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.

Beware the indeterminate momentum of the throbbing whole

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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”.

Immaterialism
Graham Harman
Polity, £9.99

The tomorrow person

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Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images

 

Buckminster 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.
for New Scientist11 June 2016.

Seven nature-writing books that capture the spirit of animals

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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

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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.