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

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.

Just how much does the world follow laws?


How the Zebra Got its Stripes and Other Darwinian Just So Stories by Léo Grasset
The Serengeti Rules: The quest to discover how life works and why it matters by Sean B. Carroll
Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia by Loren Graham
The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
reviewed for New Scientist, 15 October 2016

JUST how much does the world follow laws? The human mind, it seems, may not be the ideal toolkit with which to craft an answer. To understand the world at all, we have to predict likely events and so we have a lot invested in spotting rules, even when they are not really there.

Such demands have also shaped more specialised parts of culture. The history of the sciences is one of constant struggle between the accumulation of observations and their abstraction into natural laws. The temptation (especially for physicists) is to assume these laws are real: a bedrock underpinning the messy, observable world. Life scientists, on the other hand, can afford no such assumption. Their field is constantly on the move, a plaything of time and historical contingency. If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it.

Consider, for example, the charming “just so” stories in French biologist and YouTuber Léo Grasset’s book of short essays, How the Zebra Got its Stripes. Now and again Grasset finds order and coherence in the natural world. His cost-benefit analysis of how animal communities make decisions, contrasting “autocracy” and “democracy”, is a fine example of lawfulness in action.

But Grasset is also sharply aware of those points where the cause-and-effect logic of scientific description cannot show the whole picture. There are, for instance, four really good ways of explaining how the zebra got its stripes, and those stripes arose probably for all those reasons, along with a couple of dozen others whose mechanisms are lost to evolutionary history.

And Grasset has even more fun describing the occasions when, frankly, nature goes nuts. Take the female hyena, for example, which has to give birth through a “pseudo-penis”. As a result, 15 per cent of mothers die after their first labour and 60 per cent of cubs die at birth. If this were a “just so” story, it would be a decidedly off-colour one.

The tussle between observation and abstraction in biology has a fascinating, fraught and sometimes violent history. In Europe at the birth of the 20th century, biology was still a descriptive science. Life presented, German molecular biologist Gunther Stent observed, “a near infinitude of particulars which have to be sorted out case by case”. Purely descriptive approaches had exhausted their usefulness and new, experimental approaches were developed: genetics, cytology, protozoology, hydrobiology, endocrinology, experimental embryology – even animal psychology. And with the elucidation of underlying biological process came the illusion of control.

In 1917, even as Vladimir Lenin was preparing to seize power in Russia, the botanist Nikolai Vavilov was lecturing to his class at the Saratov Agricultural Institute, outlining the task before them as “the planned and rational utilisation of the plant resources of the terrestrial globe”.

Predicting that the young science of genetics would give the next generation the ability “to sculpt organic forms at will”, Vavilov asserted that “biological synthesis is becoming as much a reality as chemical”.

The consequences of this kind of boosterism are laid bare in Lysenko’s Ghost by the veteran historian of Soviet science Loren Graham. He reminds us what happened when the tentatively defined scientific “laws” of plant physiology were wielded as policy instruments by a desperate and resource-strapped government.

Within the Soviet Union, dogmatic views on agrobiology led to disastrous agricultural reforms, and no amount of modern, politically motivated revisionism (the especial target of Graham’s book) can make those efforts seem more rational, or their aftermath less catastrophic.

In modern times, thankfully, a naive belief in nature’s lawfulness, reflected in lazy and increasingly outmoded expressions such as “the balance of nature”, is giving way to a more nuanced, self-aware, even tragic view of the living world. The Serengeti Rules, Sean B. Carroll’s otherwise triumphant account of how physiology and ecology turned out to share some of the same mathematics, does not shy away from the fact that the “rules” he talks about are really just arguments from analogy.

“If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it”
Some notable conservation triumphs have led from the discovery that “just as there are molecular rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place”.

For example, in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, in 2000, there were fewer than 1000 elephants, hippos, wildebeest, waterbuck, zebras, eland, buffalo, hartebeest and sable antelopes combined. Today, with the reintroduction of key predators, there are almost 40,000 animals, including 535 elephants and 436 hippos. And several of the populations are increasing by more than 20 per cent a year.

But Carroll is understandably flummoxed when it comes to explaining how those rules might apply to us. “How can we possibly hope that 7 billion people, in more than 190 countries, rich and poor, with so many different political and religious beliefs, might begin to act in ways for the long-term good of everyone?” he asks. How indeed: humans’ capacity for cultural transmission renders every Serengeti rule moot, along with the Serengeti itself – and a “law of nature” that does not include its dominant species is not really a law at all.

Of course, it is not just the sciences that have laws: the humanities and the arts do too. In The Great Derangement, a book that began as four lectures presented at the University of Chicago last year, the novelist Amitav Ghosh considers the laws of his own practice. The vast majority of novels, he explains, are realistic. In other words, the novel arose to reflect the kind of regularised life that gave you time to read novels – a regularity achieved through the availability of reliable, cheap energy: first, coal and steam, and later, oil.

No wonder, then, that “in the literary imagination climate change was somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel”. Ghosh is keenly aware of and impressively well informed about climate change: in 1978, he was nearly killed in an unprecedentedly ferocious tornado that ripped through northern Delhi, leaving 30 dead and 700 injured. Yet he has never been able to work this story into his “realist” fiction. His hands are tied: he is trapped in “the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the Earth”.

The exciting and frightening thing about Ghosh’s argument is how he traces the novel’s narrow compass back to popular and influential scientific ideas – ideas that championed uniform and gradual processes over cataclysms and catastrophes.

One big complaint about science – that it kills wonder – is the same criticism Ghosh levels at the novel: that it bequeaths us “a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”. Lawfulness in biology is rather like realism in fiction: it is a convention so useful that we forget that it is a convention.

But, if anthropogenic climate change and the gathering sixth mass extinction event have taught us anything, it is that the world is wilder than the laws we are used to would predict. Indeed, if the world really were in a novel – or even in a book of popular science – no one would believe it.

Beware the indeterminate momentum of the throbbing whole


Graham Harman (2nd from right) and fellow speculative materialists in 2007


In 1942, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges cooked up an entirely fictitious “Chinese” encyclopedia entry for animals. Among its nonsensical subheadings were “Embalmed ones”, “Stray dogs”, “Those that are included in this classification” and “Those that, at a distance, resemble flies”.

Explaining why these categories make no practical sense is a useful and enjoyable intellectual exercise – so much so that in in 1966 the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote an entire book inspired by Borges’ notion. Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things) became one of the defining works of the French philosophical movement called structuralism.

How do we categorise the things we find in the world? In Immaterialism, his short and very sweet introduction to his own brand of philosophy, “object-oriented ontology”, the Cairo-based philosopher Graham Harman identifies two broad strategies. Sometimes we split things into their ingredients. (Since the enlightenment, this has been the favoured and extremely successful strategy of most sciences.) Sometimes, however, it’s better to work in the opposite direction, defining things by their relations with other things. (This is the favoured method of historians and critics and other thinkers in the humanities.)

Why should scientists care about this second way of thinking? Often they don’t have to. Scientists are specialists. Reductionism – finding out what things are made of – is enough for them.

Naturally, there is no hard and fast rule to be made here, and some disciplines – the life sciences especially – can’t always be reducing things to their components.

So there have been attempts to bring this other, “emergentist” way of thinking into the sciences. One of the most ingenious was the “new materialism” of the German entrepreneur (and Karl Marx’s sidekick) Friedrich Engels. One of Engels’s favourite targets was the Linnaean system of biological classification. Rooted in formal logic, this taxonomy divides all living things into species and orders. It offers us a huge snapshot of the living world. It is tremendously useful. It is true. But it has limits. It cannot record how one species may, over time, give rise to some other, quite different species. (Engels had great fun with the duckbilled platypus, asking where that fitted into any rigid scheme of things.) Similarly, there is no “essence” hiding behind a cloud of steam, a puddle of water, or a block of ice. There are only structures, succeeding each other in response to changes in the local conditions. The world is not a ready-made thing: it is a complex interplay of processes, all of which are ebbing and flowing, coming into being and passing away.

So far so good. Applied to science, however, Engels’ schema turn out to be hardly more than a superior species of hand-waving. Indeed, “dialectical materialism” (as it later became known) proved so unwieldy, it took very few years of application before it became a blunt weapon in the hands of Stalinist philosophers who used it to demotivate, discredit and disbar any scientific colleague whose politics they didn’t like.

Harman has learned the lessons of history well. Though he’s curious to know where his philosophy abuts scientific practice (and especially the study of evolution), he is prepared to accept that specialists know what they are doing: that rigor in a narrow field is a legitimate way of squeezing knowledge out of the world, and that a 126-page A-format paperback is probably not the place to reinvent the wheel.

What really agitates him, fills his pages, and drives him to some cracking one-liners (this is, heavens be praised, a *funny* book about philosophy) is the sheer lack of rigour to be found in his own sphere.

While pillorying scientists for treating objects as superficial compared with their tinest pieces, philosophers in the humanities have for more than a century been leaping off the opposite cliff, treating objects “as needlessly deep or spooky hypotheses”. By claiming that an object is nothing but its relations or actions they unknowingly repeat the argument of the ancient Megarians , “who claimed that no one is a house-builder unless they are currently building a house”. Harman is sick and tired of this intellectual fashion, by which “‘becoming’ is blessed as the trump card of innovators, while ‘being’ is cursed as a sad-sack regession to the archaic philosophies of olden times”.

Above all, Harman has had it with peers and colleagues who zoom out and away from every detailed question, until the very world they’re meant to be studying resembles “the indeterminate momentum of the throbbing whole” (and this is not a joke — this is the sincerely meant position statement of another philosopher, a friendly acquaintance of his, Jane Bennett).

So what’s Harman’s solution? Basically, he wants to be able to talk unapologetically about objects. He explores a single example: the history of the Dutch East India Company. Without toppling into the “great men” view of history – according to which a world of inanimate props is pushed about by a few arbitrarily privileged human agents – he is out to show that the EIC was an actual *thing*, a more-or-less stable phenomenon ripe for investigation, and not simply a rag-bag collection of “human practices”.

Does his philosophy describe the Dutch East India Company rigorously enough for his work to qualify as real knowledge? I think so. In fact I think he succeeds to a degree which will surprise, reassure and entertain the scientifically minded.

Be in no doubt: Harman is no turncoat. He does not want the humanities to be “more scientific”. He wants them to be less scientific, but no less rigorous, able to handle, with rigour and versatility, the vast and teeming world of things science cannot handle: “Hillary Clinton, the city of Odessa, Tolkein’s imaginary Rivendell… a severed limb, a mixed herd of zebras and wildebeest, the non-existent 2016 Chicago Summer Olympics, and the constellation of Scorpio”.

Graham Harman
Polity, £9.99

The tomorrow person


You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the future by Jonathon Keats
reviewed for New Scientist, 11 June 2016.


IN 1927 the suicidal manager of a building materials company, Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller, stood by the shores of Lake Michigan and decided he might as well live. A stern voice inside him intimated that his life after all had a purpose, “which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world”.

And share it he did, tirelessly for over half a century, with houses hung from masts, cars with inflatable wings, a brilliant and never-bettered equal-area map of the world, and concepts for massive open-access distance learning, domed cities and a new kind of playful, collaborative politics. The tsunami that Fuller’s wing flap set in motion is even now rolling over us, improving our future through degree shows, galleries, museums and (now and again) in the real world.

Indeed, Fuller’s”comprehensive anticipatory design scientists” are ten-a-penny these days. Until last year, they were being churned out like sausages by the design interactions department at the Royal College of Art, London. Futurological events dominate the agendas of venues across New York, from the Institute for Public Knowledge to the International Center of Photography. “Science Galleries”, too, are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, from London to Bangalore.

In You Belong to the Universe, Jonathon Keats, himself a critic, artist and self-styled “experimental philosopher”, looks hard into the mirror to find what of his difficult and sometimes pantaloonish hero may still be traced in the lineaments of your oh-so-modern “design futurist”.

Be in no doubt: Fuller deserves his visionary reputation. He grasped in his bones, as few have since, the dynamism of the universe. At the age of 21, Keats writes, “Bucky determined that the universe had no objects. Geometry described forces.”

A child of the aviation era, he used materials sparingly, focusing entirely on their tensile properties and on the way they stood up to wind and weather. He called this approach “doing more with less”. His light and sturdy geodesic dome became an icon of US ingenuity. He built one wherever his country sought influence, from India to Turkey to Japan.

Chapter by chapter, Keats asks how the future has served Fuller’s ideas on city planning, transport, architecture, education. It’s a risky scheme, because it invites you to set Fuller’s visions up simply to knock them down again with the big stick of hindsight. But Keats is far too canny for that trap. He puts his subject into context, works hard to establish what would and would not be reasonable for him to know and imagine, and explains why the history of built and manufactured things turned out the way it has, sometimes fulfilling, but more often thwarting, Fuller’s vision.

This ought to be a profoundly wrong-headed book, judging one man’s ideas against the entire recent history of Spaceship Earth (another of Fuller’s provocations). But You Belong to the Universe says more about Fuller and his future in a few pages than some whole biographies, and renews one’s interest – if not faith – in all those graduate design shows.

Seven nature-writing books that capture the spirit of animals


Annie Marie Musselman/Redux/Eyevine


It is often impossible to separate how animals behave “wild” from how they behave around humans. Coyotes are a startling example. Once limited to a small range in the south-west US, they responded to eradication campaigns by expanding across all of North America and adopting their would-be nemesis’s habits to an almost ludicrous degree: coyotes have even been seen catching buses.
for New Scientist18 May 2016

The past is like Baltimore: there is no there there


THE past can’t be re-experienced. It leaves only traces and artefacts, which we constantly shuffle, sort, discard and recover, in an obsessive effort to recall where we have come from.

In this New Scientist review (4 April 2015), I got to write about how we invent the past. Highlights include a crying Indian and the biggest nuclear disaster you’ve never heard of.