Life signs

Image: @LydNicholas (swiped from her twitter feed)

Image: @LydNicholas (swiped from her twitter feed)

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and the editors of Synthetic Aesthetics pulled no punches when they launched their new book at a “Friday late” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. A couple of audience members interrupted to bemoan the sheer abstractness of the enterprise. Why couldn’t the panel explain what synthetic biologists actually did? A rather unfair criticism of an event that scattered living biological materials across every floor of the museum. The task of explaining where beauty sits in the world of synthetic biology fell to Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, California. Endy explained how, when synthetic biology began, its self-styled “engineers” treated living things as wayward and overcomplicated machines, in need of radical simplification. Now, researchers are learning to appreciate and harness biological complexity. “Ford’s original Model T motor car was simple, in engineering terms, but it was hell to operate. A Tesla is complicated but a pleasure to drive.” Standards of beauty are fuzzy, personal and intuitive. They inspire real conversations. So I imagine talking about beauty in design is useful for a discipline that’s constantly struggling with its own hype, never mind other people’s panic.

Unknown Quantity: a Real and Imagined History of Algebra by John Derbyshire

Unknown Quantity: a Real and Imagined History of Algebra by John Derbyshire
reviewed for the Telegraph,  17 May 2007

In 1572, the civil engineer Rafael Bombelli published a book of algebra, which, he said, would enable a novice to master the subject. It became a classic of mathematical literature. Four centuries later, John Derbyshire has written another complete account. It is not, and does not try to be, a classic. Derbyshire’s task is harder than Bombelli’s. A lot has happened to algebra in the intervening years, and so our expectations of the author – and his expectations of his readers – cannot be quite as demanding. Nothing will be mastered by a casual reading of Unknown Quantity, but much will be glimpsed of this alien, counter-intuitive, yet extremely versatile technique.

Derbyshire is a virtuoso at simplifying mathematics; he is best known for Prime Obsession (2003), an account of the Riemann hypothesis that very nearly avoided mentioning calculus. But if Prime Obsession was written in the genre of mathematical micro-histories established by Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem, Derbyshire’s new work is more ambitious, more rigorous and less cute.

It embraces a history as long as the written record and its stories stand or fall to the degree that they contribute to a picture of the discipline. Gone are Prime Obsession’s optional maths chapters; in Unknown Quantity, six “maths primers” preface key events in the narrative. The reader gains a sketchy understanding of an abstract territory, then reads about its discovery. This is ugly but effective, much like the book itself, whose overall tone is reminiscent of Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 programme In Our Time: rushed, likeable and impossibly ambitious.

A history of mathematicians as well as mathematics, Unknown Quantity, like all books of its kind, labours under the shadow of E T Bell, whose Men of Mathematics (1937) set a high bar for readability. How can one compete with a description of 19th-century expansions of Abel’s Theorem as “a Gothic cathedral smothered in Irish lace, Italian confetti and French pastry”?

If subsequent historians are not quite left to mopping-up operations, it often reads as though they are. In Unknown Quantity, you can almost feel the author’s frustration as he works counter to his writerly instinct (he is also a novelist), applying the latest thinking to his biography of the 19th-century algebraist Évariste Galois – and draining much colour from Bell’s original.

Derbyshire makes amends, however, with a few flourishes of his own. Also, he places himself in his own account – a cultured, sardonic, sometimes self-deprecating researcher. This is not a chatty book, thank goodness, but it does possess a winning personality.

Sometimes, personality is all there is. The history of algebra is one of stops and starts. Derbyshire declares that for 269 years (during the 13th, 14th and early 15th centuries) little happened. Algebra is the language of abstraction, an unnatural way of thinking: “The wonder, to borrow a trope from Dr Johnson, is not that it took us so long to learn how to do this stuff; the wonder is that we can do it at all.”

The reason for algebra’s complex notation is that, in Leibniz’s phrase, it “relieves the imagination”, allowing us to handle abstract concepts by manipulating symbols. The idea that it might be applicable to things other than numbers – such as sets, and propositions in logic – dawned with tantalising slowness. By far the greater part of Derbyshire’s book tells this tale: how mathematicians learned to let go of number, and trust the terrifying fecundity of their notation.

Then, as we enter the 20th century, and algebra’s union with geometry, something odd happens: the mathematics gets harder to do but easier to imagine. Maths, of the basic sort, is a lousy subject to learn. Advanced mathematics is rich enough to sustain metaphor, so it is in some ways simpler to grasp.

Derbyshire’s parting vision of contemporary algebra – conveyed through easy visual analogies, judged by its applicability to physics, realised in glib computer graphics – is almost a let-down. The epic is over. The branches of mathematics have so interpenetrated each other, it seems unlikely that algebra, as an independent discipline, will survive.

This is not a prospect Derbyshire savours, which lends his book a mordant note. This is more than an engaging history; it records an entire, perhaps endangered, way of thinking.


The Eye: a Natural History

This is a book about the nature of the eye. It is about all the eyes that are, and ever have been, and may yet be. It is about how we see the world, and how other eyes see it. It is about what happens to the world when it is looked at, and about what happens to us when we look at each other. It is about evolution, chemistry, optics, colour, psychology, anthropology, and consciousness. It is about what we know, and it is also about how we came to know it. So this is also a book about personal ambition, folly, failure, confusion, and language.

You can buy The Eye: A Natural History at has the American edition, A Natural History of Seeing

Read more about this book.

UK: Bloomsbury. 1st hardback edition, March 2007
UK: Bloomsbury. Paperback, January 2008
Germany: Hoffman und Campe, April 2008
USA: Norton, October 2008
Italy: Einaudi, October 2008
Japan: Hayakawa, 2008
Portugal: Aletheia, 2008


The Weight of Numbers

On July 21, 1969 two astronauts set foot on the moon; far below, in ravaged Mozambique, a young revolutionary is murdered by a package bomb.

Strung like webs between these two unconnected events are three lives: Anthony Burden, a mathematical genius destroyed by the beauty of numbers; Saul Cogan, transformed from prankster idealist to trafficker in the poor and dispossessed; and Stacey Chavez, ex-teenage celebrity and mediocre performance artist, hungry for fame and starved of love. All are haunted by Nick Jinks, a man who sows disaster wherever he goes. As a grid of connections emerges between a dusty philosophical society in London and an African revolution, between international container shipping and celebrity-hosted exposés on the problems of the Third World, The Weight of Numbers sends the spectres of the baby boom’s liberal revolutions floating into the unreal estate of globalization and media overload—

You can pick up a paperback of The Weight of Numbers at Anyone who wants the first edition can fill their boots here.  And there’ll be a Kindle version along in a little while.

Read more about this book

UK: Atlantic. 1st hardback edition, March 2006 
Canada: HarperCollins, July 2006 
UK: Atlantic.Paperback, September 2006
United States: Black Cat, January 2007 
Italy: Il Saggiatore, February 2007 
Germany: Manhattan, April 2007 
Greece: Malliaris, 2007 
France: Editions du Panama; Portugal: Leya, September 2008 
Russia: AST, 2008 
Spain: Bibliópolis, 2008
Czech Republic: Lidove Noviny 
Turkey: Everest Publishing 



Headlong, Simon Ings’ fourth novel, is an intelligent, compassionate portrayal of one man’s struggle to rediscover his humanity after the plugs wiring him up to enhanced sensory input are disconnected… The focus is on Christopher and his grapplings with everyday life, told in well-chosen, prosaic detail… Unlike many who write about neural implants and cyberspace, Ings remains firmly grounded in the everyday, with its small triumphs and disasters and roots in human frailty. Yale’s relationship with his posthuman powers is not simply one of longing for paradise lost. Rather, the message of this mature and thoughtful book seems to be that, ultimately, the human condition is worth fighting for, and transcendent itself in comparison to the mire and immorality of a dystopia that may be just around the corner.
Liz Sourbut in New Scientist, 27 February 1999

First published in1999 by HarperCollins. ISBN: 0006477259



Not a sequel to his first novel Hot Head, but set in the same world and sharing some of the same preoccupations, Simon Ings’ Hotwire asks some interesting questions about how we become human, and how to become human again. Ajay made some bad choices once upon a time–he got his grandfather killed and his sister horribly mutilated; to pay to have her rebuilt, an organ at a time, he has become an all-purpose heavy, first a secret policeman and then an assassin. Rosa has never had any choices–she roams, inconsequentially, the corridors of the space station that is, in a very real sense, her mother, scared of everything she meets and sees. When these two find themselves in improbable alliance, the consequences could be scary, and are highly charged and erotic and at times touching. This is a book about coming to terms with reality, and the very improbability of much of the reality with which the central characters have to come to terms does not lessen the hardness of their choices and our sympathy with them. Full of strongly visualised exotic settings–the slums of Brazil and the interiors of mind human and artificial–this lives up to Ings’ early promise.
Roz Kaveney,

First published in 1995 by Collins. ISBN: 0006477240
(Datafat, 1999 Heyne, Germany, 345-3156-49-8
Kuumalinja, 1996 Loki Kirjat, Finland, 952-9646-87-9)


Hot Head

There is something perverse about a story of hi-tech high adventure which not only insists on describing the damaged childhood of the heroine in quietly sinister detail, but holds the attention while it does so. Simon Ings’ first novel has a charismatically neurotic protagonist–a lapsed Islamic cyborg with a defective exoskeleton nostalgic for the extra senses that the authorities have taken away. She was part of a military force that saved the world once, from the angry Artificial Intelligence Moonwolf, but she is reduced to making blue movies to get access to exotic sensory equipment. And no matter how badly the authorities have behaved, they will always need you when the Earth is in danger again… This is less a cyberpunk novel than one which shares some of the same noirish preoccupations as cyberpunk–AI, the extension of human senses, strange virtual realities–in this case a decrepit seaside resort that is also a lesbian paradise of wistfulness and good coffeeshops. And the heroine does come through, and the world does get saved, but this was never going to be a book that ended otherwise. Hot Head is a remarkable debut, full of startling imagery and set pieces of bizarrely inventive action. 
Roz Kaveney,

First published in 1992 byGrafton Books. ISBN: 0586214968
(Kuuma Pää, 1993, Loki Kirjat, Finland, 952-9646-97-6)


City of the Iron Fish

My less-than-widely-read second novel, written in a brothel in Oporto, on the run from my reputation as a cyberpunk writer.

The following review appears on Novel Reflections

The City is isolated. There is some land around the city, but beyond that there is nothing. Every twenty years the city performs the ceremony of the iron fish and things are changed. Years ago, whole sections of the city moved and were rearranged, new animals, new places arrived through the magic of the ceremony. But over time people have lost interest in it, and lost the rites and rituals to make the magic work.

Thomas Kemp grows up in the shadow of the ceremony and his father’s obsession with it. By the time the ceremony comes around again, he is one of the few who remembers or cares enough about it to begin preparations. ‘Simon Ings has created a strange world here, and one that has no explanation. Some of the inhabitants search for meaning, debate whether there is an outside world that their myths of jungles and oceans derive from. One of these is Kemp’s friend Blythe, an artist. Together they travel to find the edge of their world, and discover nothingness. Their journey changes them both in different ways. Blythe reacts to her experience by creating bleak and frightening work, while Kemp becomes an artist himself.

In a closed environment, what would happen to the people who live there? Their hopes and dreams, their need for freedom and new experiences? This is a place where all forms of artistic expression feed on each other and the past, constantly repeating and vainly striving.

I found this to be a deeply strange book, and I was impressed that the author did not try to explain the existence of the city, and the magic of the fish. Somehow it all worked better to read of Kemp’s life as he lived it, without knowing these things, and stumbling along in this strange world without a map. His passions, confusion, pain and everyday life are laid out to see, and even an evening’s drunken debauch has a ring of truth to it that is very appealing.’

First published in 1994 by Collins. ISBN: 0006476538
(Rautakalan Kaupunki 2005, Loki Kirjat, Finland, 952-9646-05-4)



I remember them. Their mouths, and their needles. That is all. That, and their painted eyes. Their mouths. They never spoke… So begins Adam’s odyssey into a nightmare of corruption and violence, where it is only his forlorn hope that he is helping his autistic son Justin that offers any solace. As everything implodes around him, Adam risks everything – his marriage, his family, his life – to lay hands on the one thing that might save him. His way out. His grail. A small bakelite box with a dial.

A grim, gripping and unrelenting tale in which a neat and happy ending is simply not an option.

Cinematically graphic yet deeply literate, Painkillersoffers a chilling ride into a hell both individual and universal.