Category Archives: Books

A Bird that Teaches Itself to Sing: The White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned sparrow ©Tim Jones
White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli) ©Tim Jones

I’ve just finished Richard Dawkins’s self-narrated audiobook of  An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, where, introducing a task given to him by his research supervisor Niko Tinbergen, related to nature versus nurture aspects of animal behaviour, he makes special mention of the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli).  As it happens, earlier this year I caught this native of North America pecking at a fig.

White-crowned sparrow ©Tim Jones
White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli) ©Tim Jones

Is behaviour built in at birth – innate and instinctive?  Or is it learned from experience?  One way ethologists, who study animal behaviour, try to answer such questions is to compare the behaviour of subjects artificially deprived of normal early life learning opportunities with those raised in their natural habitat.

Richard DawkinsIn the case of birdsong, tests on Sedge Warblers show they automatically know their song without ever hearing the tune from another bird.  As Dawkins puts it, they ‘fumble’ towards the final song, trying different sounds and sequences from which they assemble a correct version; so the process is innate: it’s all ‘nature’.

The White-crowned Sparrow also teaches itself to sing its unique song by fumbling and picking out the good bits, but, unlike the Sedge Warbler, it needs to have heard its song from another White-crowned sparrow in early life; it needs a prompt to know where it’s going – so to speak.  As for many animal behaviours, including human behaviours, the White-crowned Sparrow’s song is the product of a nature-nurture combo of innate and learned influences.  Dawkins wonders what similar early life deprivation experiments, within ethical bounds, might be made to study the human condition.

You can hear the White-crowned sparrows song here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Book Review: The Physics Book by Clifford Pickover

the physics book by Clifford Pickover

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Sterling (23 Sep 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1402778619
  • ISBN-13: 978-1402778612
  • Product Dimensions: 22.1 x 19.6 x 3.7 cm


The Kindle’s supremely convenient, and the iPad’s drop-dead gorgeous.  So why do I find Clifford Pickover’s good ol’ fashioned hardback version of The Physics Book so damn attractive.  And I do mean physically – so to speak.  (It’s on iPad too, but read on.)

Maybe I’m getting all bookish-protective in the month that Encyclopedia Britannica wound up its iconic print edition after 244 years?  Or is the tactile slabbiness of The Physics Book a nostalgic reminder of the Purnell’s and Marshall Cavendish encyclopedias of my formative years?  Well, it’s the latter of course; I almost feel like jumping into short trousers for a re-read.

But enough of my fetishes already. 

The Physics Book isn’t really an encyclopedia, but the word kind of fits given the breadth of topics covered.  For each of 250 Milestones in the History of Physics, we’re given enough information to be useful in its own right, but with signposting for further research;  it’s a kind of physics taster if you like.  And while I’m sure it’s readable in two or three good sessions, I found myself dipping in and returning over a period of weeks.  So much for prompt reviews then, but this is an eminently dipinable book.

When I reviewed Tweeting the Universe, I was impressed how the authors tackled the unassuming little task of explaining the whole universe in a series of 140 word ‘tweets’.  Pickover’s offering is a different animal with much more meat on it, but he’s still had to work, effectively I think, at getting a coherent story for each item into one page of text and an accompanying photograph.  Also, Tweeting the Universe doesn’t weigh 1.5kg!

Appropriately kicking off with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the chronological journey is otherwise unsegmented.  How could it be?  Discoveries don’t just pop up in categories to order.  But that also means practical, down-to-earth, physics applications – like the engineering truss – can mingle with less tangible concepts like Pauli’s exclusion principle.  And while there’s no talking down to the reader – there are even a few equations! – I think the spattering of examples linking underlying physics to everyday objects and experiences keeps us all onboard.

The engineering references in particular show how some devices we think of as modern were discovered and applied ages ago, even if they weren’t at the time properly understood in a scientific sense; it turns out the first electric battery pre-dated Volta by a whole millenium.  In other news, we’ve only recently come to grips with why ice is so slippery – and it might not be why you think.  We only figured out how the hourglass works in a 1996 physical modelling study at the University of Leicester (as it happens the city I originally hail from and an area of research technique I used to work in).  Other apparently simple observations still lack a satisfactory explanation, like the mysterious black drop effect that happens when Venus transits the sun.

A repeating theme is discoveries being made independently by more than one person, like the explanation of rainbows, calculus, and the laws of refraction: a reminder perhaps that we discover scientific knowledge, not make it up depending on who we are, where we are, or which culture we belong to.   There are also lessons in the less than intuitive nature of some relationships, like that between fluid volume and pipe size (Poiseuille’s Law).

The popular association of physics with weapons – typically represented by the iconic atom bomb mushroom cloud –  is not neglected or shied away from.  Indeed, Pickover describes a range of weapons enabled by physics through the centuries.  I knew about the boomerang and crossbow, but the prehistoric atlatl technology, exploiting the principle of leverage to kill mammoths and conquistadors with indiscriminating  effectiveness, was news to me.

Pickover’s references are diverse, with lots of modern day and ancient quotations from commentators ranging from Aristotle to Einstein, references to fiction and science fiction, and some pan-cultural associations you wouldn’t expect.  Who knew Edgar Allen Poe first suggested a solution to Olber’s Paradox “Why is the sky dark at night?”.

Certain pre-eminent individuals like Newton, Einstein, and Hawking, as sources of particular inspiration, get their own pages.  William Gilbert De Magnete gets a mention as the first guy to break god’s monopoly on knowledge and start doing proper experiments, as does Eratosthenes for the shear elegance of his Earth circumference calculation from observation and deduction.   Talking of experiments, it’s not the main idea, but there are a few prompts  to try stuff at home, like breaking candy bars or pulling off lengths of scotch tape in the dark to see the triboluminescence.

If big picture, left-field, even spooky physics are your thing, ideas like Quantum Mechanics (including Quantum Electro-dynamics) and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle are generously discussed; also my favourites: Spooky Action at a Distance (Quantum Entanglement, Bell’s Theorem), and stellar nucleosynthesis.  It’s a reminder we’re all made of star stuff, and that reality is weird enough without us making up any extra fairy stories.  Other entries in this vein border on the philosophical (another discipline gobbled up by physics?), like the totally plausible if challenging thought that we might all be living in a Matrix-style simulation.  Then there is Quantum Immortality – the idea that across infinite multiple universes we might live effectively, necessarily, forever.  Likelihood is after that lot you’ll only be good for browsing the photos.

So just as well there are lots of them  – precisely 50 percent by page area.  My favourite – I think I go for shots with people in them – shows observatory staff posing somewhat precariously on the mount of the University of Pittsburgh’s Thaw refracting telescope.  I also like the shot of Stanley and Lawrence standing by their cyclotron.  Other pictures illustrate applications – good and bad: like the squat ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb sitting innocently in its cradle: a simple photograph that evokes so many complex thoughts.  Or more constructively, a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) picture of arteries in the head, for me the ultimate expression of applied, useful, physics.  Some pictures are just fun – like Schrodinger’s Cat peeping out of a cardboard box with a “what?” expression on its face.

Moreover, we’re left in no doubt that physics gets everywhere.  It’s a bit of a joke across the scientific disciplines, in a sour-grapes sort of way, that all the other sciences are a subset of physics.  That’s not the case, but Pickover’s examples for sure underscore physics’ broad reach.  I love the way diffusion and Brownian Motion explains the spread of muskrat populations.

So there you go.  My impressions and a bit of a content summary of items that stuck with me from The Physics Book.   There’s nothing not to like, and despite my reminiscences from childhood, I’m sure readers of all ages and backgrounds will enjoy it –  in iPad or ‘real book’ form!

The truth is stranger than fiction” (Mark Twain and Todd Rundgren)


Other info.


Cliff Pickover’s page on The Physics Book (includes photos)

Preview of electronic version on US iTunes site


Disclosure: I’m grateful to Clifford Pickover for sending me a complimentary copy of The Physics Book





Darwin’s Many Origins

Owning multiple copies of a book isn’t that unusual.   There’s that extra copy for the bath, the duplicate Christmas present you don’t have the heart to return, or maybe you’ve just made home with someone with similar interests – and library: always a good idea.  But no one has hundreds of copies of the same title – do  they?

Sure they do.  Meet the front end of the Huntington Library‘s 252 strong collection of Darwin’s Origin of Species –  all 20 feet of them. I snapped this at the permanent ‘Beautiful Science’ exhibition last month, and have just gotten around to a bit of research:

And turning the corner, here are the rest of them:

Henry Edwards Huntington acquired much of his collection, now at San Marino, by buying up ready-made collections or even whole libraries.  But some books he bought individually, including, in 1860s New York, an 1859 first edition of the Origin of Species in original cloth – for $22.79 (1).   Checking just now, I see you can pick up the same thing in the same city today for a cool $210,000 (Arader Gallery). Nice investment, Henry.

All the Origins at Huntington are different.  Most of the variations are reprints of the early six editions published by John Murray between 1859 and 1872; and then there are all the various languages.  The original six do vary in content though, with Darwin making material changes in response to readers’ comments.

Despite the title’s legendary status, the print runs of Murray’s Origin look modest by modern standards:

1st Edition (1859) 1,250

2nd Edition (1860) 3,000

3rd Edition (1861) 2,000

4th Edition (1866) 1,500

5th Edition (1869) 2,000

6th Edition (1872) 3,000

which goes some way to explain their value today  – although the first editions command disproportionately very much more than any of the others.  (For a comprehensive bibliography of all Darwin’s works see Freeman, R. B. 1977. The works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist. 2d ed. Dawson: Folkstone. and accompanying database at Darwin Online.)

Scholars have argued over the Origin’s scientific content since, well, its origin – so it’s refreshing to find an analysis along a different tack, like Michele and Chris Kohler’s essay about the Origin of Species as a physical object (2).

The authors mention Huntington’s collection of Origins as one of the three largest, along with the Kohler Collection at the Natural History Museum London and the Thomas Fisher Library of the University of Toronto.

Their research also suggests that many more people may have read the first edition than the 1,250 figure suggests, with 500 copies going not to wealthy individuals (books like this were still a luxury for most people) but to Mudies Lending Library – the largest commercial library in the country.  (btw, current Origin sales are a respectable 75,000 to 100,000 units per annum.)

There’s also a discussion on how the content was on occasion not so much lost, but subtley changed, in translation, as in the case of Heinrich Bronn’s first German edition.

The Kohlers’ analysis of price history shows a run-away escalation of first edition values in the 20th and 21st centuries: so from an average £36 in the mid-50’s, to still only £4000 in the 80’s, to a top price of £49,000 in 1999; that’s still a long way off the £100,000+ values being achieved today.

The collector demographic has necessarly changed in step: from pure scholars to business people; but perhaps those working in sci-tech related areas who want, and can afford, to be close to a piece of scientific history.  Maybe that ownership requires a Henry Huntington income is a good thing – reflecting an increased awareness of the value of it’s intellectual message?

There again, maybe it’s all going the way of the art market, with rare books becoming a commodity currency.  What do you think?


1. Henry Edwards Huntington, A Biography. James Ernest Thorpe, University of California Press, 1994

2. Essay by Michele and Chris Kohler in: The Cambridge Companion to the Origin of Species, Ed. Michael Ruse, Robert J Richards, New York, 2008 ( .txt version here)




Book Review: Tweeting the Universe, by Marcus Chown & Govert Schilling

Tweeting the Universe

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber (3 Nov 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0571278434
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571278435
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.4 x 2.9 cm


What do they say: small on size, big on content?  That’s not a bad description of my latest reading.

For a while, I’ve followed physicist and science writer Marcus Chown bravely fielding science questions on Twitter.  And with his friend Govert Schilling doing the same from the Netherlands, it was only a matter of time before we saw Tweeting the Universe: the authors’ new Q & A astronomy book – where the answers come in tweet-sized bites.

Truth be known, they’ve been a bit sneaky here, as the answers aren’t limited to JUST 140 letters – although, in fairness, that would have made for a rather short read.   Instead, each answer comprises a series of ten or so tweet-sized mini factlets that form a complete explanation to – wait for it – 140 questions, grouped under themes like: the moon, planets, sun, stars, galaxies, life in the universe, telescopes etc.  Pedantic nitpicking aside though, when you’re in the groove of this slightly odd format there are noticeable benefits.

For starters, this tweet-speak thing is a great way of absorbing a lot of information on a whole range of topics in a short time.  That’s thanks to the super-high information density that Twitter-style compression delivers over an already substantial 300+ pages; because, like ‘Twitter proper’, there’s no space wasted with redundant language and niceties.  The result is a succinctness and clarity of argument too easily obscured by other formats.

I suspect getting there was no small deal.  Twitterers of the world know how tough it is to condense their message to an essence that followers will still understand, but Chown and Schilling had the trickier job of designing for a broad non-specialist audience.  Not that their efforts will stop my old English teacher spinning in her grave at some of the grammar.

And while it might not be the first choice of seasoned professionals (don’t know though) or those who in general like to submerge in the detail, Tweeting the Universe should have wide appeal, and particularly with the attention-deficit-disorder-generation whose name is written all over it.  The longest you’ll ever have to stick with a topic is one and a half pages.

I read a lot of popular astronomy and physics, but still found questions I’d never think of asking and others I only thought I knew the answer to, like: “Are the stars artificial?”, and “Why is Uranus lying on its side?”  I didn’t know our galaxy has so many satellites, and it was good to revisit some of the less obvious ‘goldilocks’ factors without which humans might not have evolved on Earth: like our stabilising moon and a rather convenient dinosaur extinction.

The content is authoritative, but presented in a light style with an edge of humour: it’s comforting to know the sun would be just as hot if all its hydrogen were swapped for bananas.   There’s also a nice seasoning of the science with cultural and historical references: like the origin of the expression ‘rare as a blue moon’; and the fact the Incas and Aboriginies named constellations not only after star patterns, but also the dark shapes made by gas clouds in the Milky Way (I guess living away from the city gives you these options).

And lastly, I’m reassured that at least one aspect of the universe is constant across all literary forms: namely, that scientists are as clueless about the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in Tweet-form as in any other.

All in all then, Tweeting the Universe is a rich little knowledge bomb, recommended equally for consumption over  a weekend or as an occasional ‘dipper into’ before bed or  between tube stops.   And with Christmas on the way, a nice little stocking-filler too.

Book Review: Humanity 2.0 What it Means to be Human, Past, Present and Future. by Steve Fuller

Paperback: 280 pages

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (6 Oct 2011)

Language English

ISBN-10: 0230233430

ISBN-13: 978-0230233430

Product Dimensions: 21.2 x 13.8 x 2.2 cm


Imagine a future world where technology lets us control our own destiny, enhance our physical and mental performance, extend our lives – perhaps indefinately. How will we come to see ourselves as human beings?  What will it mean to  be human? And how can we manage it all for the common good.

This is the world of Humanity 2.0, and the subject of a new book from Warwick University Professor of Sociology Steve Fuller.

I have to say up front this is the first of Fuller’s books I’ve read through cover to cover, and frankly it was quite a challenge.  Whether it’s the sociologist’s writing style or the somewhat discordant mix of practical and theological content, extracting what Fuller is really trying to say, his thesis if you like, was an uphill job.  To his credit, Fuller has made a series of six short videos summarising his content, and which I’ve added to the end of this post.  They came too late for me, but you’re advised to watch them before reading the book.

That said, I want here to give an overview of the content and critique a few areas particularly where I have issues.

Fuller wants to create egalitarian policy for the development and implementation of transhumanist technologies, and justify sociology’s seat at the multi-disciplinary table that will deliver it.  It’s the laudable focus of his Chapter 3.

But his broader agenda is to dethrone what he sees as a prevailing hegemony of Neo-Darwinism (essentially what Darwin knew plus our knowledge of molecular genetics) and get an alternative variant of intelligent design (I.D.) taught in school science classes; p180:

…the most controversial aspect of my position, namely, that the active promotion of a certain broadly Abrahamic theological perspective is necessary to motivate students to undertake lives in science and to support those who decide to do so.

He’s accordingly raised his game by developing a brand of I.D. better suited to the task as he sees it; p177:

As a true social constructivist, I see myself as one of the constructors of intelligent design theory.  I am not simply remarking from the sidelines about what others have done or are doing, as a historian or journalist might.  Rather I am making a front-line contribution to defining the theory’s identity.

although it’s not clear how much of this is driven from  heart-felt conviction.  Variously describing himself as a Secular Humanist, Humanist, and now Transhumanist, in this Guardian interview  from 2006 he appeared not to favour I.D., but felt it deserved a “fair run for its money”; apparently backing any horse, however lame, that will run against Neo-Darwinism.

Fuller’s appeal to I.D. in Humanity 2.0 is itself ambiguous: he uses the term variously in contexts related to a recognisable deity, p187:

I have been quite open about identifying the ‘intelligence’ of intelligent design with the mind of a version of the Abrahamic God into which the scientist aspires to enter by virtue of having been created in imago dei.

then more in relation to nature, as in his discussion around civic religion, p182:

But what remains specifically ‘religious’ about ‘civic religion’? Two aspects: (1) Science’s findings are framed in terms of the larger significance of things, nature’s ‘intelligent design’, if you will. (2) Science’s pursuit requires a particular species of faith – namely, perseverence in the face of adversity – given science’s rather contestable balance sheet in registering goods and harms….

The former quote is consistent with Fuller’s broader counter to Neo-Darwinism, my reading of which can be summed up as (i.e. my words):

Those committed to a Neo-Darwinist world view are aligned with a historical tradition that decrees we can never know a god who is different from us in kind.  Such people are uninterested in science or technology beyond that required for a continued existence with their fellow animals in a sustainably snug microcosm.  They likewise have no interest in the science and technology of a transhumanist agenda.

It’s never quite clear whether Fuller is projecting God’s image onto man, or man onto God – a model more in line with his version of secular humanism as described in the aforementioned Guardian interview: “human beings at the centre of reality, creating God in their image and likeness” and “taking control of evolution”.   With I.D. tied up with hardcore Creationism in the US, however inappropriately from Fuller’s perspective (he doesn’t support Creationism), some clarification would be helpful.

Coming to structure and content.  The first two chapters major on the idea of human ‘distinctiveness’, or that which makes us uniquely human, discussed in the frame of race and  religion aligned with various biological and theological perspectives from the past, present, and future.  Chapter two specifically defines world views broadly corresponding to ‘naturalistic’ Neo-Darwinism, and a divinely-inspired alternative.

Where naturalistics see themselves “embedded” at one with nature, animals like any others emerging from a process of evolution with natural selection, the divinely-inspired are special: fundamentally separate and above animals, they recognise God because he is an intelligently-designing technician as they are, intent on preserving the essence of their specialness – their humanity.  Traditionally they’d look to do that in soul form, but now have an eye to the alternatives future transhumanist technologies might offer.  All a bit sci-fi for now, but think of uploading thoughts, memories, consciousness to a microchip, robot, clone, hive-mind, or whatever.

Chapter three’s more grounded ‘Policy Blueprint’ centres around the so-called Converging Technologies Agenda (CTA) for the delivery, management, and regulation of technologies for human enhancement, or transhumanism; so: Nanotechnology, Information Technology, Biotechnology and Cognitive Sciences working together under Fuller’s favoured policy regime of ‘anticipatory governance’.

Although more a check-list than a roadmap – I’m still uncertain of the next steps, there’s interesting discussion here on topics like the substantive PR task of selling transhumanist ideas to a CT-sceptical public (think nanotech), use of IT-style early-end-user-involvement to progress it, and the role for media and science communication.

We can expect issues around personal risk and willingness to participate in enhancement technology trials.  Fuller points to the danger of CT perceived as hollow rebranding (again, echos of Nanotech’s relation to chemistry), and questions around standards and norms for developments and applications: e.g. would we take a nanotech or medical lead in a medical situation using that technology?   There are also emerging and diverse management philosophies to accommodate or rationalise; so the USA taking a more ROI-focused, proactionary, human performance emphasis, hands off approach; while Europe favours a precautionary, state-controlling, human welfare emphasis.

For Fuller, sociology’s egalitarian pedigree, manifest in the Welfare State, qualifies its latent contribution.  And with funding for CT industries biased to the private sector, it looks like the common man is going to need a champion.  No centrally driven, government funded, benevolent upgrade for the species this.  The portents are rather for increasing societal inequality and differentiation: a position Fuller contrasts with the public-focused ‘common good’ research environment of the Cold War.  Cynically, and outside any higher moral ambition, CTA could simply serve as a ‘techno-fix’ for over-population or other pressures on the Welfare State, forcing us to work harder and longer for our deferred pensions – no thanks, or getting us off the hook of our ecological responsibilities.

It’s all scary stuff. When we’re popping cogno-enhancers over the cornflakes, and little Jimmy’s off to college by the grace of his cerebral implant, and your investment-banker neighbours have signed up for the latest ‘life-doubler’ programme; one wonders what will qualify us to live, never mind defining our humanity.  That’s me fantasising,  but drug-based cogno-enhancement is here, and Fuller’s born “always already disabled” scenario could happen, hitting hardest the under-priviledged and those who don’t want, or can’t afford, the latest upgrades.

Chapters four and five are a return to theology and full-on Neo-Darwinist bashing, which is a shame given I suspect there is so much more to say in the vein of Chapter three.

Various off-shoots and mini-theses sprout off the core agenda, like discussion on the debt owed to religion by Science and both the Secularist and Enlightenment movements for their existence, albeit with a concession the influence has waned:

..even if it is true that all supernaturally motivated scientific insights are eventually absorbed into the naturalistic worldview, it does not follow either that the supernaturalism was unnecessary or that naturalism is the final word.

Newton appears as the quintessential religiously motivated scientist, which is fair enough provided we remember back then he had only religion to explain anything.  It’s interesting to ask what sort of science a modern-day Newton might pursue.  Would he be one of Fuller’s Neo-Darwinists for whom ‘God differs in kind’, causing him to eschew all impractical science like cosmology, particle physics and String Theory?

I do struggle with this idea that scientists can’t, won’t, or won’t want to do fancy science unless they turn all ‘intelligent design’.  It’s saying we have to be designed in order to aspire to knowledge or value truth.  Or that because Neo-Darwinists wouldn’t recognise God if they found him curled up in the 10th dimension, they wouldn’t bother with String Theory.

Yet scientists, many of whom are Neo-Darwinists, do that kind of science – big time!  So what is it – force of habit?   Well why not?  Maybe we enjoy all that Brian Cox ‘wonders’ stuff because of an evolutionary misfire: a historic brain artifact associated with some evolved inquisitive tendency for practical survival.  We do fancy science, we make a discovery, we revel in our dopamine spike, we do more fancy science.  Simples. That’s why scientists are such fun folk to have around.

Fuller might see that as a reductionist, even nihilistic, worldview.   He’s said that when Darwin killed God he also killed man, or the only part of man that matters – his humanity.  And this is why despite presenting his arguments in a frame of reasoned academic detachment, I’m coming round to thinking Fuller’s propositions are at end religious plain and simple – even if the religion is his own science-flavoured brand.  He ‘feels’ there is no humanity without god, so we must have god.


If you’re not used to reading sociology texts, which I’m not, Humanity 2.0 is hard going.

It should be clear by now that Humanity 2.0’s high-tech cover art conceals a heavy theological edge with pervasive references to intelligent design in the context of an anti-Neo-Darwinism agenda.  And that’s a shame because it distracts from the more diverse, and frankly more interesting, material also there in plenty for those with open minds.

There’s nothing wrong with theological arguments per se, but mixing rational policy debate with what many will see as off-the-wall, politically charged, I.D. rhetoric is a mistake that’s likely to destructively provoke the very individuals and organisations Fuller should be onboarding to secure sociology’s role in the transhumanist agenda.


Quote you can talk outside your area of expertise

Humanity 2.0 – Introduction (What is Humanity 2.0?) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 01 (Humanity Poised Between Biology and Ideology) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 02 (Defining the Human: The Always Ready – Or Never To Be – Object of the Social Sciences?) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 03 (A Policy Blueprint for Humanity 2.0: The Converging Technologies Agenda) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 04 (A Theology 2.0 for Humanity 2.0: Thinking Outside the Neo-Darwinian Box) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 05 (Conclusion: In Search of Humanity 2.0’s Moral Horizon – Or, How to Suffer Smart in the 21st Century from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.


Other reviews of Humanity 2.o

Angela Saini, New Humanist

Julian Baggini at the FT

BioCentre 31/10/11

Steven Poole, Guardian 18/11/11

THE  Kristrún Gunnarsdóttir  1/3/12

Book Review: The Rough Guide to the Future, by Jon Turney

rough guide to the future

  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Rough Guides (1 Nov 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1858287812
  • ISBN-13: 978-1858287812


On the technology website Ars Technica last week, Jonah Lehrer argued that taking a sneaky peep at the end of a novel to see how the plot works out needn’t necessarily spoil a good read.

For myself, I quite like surprises, in fiction at least, so for the foreseeable future I’ll be taking my revelations, denouements, and tricks-of-the-tale in the order the author intended.

Real life’s different though, and I do for the most part like to see what’s coming.  And, for sure, there are any number of would-be oracles, specialists, think-tanks, and other miscellaneous pundits ready to enlighten me.

But therein lies a problem.  When the brain gets too much information from too many sources it doesn’t cope so well.  And given that this is all important stuff we need to have an opinion on: over-population, global warming, peak oil, mass epidemics, starvation, save the panda – asteroid strikes; what’s needed is someone to critically scan, boil down, and filter the myriad forecasts and predictions into a digestible round-up.

Enter Jon Turney’s latest book, The Rough Guide to The Future

(The Rough Guide to The Future (Rough Guide Reference))

‘Rough’ is a curious term to describe a guide that in style, by my reckoning, is both scholarly and popular; but, as Turney says, it’s really more of a recognition that no study about everything can ever be complete.

All the same, Rough Guide to the Future is as comprehensive an analysis of forecast data and topical opinion that you’re likely to find, and one I heartily recommend.

I should also say that I read the Guide, in a fitting juxtaposition of futurity with the primal, on my smartphone whilst halfway up a mountain in a tent.  And while I’m sure there’s virtue in that, I’m missing the pencil scrawl and Post-its I’d ordinarily now be pawing over for a review. Kindle highlights and notes just don’t do it for me.

Here goes anyhow.

Jon Turney at the Royal Society (Photo: Tim Jones)
Jon Turney (Photo:Tim Jones)

In terms of the certainty of its themes and predictions, the Guide follows a sort of three part soft-hard-soft progression. Kicking off with a more philosophical discussion around types of futurity and the methods of futurology, there follows a middle section on relatively near-reach developments on issues we really need to sort this century – so a focus on the 50-100 year time scale.  With more speculative and far-reaching ideas boxed off in the later chapters, it’s an effective mix that majors on practical concerns but with plenty of material to keep budding futurists, sci-fi enthusiasts, and philosophy types on board.

Chapters combine quotations, literature survey, case studies, a Prediction File, and a Further Exploration section (references to futurist texts, various government, NGO and think-tank reports, plus a good dose of science fiction).  The Guide is packed with helpful hyperlinks.

The Predictions Files capture the diverse views of fifty invited commentators asked for their highest hope, greatest fear, and best bet for the future.  Turney’s own replies give something of the flavour:

Highest Hope: “We navigate through the eye of the needle of the middle decades of the century well enough to allow the bottom billion a real chance of a humane life.”

Worst Fear: “The environmental calamity so many informed scientists predict gathers pace faster than our efforts to forestall it.”

Best Bet: “Crises, muddling through and continuing vast inequalities are the order of the day.  In spite of that, it remains, technologically and culturally, the most fascinating of times to be alive.”

Scanning the whole set is a roller-coaster ride between optimism and pessimism. From Anne Skare Nielsen’s High Hope along the lines of the world being what we make it:

“That the majority of the world’s inhabitants will come to the sensible conclusion that if we keep on asking others to change, nothing grand will ever happen.  That we – as Buddhists say – have to be the change we want to see in other people.  We should stop instructing and start constructing.  I hope that we can let go of our need to control, learn to “listen louder” and co-create better solutions that will bring out the best in people”

to the sombre hopelessness of Sohail Inayatullah’s Greatest Fear:

“Endless fear, endless poverty, endless loss of spirit, continued nationalism, crisis after crisis with the inability to see the links, deeper causes, or pattern of crises.”

I touched on ideas from the first part of the book, related to time perception and the nature of past and future in my last blog post, so won’t expand further here.

The ‘hard’ ground at the core of the Guide comprises discrete chapters on what Turney calls Global Basics: energy, climate, water, food, health, biodiversity, war, and disasters.  These are preceded and supported by generic discussions on science futures and population, and followed by material covering softer issues (but not as speculative as those in later chapters) around life, societal values, economic models and sustainability, and global cooperation – the logic being these topics overlay or integrate with the Global Basics.  In the chapter Life, Society and Values, I particularly liked the description of Futurelabs’ 3-Worlds exercise, that considers how the world might look were we to adopt or migrate to different sets of dominant social values.

I’m not about to trot through each and every Global Basic here, but it’s impossible to write, or write-up, a guide to the future without mentioning energy and climate change.

Unfortunately, the problems associated with climate change come in two flavours neither of which, as a species, we’ve met before on any scale or have a record of resolving: (a) their impact is global and therefore shared, and (b) they operate over multi-generational timescales.  The challenge is well summed up in former Shell chairman Ron Oxburgh’s Worst Fear:

“That each country acts in its own perceived short term interests in the belief that this will maintain or raise its economic competitiveness; that emissions will continue to rise, and wealthy nations will use their wealth and technology to achieve a degree of short-term adaptation to a rapidly deteriorating climate, allowing the developing world to take its chances.”

If  there’s one common message from the whole guide, but particularly the Global Basics discussion, for me it’s the need not to see our scientific, technical, societal, and political futures in isolation.  It’s easy to retreat to a technical focus, but some thought leaders are striving for the bigger picture – as challenging a task as that might be.  This quote from Tim Jackson of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission stuck with me:

“the reason why nobody asks the difficult questions that we are asking here is because nobody really has any answers to them”

A somewhat depressing prospect given that the difficult questions are also the important ones.  For me, the apparent absence of any roadmap to transition from what we appear to be in – a treadmill of unsustainable, consumer-driven growth, is deeply worrying.  Few believe this is the century mankind will ramp up to some Utopian ideal, but it will be a poor show if we can’t make substantive corrections to the inequalities in health, wealth and opportunity that characterise today’s (in)humanity.

Incidentally, another message I gleaned from the Guide is that forecasts are, or should be, constantly revised – and some, like the impact of birth rate on future population, are sensitive to small changes.  Likewise the need to question received truths and revisit sources.

Moving to more speculative territory in the last third of the Guide, I should mention how through his many references Turney pays tribute to science fiction.  Since the 19th century, science fiction writers have painted imaginative alternative futures built around surreal technologies, alien life, and revolutionary social orders; and the fiction of the past has often become the fact of the future.

I’ve never been a science fiction nut, but remember as a teenager lapping up futurist works like Arthur C Clarke’s Profiles of the Future and Report on Planet 3, then in the 90’s Francis Kinsman’s Millenium 2000, and most recently Damien Broderick’s Year Million collection.  Now, thanks to the Guide, I’ve rediscovered the works of H.G.Wells and W.Olaf Stapledonwho both convince me how few ideas are truly new.

There’s discussion around life extension, cryogenic preservation, and transhumanism – including the increasingly ubiquitous concept of The Singularity, a condition some think will arise, even within the next 50 years, whereby technology and artificial intelligence will run exponentially away from us, designing and building ever superior versions of itself – even attaining its own form of consciousness.  My take from the Guide on this?  The jury is still well and truly out.

The good news is that through improved nutrition and medicine many more people will be living very much longer (but not necessarily at their leisure).  And through genetic upgrades, we’ll be enhancing our physical performance, visual range, and cognitive abilities.  A brave new world made real.

Then there’s the prospect for life on other worlds, the concept of deep time, and the ultimate fate of life, the universe, and everything;   which, cheerfully, boils down to the heat death of the universe in some tens of trillions of years: a concept clarified not as some giant toasting (although the Earth does get one of those along the way), but the end of heat, energy, and everything from the potato chip to the proton.

So sitting in my tent having completed the Guide, from the seemingly overwhelming challenges of Global Basics to the end of the universe, I ask myself the obvious question: “Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don’t get up and go to work?….”.

At which point I remind myself I’ve two more weeks of holiday to go, and keep on smiling.

After all, there’s still time to put things right.  And the end of the future is a long way off.

Other Information

Jon Turney’s blog at Unreliable Futures

Other reviews of Rough Guide to the Future

James Kingsland, Guardian 11/11/2011  The Rough Guide to the Future – Review

Blast Through Your Past – with Google Street View

“in Sensation we believe external Things exist, in Memory we believe they were, in Imagination we neither do the one nor the other” (Erasmus Darwin quoting poet Richard Gifford back to himself in a letter of 1768.)

Here’s something to try if you haven’t already done it: make a Google Street View tour of all the old homes you’ve ever lived in.

Of course, if you’ve yet to leave the parental home it’s going to be a dull exercise, but if you’ve been around a while and lived in lots of different places, there’s the joy of reminiscing and spotting that the new owners have gotten around to replacing that leaky porch you ignored all those rainy winters.

Street View hasn't caught up with the Belgians - or vica versa

It took me half an hour to track down the twelve places I’ve lived in, bought, or rented over the years (some in the pic above); although the flat I lived in for four years in Brussels came out as, well, flat.  Belgium seems to have been overlooked by Google Street View)

Apart from the idle interest, dredging the past evokes ideas around the concept of time and how we store information and remember things; although if that’s just me, it’s because I’m presently transitioning between two books that touch on the topic: The Information by James Gleick and Jon Turney’s Winton Prize-longlisted The Rough Guide to the Future.

We capture so much nowadays – Gleick: “The information produced and consumed by humankind used to vanish  – that was the norm, the default.  The sight, the sounds, the songs, the spoken word just melted away.”

Then came the first marks on paper, drawings, writing; then photographs. Gleick again:

Now expectations have inverted.  Everything may be recorded and preserved, at least potentially: every musical performance; every crime in a shop, elevator, or street; every volcano or tsunami on the remotest shore; every card played or piece moved in an online game; every rugby scrum and cricket match.

Whether it’s Street View, Flickr, or Friends Reunited, there’s a bunch of stuff pushing in on us, persuading us to reconstruct our pasts in a way that was alien even five years ago.

What does it mean?  Is it good?

For sure, any ideas we might have had about ‘clean breaks’ and ‘moving on’ get a good muddying.  Old friends: material and personal, reappear unbidden – sometimes welcome, othertimes unsettling away from their original context.

In his chapter About Time, Turney says our memories impact our ability to think about the future; afterall, past experience is pretty much all we have to draw on.

The way we build memories, he says, may have adapted specifically to enable the efficient anticipation of new situations, and there is even evidence of a physical link in how we think about past and future events – neurological scans revealing common areas of brain activity.

Our memories “seem to work by storing individual pieces of past experience separately, as part of a complicated, interconnected web …. Our brains then assemble recollections of past episodes by adding together bits of information that seem to be related.

As it happens, by Turney’s reckoning, I’m probably at the optimum age for projecting  possible futures.  Meaning, I’m old enough to have collected some experiences, but not so old I’ve forgotten them all.  (I love some of the terminology people use for age brackets, particularly the ‘old old’ – meaning over 80.  At 49, I’m holding out for ‘young middle-age’.)

I want to wind up the post by sharing some great life-changing revelations resulting from this technology-induced disturbance in my mental time-space continuum and reassessment of ‘self’. But as the most emotionally charged evocations seem to relate to the unfeasible number of lawnmowers I’ve owned over the years, I’ll skip on that and instead leave you with a bit of topical DNA:

“Time is an illusion.  Lunchtime doubly so.”

Douglas Adams.  Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy

Continue reading Blast Through Your Past – with Google Street View

Birmingham’s New Library is Virtually There


22/7/11: I’ve added an update to this post at the end.

25/9/13: Daden’s slideshow on the finished project added

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Birmingham.   I visited the museums when I was a kid, and particularly liked the Museum of Science and Industry.  Then I spent six years studying engineering and researching at the University during the 1980s: many happy memories there too.  But I don’t think in all that time I visited the main public library; at the University we seemed to have everything we needed on campus.

Anyhow, I’m making up for it now with a visit to Birmingham’s NEW library – all from the comfort of my armchair, and at six o’clock in the morning no less.

While construction of the actual building is ongoing, this virtual world simulation in Second Life has been built to help the designers test out the design and make some fine tunings based on public reaction.

Regular readers might know I’m quite sympathetic to virtual worlds, although I’ve often felt I’m ahead of the curve in my enthusiasm.  This simulation by virtual world consultants and builders Daden Ltd reminded me of a similar pilot the London Strategic Health Authority built in association with Dave Taylor‘s team at Imperial College, to test out peoples reactions to getting around a building delivering centralised medical services.  I found out about the Library project from a post on Hypergrid Business Magazine; so hats off to them.

Anyhow, I think one of the points of these exercises is to judge first reactions and impressions, so this post is just my unedited walk-through, stopping now and again to take virtual photographs, with a few of my thoughts along the way.  For the avoidance of doubt, I’m the guy with the NASA 50 tee-shirt and angry ant buried in my shoulder – don’t ask.   I’ll remind you how to make your own visit at the end of the post.

Birmingham sure has changed since I lived here.  You appear in the simulation next to an explanatory board outside the library in a large piazza.  Real photographs on easels are scattered around the simulation showing how real-life construction of that particular bit of the library is progressing.

I thought I’d get cute and do what I’d do in real life, arriving at, say, the British Library in London: get my priorities right and suss out the coffee, toilets and restaurant.  The other important resource is a place to plug in my computer and recharge my phone.  And w-fi of course.  And a place to sit.  And on-line catalogues.  And books.

Anyhow, they were way ahead of me.  The first little bit of interaction that hits you is a survey of how you like to take coffee: with friends, with  a good book, place to meet up with folk etc.  There’s instant feedback on the poll in the form of coloured pillars proportional in size to the response.  I could have ticked several boxes, but plumped for coffee with a good book.

As it turned out, there are quite a lot of toilets.

On to a cafe / restaurant area.  This all has a great feel to it by the way, with a good sense of space and scale.  On the eating front though, I wasn’t clear quite what will be on offer; i.e. will there be various grades of bar, cafe, restaurant, fine-dining etc.  Maybe they don’t know yet.

More loos.

Looks like a theatre, although I didn’t manage to get into the auditorium itself.  I think I’ll pop back later in the day and see if any of these desks are manned by virtual people.  I did bump into one other visitor on this crack of dawn visit, but no project people.

This is cute: kiddies area with kiddy-size furniture and cuddly penguins and stuff lying around.  Middle-age man with ant on shoulder hanging around.  There was also some attractive Spanish Steps-style cushioned seating in this zone; think my camera jammed on that one.


Here’s a bunch of those wind-open walk-in book cabinets you find in libraries.

This is the Youth Zone again, with practice booths on the left.  Not sure what’s being practiced  – languages maybe?

Working up the building, here’s a suitably dark-tomed business area.

Interesting to see if this artwork makes it to real thing.  Again, this sort of thing in the simulation conveys the tone and attitude of the place.  More loos, notice.

Some empty spaces still to be developed: meeting rooms maybe?   Incidentally, I like the way this simulation lets you walk through the occasional unopened door, or even wall.  Interaction adds realism, but fiddly interaction for no purpose  – like aligning yourself with a revolving door to get through it – is just irritating.   They  got the balance here right I think.

This was quite something.  Towering walls covered in books.  Guess we’re in a library.

Near the top of the building is a roof garden.  Some nice views over the piazza.  Reminded me of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank – only better.

Top floors are staff only: explains why I couldn’t get up there.

The only weird techno-hiccup I found.  Sit down to play the piano and you fall into the floor.

Free of the Carbonite, taking in the cultural vibe.  Looks like some Friday evening entertainment, drink in hand, can be had.

Speaking of which.  The whole consumption thing in virtual worlds is a little weird by the way; but you can imagine what this area will be like with folk milling around after work.

And off I go.

In conclusion, it’s fair to say I got a pretty good overall impression of how the building is likely to feel and the facilities on offer.  If you want to know how the actual library activities will work: how to access databases and such like, that’s not what this is about.

I just whisked round quickly today, but I’ll go back later and leave some feedback.  The Hypergrid piece talks about various feedback mechanisms – virtual Post-Its and such like, although I can’t say they jumped out at me.  I’m also guessing the library may add more interactive tools, videos and such like explaining more detail on the facilities, as time goes on.

It will also be interesting to see if the simulation is kept alive after the library-proper is built; I’m thinking simultaneous broadcasts of events from the lecture theatre for example.  Very handy for us London-dwellers.

As promised: if you want to visit, you’ll need a Second Life account (free), and then teleport to the Library of Birmingham region.  You can find me in Second Life as Erasmus Magic.

Overall, looks like a great library in the making; and a friendly, intuitive job on the simulation by the library staff and Daden.


UPDATE 22/7/2011

Information point

That was one fast whistle stop tour.   So fast, as Soulla Stylianou from Daden kindly pointed out, that I completely missed the Library Guide I should have picked up on the way in: a sort of Heads-Up-Display that lets you take a self-guided tour and draw on extra info from the various giant turquoise i’s floating around.

So I’ve just made a return visit to virtual Birmingham – suitably equipped this time – also taking in the aptly named ‘Book Tour’, an annotated ride taken magic carpet fashion on a giant book.  And why not?

I now know amongst other things about the close integration on the project with Birmingham Reperatory Theatre (REP) and, for example, that the practice rooms are for musical instruments, not, as previously suspected, languages.

I also found that for more background to the project, the best starting point is this briefing area, where there’s also DIY training on offer for the Second Life novice.

Lastly, I checked out the interactive control and feedback tools; the simulation lets visitors:

– in ‘annotated spaces’, make comments in the form of smiley-ball graphics that other visitors can in turn comment on , voting an idea up (agree=green) or down (disagree=red).  Active votes range from an appeal to ensure desks are made user-friendly for disabled people, to someone who doesn’t like the yellow carpet.

– with a click change the furnishings / decor / mood of an area, i.e. gallery, music, seating :

 – vote on multiple choice answers to questions posed by the organisers.

Second time around, I’m still of the view simulations like this, while not perfect, bring an angle to communications – and in this case I guess a consultation – that can’t be achieved any other way.  I like the comment/voting system; it will be interesting to see how many green and red smileys appear over the coming months.

Update September 2013

Slide presentation on the project by Daden on Slideshare

Of related interest on Zoonomian

Getting Real about our Virtual Future


Book Review: The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark

Hardcover: 272 pages

  • Publisher: Polygon (1 May 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1846971748
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846971747
  • Product Dimensions: 20.6 x 15.4 x 3 cm





Galileo Galilei’s scrape with the Roman Catholic Church is well known.

His suggestion that the Earth spins on its axis and orbits around the Sun was an afront to scripture that got him branded as a heretic and almost burnt at the stake. How he first became aware of the full peril of his situation is less well known: on a rooftop in Rome, eavesdropping whilst taking a pee behind a bush.

Maybe that’s how it happened, maybe not – either way, the Earth won’t stop turning.

But it’s through these touches of imaginative license: sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, on occasion disturbingly vivid, that Stuart Clark breathes life into the characters of his first novel, The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth.

The title comes from an episode in the book, where Galileo explains the hopelessness of trying to understand the universe without the correct language – mathematics; to do so is to “wander about lost in the dark labyrinth of the sky.”  But don’t panic, it’s an equationless drama.

In this first part of a trilogy that reaches from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, we follow the lives of the astronomers Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) as they challenge the religiously inspired orthodoxy of the times: an Earth-centered universe with the Sun and planets orbiting around in perfect circles – just as God intended.

Each astronomer has special skills and his own ideas about the cosmos:

Tycho, the meticulous naked-eye observer, happy for the Sun to orbit the Earth, yet convinced the other planets revolve around the Sun.

Galileo, arguably the father of evidence-based thinking, points his telescope skyward to see mountains on the moon, satellites around Jupiter, moon-like phases on Venus and Mercury, and spots on the Sun (Clark reminds us Galileo didn’t actually invent the telescope) – each observation a blow to the accepted model of the universe and Aristotle’s concept of a perfect heaven.

And Kepler, obsessed with geometry, turns a rigorous mathematical eye to his compatriots’ data to derive a model of eliptical planetary motion that, relativistic effects aside, is valid to this day.

On the journey, we share starry rooftop nights with Tycho and his armillary spheres and sextants; and with Galileo and his telescope. We encounter scientific concepts, painlessly embedded in the story, from stellar parallax to Kepler’s defining relationship for a planet’s distance and period round the Sun. 

We meet the landmark publications that captured these ideas: Kepler’s discussion of perfect polygons Mysterium cosmographicum, his treatise on Mars: the Astronomia nova, and the Rudolphine Tables of star positions; Galileo’s telescope observations in Sidereus Nuncius and his more troublesome endorsement of Copernican ideas in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

The whole is delivered through a pacey narrative that switches back and forth through time and space.  One moment we’re in Rome, then Prague, then Florence, then Rome again.  Thus Clark weaves his factually-based interplay of lives and ideas.

As in any drama, characters are developed in contexts that resonate with our personal experience: relationships, families, squabbles, births, marriages and deaths – as far as that’s possible 400 years on.   Is that illusory?  Can we ever really see from behind 16th century eyes?   No, we can’t.  But how else to share Kepler’s wonder as he steps out onto the observatory roof, or taste Tycho’s not-so-scientific bon vivre lifestyle and lordly pride, or feel Galileo’s chill dread as he anticipates what a rabid Inquisition has in store?

And that, in a nutshell, is Clark’s proposition.

It’s one where he’s shown due respect for the underlying history, reflected perhaps in a favouring of credible human vignettes over elaborate manufactured sub-plots.  So, lots of expansion on the meetings, schemes, and conflicts that must have taken place but would never be recorded – scenes that  can be directed and embellished to divert and entertain without compromising the main account.

In this regard, it’s a very different book to, say, Edward Rutherfurd’s London, where the main story lines are totally fictional.  Clark’s work comes over as based on historical record and scientific fact.  It’s important, as historians of science in particular can, understandably, take issue with inaccurate or controversial portrayals; I’m thinking of a recent defence of Nevil Maskelyne, the 18th century Astronomer Royal, demonised in the film version of Dava Sobel’s Longitude.

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth begins in Rome, where a defiant Giordano Bruno, comfortable only with his conscience, waits in a cell to be burnt at the stake for heresy.

Johannes Kepler, an outcast Lutheran, arrives in Bohemian Prague to join the service of Tycho Brahe, and get a first sniff of the observational data he’ll one day build into a planetary model.  He also hears about one Galileo Galilei of Padua, and the wonderful discoveries he’s made with his telescope (before long Kepler will have one of his own).

And all the time the Roman Catholic Church is watching, keeping tabs on these dangerous individuals, their troubling independence and inconvenient appeal to evidence.   Kepler is spyed on – his mail intercepted. Galileo, at first encouraged by the Pope, is told in no uncertain terms to leave theological interpretation to the Church; but his thoughts are already committed to print. Thus the slippery slide to persecution, recantation, and repression is joined.

The plot moves between the bloody war-torn streets of Prague and the red robed intrigue of Vatican corridors.  Current events in Reformation Europe are dominated by the struggle between an increasingly Jesuit-influenced Catholic Church and a rising tide of Lutherism.  And our astronomers are in the thick of it.

Far from being godless atheists, they aim to explain God’s works – not undo them.  Yet a Catholic Galileo and a Lutheran Kepler still each grapple to rationalise their ideas to themselves and to a world of dogmatic orthodoxy.  A world where political, theological, and philosophical considerations hold sway over rationalism; where solidarity of belief and allegiance to the group is prized over individual will, conscience, or even physical proof; where mathematical descriptions are acceptable as professional tricks, but will never define truth; where witchcraft is a burning issue, and astronomy is inseparably tied up with the superstition of astrology.

Indeed, Kepler makes a good living drawing up horoscopes for wealthy patrons and courtly sponsors – a trade he revisits as the need arises (Clark actually credit’s him with a rather modern pragmatism on these issues).

Reformation Europe is also a great background for some of Clark’s more vivid visualisations, reminiscent of a Terry Gilliam movie in their medievalism.   I love the “gobs of some thick unguent” Kepler spies clinging at the margins of Tycho’s prosthetic nose when they first meet, and the mood-setting ‘unpleasant tang of tallow’ in Kepler’s study.

Life is dirty, smelly, and not a little dangerous.

On the downside, I occasionally lose track in the switching interplay of events and locations, feeling the need to draw little timeline diagrams – lest I get totally lost in the labyrinth.  And oblivious to any description or other literary signposting, I only ever thought of our heros as bearded old men.  I’ll call it William Shakespeare syndrome- there just aren’t enough ‘before they were famous’ portraits out there.

But none of that detracted from The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth as a thoroughly entertaining and recommended read.

In capturing that essential excitement of the night sky, unchanged over the centuries, Clark has created a work accessible to all comers, and one that astronomers and history fans in particular will doubtless lap up.

I look forward to meeting Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble in future installments.

Stuart Clark’s website is at




Colorful Dining

This piece from last Saturday’s New York Times on food colorings and the influence of color on taste perception takes me back to a Wellcome Trust exhibition I visited in 20031

'Chromatic Diet' by Sophie Calle. At Treat Yourself exhibition, Wellcome/Science Museum 2003 (Photo: Tim Jones)
‘Chromatic Diet’ by Sophie Calle, at Treat Yourself exhibition, Wellcome/Science Museum 2003 (Photo: Tim Jones)

Hosted by the London Science Museum, the Treat Yourself exhibition included an artwork, ‘Chromatic Diet’, by French artist Sophie Calle, that reproduced the colour-based diet followed by a character in Calle’s book Double Game 2.

As I haven’t read it, the appeal of eating a different monochromatic dish each day of the week is beyond me.  But Psychologists have for years studied the effect of colour on taste perception, exposing diners to the likes of green french fries, blue steak, and black spaghetti, sometimes under distorting lighting conditions.

And as the NYT piece underlines, for manufacturers of processed foods, colour is a powerful marketing tool.

Yet without any higher scientific motive, I like the idea of inflicting the chromatic diet (or something similar) on an unsuspecting dinner party, just to see what would happen.

O.k., probably lose some friends; but at least it’s mainly natural ingredients and looks quite doable. And having chickened out in 2003, I’m thinking in the age of Heston Blumenthal this might be the moment.  Let me know what happens if you get there before me.

Here are the ingredients list for the dishes in the picture2:

Orange: Purée of carrots, Boiled prawns, Cantaloupe melon, Orange juice

Red: Tomatoes, Steak tartare, Roasted red peppers, Lalande de Pomerol, domaine de Viand, 1990, Pomegranite

White: Flounder, Potatoes, Fromage blanc, Rice, Milk

Green: Cucumber, Broccoli, Spinach, Green basil pasta, Grapes and kiwi fruit, Mint cordial

Yellow: Afghan omelette, Potato salad, Banana, mango ice cream, Pschitt fizzy lemon drink

Pink: Ham, Taramasalata, Strawberry ice cream, Rosé wine from Provence



(1) Review of Treat Yourself at a-n Magazine

(2)New York Times book review of Double Game