Lunar renaissance

The punchier contestants who entered the never-awarded Lunar X Prize are racing to launch their probes. Who will make moonfall first? My money is on Israel’s SpaceIL. While everyone else was crashing through the X Prize’s deadlines, trying to design wheeled vehicles for their rovers, SpaceIL was racing ahead with a vehicle that bounces about the lunar surface like a steel bunny.

A preview piece for New Scientist, looking forward to the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing

Prudery isn’t justice

We 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, and that trying to sit in judgement over everything is as cruel and farcical as gathering cats in a sack.

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

Mars in a dish

Don’t call this an AI, whatever you do. Jenna Sutela’s mentor on this project, Memo Atkin, has issued a public warning that “every time someone personifies this stuff, every time someone talks about ‘the AI’, a kitten is strangled.”

Watching Jenna Sutela’s art-video nimiia cétiï for New Scientist, 11 September 2018

Object Lessons

George Loudon moves from shelf to shelf, past exquisite Blaschka glass slugs, felt fungi, a meticulously repaired elephant bird egg. “Now these objects have lost their original purpose, we can look at them as objects of beauty,” he says. “I’m not claiming that this is art forever. I am saying it is art for today.”

Visiting Surreal Science at London’s Whitechapel Gallery for New Scientist, 8 September 2018

 

Scotland’s secret weapon

NOBODY catches much fish around the island of Arran now: overfishing and pollution have hit wild populations hard. There are still plenty of fish, mind: not free-swimming, but cooped up in huge salmon farms that leach detritus, pesticides, antibiotics and plastic waste into the Firth of Clyde. Yet it is to Arran that Scotland’s coastal communities have turned to see a working vision of a cleaner, healthier, more productive ocean.

Attending the launch of  Shore: How we see the sea for New Scientist, 18 August 2018

Parade of the Possible

Watching the Elfwegentocht parade spool by for New Scientist, 18 July 2018

Astronaut André Kuipers has enjoyed his share of travel, and has no doubt racked up some air miles. Who better, then, to wave the start flag for a parade of futuristic vehicles?

Spooling along at a sedate 30 miles an hour down the motorway from Drachten to Leeuwarden, this year’s European Capital of Culture, they lacked a certain Mad Max flair. But that’s Friesland for you: a land of 60 languages and 128 nationalities, birthplace of Mata Hari – and when you drive through there’s nothing to see but cows.

The Parade was the festive conclusion of the Elfwegentocht: for two weeks, people have got about the region without using a drop of fossil fuel. “And now we’ve shown it’s possible,” says Bouwe de Boer, the municipality’s energy coordinator at the municipality of Leeuwarden, “we’ve shown that it is possible also for the rest of the Netherlands.”

De Boer is now project leader of Fossylfrij Fryslân, the fossil-free movement in Friesland, bringing disparate environmental campaigns and start-up technologies together to achieve real goals in tiny time frames. Electric vehicles dominate the parade but as de Boer points out, there are other ways to drive fossil-free. “Think of trucks and buses on hydrogen, cars on blue diesel, buses on green gas, Segways, bicycles, mobility scooters, go-karts…”

Go-karts? It’s a gimcrack future, this – but then, what else can the future ever be but an amalgam of new and old, complex and homespun?

The two big innovative technologies on display here aren’t actually “on display” in a physical sense. You’ll have to take my word for it that the “Blauwe Diesel” manufactured by Neste in Rotterdam from restaurant waste and residues is, indeed, satisfyingly blue. It’s a pure HVO (“hydrotreated vegetable oil” to you), low on emissions and so similar to regular diesel in the way it behaves that it requires no modifications to existing diesel engines or distribution systems. At a pump near you – assuming you live in this go-ahead region of the Netherlands – it could be the saving of an industry that some manufacturers and governments have already written off. Meanwhile Neste is trying to make its blue diesel from other sources, including old car tires, waste paper and algae.

Elsewhere in the parade, under the bonnets of a handful of electric cars, sit batteries from MG Energy Systems. These are the batteries you most often find in racing cars and speedboats, and they’re the brainchild of local entrepreneurs Gerard van der Schaar and Mark Scholten, whose first project, back in 2006, was a vessel to compete in the world’s first solar boat race (another de Boer initiative).

They quickly discovered that batteries were the boats’ Achilles’ heel. There was simply no good battery management system available. A little over a decade later their products power the Furia solar boat, which has finished first in just about every international solar boat event; Solarwave 62, the first hybrid yacht with electric propulsion to cross the Atlantic Ocean; the Elektra One Solar, the first electric-and-solar aircraft to fly over the Alps; and the Nuna7 car, winner of the World Solar Challenge in 2013, having achieved an average speed of 90.71 kmh for over 30 hours.

De Boer is proud of his region’s achievements but he has his eye on the bigger picture, too. As of 27 June the Netherlands has set in train one of the world’s most ambitious climate laws, which if it’s finalised in 2019, will set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95 per cent by 2050, with the introduction of a carbon-neutral electricity system. (The UK’s mandated 2050 emissions target is an 80 per cent reduction. Sweden and Norway are set to go carbon neutral by 2045 and 2050 respectively)

De Boer talks excitedly about Friesland’s circular energy economy. Cleaning up waste water in this region generates methane which is being harvested to boost biogas production. He talks excitedly about advances in renewable energy. Solar panels power MG’s entire battery factory. He talks excitedly about everything, quite frankly. But it’s an incidental detail which captures my attention: fruit, I am told, of another one of de Boer’s endless stream of friendly, chivvying phone-calls.

The police looking after the parade are riding electric bikes.

The mechanisms of empathy

A conversation with Keaton Henson for New Scientist, 16 July 2018

What inspired your new composition Six Lethargies?

Keaton Henson     Sad songs are something we all understand. I wondered if, instead of bringing people to tears, which can be quite cathartic, I could give them a direct musical experience of my anxiety disorder. When I used to perform live, I would distract myself from my anxiety by watching my audience – this group of 3000 strangers – and how they reacted to certain chord changes and certain inflections in my voice. You can really feel this happening. I became fascinated by the mechanisms of empathy.

And music is one of those mechanisms?

KH     For sure. Every culture we know of dances around a fire. Our heartbeats sync up, we all follow this one rhythm, and we feel the tribe unite. If I explain my break-up in words, say, you will be able to understand to a degree what I’m going through. But if I write a piece of music and play it to you, you might just start crying, and that’s totally incredible because I’m not giving you any framework. I’m not necessarily reminding you of something from your past. It’s purely those patterns that are bringing you to tears.

KH     The Britten Sinfonia are performing a piece in six movements, and five of these movements simply explain how I feel. But there’s also a movement that’s designed to elicit those feelings in the Barbican Hall audience, which is where Brendan comes in.

Brendan Walker    I’m best known for my work helping design roller-coasters. More generally, I’m playing with the synergies between bodily rhythms and patterns in nature that have an emotional impact. Think, for example, about breathing rhythm, heartbeat, and why we find calm in the sound of waves crashing on a beach. For Six Lethargieswe’re gathering electrodermal activity data from a portion of the audience. The electrical conductivity of the skin is the physiological trait most closely associated with the state of anxiety and the one that’s most easily decoded.

KH     Brendan’s kit is set up so that a tiny pore on someone’s fingertip will control the hall’s huge lighting rig, in real time. It’s an amazing thing, and very beautiful. It can be a very uniting and comforting thing to be surrounded by people. At the same time, being surrounded by people you don’t know is a perfect breeding ground for anxiety. The more anxious you become, the more you feel, “Oh God, I’m anxious again, and everyone will notice!” Well, we’re going to be projecting people’s anxiety through the entire lighting rig of the Barbican Hall. This perfectly represents what anxiety is like.

2nd

And the more anxious the audience is, the more anxious you’re going to make them…

BW     Yes. In the movement I’m working on, we’re not just trying to communicate. We’re trying to actually elicit a state of anxiety. We’re talking about having quiet rooms and ways to extract people if they feel panicked at any stage.

KH     I’m hoping that Friday’s performance at the Barbican will be the first of many. We’re interested in trying different things for each show, including varying the type of data we gather, and who we choose to gather data from.

How much research went into this piece?

KH     In particular I went to Canada to meet with a cognitive neuroscientist called Jessica Grant who studies the relationship between music, rhythm and emotion. But I’m a massive science nerd, and I’m wary of crossing too far into the realm of research. I wanted to use scientific thought and theory to help express what I’m feeling. I didn’t want *Six Lethargies* to become manipulative or sterile.

How did you go about composing Six Lethargies?

KH     I kept asking myself, what’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to achieve? It’s probably baroque music, because that’s all about resolving tension, again and again. It delivers these constant hits of relief. I don’t want to give too much away about the show, but a lot of it is going to be about what people think they’re going to get next — and what I can do to stop them getting it.

You could simply not turn up…

KH     I’ve given myself certain limitations! For instance, I’m composing purely for string orchestra – believe me, you can do some really weird stuff with strings. And Six Lethargies is a tonal composition. Atonal music is everyone’s go-to method for inducing anxiety. But I’m a singer-songwriter. I write pop songs. I work with intervals and scales. I decided I would try to make an anxious piece while hitting all the proper notes.

“Proper” for whom?

KH     Music is built out of the melody of speech, and the way our speech patterns convey emotion. We assume Western music is a sort of universally understood music that can convey emotion intuitively to all cultures, and as it turns out we’re not altogether wrong. Pretty much everyone around the world will hear the Moonlight Sonata and think, Wow, Beethoven must have been really sad when he wrote that.

Do people expect anxiety to sound a certain way?

KH     A lot of people have been talking to me about Bernard Herrmann’s theme music for the film Psycho. And, naturally, I’ve avoided any suggestion of that in this project. I want to avoid anything that people might expect to hear. Anxiety is all about not knowing what is going to happen next.

Is that what it’s like to have your anxiety disorder?

KH     In horror movies, when the terrifying thing bursts out of the door, you’re given this horrible fright which lasts a millisecond and is immediately followed by a sigh of relief. You’re pulling on a string and then releasing it. For me, that tension is never released. It’s like an infinite rollercoaster, just building up, and up, and the higher it gets, the more you realise the drop is going to be very steep indeed…

How Charles Dickens became a man of science

Visiting Charles Dickens: Man of Science, at the Charles Dickens Museum, London for New Scientist, 16 June 2018

EVEN as he became the most celebrated and prolific author, the most energetic editor and the most influential political and social campaigner of his day, Charles Dickens was well aware of the science around him. Indeed, he took inspiration from it, and was even engaged in promoting and explaining it.

The trouble is, in an effort to build a show around this notion, the Charles Dickens Museum has fixated almost entirely on its hero’s friendships. Because Dickens knew everybody, the show struggles to find its focus. Even with a following wind, it is hard to feel much excitement on learning that Ada Lovelace had Dickens read her a passage from Dombey and Son on her deathbed.

But several other personal connections – reflected in an impressive display of books, autographs and prints – carry more weight. Dickens was also pals with Jane Marcet, author of the monstrously successful (and in the US, even more monstrously plagiarised) Conversations on Chemistry. A book mostly about Humphry Davy’s work, Conversations may be considered the first popular science book – never mind the first written by a woman. It inspired Michael Faraday to take up work that eventually led to his Christmas lectures, entitled The Chemical History of a Candle, which Dickens promptly serialised as short stories in his magazine Household Words.

Other investigations of energy were less orthodox, like Dickens’s discussion of the medical cures that might be obtained from “mesmeric fluids”. And it drove Dickens’s friend George Henry Lewes spare that the man responsible for serious scientific essays in Household Words was the same man who let characters in his novels burst spontaneously into flame, as with the illiterate rag-and-bone man Krook (who holds the key to the legal battle at the heart of Bleak House).

Writing about that notorious spontaneous human combustion scene, Lewes accused Dickens of cheap sensationalism and “of giving currency to a vulgar error”, perpetuating it “in spite of the labours of a thousand philosophers”. But he was on a losing wicket: contemporaries Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Washington Irving all had characters incandesce.

It is not accuracy we expect of Dickens, though, it is vision. It may be interesting that Our Mutual Friend uses the word “energy” in its new scientific sense. But what really thrills the heart is to follow Krook’s visitors up the stairs as they are about to find his body.

“‘See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won’t blow off – smears like black fat!’… A thick, yellow liquor defiles them… A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder…”

Come and be horrified.

The ambition of transhumanism

Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, a travelogue of strange journeys and bizarre encounters among transhumanists, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize. Wearing my New Scientist hat I asked O’Connell how he managed to give transhumanism a human face – despite his own scepticism.

Has transhumanism ever made personal sense to you?

Transhumanism’s critique of the human condition, its anxiety around having to die — that’s something I have some sympathy with, for sure, and that’s where the book began. The idea was for the door to some kind of conversion to be always open. But I was never really convinced that the big ideas in transhumanism, things like mind-uploading and so on, were really plausible. The most interesting question for me was, “Why would anyone want this?”

A lot of transhumanist thought is devoted to evading death. Do the transhumanists you met get much out of life?

I wouldn’t want to be outright prescriptive about what it means to live a meaningful life. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. I think if you’re so devoted to the idea that we can outrun death, and that death makes life utterly meaningless, then you are avoiding the true animal nature of what it means to be human. But I find myself moving back and forth between that position and one that says, you know what, these people are driven by a deep, Promethean project. I don’t have the deep desire to shake the world to its core that these people have. In that sense, they’re living life to its absolute fullest.

What most sticks in your mind from your researches for the book?

The place that sticks in my mind most clearly is Alcor’s cryogenic life extension facility. In terms of just the visuals, it’s bizarre. You’re walking around what’s known as a “patient care bay”, among these gigantic stainless steel cylinders filled with corpses and severed heads that they’re going to unfreeze once a cure for death is found. The thing that really grabbed me was the juxtaposition between the sci-fi level of the thing and the fact that it was situated in a business park on the outskirts of Phoenix, next door to Big D’s Floor Covering Supplies and a tile showroom.

They do say the future arrives unevenly…

I think we’re at a very particular cultural point in terms of our relationship to “the future”. We aren’t really thinking of science as this boundless field of possibility any more, and so it seems bit of a throwback, like something from an Arthur C. Clarke story. It’s like the thing with Elon Musk. Even the global problems he identifies — rogue AI, and finding a new planet that we can live on to perpetuate the species — seem so completely removed from actual problems that people are facing right now that they’re absurd. A handful of people who seem to wield almost infinite technological resources are devoting themselves to completely speculative non-problems. They’re not serious, on some basic level.

Are you saying transhumanism is a product of an unreal Silicon Valley mentality?

The big cultural influence over transhumanism, the thing that took it to the next level, seems to have been the development of the internet in the late 1990s. That’s when it really became a distinct social movement, as opposed to a group of more-or-less isolated eccentric thinkers and obsessives.

But it’s very much a global movement. I met a lot of Europeans – Russia in particular has a long prehistory of attempts to evade death. But most transhumanists have tended to end up in the US and specifically in Silicon Valley. I suppose that’s because these kinds of ideas get most traction there. You don’t get people laughing at you when you mention want to live forever.

The one person I really found myself grappling with, in the most profound and unsettling way, was Randal Koene. It’s his idea of uploading the human mind to a computer that I find most deeply troubling and offensive, and kind of absurd. As a person and as a communicator, though, Koene was very powerful. A lot of people who are pushing forward these ideas — people like Ray Kurzweil — tend to be impresarios. Randal was the opposite. He was very quietly spoken, very humble, very much the scientist. There were moments he really pushed me out of my scepticism – and I liked him.

Is transhumanism science or religion?

It’s not a religion: there’s no God, for instance. But at the same time I think it very obviously replaces religion in terms of certain basic yearnings and anxieties. The anxiety about death is the obvious one.

There is a very serious religious subtext to all of transhumanism’s aspirations. And at the same time, transhumanists absolutely reject that thinking, because it tends to undermine their perception of themselves as hardline rationalists and deeply science-y people. Mysticism is quite toxic to their sense of themselves.

Will their future ever arrive?

On one level, it’s already happening. We’re walking round in this miasma of information and data, almost in a state of merger with technology. That’s what we’re grappling with as a culture. But if that future means an actual merger of artificial intelligence and human intelligence, I think that’s a deeply terrifying idea, and not, touch wood, something that is ever going to happen.

Should we be worried?

That is why I’m now writing about a book about apocalyptic anxieties. It’s a way to try to get to grips with our current political and cultural moment.

To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death
Mark O’Connell
Granta/Doubleday