Hurtling towards zero

Watching Richard Ladkani’s Sea of Shadows for New Scientist, 2 October 2019

This is the story of the world’s smallest whale, the vaquita, reduced in number to fewer than 30 individuals, and hiding out in the extreme south-western corner of its territory in the Sea of Cortez. It is not a story that will end well, though Richard Ladkani (whose 2016 Netflix documentary The Ivory Game was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2017) has made something here which is very hard to look away from.

This is not an environmental story. This is a true crime. No-one’s interested in hunting the vaquita. The similarly sized Totoaba fish, which shares the vaquita’s waters, is another matter. It’s called the cocaine of the sea — a nickname that makes no sense whatsoever until you learn that the Mexican drug cartels have moved into the totoaba business to satisfy demand from the Chinese luxury market. (It’s the usual film-flam: the fish’s swim bladders are supposed to possess rare medical properties. )

Illegal gill nets that catch the totoaba — itself a rapidly declining population — also catch and kill vaquitas. The government talks a good environmental game but has let the problem get out of hand. Law-abiding fishing communities are ruined by blanket fishing bans while the illegals operate with near-impunity. Late on in the film, there’s some CCTV footage of a couple of soldiers having some car trouble. They ask for help from a passing motorist. Who shoots one of the soldiers dead. Bam. Just like that. And drives away. Meet Oscar Parra, the tortoaba padron of Santa Clara. (I said you couldn’t look away; I didn’t say you wouldn’t want to.)

Things are so bad, a scheme is dreamt up to remove the remaining vaquitas from the ocean and keep them in captivity. It’s an absurdly desperate move, because virtually nothing is known about the vaquita’s disposition and habits. (Some locals believe the creature is a myth dreamt up by a hostile government to bankrupt the poor: how’s that for fake news?) Project leader Cynthia Smith explains the dilemma facing the vaquita: “possible death in our care or certain death in the ocean”. She knows what she’s doing — she a senior veterinarian for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program — but no one has ever tried to capture, let alone keep, a vaquita before. This could go very wrong indeed. (And still, you cannot look away…)

Sea of Shadows won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in February this year; National Geographic snapped it up for $3million. It’s built around a collaborative investigation between Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of Earth League International (the hero-detectives of The Ivory Game) and Carlos Loret de Mola, a popular correspondent and news anchor in Mexico, whose topical show Despierta reaches an international audience of 35 million people a day. Crosta and de Mola and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, their maritime partners in crime-prevention, are all of them expert in handling and appealing to the media. Everything about this film that might rankle the viewer is entirely deliberate — the film’s “whodunnit” structure, the way all content is crammed into a pre-storyboarded narrative, then squeezed to release a steady drip-drip-drip of pre-digested information. Sea of Shadows is pure NatGeo fodder, and if you don’t like that channel much, you won’t like this at all.

Just bear in mind, the rest of us will be perching on the edge of our sofas, in thrall to drone-heavy cinematography that owes not a little to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 thriller Sicario, rocked by a thumping score full of dread and menace, and appalled by a story headed pell-mell for the dark.

Rare resources are doomed to extinction eventually because the rarer a resource is, the more expensive it is, and the more incentive there is to trade in it. This is why, past a certain point, rare stocks hurtle towards zero.

Can the vaquita be saved? Sea of Shadows was made in 2018 and says there are fewer than 30 vaquitas in the ocean.

Today there are fewer than 10.

Normal fish and stubby dinosaurs

Reading Imagined Life by James Trefil and Michael Summers for New Scientist, 20 September 2019

If you can imagine a world that is consistent with the laws of physics,” say physicist James Trefil and planetary scientist Michael Summers, “then there’s a good chance that it exists somewhere in our galaxy.”

The universe is dark, empty, and expanding, true. But the few parts of it that are populated by matter at all, are full of planets. Embarrassingly so: interstellar space itself is littered with hard-to-spot rogue worlds, ejected early on in their solar system’s history, and these worlds may outnumber orbiting planets by a factor of two to one. (Not everyone agrees: some experts reckon rogues may out-number orbital worlds 1000 to one. One of the reasons the little green men have yet to sail up to the White House, is that they keep hitting space shoals.)

Can we conclude, then, that this cluttered galaxy is full of life? The surprising (and frustrating) truth is that we genuinely have no idea. And while Trefil and Summers are obviously primed to receive with open arms any visitors who happen by, they do a splendid job, in this, their second slim volume together of explaining just how tentative and speculative our thoughts about exobiology actually are, and why.

Exoplanets came out in 2013; Imagined Life is a sort of sequel and is, if possible, even more accessible. In just 14 pages, the authors outline the physical laws constraining the universe. Then they rattle through the various ways we can define life, and why spotting life on distant worlds is so difficult (“For just about every molecule that we could identify [through spectroscopy] as a potential biomarker of life on an exoplanet, there is a nonbiological production mechanism.”). They list the most likely types of environment on which life may have evolved, from water worlds to Mega Earths (expect “normal fish… and stubby dinosaurs”), from tidally locked planets to wildly exotic (but by no means unlikely) superconducting rogues. And we haven’t even reached the meat of this tiny book yet – a tour, planet by imaginary planet, of the possibilities for life, intelligence, and civilisation in our and other galaxies.

Most strange worlds are far too strange for life, and the more one learns about chemistry, the more sober one’s speculations become. Water is common in the universe, and carbon not hard to find, and this is as well, given the relative uselessness of their nearest equivalents (benzene and silicon, say). The authors argue enthusiastically for the possibilities of life that’s “really not like us”, but they have a hard time making it stick. Carbon-based life is pretty various, of course, but even here there may be unexepected limits on what’s possible. Given that, out of 140 amino acids, only 22 have been recruited in nature, it may be that mechanisms of inheritance converge on a surprisingly narrow set of possibilities.

The trick to finding life in odd places, we discover, is to look not out, but in, and through. “Scientists are beginning to abandon the idea that life has to evolve and persist on the surface of planets” the authors write, laying the groundwork for their description of an aquatic alien civilisation for whom a mission to the ocean surface “would be no stranger to them than a mission to Mars is to us.”

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ stock assumption that life most likely breeds intelligence most likely breeds technology. Nothing in biology , or human history, suggests as much. Humans in their current iteration may be far odder than we imagine. But what the hell: Imagined Life reminds me of those books I grew up with, full of artists’ impressions of the teeming oceans of Venus. Only now, the science is better; the writing is better; and the possibiliities, being more focused, are altogether more intoxicating.

“Chuck one over here, Candy Man!”

Watching Ad Astra for New Scientist, 18 September 2019

It is 2033. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is told that his father Clifford, the decorated space explorer, may still be alive, decades after he and the crew of his last mission fell silent in orbit around Neptune.

Clifford’s Lima mission was sent to the outer edges of the heliosphere – the region of the sun’s gravitational influence – the better to scan the galaxy’s exoplanets for intelligent life. Now the Lima’s station’s antimatter generator is triggering electrical storms on distant Earth, and all life in the solar system is threatened.

McBride sets off on a secret mission to Mars. Once there, he is handed a microphone. He reads out a message to his dad. When he finishes speaking, he and the sound engineers pause, as if awaiting an instant reply from Clifford, the message’s intended recipient, somewhere in orbit around Neptune. What?

Eventually a reply is received (ten days later, presumably, given that Mars and Neptune are on average more than four billion kilometres apart). No-one wants to tell McBride what his dad said except the woman responsible for the Mars base (the wonderful Ruth Negga, looking troubled here, as well she might). The truths she shares about Roy’s father convince the audience, if not Roy himself, that the authorities are quite right to fear Clifford, quite right to seek a way to neutralise him, and quite right in their efforts to park his unwitting son well out of the way.

But Roy, at great risk to himself, and with actions that will cost several lives, is determined on a course for Neptune, and a meeting with his dad.

Ad Astra is a psychodrama about solipsistic fathers and abandoned sons, conducted in large part through monologues and close-ups of Brad Pitt’s face. And this is as well, since Pitt’s performance is easily the most coherent and thrilling element in a film that is neither.

Not, to be fair, that Ad Astra ever aspired to be exciting in any straightforward way. Pirates and space monkeys aside (yes, you read that right) Ad Astra is a serious, slow-burn piece about our desire to explore the world, and our desire to make meaning and connection, and how these contrary imperatives tear us apart in the vastness of the cosmic vacuum.

It ought to have worked.

The fact that it’s serious should have worked: four out of five of writer-director James Gray’s previous films were nominated for Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. Ad Astra itself was inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems by Tracy K. Smith, all about gazing up at the stars and grieving for her father.

The film’s visuals and sound design should have worked. It draws inspiration for its dizzying opening sequence from the well-documented space-parachuting adventures of Felix Baumgartner in 2012, adopts elsewhere the visual style and sound design of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 hit film Gravity, and, when we get to Mars, tips its hat to the massy, reinforced concrete interiors of Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 Blade Runner 2049. For all that, it still feels original: a fully realised world.

The incidental details ought to have worked. There’s much going on in this film to suggest that everyone is quietly, desperately attempting to stabilise their mood, so as not to fly off the handle in the cramped, dull, lifeless interiors beyond Earth. The whole off-world population is seen casually narcotising itself: “Chuck one over here, Candy Man!” Psychological evaluations are a near-daily routine for anyone whose routine brings them anywhere near an airlock, and these automated examinations (shades of Blade Runner 2049 again) seem to be welcomed, as one imagines Catholic confession would be welcomed by a hard-pressed believer.

Even the script, though a mess, might have worked. Pitt turns the dullest lines into understated character portraits with a well-judged pause and the tremor of one highly trained facial muscle. Few other cast members get a word in edgewise.

What sends Ad Astra spinning into the void is its voiceover. Grey is a proven writer and director, and he’s reduced Ad Astra’s plot down to seven-or-so strange, surreal, irreducible scenes, much in the manner of his cinematic hero Stanley Kubrick. Like Kubrick, he’s kept dialogue to the barest minimum. Like Kubrick, he’s not afraid of letting a good lead actor dominate the screen. And then someone – can it really have been Gray himself? – had the bright idea to vitiate all that good work by sticking Roy McBride’s internal monologue over every plot point, like a string of Elastoplasts.

Consequently, the audience are repeatedly kicked out of the state of enchantment they need to inhabit if they’re going to see past the plot holes to the movie’s melancholy heart.

The devil of this film is that it fails so badly, even as everyone is working so conspicuously hard to make a masterpiece. “Why go on?” Roy asks in voiceover, five minutes before the credits roll. “Why keep trying?”

Why indeed?

Human/nature

Was the climate crisis inevitable? For the Financial Times, 13 September 2019

Everything living is dying out. A 2014 analysis of 3,000 species, confirmed by recent studies, reveals that half of all wild animals have been lost since 1970. The Amazon is burning, as is the Arctic.

An excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, meanwhile, has not only played havoc with the climate but also reduced the nutrient value of plants by about 30 per cent since the 1950s.

And we’re running out of soil. In the US, it’s eroding 10 times faster than it’s being replaced. In China and India, the erosion is more than three times as bad. Five years ago, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization claimed we had fewer than 60 years of harvests left if soil degradation continued at its current rate.

Why have we waited until we are one generation away from Armageddon before taking such problems seriously?

A few suggestions: first, the environment is far too complicated to talk about — at least on the tangled information networks we have constructed for ourselves.

Second, we’re lazy and we’re greedy, like every other living thing on the planet — though because most of us co-operate with each other, we are arguably the least greedy and least lazy animals around.

Where we fall down is in our tendency to freeload on our future selves. “Discounting the future” is one of our worst habits, and one that in large part explains why we leave even important, life-and-death actions to the last minute.

Here’s a third reason why we’re dealing so late with climate change. It’s the weirdest, and maybe the most important of the three. It’s that we know we are going to die.

Thinking about environmental threats reminds us of our own mortality, and death is a prospect so appalling we’ll do anything — anything — to stop thinking about it.

“I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time,” wrote Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer-winning meditation The Denial of Death in 1973.

“The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are ‘right’ for us because the alternative is natural desperation.”

Psychologists inspired by Becker have run experiments to suggest it’s the terror of death that motivates consciousness and all its accomplishments. “It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan,” is the memorable judgment of the authors of 2015’s best-selling book The Worm at the Core.

This hardly sounds like good news. But it may offer us, if not a solution to the current crisis, at least a better, healthier and more positive way of approaching it.

No coping mechanism is infallible. We may be profoundly unwilling to contemplate our mortality, and to face up to the slow-burn, long-term threats to our existence, but that anxiety can’t ultimately be denied. Our response is to bundle it into catastrophes — in effect to construe the world in terms of crises to make everyday existence bearable.

Even positive visions of the future assume the necessity for cataclysmic change: why else do we fetishise “disruption”? “The concept of progress is to be grounded in the idea of the catastrophe,” as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin put it.

Yes, we could have addressed climate change much more easily in the 1970s, when the crisis wasn’t so urgent. But the fact is, we’re built for urgent action. A flood. A drought. A famine. We know where we are in a catastrophe. It may be that our best is yet to come.

Will our best be enough? Will we move quickly and coherently enough to save ourselves from the catastrophes attendant on massive climate change? That’s a hard question to answer.

The earliest serious attempts at modelling human futures were horrific. One commentator summed up Thomas Malthus’s famous 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population as “150 pages of excruciatingly detailed travellers’ accounts and histories . . . of bestial life, sickness, weakness, poor food, lack of ability to care for young, scant resources, famine, infanticide, war, massacre, plunder, slavery, cold, hunger, disease, epidemics, plague, and abortion.”

Malthus, an English cleric driven up the wall by positive Enlightenment thinkers such as Godwin and Condorcet, set out to remind everybody that people were animals. Like animals, their populations were bound eventually to exceed the available food supply. It didn’t matter that they dressed nicely or wrote poetry. If they overbred, they would starve.

We’ve been eluding this Malthusian trap for centuries, by bolting together one cultural innovation after another. No bread? Grow soy. No fish? Breed insects. Eventually, on a finite planet, Malthus will have his revenge — but when?

The energy thinker Vaclav Smil’s forthcoming book Growth studies the growth patterns of everything from microorganisms to mammals to entire civilisations. But the Czech-Canadian academic is chary about breaking anything as complicated as humanity down to a single metric.

“In the mid-1980s,” he recalls, “people used to ask me, when would the Chinese environment finally collapse? I was writing about this topic early on, and the point is, it was never going to collapse. Or it’s constantly collapsing, and they’re constantly fixing parts of it.”

Every major city in China has clean water and improving air quality, according to Smil. A few years ago people were choking on the smog.

“It’s the same thing with the planet,” he says. “Thirty years ago in Europe, the number-one problem wasn’t global warming, it was acid rain. Nobody mentions acid rain today because we desulphurised our coal-fired power plants and supplanted coal with natural gas. The world’s getting better and worse at the same time.”

Smil blames the cult of economics for the way we’ve been sitting on our hands while the planet heats up. The fundamental problem is that economics has become so divorced from fundamental reality,” he says.

“We have to eat, we have to put on a shirt and shoes, our whole lives are governed by the laws that govern the flows of energy and materials. In economics, though, everything is reduced to money, which is only a very imperfect measure of those flows. Until economics returns to the physical rules of human existence, we’ll always be floating in the sky and totally detached from reality.”

Nevertheless, Smil thinks we’d be better off planning for a good life in the here and now, and this entails pulling back from our current levels of consumption.

“But we’re not that stupid,” he says, “and we may have this taken care of by people’s own decision making. As they get richer, people find that children are very expensive, and children have been disappearing everywhere. There is not a single European country now in which fertility will be above replacement level. And even India is now close to the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.”

So are we out of the tunnel, or at the end of the line? The brutal truth is, we’ll probably never know. We’re not equipped to know. We’re too anxious, too terrified, too greedy for the sort of certainty a complex environment is simply not going to provide.

Now that we’ve spotted this catastrophe looming over our heads, it’s with us for good. No one’s ever going to be able to say that it’s truly gone away. As Benjamin tersely concluded, “That things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe.”

Lost in the quiet immensities

Watching Aniara for New Scientist, 7 September 2019

In the opening sequence of the Swedish sci-fi film Aniara, a space elevator rises into low earth orbit to meet an interplanetary cruiser, bound for new settlements on Mars. (The Earth, pillaged to destruction by humanity, is by now literally burning.)

But when we cut to its interior, the elevator turns out to be, well, a night bus. A tight focus on lead actress Emelie Jonsson, staring out a misted-up window into the featureless dark, accentuates, rather than conceals, the lack of set.

The interplanetary cruiser Aniara is a pretty decent piece of model work on the outside but on the inside, it’s a ferry. I know, because work for New Scientist once had me sailing down the coast of Norway on board the same vessel, or one very like it, for an entire week.

Have writer-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja turned out a film so low-budget that they couldn’t afford any sets? Have they been inept enough to reveal the fact in the first reel?

No, and no. Aniara is, on the contrary, one of the smartest movies of 2019.

Aniara’s journey to Mars is primarily a retail opportunity. Go buy some duty-free knits while your kids knock each other off plastic dinosaurs in the soft-play area. Have your picture taken with some poor bugger on a minimum wage dressed as large, stupid-looking bird. Don’t worry: in a real crisis, there’s always the pitch-and-putt.

When the worst happens — colliding with a piece of space debris, the Aniara is nudged off course into interstellar space with no hope of return or rescue — the lights flicker, someone trips on some stairs, a couple of passengers complain about the lack of information, and the hospitality crew work the mall bearing complementary snacks.

“Transtellar Cruise Lines would like to apologize to passengers for the continuing delay to this flight. We are currently awaiting the loading of our complement of small lemon-soaked paper napkins for your comfort, refreshment and hygiene during the journey.”

Not Aniara, this, but a quotation from Douglas Adams’s peerless radio tie-in novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, to which Aniara serves as a particularly bleak twin. Don’t think for a moment this is a film without humour. There’s a scene in which the captain (played with pitch-perfect ghastliness by Arvin Kananian) reassures his castaway passengers that rescue is imminent while playing televised billiards. Balls and pockets; planets and gravity wells. It’s every useless planetary mechanics lecture you’ve ever suffered through and you realise, watching it, that everyone is doomed.

“They awoke screaming and clawing at their straps and life support systems that held them tightly in their seats.” (Adams again, because I couldn’t resist, and besides, it’s as good a summation as any of where Aniara is headed.)

Not only will there be no rescue. It begins to dawn on our heroine, Mimaroben (a sort of ship’s counsellor armed with a telepathic entertainment system that (you guessed it) kills itself) that there there is no such thing as rescue. “You think Mars is Paradise?” she scolds a passenger. “It’s cold.” May as well be here as there, is her conclusion. Death’s a waiting game, wherever you run.

Aniara is based on a long narrative poem by the Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and the sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, reviewing a 1964 American edition of the poem, said it “transcends panic and terror and even despair [and] leaves you in the quiet immensities”. So there.

But I don’t care how bleak it is. I am sick to the back teeth of those oh-so-futuristic science fiction films, and their conjuring-up of scenarios that, however “dystopic”, are really only there to ravish the eye and numb the mind.

Aniara gets the future right — which is to say, it portrays the future as though it were the present. When we finally build a space elevator, it’s going to be the equivalent of a bus. When we fly to Mars, it’ll be indistinguishable from a ferry. The moment we attain the future, it becomes now, and now is not a place you go in order to exprerience a frisson of wonder or horror. It’s where you’re stuck, trying — and sometimes failing — to scrape together a meaning for it all.

Transports of delight

Exploring Driverless: Who is in control? at London’s Science Museum for New Scientist, 31 August 2019

Durham Cathedral’s stained glass windows inspired artist Dominic Wilcox’s contribution to Driverless, a tiny but thought-provoking exhibition at London’s Science Museum.

It occurred to Wilcox that artificial intelligence could make traffic collisions a thing of the past, which means “we don’t need the protection systems that are built into contemporary cars”, he told design magazine Dezeen. “We can just have a shell of any design.”

His Stained Glass Driverless Sleeper Car of the Future is the sort of vehicle we may be driving when road safety has improved to the point where we can build cars out of whatever we want. It suggests a future in which safety is no longer a set of barriers, cages, buffers and lights, and is instead a dance of algorithms. Rather than measuring out a bike lane, say, we will have an algorithm that decides whether to leave a smaller distance to the bicycle on its left to reduce the chance of hitting a truck on its right.

What if that causes more cyclists, but fewer passengers, to die every year? Such questions aren’t new. But they are having to be asked again and in a different and disconcerting form as we move more safety systems off the roads and into vehicles.

On show is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Moral Machine”, a website using more than 40 million participants’ decisions on what to do in certain situations to inform our autonomous machinery design. The findings can be unsettling: would-be designers are more likely to sacrifice your safety if you are fat, a criminal or a dog

This is a show as much about possible futures as it is about the present. Interviews, archival footage, models and some interactive displays create a series of provocations, more than a fully fledged exhibition.

I especially liked the look of the MIT Senseable City Lab and the AMS Institute’s “Roboats”, currently on trial on Amsterdam’s canals. These autonomous floating platforms form spontaneous bridges and event platforms and can transport goods and people.

The exhibition spends much of its time off-road, investigating drone swarms and privacy, flocking behaviour and mine clearance, ocean mapping and planetary surveillance.

Don’t let its size put you off: this little show is full of big surprises.

Priority message

Exploring The Current War for New Scientist, 10 August 2019

Let’s begin by being boorish. Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. The German-born precision mechanic Heinrich Goebel demonstrated a practical prototype in 1854.

But of course you can play this game with pretty much any invention. The correct response to such nit-picking is given to Edison himself – inventor of the phonograph, inventor of motion pictures, holder of over 2000 patents – in a new movie, The Current War, which lays out, as surely as any circuit diagram, the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to bring electric light to America at the end of the 19th century.

Salt. Fat. Flour. Water. Only when you put all the ingredients together, in the right proportions, using the right method, so people will spend their hard-earned pennies on the stuff, do you get bread. Priority – being the first to file a patent – is not won by dreaming alone. Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, teaches this hard lesson to his personal secretary Samuel Insull, an entertainingly exasperated Tom Holland.

The film itself is the bloodied but unbowed victim of no end of industry trouble. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival ahead of a scheduled release of November 2017 by the Weinstein Company. But as allegations about Harvey Weinstein gathered and grew in severity, the decision was made to quietly shelve the film for a while.

It doesn’t feel like an old movie, but it does feel like an odd one. Big, bold, none-too-subtle speeches by playwright Michael Mitnick are directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon as though they were set pieces by Martin Scorcese, for whom he once worked as a personal assistant.

Inventor George Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon in a sensitive, understated performance which rather puts Cumberbatch’s familiar schtick to shame) has developed a system of electrification using alternating current. For cost and efficiency, this has Edison’s direct-current system beat. Westinghouse offers Edison a partnership, but Edison behaves like a cad, disparaging Westinghouse’s “lethal” technology and executing dogs, sheep and eleven horses with AC to prove his point. Irony piles on irony as Edison’s demonstrations lead him inevitably towards designing, much against his better ethical judgement, the first electric chair.

In the world outside the cinema, the “war of the currents” is not yet done. DC lost out to AC in the early days of electrification because efficient long-distance transmission required high voltages while the public needed safer, lower voltages. That required transformers, which existed for AC networks, but not for DC.

When it comes to transmitting large amounts of power over long distances, however, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) is way more efficient than conventional AC lines.

The length and capacity of new HVDC projects has risen fast, particularly in China, and calculations suggest that continent-wide HVDC “supergrids” could help smooth out the variable levels of power created by renewable sources.

In 2009 an influential study by Gregor Czish, of Kassel University in Germany, proposed a “super grid” to connect various European countries and bordering regions including North Africa, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, and at a total cost that virtually guarantees cheap green electricity for all.

No one’s heard of Czish, of course, though his insight may give the next generation cheap green energy and a chance to save civilisation from global warming.

It was ever thus: we only remember Nikola Tesla (The Current War’s peculiar third wheel, an AC pioneer and inventor of fluorescent light) because David Bowie played him in Christopher Nolan’s magical puzzler The Prestige.

Priority is a twisty business, and fame is twistier still. Westinghouse so despised the whole business he burned his papers, ensuring that his deeds alone would outlast him. “If you want to be remembered,” he says in the film, “it’s simple: shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”

 

Turning over new leaves

Contemplating Trees at Fondation Cartier, Paris for the Financial Times, 1 August 2019

Trees, a group show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris featuring artists, botanists and philosophers, screams personality — by which I mean eccentricity, thought and argument. Appropriately, it’s an exhibition that lives and breathes. I hated some of it and walked out of the gallery grinning from ear to ear. It absolutely does its job: it makes trees treeish again.

The French state’s funding for the arts is generous in quantity but conservative in taste. It doesn’t fund the Fondation Cartier, leaving it free to be playful — to hang so-called “outsider” and indigenous artists alongside established names; to work with artists in the long term, developing and acquiring pieces as collaborations grow. In other words, Paris’s first private foundation for contemporary art is free to behave as a private patron should and to learn on the job.

Trees is the latest in a line of exhibitions conceived by the Fondation Cartier that seek to decentre humans’ view of ourselves as overlords of creation. In 2016, The Great Animal Orchestra exhibition (which visits London in October) sought to establish common intellectual ground between species. Trees goes further, seeking a rapprochement between two kingdoms, the animals and the plants.

Trees are weirdly hard to see because they hide in plain sight. “The tree is the chair on which we sit, the table we use to write, it is our cupboards, our furniture, but also our most ordinary tools,” as Parisian philosopher Emanuele Coccia writes in the exhibition catalogue.

Tree-blindness is made worse by a western intellectual inheritance. When Aristotle asserted in his De plantis that vegetable life is insensate, he was going against Plato, Anaxagoras, Democritus and Empedocles. And he was wrong: plants detect and react to temperature, humidity, air pressure, vibration, sound, touch, trauma and chemical information that we have no short names for. They respond to these sensations as quickly as any animal. They are not less than animals, but they are radically, mind-bendingly different.

A life among trees does things to the eye. Perspective is not much help in reading a treescape, while pattern recognition is vital. Work here by Kalepi, Joseca and Ehuana Yaira, Yanomami artists from the Amazon rainforest, explores the architectonic quality of trees, expressing them as entire bodies rather than (as the western eye prefers) complex assortments of twigs and leaves. The Paraguayan artists of the Gran Chaco region included here, meanwhile, express their forest home more through typology than through aesthetics. Theirs is a forest as well-stocked and well-ordered as a supermarket. Count all the little animals and plants laid out in rows: this is not a wilderness but a tally of self-renewing plenty. The general lesson seems to be that a forest is an environment that’s easier to read for what it contains than to swallow in one gulp.

Drawings and diagrams by contemporary botanist Francis Hallé honour natural history, a European tradition in which aesthetic knowledge and scientific knowledge run parallel. Twentieth-century laboratory-based science finds its way on to Fabrice Hyber’s huge canvases — like wall-sized notebook pages annotated with multicoloured scribbles, graphs, colour wheels and wave forms. In each, Hyber reduces the trees to a single trunk, or a trunk and a branch: a world of abstractions and generalis­ations. Cesare Leonardi’s meticulous drawings reveal the architectural potential of trees — a potential mischievously misappropriated in Peruvian photo­grapher Sebastian Mejía’s pictures of trees strained through fence wire, incorporated into walls or otherwise appropriated by the unliving city.

Some works here protest against the world’s breakneck deforestation. Thijs Biersteker, in collaboration with botanist Stefano Mancuso, offers a salve, wiring two trees in the Fondation’s extensive garden to scientific visualisations to help us empathise with what trees are sensing in real time. (This is more than a rhetorical flourish: the sense data that the piece collects are being corroborated and fed into scientific research, in a work that fulfils a dual artistic and scientific function.)

The lion’s share of the show is given over to Brazilian artist Luiz Zerbini, whose muted, simple monotypes and huge, complex, colourful canvases surround a table herbarium and a tree. The paintings are an Anthropocene jungle of sorts in which urban and natural forms hide in plain sight within a fiercely perpectiveless, rectilinear grid. Give your eyes time to adjust, and you find yourself in a city/forest of the future, where nature is exploited but not exhausted, and beauty and utility coexist.

These canvases suggest that we humans, having crafted our way out of the trees and developed those crafts on an industrial scale, can perhaps learn an even neater trick and make the whole human adventure last beyond this current, rapine moment

I came out of this show happy. I wasn’t just enthused. I’d been converted.

Attack of the Vocaloids

Marrying music and mathematics for The Spectator, 3 August 2019

In 1871, the polymath and computer pioneer Charles Babbage died at his home in Marylebone. The encyclopaedias have it that a urinary tract infection got him. In truth, his final hours were spent in an agony brought on by the performances of itinerant hurdy-gurdy players parked underneath his window.

I know how he felt. My flat, too, is drowning in something not quite like music. While my teenage daughter mixes beats using programs like GarageBand and Logic Pro, her younger brother is bopping through Helix Crush and My Singing Monsters — apps that treat composition itself as a kind of e-sport.

It was ever thus: or was once 18th-century Swiss watchmakers twigged that musical snuff-boxes might make them a few bob. And as each new mechanical innovation has emerged to ‘transform’ popular music, so the proponents of earlier technology have gnashed their teeth. This affords the rest of us a frisson of Schadenfreude.

‘We were musicians using computers,’ complained Pete Waterman, of the synthpop hit factory Stock Aitken Waterman in 2008, 20 years past his heyday. ‘Now it’s the whole story. It’s made people lazy. Technology has killed our industry.’ He was wrong, of course. Music and mechanics go together like beans on toast, the consequence of a closer-than-comfortable relation between music and mathematics. Today, a new, much more interesting kind of machine music is emerging to shape my children’s musical world, driven by non-linear algebra, statistics and generative adversarial networks — that slew of complex and specific mathematical tools we lump together under the modish (and inaccurate) label ‘artificial intelligence’.

Some now worry that artificially intelligent music-makers will take even more agency away from human players and listeners. I reckon they won’t, but I realise the burden of proof lies with me. Computers can already come up with pretty convincing melodies. Soon, argues venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, they will be analysing your brain, figuring out your harmonic likes and rhythmic dislikes, and composing songs made-to-measure. There are enough companies attempting to crack it; Popgun, Amper Music, Aiva, WaveAI, Amadeus Code, Humtap, HumOn, AI Music are all closing in on the composer-less composition.

The fear of tech taking over isn’t new. The Musicians’ Union tried to ban synths in the 1980s, anxious that string players would be put out of work. The big disruption came with the arrival of Kyoko Date. Released in 1996, she was the first seriously publicised attempt at a virtual pop idol. Humans still had to provide Date with her singing and speaking voice. But by 2004 Vocaloid software — developed by Kenmochi Hideki at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona — enabled users to synthesise ‘singing’ by typing in lyrics and a melody. In 2016 Hatsune Miku, a Vocaloid-powered 16-year-old artificial girl with long, turquoise twintails, went, via hologram, on her first North American tour. It was a sell-out. Returning to her native Japan, she modelled Givenchy dresses for Vogue.

What kind of music were these idoru performing? Nothing good. While every other component of the music industry was galloping ahead into a brave new virtualised future — and into the arms of games-industry tech — the music itself seemed stuck in the early 1980s which, significantly, was when music synthesizer builder Dave Smith had first come up with MIDI.

MIDI is a way to represent musical notes in a form a computer can understand. MIDI is the reason discrete notes that fit in a grid dominate our contemporary musical experience. That maddenning clockwork-regular beat that all new music obeys is a MIDI artefact: the software becomes unwieldy and glitch-prone if you dare vary the tempo of your project. MIDI is a prime example (and, for that reason, made much of by internet pioneer-turned-apostate Jaron Lanier) of how a computer can take a good idea and throw it back at you as a set of unbreakable commandments.

For all their advances, the powerful software engines wielded by the entertainment industry were, as recently as 2016, hardly more than mechanical players of musical dice games of the sort popular throughout western Europe in the 18th century.

The original games used dice randomly to generate music from precomposed elements. They came with wonderful titles, too — witness C.P.E. Bach’s A method for making six bars of double counterpoint at the octave without knowing the rules (1758). One 1792 game produced by Mozart’s publisher Nikolaus Simrock in Berlin (it may have been Mozart’s work, but we’re not sure) used dice rolls randomly to select beats, producing a potential 46 quadrillion waltzes.

All these games relied on that unassailable, but frequently disregarded truth, that all music is algorithmic. If music is recognisable as music, then it exhibits a small number of formal structures and aspects that appear in every culture — repetition, expansion, hierarchical nesting, the production of self-similar relations. It’s as Igor Stravinsky said: ‘Musical form is close to mathematics — not perhaps to mathematics itself, but certainly to something like mathematical thinking and relationship.’

As both a musician and a mathematician, Marcus du Sautoy, whose book The Creativity Code was published this year, stands to lose a lot if a new breed of ‘artificially intelligent’ machines live up to their name and start doing his mathematical and musical thinking for him. But the reality of artificial creativity, he has found, is rather more nuanced.

One project that especially engages du Sautoy’s interest is Continuator by François Pachet, a composer, computer scientist and, as of 2017, director of the Spotify Creator Technology Research Lab. Continuator is a musical instrument that learns and interactively plays with musicians in real time. Du Sautoy has seen the system in action: ‘One musician said, I recognise that world, that is my world, but the machine’s doing things that I’ve never done before and I never realised were part of my sound world until now.’

The ability of machine intelligences to reveal what we didn’t know we knew is one of the strangest and most exciting developments du Sautoy detects in AI. ‘I compare it to crouching in the corner of a room because that’s where the light is,’ he explains. ‘That’s where we are on our own. But the room we inhabit is huge, and AI might actually help to illuminate parts of it that haven’t been explored before.’

Du Sautoy dismisses the idea that this new kind of collaborative music will be ‘mechanical’. Behaving mechanically, he points out, isn’t the exclusive preserve of machines. ‘People start behaving like machines when they get stuck in particular ways of doing things. My hope is that the AI might actually stop us behaving like machines, by showing us new areas to explore.’

Du Sautoy is further encouraged by how those much-hyped ‘AIs’ actually work. And let’s be clear: they do not expand our horizons by thinking better than we do. Nor, in fact, do they think at all. They churn.

‘One of the troubles with machine-learning is that you need huge swaths of data,’ he explains. ‘Machine image recognition is hugely impressive, because there are a lot of images on the internet to learn from. The digital environment is full of cats; consequently, machines have got really good at spotting cats. So one thing which might protect great art is the paucity of data. Thanks to his interminable chorales, Bach provides a toe-hold for machine imitators. But there may simply not be enough Bartok or Brahms or Beethoven for them to learn on.’

There is, of course, the possibility that one day the machines will start learning from each other. Channelling Marshall McLuhan, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has argued that art is an early-warning system for the moment true machine consciousness arises (if it ever does arise).

Du Sautoy agrees. ‘I think it will be in the world of art, rather than in the world of technology, that we’ll see machines first express themselves in a way that is original and interesting,’ he says. ‘When a machine acquires an internal world, it’ll have something to say for itself. Then music is going to be a very important way for us to understand what’s going on in there.’

Art that hides in plain sight

We’re presented with many wonders — objects rendered weightless, or put into permanent vibration, vaporous blue mercury and traffic signals turned into lonely, monstrous eyes. And as the show progresses (it’s surprisingly large, designed to unfold around corners and spring surprises at your back) the work gets less intuitive, and a lot louder. A pendulum, orbiting a strong, floor-mounted magnet, whips eccentrically and not at all gently about its centre of attraction. It’s like nothing in visible nature. There’s no “magnetic breeze” here, no “force like gravity”, just the thing, the weirdness itself. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Visiting Takis’s survey show at Tate Modern for the Spectator, 13 July 2019