“The English expedition of 1919 is to blame for this whole misery”

‘The English expedition of 1919 is ultimately to blame for this whole misery, by which the general masses seized possession of me,’ Einstein once remarked. Charlie Chaplin understood his appeal: ‘They cheer me because they all understand me,’ he remarked, accompanying the theoretical physicist to a film premiere, ‘and they cheer you because no one understands you.’

Four books to celebrate the centenary of  Eddington’s 1919 eclipse observations. For The Spectator, 11 May 2019.

 

A series of apparently impossible events

Exploring Smoke and Mirrors at Wellcome Collection for New Scientist, 1 May 2019

ACCORDING to John Nevil Maskelyne, “a bad conjurer will make a good medium any day”. He meant that, as a stage magician in 19th-century London, he had to produce successful effects night after night, while rivals who claimed their illusions were powered by the spirit world could simply blame a bad set on “unhelpful spirits”, or even on the audience’s own scepticism.

A gaffe-ridden performance in the UK by one set of spiritualists, the US Davenport Brothers, drove Maskelyne to invent his own act. With his friend, the cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he created an “anti-spiritualist” entertainment, at once replicating and debunking the spiritualist movement’s stock-in-trade effects.

Matthew Tompkins teases out the historical implications of Maskelyne’s story in The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal and the complicity of the mind (Thames & Hudson). It is a lavishly illustrated history to accompany Smoke and Mirrors, a new and intriguing exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

Historical accident was partly responsible. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi sent long-wave radio signals over a distance of a couple of kilometres, and, for decades after, hardly a year passed in which some researcher didn’t announce a new type of invisible ray. The world turned out to have aspects hidden from unaided human perception. Was it so unreasonable of people to speculate about what, or who, might lurk in those hidden corners of reality? Were they so gullible, reeling as they were from the mass killings of the first world war, to populate these invisible realms with their dead?

In 1924, the magazine Scientific American offered $2500 to any medium who could demonstrate their powers under scientific controls. The medium Mina “Margery” Crandon decided to try her hand, but she reckoned without the efforts of one Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, who eventually exposed her as a fraud.

Yet spiritualism persisted, shading off into parapsychology, quantum speculation and any number of cults. Understanding why is more the purview of a psychologist such as Gustav Kuhn, who, as well as being a major contributor to the show, offers insight into magic and magical belief in his own new book, Experiencing the Impossible (MIT Press).

Kuhn, a member of the Magic Circle, finds Maskelyne’s “anti-spiritualist” form of stage magic alive in the hands of illusionist Derren Brown. He suggests that Brown is more of a traditional magician than he lets on, dismissing the occult while he endorses mysterious psychological phenomena, mostly to do with “subconscious priming”, that, at root, are non-scientific.

Kuhn defines magic as “the experience of wonder that results from perceiving an apparently impossible event”. Definitions of what is impossible differ, and different illusions work for different people. You can even design it for animals, as a torrent of YouTube videos, based largely on Finnish magician Jose Ahonen’s “Magic for Dogs”, attest.

Tricking dogs is one thing, but why do our minds fall for magic? It was the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, who argued that there is no metaphysical glue binding events, and that we only ever infer causal relationships, be they real or illusory.

Twinned with our susceptibility to wrongly infer relationships between events in the world is our ability to fool ourselves at an even deeper level. Numerous studies, including one by researcher and former magician Jay Olson and clinician Amir Raz which sits at the exit to the Wellcome show, conclude that our feeling of free will may be an essential trick of the mind.

Inferring connections makes us confident in ourselves and our abilities, and it is this confidence, this necessary delusion about the brilliance of our cognitive abilities, that lets us function… and be tricked. Even after reading both books, I defy you to see through the illusions and wonders in store at the exhibition.

And so we wait

In the 1996 comedy film Swingers, Jon Favreau plays Mike, a young man in love with love, and at war with the answerphones of the world. “Hi,” says one young woman’s machine, “this is Nikki. Leave a message,” prompting Mike to work, flub after flub, through an entire, entirely fictitious, relationship with the absent Nikki. “This just isn’t working out,” he sighs, on about his 20th attempt to leave a message that is neither creepy nor incoherent. “I – I think you’re great, but, uh, I – I… Maybe we should just take some time off from each other. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s what I’m going through.”

Thinking about Delayed Response by Jason Farman (Yale) for the Telegraph, 6 February 2019.

Whose head is it anyway?

Reading Hubert Haddad’s novel Desirable Body for the Guardian, 22 December 2018

English speakers have only two or three translations from the French by which to judge the sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish output of Tunisian poet and novelist Hubert Haddad. He began writing long prose in the 1970s and has been turning out a novel a year, more or less, since the turn of the century.

First published as Corps désirable in 2015, this novel sews a real-life maverick neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, into a narrative that coincides with the bicentenary of the first ever neurosurgical horror story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Cédric Allyn-Weberson, scion of a big pharma plutocrat, has set sail for the coast of Paros with his war correspondent girlfriend Lorna Leer, on a yacht called Evasion. A horrible accident crushes his spine but leaves his head intact. Funded by Cédric’s estranged father Morice, Canavero sets about transplanting Cédric’s head on to a donor body. Assuming the operation succeeds, how will Cédric cope?

Nevertheless, this short, sly novel is not about Canavero’s surgery so much as about the existential questions it raises. Emotions are physiological phenomena, interpreted by the mind. It follows that Cédric’s head, trapped “in a merciless battle … abandoned to this slow, living enterprise, to the invading hysteria of muscles and organs”, can’t possibly know how to read his new body. His life has, sure enough, been reduced to “a sort of crystalline, luminous, almost abstract dream”.

Cédric doesn’t forget who he is; he simply ceases to care, and adopts a creaturely attitude in which self hardly matters, and beings are born and die nameless. In his world, “There was no one, with the exception of a few chance encounters and sometimes some embraces. Did birds or rats worry about their social identity?”

There is something dated about Haddad’s book: an effect as curious as it is, I am sure, deliberate, with piquant hints of Ian Fleming in his use of glamorous European locations. It’s in its glancing, elliptical relationship to technology that Desirable Body takes its most curious backward step. Yet this elusive approach feels like a breath of fresh air after decades spent wading through big infrastructure-saturated fictions such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Haddad focuses succinctly on formal existential questions: questions for which there are no handy apps, and which can in no way be evaded by the application of ameliorating technology.

The besetting existential problem for the book, and, indeed, for poor Cédric himself, is pleasure. He discovers this with a vengeance when he once again (and at last) goes to bed with his girlfriend: “Getting used to this new body after so much time seems like an appropriation of a sexual kind, a disturbing usurpation, a rape almost.” Lorna’s excitement only adds to his confusion: “The last straw is the jealous impulse that overtakes him when he sees her writhing on top of him.”

French critics have received Desirable Body with due solemnity. Surely this was a mistake: Haddad’s nostalgic gestures are playful, not ponderous, and I don’t think we are required to take them too seriously. Following Cédric’s dismal post-operative sexual experience, the book changes gear from tragedy to farce; indeed, becomes laugh-out-loud funny as he finds himself king-for-a-day in a buffoonish and clockwork world where “no one is really loved because we constantly go to the wrong house or the wrong person with the same extraordinary obstinacy”.

Desirable Body is about more than one decapitated man’s unusual plight; it’s about how surprisingly little our choices have to do with our feelings and passions. A farce, then, and a sharp one: it’s funny to contemplate, but if you fell into its toils for a second, you’d die screaming in horror.

Prudery isn’t justice

Reading Objection: Disgust, morality, and the law by Debra Lieberman and Carlton Patrick for New Scientist, 15 September 2018

Ww want the law to be fair and objective. We also want laws that work in the real world, protecting and reassuring us, and maintaining our social and cultural values.

The moral dilemma is that we can’t have both. This may be because humans are hopelessly irrational and need a rational legal system to keep them in check. But it may also be that rationality has limits; trying to sit in judgement over everything is as cruel and farcical as gathering cats in a sack.

This dilemma is down to disgust, say Debra Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of Miami, and Carlton Patrick, a legal scholar at the University of Central Florida. In Objection, they join forces to consider why we find some acts disgusting without being reprehensible (like nose-picking), while others seem reprehensible without being disgusting (like drunk driving).

Disgust is such a powerful intuitive guide that it has informed our morality and hence our legal system. But it maps badly over a jurisprudence built on notions of harm and culpability.

Worse, terms of disgust are frequently wielded against people we intend to marginalise, making disgust a dangerously fissile element in our moral armoury.

Can science help us manage it? The prognosis is not good. If you were to ask a cultural anthropologist, a psychologist, a neuroscientist, a behavioural economist and a sociologist to explain disgust, you would receive different, often mutually contradictory, opinions.

The authors make their own job much more difficult, however, by endorsing a surreally naive model of the mind – one in which “both ’emotion’ and ‘cognition’ require circuitry” and it is possible to increase a child’s devotion to family by somehow manipulating this “circuitry”.

From here, the reader is ushered into the lollipop van of evolutionary psychology, where “disgust is best understood as a type of software program instantiated in our neural hardware”, which “evolved originally to guide our ancestors when making decisions about what to eat”.

The idea that disgust is to some degree taught and learned, conditioned by culture, class and contingency, is not something easily explored using the authors’ over-rigid model of the mind. Whenever they lay this model aside, however, they handle ambiguity well.

Their review of the literature on disgust is cogent and fair. They point out that although the decriminalisation of homosexuality and gay marriage argues persuasively for legal rationalism, there are other acts – like the violation of corpses – that we condemn without a strictly rational basis (the corpse isn’t complaining). This plays to the views of bioethicist Leon Kass, who calls disgust “the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity”.

Objection explores an ethical territory that sends legal purists sprawling. The authors emerge from this interzone battered, but essentially unbowed.

 A History of Silence reviewed: Unlocking the world of infinitely small noises

The present, properly attended to, alone and in silence, reveals time’s awful scale. When we think about the past or the future, what we’re actually doing is telling ourselves stories. It’s in the present moment, if we dare attend to it, that we glimpse the Void.

Reading Alain Corbin’s A History of Silence (Polity Press) for The Telegraph, 3 September 2018

Gendun Chopel: Putting the Kama Sutra in the shade

Reviewing a new verse translation of Gendun Chopel’s Treatise on Passion for The Spectator, 9 June 2018.

The Tibetan artist and poet Gendun Chopel was born in 1903. He was identified as an incarnate lama, and ordained as a Buddhist monk. In 1934 he renounced his vows, quit Tibet for India, learned Sanskrit and — if his long poem, usually translated as A Treatise on Passion, is to be taken at face value — copulated with every woman who let him.

Twelve years later he returned to Tibet, and was thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. The experience broke him. He died of cirrhosis in 1951, as troops of China’s People’s Liberation Army were marching through the streets of Lhasa.

Chopel’s reputation as the most important Tibetan writer of the 20th century is secure, mostly through his travelogue, Grains of Gold. The Passion Book is very different; it is Chopel’s reply to the kamasastra, a classical genre of sanskrit erotica best known to us through one rather tame work, the Kama Sutra.

If Chopel had wanted to show off to his peers back home he could simply have translated the Kama Sutra —but where would have been the fun in that? The former monk spent four years researching and writing his own spectacularly explicit work of Tibetan kamasastra.

It is impossible not to like Chopel — ‘A monastic friend undoing his way of life,/ A narrow-minded poser losing his facade’ — if only for the sincerity of his effort. At one point he tries to get the skinny on female masturbation: ‘Other than scornful laughs and being hit with fists/ I could not find even one who would give an honest answer.’

Still, he gets it: ‘Since naked flesh and sinew are different,’ he warns his (literate, therefore male) readership, ‘How can a thorn sense what the wound feels?’

Thus, like touching an open wound,
The pleasure and pain of women is intense

Chopel insists that women’s and men’s experiences of sex differ, and that women are not mere sources of male pleasure but full partners in the play of passion. So far, so safe. But let’s not be too quick to tidy up Chopel’s long, dizzying, delirious mess of a poem, which jumps from folk wisdom about how to predict a woman’s future by studying the moles on her face, to a jeremiad against the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, to evocations of tantric states, to the sexual preferences of women in various regions of India, to sexual positions, to fullblown sexual delirium:

They copulate squatting and they copulate standing;
Intertwined, with head and foot reversed, they copulate.
Hanging the woman in the air
With a rope of silk they copulate.

Chopel’s translators, Donald S Lopez Jr. and Thupten Jinpa — Tibetan and Buddhist scholars, who a few years ago also translated Grains of Gold — have appended a long afterword which goes some way to revealing what is going on here.In the Christian faith, sexual intercourse may lead to hell. The early tradition of Buddhism took a different position: sex is fine, so far as it goes; it’s everything that follows — marriage, home, property, domestic contentment, the pram in the hall — that paves the road to perdition.

This is what inspires Buddhism’s tradition of astounding misogyny. Something has got to stop you from having sex with your own wife — and a famous Mahayana sutra has the solution. Think of her as a demon. An ogre. A hag. As sickness, old age, or death:

As a huge wolf, a huge sea monster, and a huge cat; a black snake, a crocodile, and a demon that causes epilepsy; and as swollen, shrivelled and diseased.

The rise of the tantric tradition altered sexual attitudes to the extent that one was now actually obliged to have intercourse if one ever hoped to achieve buddhahood. But the ideal tantric playmate — a girl of 16 or younger, and ideally low-caste — was still no more than a tool for the enlightenment of an elite male.

Chopel, coming late to the ordinary delights and comforts of sex, was having none of it. Lopez and Jinpa speculate entertainingly about where Chopel sits in the pantheon of such early sexologists as Ellis, Freud and Reich. For sure, he was a believer in sexual liberation: ‘When suitable deeds are prohibited in public,’ he asserts, ‘Unsuitable deeds will be done in private.’

Jeffrey Hopkins translated Chopel’s A Treatise on Passion into prose in 1992 as Tibetan Arts of Love. This is the first effort in verse, and though a clear, scholarly advance, the translators have struggled to render the carefully metered original into lines of even roughly the same number of syllables. You can understand their bind: even in the original Tibetan, there’s still no critical edition. With so much basic scholarship to be done, it would have been pointless if they had simply jazz-handed their way through a loose transliteration.

Their effort captures Chopel’s charm, and that’s the main thing. As Chopel said of the act itself: ‘It may not be a virtue, but how could it be a sin?’

Elements of surprise

Reading Vera Tobin’s Elements of Surprise for New Scientist, 5 May 2018

How do characters and events in fiction differ from those in real life? And what is it about our experience of life that fiction exaggerates, omits or captures to achieve its effects?

Effective fiction is Vera Tobin’s subject. And as a cognitive scientist, she knows how pervasive and seductive it can be, even in – or perhaps especially in – the controlled environment of an experimental psychology lab.

Suppose, for instance, you want to know which parts of the brain are active when forming moral judgements, or reasoning about false beliefs. These fields and others rest on fMRI brain scans. Volunteers receive short story prompts with information about outcomes or character intentions and, while their brains are scanned, have to judge what other characters ought to know or do.

“As a consequence,” writes Tobin in her new book Elements of Surprise, “much research that is putatively about how people think about other humans… tells us just as much, if not more, about how study participants think about characters in constructed narratives.”

Tobin is weary of economists banging on about the “flaws” in our cognitive apparatus. “The science on this phenomenon has tended to focus on cataloguing errors people make in solving problems or making decisions,” writes Tobin, “but… its place and status in storytelling, sense-making, and aesthetic pleasure deserve much more attention.”

Tobin shows how two major “flaws” in our thinking are in fact the necessary and desirable consequence of our capacity for social interaction. First, we wildly underestimate our differences. We model each other in our heads and have to assume this model is accurate, even while we’re revising it, moment to moment. At the same time, we have to assume no one else has any problem performing this task – which is why we’re continually mortified to discover other people have no idea who we really are.

Similarly, we find it hard to model the mental states of people, including our past selves, who know less about something than we do. This is largely because we forget how we came to that privileged knowledge.

“Tobin is weary of economists banging on about the ‘flaws’ in our cognitive apparatus”
There are implications for autism, too. It is, Tobin says, unlikely that many people with autism “lack” an understanding that others think differently – known as “theory of mind”. It is more likely they have difficulty inhibiting their knowledge when modelling others’ mental states.

And what about Emma, titular heroine of Jane Austen’s novel? She “is all too ready to presume that her intentions are unambiguous to others and has great difficulty imagining, once she has arrived at an interpretation of events, that others might believe something different”, says Tobin. Austen’s brilliance was to fashion a plot in which Emma experiences revelations that confront the consequences of her “cursed thinking” – a cognitive bias making us assume any person with whom we communicate has the background knowledge to understand what is being said.

Just as we assume others know what we’re thinking, we assume our past selves thought as we do now. Detective stories exploit this foible. Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film, begins at the end, as it were, depicting the story’s climactic murder. We are fairly certain we know who did it, but we flashback to the past and work forward to the present only to find that we have misinterpreted everything.

I confess I was underwhelmed on finishing this excellent book. But then I remembered Sherlock Holmes’s complaint (mentioned by Tobin) that once he reveals the reasoning behind his deductions, people are no longer impressed by his singular skill. Tobin reveals valuable truths about the stories we tell to entertain each other, and those we tell ourselves to get by, and how they are related. Like any good magic trick, it is obvious once it has been explained.

Pushing the boundaries

Rounding up some cosmological pop-sci for New Scientist, 24 March 2018

IN 1872, the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann developed a theory of gases that confirmed the second law of thermodynamics, more or less proved the existence of atoms and established the asymmetry of time. He went on to describe temperature, and how it governed chemical change. Yet in 1906, this extraordinary man killed himself.

Boltzmann is the kindly if gloomy spirit hovering over Peter Atkins’s new book, Conjuring the Universe: The origins of the laws of nature. It is a cheerful, often self-deprecating account of how most physical laws can be unpacked from virtually nothing, and how some constants (the peculiarly precise and finite speed of light, for example) are not nearly as arbitrary as they sound.

Atkins dreams of a final theory of everything to explain a more-or-less clockwork universe. But rather than wave his hands about, he prefers to clarify what can be clarified, clear his readers’ minds of any pre-existing muddles or misinterpretations, and leave them, 168 succinct pages later, with a rather charming image of him tearing his hair out over the fact that the universe did not, after all, pop out of nothing.

It is thanks to Atkins that the ideas Boltzmann pioneered, at least in essence, can be grasped by us poor schlubs. Popular science writing has always been vital to science’s development. We ignore it at our peril and we owe it to ourselves and to those chipping away at the coalface of research to hold popular accounts of their work to the highest standards.

Enter Brian Clegg. He is such a prolific writer of popular science, it is easy to forget how good he is. Icon Books is keeping him busy writing short, sweet accounts for its Hot Science series. The latest, by Clegg, is Gravitational Waves: How Einstein’s spacetime ripples reveal the secrets of the universe.

Clegg delivers an impressive double punch: he transforms a frustrating, century-long tale of disappointment into a gripping human drama, affording us a vivid glimpse into the uncanny, depersonalised and sometimes downright demoralising operations of big science. And readers still come away wishing they were physicists.

Less polished, and at times uncomfortably unctuous, Catching Stardust: Comets, asteroids and the birth of the solar system is nevertheless a promising debut from space scientist and commentator Natalie Starkey. Her description of how, from the most indirect evidence, a coherent history of our solar system was assembled, is astonishing, as are the details of the mind-bogglingly complex Rosetta mission to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – a mission in which she was directly involved.

It is possible to live one’s whole life within the realms of science and discovery. Plenty of us do. So it is always disconcerting to be reminded that longer-lasting civilisations than ours have done very well without science or formal logic, even. And who are we to say they afforded less happiness and fulfilment than our own?

Nor can we tut-tut at the way ignorant people today ride science’s coat-tails – not now antibiotics are failing and the sixth extinction is chewing its way through the food chain.

Physicists, especially, find such thinking well-nigh unbearable, and Alan Lightman speaks for them in his memoir Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. He wants science to rule the physical realm and spirituality to rule “everything else”. Lightman is an elegant, sensitive writer, and he has written a delightful book about one man’s attempt to hold the world in his head.

But he is wrong. Human culture is so rich, diverse, engaging and significant, it is more than possible for people who don’t give a fig for science or even rational thinking to live lives that are meaningful to themselves and valuable to the rest of us.

“Consilience” was biologist E.O. Wilson’s word for the much-longed-for marriage of human enquiry. Lightman’s inadvertent achievement is to show that the task is more than just difficult, it is absurd.

Writing about knowing

Reading John Brockman’s anthology This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, overlooked, and underappreciated scientific concepts everyone should know for New Scientist, 24 February 2018 

Literary agent and provocateur John Brockman has turned popular science into a sort of modern shamanism, packaged non-fiction into gobbets of smart thinking, made stars of unlikely writers and continues to direct, deepen and contribute to some of the most hotly contested conversations in civic life.

This Idea Is Brilliant is the latest of Brockman’s annual anthologies drawn from edge.org, his website and shop window. It is one of the stronger books in the series. It is also one of the more troubling, addressing, informing and entertaining a public that has recently become extraordinarily confused about truth and falsehood, fact and knowledge.

Edge.org’s purpose has always been to collide scientists, business people and public intellectuals in fruitful ways. This year, the mix in the anthology leans towards the cognitive sciences, philosophy and the “freakonomic” end of the non-fiction bookshelf. It is a good time to return to basics: to ask how we know what we know, what role rationality plays in knowing, what tech does to help and hinder that knowing, and, frankly, whether in our hunger to democratise knowledge we have built a primrose-lined digital path straight to post-truth perdition.

Many contributors, biting the bullet, reckon so. Measuring the decline in the art of conversation against the rise of social media, anthropologist Nina Jablonski fears that “people are opting for leaner modes of communication because they’ve been socialized inadequately in richer ones”.

Meanwhile, an applied mathematician, Coco Krumme, turning the pages of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Lottery in Babylon, conceptualises the way our relationship with local and national government is being automated to the point where fixing wayward algorithms involves the applications of yet more algorithms. In this way, civic life becomes opaque and arbitrary: a lottery. “To combat digital distraction, they’d throttle email on Sundays and build apps for meditation,” Krumme writes. “Instead of recommender systems that reveal what you most want to hear, they’d inject a set of countervailing views. The irony is that these manufactured gestures only intensify the hold of a Babylonian lottery.”

Of course, IT wasn’t created on a whim. It is a cognitive prosthesis for significant shortfalls in the way we think. Psychologist Adam Waytz cuts to the heart of this in his essay “The illusion of explanatory depth” – a phrase describing how people “feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence and depth than they really do”.

Humility is a watchword here. If our thinking has holes in it, if we forget, misconstrue, misinterpret or persist in false belief, if we care more for the social consequences of our beliefs than their accuracy, and if we suppress our appetite for innovation in times of crisis (all subjects of separate essays here), there are consequences. Why on earth would we imagine we can build machines that don’t reflect our own biases, or don’t – in a ham-fisted effort to correct for them – create ones of their own we can barely spot, let alone fix?

Neuroscientist Sam Harris is one of several here who, searching for a solution to the “truthiness” crisis, simply appeals to basic decency. We must, he argues, be willing to be seen to change our minds: “Wherever we look, we find otherwise sane men and women making extraordinary efforts to avoid changing [them].”

He has a point. Though our cognitive biases, shortfalls and the like make us less than ideal rational agents, evolution has equipped us with social capacities that, smartly handled, run rings round the “cleverest” algorithm.

Let psychologist Abigail Marsh have the last word: “We have our flaws… but we can also claim to be the species shaped by evolution to possess the most open hearts and the greatest proclivity for caring on Earth.” This may, when all’s said and done, have to be enough.