waste. And for all that – because of all that – it is beautiful.

“It is very good to have been man,” Stapledon writes. “And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage.”

Visiting this gallery will make you feel the same.

How Charles Dickens became a man of science

Visiting Charles Dickens: Man of Science, at the Charles Dickens Museum, London for New Scientist, 16 June 2018

EVEN as he became the most celebrated and prolific author, the most energetic editor and the most influential political and social campaigner of his day, Charles Dickens was well aware of the science around him. Indeed, he took inspiration from it, and was even engaged in promoting and explaining it.

The trouble is, in an effort to build a show around this notion, the Charles Dickens Museum has fixated almost entirely on its hero’s friendships. Because Dickens knew everybody, the show struggles to find its focus. Even with a following wind, it is hard to feel much excitement on learning that Ada Lovelace had Dickens read her a passage from Dombey and Son on her deathbed.

But several other personal connections – reflected in an impressive display of books, autographs and prints – carry more weight. Dickens was also pals with Jane Marcet, author of the monstrously successful (and in the US, even more monstrously plagiarised) Conversations on Chemistry. A book mostly about Humphry Davy’s work, Conversations may be considered the first popular science book – never mind the first written by a woman. It inspired Michael Faraday to take up work that eventually led to his Christmas lectures, entitled The Chemical History of a Candle, which Dickens promptly serialised as short stories in his magazine Household Words.

Other investigations of energy were less orthodox, like Dickens’s discussion of the medical cures that might be obtained from “mesmeric fluids”. And it drove Dickens’s friend George Henry Lewes spare that the man responsible for serious scientific essays in Household Words was the same man who let characters in his novels burst spontaneously into flame, as with the illiterate rag-and-bone man Krook (who holds the key to the legal battle at the heart of Bleak House).

Writing about that notorious spontaneous human combustion scene, Lewes accused Dickens of cheap sensationalism and “of giving currency to a vulgar error”, perpetuating it “in spite of the labours of a thousand philosophers”. But he was on a losing wicket: contemporaries Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Washington Irving all had characters incandesce.

It is not accuracy we expect of Dickens, though, it is vision. It may be interesting that Our Mutual Friend uses the word “energy” in its new scientific sense. But what really thrills the heart is to follow Krook’s visitors up the stairs as they are about to find his body.

“‘See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won’t blow off – smears like black fat!’… A thick, yellow liquor defiles them… A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder…”

Come and be horrified.

Fakery at the Science Gallery, Dublin

Visiting the Science Gallery, Dublin for New Scientist, 14 April 2018 

Had you $1800 to spend on footwear in 2012, you might have considered buying a pair of RayFish sneakers. Delivery would have taken a while because you were invited to design the patterned leather yourself. You would have then have had to wait while the company grew a pair of transgenic stingrays in their Thai aquaculture facility up to the age where their biocustomised skins could be harvested.

Alas, animal rights activists released the company’s first batch of rays into the wild before harvesting could take place, and the company suspended trading. Scuba divers still regularly report sightings of fish sporting the unlikely colourations that were RayFish’s signature.

RayFish was, you’ll be pleased to hear, a con, perpetrated by three Dutch artists five years ago. It now features in Fake, the latest show at the Science Gallery, Dublin, an institution that sells itself as the place “where art and science collide”.

The word “collide” is well chosen. “We’re not experts on any one topic here,” explains Ian Brunswick, the gallery’s head of programming, “and we’re not here to heal any kind of ‘rift’ between science and art. When we develop a show, we start from a much simpler place, with an open call to artists, designers and scientists.” They ask all the parties what they think of the new idea, and what can they show them. Scientists in particular, says Brunswick, often underestimate which elements of their work will captivate.

Founded under the auspices of Dublin’s Trinity College, the Science Gallery is becoming a global brand thanks to the support of founding partner Google.org. London gets a gallery later this year; Bangalore in 2019. The aim is to not to educate, but to inspire visitors to educate themselves.

Brunswick recalls how climate change, in particular, triggered this sea-change in the way public educators think about their role: “I think many science shows have been operating a deficit model: they fill you up like an empty vessel, giving you enough facts so you agree with the scientists’ approach. And it doesn’t work.” A better approach, Brunswick argues, is to give the audience an immediate, visceral experience of the subject of the show.

For example, in 2014 Dublin’s Science Gallery called its climate change show “Strange Weather”, precisely to explore the fact that weather and climate change are different things, and that weather is the only phenomenon we experience directly on a daily basis. It got people to ask how they knew what they knew about the climate – and what knowledge they might be missing.

Freddie Stevens

Playfulness characterises the current show. Fakery, it seems, is bad, necessary, inevitable, natural, dangerous, creative, and delightful, all at once. There are fictional animals here preserved in jars besides real specimens: are they fake, or merely out of context? And you can (and should) visit the faux-food deli and try a caramelised whey product here from Norway that everyone calls cheese because what the devil else would you call it?

Then there’s a genuine painting that became a fake when its unscrupulous owner manipulated the artist’s signature. And the Chinese fake phones that are parodies you couldn’t possibly mistake for the real thing: from Pikachu to cigarette packets. There’s a machine here will let you manipulate your fake laugh until it sounds genuine.

Fake’s contributing artists have left me with the distinct suspicion that the world I thought I knew is not the world.

Directly above RayFish’s brightly patterned sneakers, on the upper floor of the gallery, I saw Barack Obama delivering fictional speeches. A work in progress by researchers from the University of Washington, Synthesizing Obama is a visual form of lip-synching in which audio files of Obama speaking are converted into realistic mouth shapes. These are then blended with video images of Obama’s head as he delivers another speech entirely.

It’s a topical piece, given today’s accusatory politics, and a chilling one.

The inside story of blood

Visiting the Royal College of Physicians for New Scientist, 17 February 2018

AFFECTION and delight aren’t qualities you would immediately associate with an exhibition about blood flow. But Ceaseless Motion reaches beyond the science to celebrate the man – 17th-century physician William Harvey – who, the story goes, invented the tradition of doctors’ bad handwriting. He was also a benefactor: when founding a lecture series in his own name, he remembered to bequeath money for the provision of refreshments.

It is an exhibition conceived, organised and hosted by the UK’s Royal College of Physicians, whose 17th-century librarian Christopher Merrett described how to make champagne several years before the monk Dom Pérignon began his experiments. Less happily, Merrett went on a drinking binge in 1666, and let Harvey’s huge book collection burn in London’s Great Fire.

The documents, seals and signatures that survived the flames despite Merrett’s neglect take pride of place in an exhibition that, within a very little compass, tells the story of one of medicine’s more important revolutionaries through documents, portraits and some deceptively chatty wall information.

Before Harvey’s 10 years of intense, solitary study bore fruit, physicians thought blood was manufactured in the liver and then passed through the body under its own volumetric pressure. Heaven help you if you made too much of the stuff. Luckily, physicians were on hand to release this disease-inducing pressure through bloodletting.

It sounds daft now, but clues back then that something quite different was going on were sparse and controversial. The 16th-century physician Andreas Vesalius had puzzled over the heart. If, like every other organ, it fed on blood produced in the liver, why were its walls so impenetrably hard? But even this towering figure, the founder of modern anatomy, decided that his own observations had to be wrong.

It was Hieronymus Fabricius, Harvey’s teacher in Padua, Italy, who offered a new and fruitful tack when he mapped “the little doors in the veins” that, we know now, are valves maintaining the flow of blood back to the lungs.

Within 30 years, Harvey’s realisation that blood pressure is controlled by the heart, and that this organ actively pumps blood around the body in a continuous circuit, had overturned the teachings of the 2nd-century Graeco-Roman physician Claudius Galen in European centres of learning. The new thinking also put close clinical observation at the heart of a discipline that had traditionally spent more time on textual analysis than on examining patients.

The exhibition is housed in a building designed by Denys Lasdun. This celebrated modernist architect was so taken by Harvey’s achievements that he designed the interiors as a subtle homage to the human circulatory system.

With the royal college now celebrating its 500th birthday, its institutional pride is palpable, but never stuffy. As one staff member told me, “We only started talking about ourselves as a ‘Royal’ college after the Restoration, to suck up to the king.”

Those who can visit should be brave and explore. Upstairs, there are wooden panels from Padua with the dried and salted circulatory and nervous systems of executed criminals lacquered into them. They are rare survivors: when pickling methods improved and it was possible to provide medical students with three-dimensional teaching aids, such “anatomical plates” were discarded.

Downstairs, there are endless curiosities. The long sticks doctors carried in 18th-century caricatures were clinical instruments – latex gloves didn’t arrive until 1889. The sticks’ silver ferrules contained miasma-defeating herbs and, sometimes, phials of alcohol. None of them are as handsome as Harvey’s own demonstration rod.

But if a visit in person is out of the question, take a look at the royal college’s new website, launched to celebrate half a millennium of institutional conviviality and controversy. You will have to provide your own biscuits, though.

 

Plastered

Stereo recordings, Imax movies, Steam-generated games: for over a century we’ve relied on innovations in media to deliver us a taste of the sublime. As the pioneering pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”

But even if that was true in 1939, I’m not sure it’s true any longer — not now we live enmired in media, and, indeed, have to make special efforts to escape them.

For me, 2017 ended with a couple of little disappointments both involving virtual reality.
Having wandered disembodied around Amedeo Modigliani’s “Ochre Atelier“ (an international curatorial effort which took five months to construct) I left London’s Tate Modern feeling as though I’d been transported, not to Paris, but to some Pixar-driven studio circa 1995. Virtual environments can actually render grit, dirt and water stains to a high creepiness level — but not on the sort of budget the Tate can command. The Ochre Atelier was a cartoon.

Not long after, I was prevented from wandering around Yinka Shonibare’s reconfigured, virtual version of the “Townley Venus” at the Royal Academy. The invigilator had saved me from walking into a wall, but I stalked out of that overclean, over-smooth virtual interior convinced that current museum technology can only insulate us from the sublime and the beautiful.
The technologies of digital reproduction are doing to objects exactly what they have done for books and music. They’re are making everything simultaneously accessible and boring.

A misplaced compulsion to entertain is only part of this story, and not the most interesting part. For cultural institutions, the chief promise of digital is its ability to reproduce and preserve. The effort to copy and disseminate objects of antiquity is both venerable and important. Indeed Mari Lending’s new book, Plaster Monuments: Architecture and the Power of Reproduction, reveals the role of casting in preserving entire architectural epochs. She recounts how in 1857 and on a visit to the Paris International Exhibition, the V&A’s first director Henry Cole persuaded 15 European princes to sign up to an ‘International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art’.

In Cole’s day, the technologies of reproduction consisted of photography, electrotyping and plastercasting. Casting, alas, proved far more damaging than was at first realised. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the former circus strongman who conveyed the 7-ton bust of Pharaoh Ramesses II out of Luxor (it’s now in the British Museum) was no vandal, but he still managed to to take all the paint off when he cast the figure of Anubis in the tomb of Seti I, in the Valley of the Kings.

Worse followed: Belzoni’s facsimile of Seti’s tomb, shown at the Egyptian Halls in London in 1821, was one of several events that led Thomas Cook to form his travel agency. This in turn triggered arguably history’s greatest cultural catastrophe, since tourism is predicated on the idea that original objects, buildings and places can be made more or less universally accessible. Suddenly the traces of past ages were fixed in place, and people travelled to them. The damage Belzoni did to the tomb of Seti I pales in comparison to the wholesale dilapidation visitors have visited upon the entire complex at Luxor.

Many heritage sites are now permanently closed. Those wanting to explore Seti’s 3,300-year-old tomb will have to make do with a trip to Basel and a 100-micron-resolution facsimile of two chambers, courtesy of the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative. This project, run by Factum Foundation in collaboration with the University of Basel and under contract to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, is embarked on nothing less than the wholesale recreation of the treasures of the Valley of the Kings.

Multi-spectral composite photography; 3D scanning; additive 3D printing; high-resolution CNC routing: the technologies employed and built from scratch by the technicians and artisans of “digital mediators” Factum Arte allow us to copy originals without ever touching them. But there is something kitschy about Seti’s immaculate new e-tomb: what it has gained in freshness, it has lost in dignity.

Similarly when I visited the RA, though I enjoyed the way Shonibare had repurposed the Roman Venus statue, I found its VR setting (based on a Gavin Hamilton painting) profoundly dispiriting. he hadn’t just brought an old painting to life. He’d done something far worse. He’d cleaned it up. He’d made it good as new.

The eighteenth-century culture in which Belzoni operated – doing an honest but far from perfect job of reproducing the treasures of his day — can, I think, point us in a healthier direction.

Belzoni’s was a world where no one worried much when a nose or a leg fell off an old statue. They simply patched them up. This honourable practice goes back at least as far as the 16th-century sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who argued that the ravaged sculptures of antiquity ”were screaming for his help”.

The poster-child of that era (at least for Londoners, who can visit the museum he made of his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields) is the architect Sir John Soane. Soane, born 1753, once grubbed up the garden of Pitzhanger, his country manor, to plant imaginary ruins. This was not (or not entirely) a Romantic indulgence. He used them mostly to tease antiquarians. He would take shards and fashion them into whole items, not willy-nilly, but on the basis of diligent study and educated taste. He knew the past was gone, and approximations were necessary. Lacking today’s precision instruments and the over-weaning, millennial rhetoric that accompanies them, he never once imagined that the past could be entirely recouped, or that the present moment might be made to last forever. One design for his Bank of England (a masterpiece now largely destroyed) showed how it would look in ruins.

Soane was rather fond of imagining what posterity might make of his museum. In 1812, and in the voice of an archaeologist of the future, he wrote:

“It is difficult to determine for what purposes such a strange and mixed assemblage of ancient works or rather [plaster] copies of them, for many are not of stone or marble, have been brought together…”

Not every young man could afford a Grand Tour of Europe. Soane considered his collection of copies the next best thing. He was right.

It was the stubborn whiteness of plastercasts, perhaps, the lack of an accurate means of coloration, not to mention a growing awareness of the damage being done by even the most careful copying — that saved Soane and his generation from imagining that they could render objects as they had been at their moment of completion.

Today we are armed with technology that can copy the surface appearance and even some of the structural elements of originals to perfection, or as close to perfection as makes no odds. This inadvertently puts us in the position of Lord Duveen, the British art dealer who, believing that authenticity was but a bathtime away, saw to the scrubbing of the Elgin Marbles. Nor was he the first restorer to kill through kindness. Writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were already complaining about this sort of thing in 1851, after seeing a newly cleaned Rubens: “It is,” they wrote, “like a piece of music from which all the half-tones have been removed: everything screams and bellows like earthenware gone mad.”

Nothing material will be damaged by today’s digital scrubbing — indeed, much valuable information will be uncovered and saved. But if we think that returning objects to their pristine state brings us closer to an authentic view of the past, then we are seriously short-changing our imaginations.

Soane and his fellows knew what we affect to deny: that time is real, and that everything ages and crumbles and dies. That’s why they considered art even more important than artworks.

As he reflected on the potential of scanning and 3D printing, Tristram Hunt, the current director of the V&A, pointed out in a recent article that “the lost artefacts of the ancient past have never felt more tangible, and less controllable.” Factum Arte founder Adam Lowe goes further. In the future, he says, we will handle each object “like an interpretation of a musical score. There will be different performances of the same object. They can be compared, discussed and understood.”

I would like to think the future will be full of John Soanes as, with a clear conscience, we start patching together bits of the past into new objects: not at random, not out of mischief, but as Soane and his contemporaries did — out of an imaginative engagement with a past we accept is irretrievably lost.

The sooner we pave over this lot, the better

Venom: Killer and cure ran at London’s Natural History Museum to 13 May 2018…

Londoners! This holiday season, why not take the children along to the Natural History Museum? Its new exhibition Venom: Killer and cure brims over with fascinating and entertaining stories.

Have you heard about the emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa), which zombifies its cockroach prey with its sting before laying an egg on it that hatches into a larva that eats the cockroach alive while knowing, somehow, to leave its vital organs till last?

Too strong? Then how about the paralysis-inducing bites of the marine bloodworm (Glycera dibranchiata), whose copper-reinforced teeth are one of the toughest known structures in the natural world?

Oh, dear. There must be something child-friendly round here… How about the deer fly (Chrysops sp.)? The males feed exclusively on nectar! Unfortunately, the females feed exclusively on blood and have evolved an anticoagulant venom to keep their meals flowing.

Nods to some ingenious medicine aside, Venom seems hell-bent on convincing visitors that “nature” is a state of perpetual, terrible and gruesome conflict, and that – if your environmental competitors have their way – your whole lived experience is going to be filled with excruciating pain.

Those with strong enough stomachs will marvel at the ingenuity of nature’s torturers. Even the Iberian ribbed newt (Pleurodeles waltl), which hardly sounds the fiercest animal in the pantheon, has ribs which burst out through its poisonous skin to deter predators.

Those of a philosophic bent will appreciate the show’s underlying narrative, explaining how human cunning makes us the most efficient, though by no means the only, harvester of venom. There’s a sea swallow (Glaucus atlanticus) here, in the form of an extraordinarily delicate and beautiful glass model made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. This pretty sea slug, about 2.5-centimetres long, eats Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis) and collects their venom in its own tentacles, which it fires at predators to defend itself.

The fine-art crowd will thrill to artist Steve Ludwin’s 30-year project of no certain purpose: injecting himself with snake venom. Those of a literary bent, meanwhile, will savour the elegant phrasing of Justin Schmidt’s sting pain scale. Of the Western yellow jacket wasp (Vespula pensylvanica) he writes: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”

Venom shows London’s Natural History Museum at its best: the exhibition is intimate, but not claustrophobic; unafraid of detail, but eminently accessible; visually arresting, but not exhausting.

I left trembling, angry and depressed. Had the show let me down? Quite the contrary: if anything, it had over-delivered.

How long, I wondered, must we put up with this ghastly horror-show world of ours? Why should we have to tolerate the way competing slow lorises (Nycticebus sp.) inflict festering wounds on each other, and male emperor scorpions (Pandinus imperator) feel the need to sting their females before they dare broach the subject of sex?

Venom has convinced me that nature is vile. It is pitiless and disgusting, and the sooner we pave over it the better.

The boring beasts that changed the world

Visiting the Museum of Ordinary Animals exhibition for New Scientist, 4 November 2017

SOME animals are so familiar, we barely see them. If we think of them at all, we categorise them according to their role in our lives: as pests or food; as unthinking labourers or toy versions of ourselves. If we looked at them as animals – non-human companions riding with us on our single Earth – what would we make of them? Have we raised loyal subjects, or hapless victims, or monsters?

This is the problem that The Museum of Ordinary Animals sets out to address. This show has been artfully, but still none-too-easily, stuffed into the already famously crammed setting of the Grant Museum, a 19th-century teaching collection packed full of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in fluid.

The exhibition, a sign announces, “begins in front of you, behind the dugong”. The corridor between cases is narrow. Easing past visitors distracted by a glass case of dolphin heads, I shave past the enormous, grinning skull of a saltwater crocodile. Here, as in our imagination, the ordinary animals tend to get squeezed out by the extraordinary ones.

The exhibition is small, so go around twice. Spend the first time reading. There is an art to visitor information and the show’s curators have nailed it here, citing just the right oddities and asking just the right questions to tip the viewer into a state of uncertain wonder.

This show, about animals that are useful to humanity, also turns out to be a show about how dangerously peculiar humanity is. The world has been shaped by our numbers, our intelligence and our activity. For example, all pet golden hamsters descend from a single female fetched from Syria in 1930. It was in a group meant for the lab until it was won in a bet.

And the settling of Europeans in Australia from 1788 triggered the fastest catastrophic species loss we know of. Our cats did most of the work, invading more than 99.8 per cent of the Australian land mass. Today, feral cats kill tens of millions of native animals in Australia every night.

The world has been shaped by our beliefs, too. In Europe, it was once common to bury people with their companion animals. Christianity saw off that practice in the late 7th century, because the faith denies that animals have souls. Then, around a thousand years ago, Benedictine dietary rules were formulated. At that time, chickens were feral, quarrelsome and didn’t lay anything like as many eggs as they do now. Today, the chicken is a more or less mindless and sedentary protein factory.

Having learned that humanity isn’t so much a species, more a narrow and superbly weaponised ecosystem, the visitor is ready for a second go. Now the exhibits resonate wonderfully: the bones, the pictures, the jars. Is the subject of Cornelis de Visscher’s mid-17th-century engraving The Rat-Catcher, the catcher himself or the rat in his cage? There are mice used in diabetes research, ironed flat at death and mounted on cards like obscene tombstones. Nearby, a mummified cat head possesses extraordinary innate dignity: no wonder the animal was a focus of worship.

Leaving Ordinary Animals and the museum, I found myself standing under an orange sky, courtesy of Hurricane Ophelia, which had recently brought ash and dust from runaway forest fires to smother Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Under that dead light, humans gawped at a red sun while, across the road from me, a pet dog, brought to heel, yawned, as though to say: who cares about the sky? Master will feed us. Mistress knows best.

But the exhibition had thrown me out of my complacency, and rarely have I felt less easy with the human project.

The genius of making a little go a long way

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

One can taste the boosterism in the air at London’s Science Museum as it introduces its two-gallery exhibition, Illuminating India.

There is a cafe serving excellent Indian street food. 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. Any historian of Anglo-British relations will give a sardonic smile at this.

When you visit (and you should), try to look around the smaller, artefacts-driven gallery first.

This room tells the stories of Indian science – stories plural because there can never be one, linear account of how such dissimilar and contesting cultures struggled and more or less succeeded in understanding and exploiting a space of such extraordinary complexity.

Naturally, since India has a past to boast of, pride of place goes to its indigenous cultures. It was the Indus valley civilisation, after all, whose peoples fashioned standardised weights around 4000 years ago: items that indicate high levels of arithmetical literacy, communication and trade.

And there are reconstructions of Ayurvedic surgical instruments described in records dating back to around 500 BC. Also on show is a 1800-year-old document containing the first example of the use of zero. Wonderfully, radiocarbon dating pushed the document’s age back by 500 years just before the exhibition opened.

It is a measure of the wisdom of the curators that such an illustrious past isn’t allowed to overshadow India’s more recent achievements. For example, Jagadish Chandra Bose’s early-20th-century crescograph, designed to observe plant growth at a magnification of 10,000 times, reminds us why he is often called the father of modern Indian science.

Another winning object is Chandrasekhara Raman’s spectrometer. Raman was the first Indian to win a Nobel prize, for physics, in 1930.

And what of that other great empire far to the north? Well, there is a map of George Everest’s career-defining Great Trigonometrical Survey of India – the teamwork of 70 years distilled on a single, meticulously drawn map. And nearby are details of a recent collaboration between Surrey Satellite Technology in the UK and the Indian Space Research Organisation on the Earth-surveying NovaSAR satellite.

Some of the deeper, darker questions about Anglo-Indian relations are posed in the second, photographic half of the exhibition.

There, the anthropometric photographs of Maurice Portman make a depressingly silly impression next to the respectful, revealing and entirely unlicentious photographs Ram Singh took of the women of his own harem: powerful political players all, who shaped the country through marriage and allied treaties.

It is hard to say why the split nature of Illuminating India works as well as it does. It has something to do with the way the rooms handle political power.

India’s science, from its ancient stepwells that gathered monsoon waters to the bureaucratic and algorithmic marvel that is today’s tiffin tin-based lunch delivery system, has been driven by the complex needs of a massive population making a living.

Similarly, its doing-more-with-less style of innovation is reflected in everything from the world’s cheapest artificial leg (the Jaipur leg, made of rubber, plastic and wood) to the world’s cheapest Mars-orbiting camera.

Visitors to Illuminating India will leave thinking that technology may, after all, be making the world a better place, and that what people do is ultimately more influential than who they are.

Listening to DX17

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

THERE are many stories at the Duxford airfield, Cambridgeshire. How it served British and American military interests for 100 years. Why Alexander Graham Bell wanted to call his daughter Photophone. How a technologist in Tasmania came half way round the world to the UK, only to discover that the technology he was developing was being used to send messages between mountaintops in – of all places – Tasmania.

Luckily for me, I’m being shown around DX17, Duxford’s new sound sculpture, by its creator Nick Ryan, a sound artist who is good at making sense of complicated stories. It was Ryan who recreated the soundscapes of the Yangtze river and spread them along a pedestrian bridge at Gatwick Airport’s Skybridge. He also incorporated the orbits of 27,000 pieces of space junk into a musical instrument called Machine 9.

DX17 is made of netting stretched over a steel skeleton. It’s an aerodynamic abstract with protrusions that suggest design elements from iconic aircraft.

The first thing you notice are the lights: the sculpture is filled with 100 spotlights, their beams playing through the mesh of the sculpture and onto the floor. Yet DX17 contains more sound than vision. Hidden in each beam is a sound recording selected by the Imperial War Museum – some originals, others documents read by Duxford staff and volunteers. Together, they celebrate the base’s 100 years of aeronautical activity.

Weaving these recordings comprehensibly through an object no bigger than a Spitfire was a technical challenge. Ryan and his project partner Sean Malikides opted to use light after deciding that digital solutions were clunky and historically inappropriate.

Each light shines a flickering beam through the mesh of the sculpture – a sound signal carried on light. 3D-printed handsets with a lens at one end turn the signal back to audio, and play it through headphones.

Visitors can press their “light-catchers” to illuminated spots on the sculpture, or catch beams projected from the sculpture onto the floor. 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. In 2005, enthusiasts in Tasmania used a similar system to signal between mountaintops some 160 kilometres apart.

Bell considered the photophone more important than the telephone and wanted to name his daughter after the invention. His wife persuaded him that Daisy would be kinder.

There are many stories here. Good hunting. Fade to black. Transmission ends.