Book Review – Here Is a Human Being, by Misha Angrist

Here Is a Human Being

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; 1 edition (1 Dec 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0061628336
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061628337
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.9 x 22.9 cm




Between 2006 and 2010, half a million 40-69 year olds, including yours truly, joined the UKBioBank project.  We agreed to share lifestyle and medical information – not to mention blood, saliva, and urine samples – all to help researchers get a better handle on the incidence, cause, and treatment of disease.  With enough subjects, the logic goes, associations between an individual’s characteristics and their health can inform our understanding and treatment of the wider population.

No surprise then that only a few pages in to Misha Angrist’s  Here Is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics I spotted the obvious link between his experience as the fourth subject in Harvard Medical School’s Personal Genome Project (‘PGP) – the theme of his book – and my own humble contribution to medicine.  Both projects are based on ideas around association, to one degree or another involve genomics in support of healthcare goals, and as James Watson said to Angrist on the value of personal genomics, they create “a more compassionate, better society”.

Clearly, there must be differences, otherwise I’d have got to write the book and hang out with the likes of Stephen Pinker – with Angrist settling for the return bus fare to a medical testing center in Croydon.  The distinction is mainly down to issues of privacy, plus the fact that Angrist’s genome was sequenced when it was still a big expensive deal to do that.

UKBiobank data is anonymised.  Even the researchers working with my genome (if and when it’s ever sequenced) won’t know my name .  Angrist’s PGP data, however, is public: genome, life style, medical history; it’s just out there – totally, with his name on it.  To take part in PGP you have to take an exam to show you know what you’re doing; those in the spearhead PGP-10 group required a Masters level training in genetics.  More importantly, as Angrist gets to see his own stuff under the PGP rules, he can share the motivations, emotions, excitement and anxieties that go with that kind of exposure and self-knowledge.  (How effective promises of confidentiality in programs that have them really are is a whole different, but related, topic.)

Human genomics is a young field.  The first composite human genome was published by the U.S. government’s Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003.  A parallel commercial project led by Craig Venter and the Celera Corporation published Venter’s personal genome in 2007.   Early processes were slow and costs correspondingly high; but the promise, particularly for medicine, was great.  Now, as the dream of a medical revolution fades, and free-falling costs open the way for mass genomic profiling, attention has turned more to protecting the public from what some see as a useless, possibly dangerous, product of an immature science – peddled by an exploitative industry.  Insurance companies circle round the latest hot tool for risk minimisation, ready to turn our genome against us.   Bridging the exclusive and commodity phases on the human gemonics timeline, Angrist brings an insiders eye to bear on an uncertain period.  As he says “I had arrived at the theatre early enough to grab a good seat, but the carpenters were still building the sets.”

It’s fashionable to talk about personal genomics in terms of its profound complexities and limitations, and not its useful applications.  You can see why though.  In predicting disease, genes tell only part of the story alongside environmental factors.  As Angrist says, we need to link environment (was a child exposed to lead paint), phenotype (how much did it weigh), and lifestyle (what did I have for breakfast) with personal genomic profiles.  He cites rheumatoid arthritis as an example where from twin studies we know the risk is only 50% genome related.  Disease  is sometimes associated with single defective genes, but more often is the combined expression of many genes interacting with each other and the environment.  Relevant genes may exist anywhere throughout the genome, requiring researchers to search the whole smash – with no clues on appearance or location.  To complicate things further, the same disease is caused by different gene combinations in different people.

That’s not to say some genetic associations don’t give personal genome candidates pause for thought.  When, in a separate study, James Watson’s genome was sequenced, he chose not to know his risk of the incurable Altzheimer’s disease; Angrist’s fellow PGPer Stephen Pinker made the same choice.  As interesting perhaps is the fact that many people do want to know their Altzheimer’s risk – despite the disease’s incurability, and that studies show they can handle the knowledge.  Angrist has a special interest in the breast cancer gene variants BRCA1 and BRCA2, as his daughters would be at an 80% life-time risk were he to pass on defective versions; it seems personal genomes aren’t so personal after all.  In one of the most human moments in the book, Angrist sits  alone with his genome report, about to discover this type of information for the first time.

Angrist is at pains to show where human genomics contributes beyond disease prediction, pointing to work on: drug efficacy across ethnic groups and individuals (testing for hyper-sensitivity to warfarin blood thinner), resolution of paternity disputes (10% of  fathers are not biological), donor screening (of blood and sperm), and identification of lost racial origins or heritance.  One company specialises in providing genome-based nutritional advice, perhaps advising someone whose gene mix inhibits calcium absorption to consider taking a supplement.  Ethically intriguing applications include the use of genetic selection to identify our ideal partner or love match.  These on top of the widely used law enforcement applications of DNA we know and love from TV shows like CSI.

Angrist weaves plenty of historical, technical, and commercial detail into his personal story, much of it original and drawn from interviews with fellow PGP’ers (a truly mixed bag of characters and motivations in their own right), PGP Founder George Church, and a host of specialists in genomics and medicine – including some insightful tid-bits from former HGP Director Francis Collins and James Watson.

You won’t retain it all – I sometimes lost track of who exactly developed what, when, and where; who went bust and reappeared again, etc. – but the main take-away is clear enough.  That despite any limitations and historical hype – “the marketing of personal genomics has outpaced the science” – personal human genomics is far from valueless, and has great potential if we hang in with it.  Specifically, Angrist believes the tangled complexity of genotype-phenotype associations may unravel if a sufficiently large sample of cross-referenced data is available.  And with over a thousand active participants in the PGP in 2012, and thousands more in the queue, it looks like that might just happen.


Misha Angrist blogs at GenomeBoy.


Also of interest:

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





Steven Pinker in conversation with A.C.Grayling at the Wellcome Collection

I’m conscious the blog has a science-celeb Picture Posty feel of late; but remember: (a) there have been an unusual number of cool events in London the past couple of weeks, (b) you like this stuff :-P, (c) someone’s got to do it.

Steven Pinker at the Wellcome Collection (Photo:Tim Jones)
Steven Pinker at the Wellcome Collection (Photo:Tim Jones)

More importantly, you need to know tonight’s conversation with Anthony Grayling and Steven Pinker at the Wellcome Collection was quite excellent, and it’s well worth catching the BBC World Service broadcast of the event on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day: details here.

A.C.Grayling at the Wellcome Collection (Photo:Tim Jones)
A.C.Grayling at the Wellcome Collection (Photo:Tim Jones)

The Pinker canon of academic and popular science writing covers broad ground: from the ‘Stuff of Thought‘s analysis of language and the (amazingly dull sounding but actually very interesting) irregular verbs, through the controversial nature-nurture territory of the ‘Blank Slate‘, to pontification on the (relative) demise of global violence in the recent ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature‘.

Tonight, Grayling steered the Canadian psychologist through the whole smash in about 80 minutes, including a good twenty minutes or more of intelligent audience questions.  The proceedings were introduced as part of the ‘Exchanges at the Frontier’ series by Wellcome’s lead on public programmes Ken Arnold, and Charlie Taylor for the BBC.

Watch out for the broadcast; but as usual here’s a few facts, quotes, stuff-that-I-remember-or-jotted-down, mindless ramblings, as a taster:

The first part of the conversation was about language.  Discussing a generic mental model of how we use metaphor in day-to-day speech, Pinker used the example of  ‘grasping an idea’, ‘getting across’ an idea, to ‘unpack’ an idea – asking us to take the underlying metaphor as a little marble in a box.  The box here is language, we communicate by sending the box, we open the box, the marble inside is the meaning. (Re communication and meaning, also check out my post on James Gleick’s The Information re Claude Shannon, and follow your nose from there.)

Steven Pinker and A.C.Grayling in conversation at the Wellcome Collection (Photo:Tim Jones)
Steven Pinker and A.C.Grayling in conversation at the Wellcome Collection (Photo:Tim Jones)

On another tack, Pinker linked our tendency for profanity – swearing – to the emotional parts of our brain (rather than the rational/cognitive) and activation of the ancient mammalian ‘rage circuit’ – as likely to be triggered by stubbing our toe or sitting on a cat (in which case from the cat’s perspective).  The cat yowls to startle an attacker; our evolutionary hangover induces a good old-fashioned “F***!” (In deference to the BBC he didn’t say it quite like that).

A round of audience questions on language: “Gentleman in the russet tee-shirt” (in the nicest possible way, Grayling is very good at this), and we’re on to subtlties of the mind.  Pinker elaborates his Blank Slate quote “The conscious mind – the self or soul – is a spin doctor, not the commander-in-chief” with reference to how we lie to ourselves (we do), as a means of sounding more convincing when we lie to others: a kind of practice for consistency.  (Pinker referred to Robert Triver’s on this theme, who’s views are expanded here in the Guardian.)

Answering a related audience question on the necessity of language for introspection (e.g. in babies with no language yet), Pinker referenced the ‘default network’: simply put, what your brain is doing when you’re not really thinking on anything in particular.  This seems pretty key, that we can think unconsciously and experience concepts without language.  And while I take Pinker’s point that children must have some non-language dependent cognitive ability to be able to adopt a language in the first place, I suspect there’s a lot we don’t know.

Moving to his latest focus – violence –  Pinker contrasts our violent impulses (e.g. predation, rage) with a counter-tendency for self-control: the infrastructure for his latest book’s broader thesis of inner demons versus better angels.   The ensuing discussion on murder, ideological violence and sadism (an acquired taste, like chili peppers) is probably best left for your Christmas Eve listening.

So what happens when the better angels pull ahead of the pesky demons?

Pinker says we get a general decline in violence.  One that he can illustrate with statistics of murder rates, wars, attrocities – you name it – it’s declined; not necessarily in absolute terms, but on a pro-rata basis for a given population (in the book Pinker explains why this might be a sensible way of measuring things).

Graphs aside though, with all the turbulence in the world today (economic and otherwise), the thrust of the wind-up Q&A was around how permanent this new low-violence regime might be.  Encouragingly – just what we’ll need at Christmas – Pinker suggests Greece won’t in fact be going to war with Germany anytime soon [despite everything], and, likewise, the USA and China will be cool (think: “they make all our stuff, we owe them too much”).

So.  For the most part. We can.  Relax.


(p.s. I asked my own question on how the observed virtuous developments in culture and human nature might somehow express (or have been expressed) in our biology, whether through  genetics or epigenetics, and got a good answer from Pinker. They’re bound to broadcast that bit, but if they don’t I’ll expand in a future post). Update:  [they did 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

Unweaving the Waterfall – Erasmus Darwin at Vauxhall Gardens

Grandson Charles and Grandfather Erasmus Darwin had at least one thing in common besides their illustrious name: they both took delight in figuring out how the world works – which isn’t to say they always followed the same interests.

Charles, we know, focused on the natural world – often in great, great, detail.   Erasmus, less fixated but still very much the naturalist, engaged also with just about every aspect of science, technology and the trials and tribulations of the human condition you can imagine.

Erasmus DarwinCharles Darwin

As happy in the botanical garden as the coachmaker’s yard or canal digger’s trench – it was all the same to him, many are the fields where Erasmus Darwin’s substantive contributions, too often unsung, resonate to the present day.

And while Charles was doubtless adventurous in mind and deed – he did afterall make the voyage of the Beagle – Erasmus, in the broader sense I would argue, ‘got out more’.

No surprise then, one evening in 1756, to find a 24 years young Erasmus Darwin at the epicentre of London society and entertainment: the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall.  Less surprising still to find him back at his Nottingham lodgings pre-occupied with reverse-engineering the Gardens’ then prize crowd-pulling spectacle: the artificial waterfall, or Cascade – more of which later.

Vauxhall Gardens in 1751 (five yrs before Erasmus's visit) Samuel Wale (Wikicommons)

The twelve acre Vauxhall Gardens operated from 1661 to 1859, and enjoyed a fantastically diverse clientele.  Anyone who was anyone – or aspired to be –  had to show their face: from Kings and Queens to honest tradesmen, to a dependable spattering of pick-pockets and prostitutes.

Entertainments at Vauxhall (Photo:Tim Jones. Exhibit at Museum of London)

All mixed shoulder to shoulder, intent on  enjoying music, dancing, or one of the many laid-on spectacles: illuminations, fireworks, circus acts, mechanical wonders, balloon rides, battle recreations and panoramas celebrating the fetes of great explorers.  Top of the list for many would be a romantic diversion with a favoured beau or belle under the tree-covered walkways.

Vauxhall Gardens by David Coke and Alan BorgIncidentally, if you’re wondering what prompted this post – digging around in a pleasure garden – it’s down to my latest reading: a new History of Vauxhall Gardens, by David Coke and Alan Borg1: a beautifully presented, comprehensive, and accessible read.  Check out the book’s website here and write-ups in the Guardian here and here

I’ve suffered from amateur social historian syndrome since arriving in London eleven years ago – it’s hard to avoid when the place drips with the stuff; but the Vauxhall interest is closer to home – literally; my old flat on the Vauxhall Bridge Road overlooked the former Gardens’ site.  Now home to a plain-vanilla grassed park, the only reminder of former glories is the yearly bonfire night sputter of fireworks launched by good-natured, if boisterous, locals. (On which theme, check out this earlier post).

Echo of past glories. View from my flat in 2003: fireworks rising from the former site of Vauxhall Gardens (Photo: Tim Jones)

Reading the new history though, I was intrigued by how few famous scientists (natural philosophers in their day) or technical folk are associated with the Gardens, either as self-reporting visitors or through third-party narratives .

Maybe the great and the good of the scientific establishment eschewed egalitarian Vauxhall in favour of the more exclusive (and expensive) Ranelagh Gardens across the river in Chelsea?  At least there was a stone bust of Isaac Newton on permanent display at Vauxhall.

Anyhow, it’s entirely possible a trawl through the personal letters of individuals, where they’re catalogued, would turn up further references.

For my part, I checked out Erasmus’s letters –  and he didn’t disappoint.

Coming back to the artificial waterfall or cascade for a moment.  Installed in 1752, Coke & Borg say of it:

To add to its theatricality, the Cascade was concealed behind a curtain which was drawn back at a particular time in the evening, as night fell, to reveal a three-dimensional illuminated scene of a landscape with a precipitous waterfall; the illusion was created with sheets of tin fixed to moving belts, turned by a team of Tyer’s [the owner] lamplighters; when it was running, the noise and spectacle must have been terrific 1.

Then I found this letter from Erasmus, dated 9th Septemebr 1756, describing his interpretation of the operation of the spectacle to his friend Albert Reimarus, drawing and all:

Erasmus's drawing of the artifiicial waterfall or cascade at Vauxhall Gardens (Picture credit: The Collected Letters of Erasmus Darwin, Cambridge University Press, 2007, Letter 56-6)

The artificial Water-fall at Vaux Hall I apprehend is done by pieces of Tin, loosely fix’d on the Circumferences of two Wheels.  It was the Motion not being perform’d at Bottom in a parabolic Curve that first made me discover it’s not being natural.  The Velocity at Top is not so great to my rememberance as at the Bottom half of the fall, as I suspect the top Wheel is less than the lower one; a Shade is put where the Wheels join.  At Bottom are many less Wheels I conjecture.  Now the Velocity of the fall from a to b not being encreased was another thing that shock’d my Eye.  What you mean when you say “let the Water fall  over a Parabola etc”, I don’t understand.

Photo:Tim Jones. Exhibit at Museum of London.

I’m taking expressions like “The Velocity at Top is not so great to my remembrance….” as evidence Erasmus actually visited the Gardens himself in the summer of 1756, possibly accompanied by Reimarus.

For Erasmus, the waterfall ‘game’ was given away by the shape of the flow – something other than parabolic, and not moving at the expected relative speeds.

In fairness to the designer (the concept likely derived from Francis Hayman’s theatrical stagecraft), that exposing the spectacle as anything other than natural required such analysis seems high praise indeed!  Incidentally, Coke & Borg maintain no visual representation of the cascade exists, so this might be as close as we get.

(As an aside, there’s also evidence Erasmus’s sister Susannah (Sukey) visited the Gardens.  In a letter of 12th June 1759 to his wife Mary (Polly), Erasmus accuses his sister of exagerating the number of people attending, 30,000, saying that number would not fit3 (although audiences of 12,000 are known to have gathered).  There’s also a much later association with Charles Darwin, that appears in the correspondence4; not that he visited the Gardens but, as a twelve year old boy, having watched one of Vauxhall’s favourite performers, a ventriloquist named Mr Alexandre, did imitations of animal calls – interesting eh?)

We should take care when talking about Erasmus in this period not to visualise him along the lines of the podgy, red-cheeked albeit aimiable 38 year old captured by Joseph Wright and hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.  In 1756, Erasmus was 24 years old, single (he married Mary/Polly Howard the following year), and largely unknown; he’d only two months earlier unpacked his bags in Nottingham to start his first medical practice.

So this is before he moved to Lichfield, and way before the invitation to become the King’s physician, his rivalry with Samuel Johnson (of dictionary fame and a regular at Vauxhall Gardens to the degree he appears in contemporary prints), or his adulation as England’s best loved poet.  Moreover, the brief spell Erasmus spent in Nottingham is sparsley covered in the literature, with no mention in the standard biographies of trips to London or the Gardens. There’s just the one letter as far as I can tell.

In conclusion, it’s nice to see Erasmus’s early credentials as both engineer and bon viveur reinforced in the one story (however much, as a fan, that assessment might be tainted by confirmation bias :-)).

In their longevity, Vauxhall Gardens represent a unique microcosm, a laboratory for the study of change in societal norms, fashion, culture, politics and contemporary opinion.  Coke’s and Borg’s analysis refreshes our insight on these, and placing Erasmus Darwin at the scene adds to our understanding of his early life.

Update 4/9/11

Twitter friends have suggested Samuel Pepys as an example of a ‘scientist’ known to have visited Vauxhall.  He for sure counts as one of the establishment great and the good, and was a president of the Royal Society to boot.  Coke and Borg do talk about Pepys, who wrote at some length about Vauxhall Gardens in his famous diaries.  I’m afraid I associate Pepys so strongly with the Gardens, and for all his other interests and achievements – not just in science, that I completely forgot to mention him – poor chap.  Still, he’s one guy, and it would be interesting to see if any of the other famous scientific names of the day including Newton, Wren, or, as Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh) suggested via twitter, Edmund Halley or Joseph Banks made mention of Vauxhall experiences in their letters.  I must say, if I had my bust up there in all its glory like Newton did, I’d be checking up on it every friday night.

Of related interest on Zoonomian: The Other Darwin Genius



1) Vauxhall Gardens A History, Coke, David., Borg, Alan., Yale, 2011

2) King-Hele, Desmond (Ed.), The Collected Letters of Erasmus Darwin, Cambridge, 2007, [56-6] p.35

3) King-Hele, Desmond (Ed.), The Collected Letters of Erasmus Darwin, Cambridge, 2007, [59-1] p.47

4) Darwin Correspondence Database, accessed on Thu Sep 01 2011 15:56:18 GMT+0100 (BST)


Other Sources

King-Hele, Desmond, Erasmus Darwin 1731-1802, Macmillan, 1963

King-Hele, Desmond, The Essential Writings of Erasmus Darwin, MacGibbon & Kee, 1968

King-Hele, Desmond, Erasmus Darwin A Life of Unequalled Achievement, Giles de la Mare, 1999


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

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




Book Review: Collider – the search for the world’s smallest particles, by Paul Halpern

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: John Wiley & Sons (28 July 2009)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0470286202
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470286203
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.3 x 3.3 cm


Good luck I say to anyone setting out to write a popular science book on particle physics.  The concepts are weird, the math is hard; and on publishing timescales there’s not a whole lot of new stuff worth talking about.

Moreover, it’s a tall order that’s less about content and more about the way you tell it.  Happily, in Collider: The Search for the World’s Smallest Particles– Paul Halpern tells it well.

Anchoring the core physics around a theme is helpful: whether it’s Brian Greene on string theory or Paul Davies on the search for extra terrestrial life or,  as in Halpern’s case, the physics, technology and people that have advanced our understanding of the subatomic world.

Collider is a story of impressive people building big machines to smash small particles together to reveal big truths.  With CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) limbering up under the Franco-Swiss countryside, the timing couldn’t be better.

At 232 pages before the notes, Collider is manageable without being superficial, and has sufficient pace and variety to engage even those for whom memories of high-school science induce a cold sweat (and for whom leptons is just another brand of tea).

Tracts of quantum weirdness interspersed with biographical vignettes and discussions on collider engineering should ensure a broad spectrum of readers stay the distance.  Those led out of their depth, however gently, will find delightful pangs of (at least partial) understanding along the way.   Personally, the engineer in me found particular joy in the mix of ethereal concept and enabling technology that particle physics, perhaps more than any other field, embodies.  Halpern as a physicist clearly enjoys and respects all aspects of the endeavour.  Indeed, Collider stylistically is quite polymathic, even poetic in a Saganish sort of way:

“Alas, summer’s heat sometimes shapes cruel mirages.  After modifying its equipment and retesting its data, the HPWF team’s findings vanished amid the desert sands of statistical insignificance. Skeptics wondered if electroweak unity was simply a beautiful illusion.”

Poetry aside, the physics kicks in early with unification, theories of everything (TOE), and the limitations of an incomplete Standard Model.

The better known particles are introduced via their discoverers’ stories: Thompson’s electron, Roentgen’s X-Rays, Becquerel and the decomposition products of uranium, Rutherford’s proton, and Chadwick’s neutron.

By describing relatively simple experiments from the early era, like the measurement of alpha and beta particle size, Halpern gives his subject a tangibility, a graspable air that prepares  the mental ground for later complexities.

Following the evolution of particle sources, accelerators, and detectors, Collider takes us through a chronology starting with unaccelerated decay products striking stationary targets, to linear accelerators, to the various circular synchrotron variants like Ernest Lawrence’s Bevatron and Cosmotron, ending with the contra-rotating particle streams and super-cooled magnets of the LHC.

As beam energies increased, detectors became more complex, sensitive, and selective, allowing the existence of myriad new particles to be confirmed or discovered.  Cloud and bubble chambers joined hand-held scintillation detectors and Geiger counters in the particle physicists’ armory, and as the forerunners of the giant counters, traps and calorimeters stacked up today in CERN’s ATLAS and ALICE experiments.

Halpern devotes the last three chapters to a discussion of dark matter, dark energy and the possibility of higher dimensions in the context of string, brane and M-theory, where he underlines the mutuality of physics and cosmology in understanding the bang, whimper, crunch or (somewhat depressing) rip possibilities of an uncertain multiverse.

Looking to the future, Halpern suggests the fate of particle physics itself is less certain than current LHC excitement might lead us to believe.  If the Higgs Boson, higher dimensions, or mini-blackholes show up, then fine; but if they don’t – where do we go next?’.  Larger machines might be an answer, but with costs that were never pocket money now truly enormous, stakeholders, including the physics community, will need to look to their priorities.  And as if to say ‘don’t say it will never happen’, Halpern dedicates a whole chapter to the last,  some would say terminal, back-step in American particle physics: the 1992 cancellation of the Reagan era Superconducting Super Collider (SSC).

Something Collider really brought home for me is how the nature of particle physics as a discipline and a career has changed.  Individual pioneers have been replaced by research groups working on projects staffed by thousands.  As Halpern says, if the Higgs were discovered, they’d be no obvious single candidate for the inevitable Nobel prize (except Higgs himself of course).   Data filtration and  computation as disciplines have become as important as the collider itself: the LHC is served by a global network of computers.  That creates the opportunity for remote distributed working and facilitates multi-national involvement, but also means young researchers need to think about the kind of experience, and resume, they’re building.  At PhD level already,  Halpern says the slow pace of fundamental revelations has required a force-put change in the definition of what qualifies for the degree in particle physics [we can’t all split the atom for the first time, right?].

I’ve one critical note on the history, and maybe I’ve just been reading too many Cold War biographies of late, but I felt Halpern’s analysis underplayed the military motivation and sponsorship behind the adolescent years of particle physics.  Given that the  topic’s already well covered in works like Gregg Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb, and that I walked away from Collider feeling inspired rather than cynical, it’s a choice of emphasis I’m inclined to forgive.

So quibbles aside, Collider is a bit of a page turner – which by the timbre of my opening statements isn’t a bad endorsement.   By presenting the obscure realities of particle physics in the context of the machines and people that revealed them, Halpern has for sure made an unfamiliar pill easier to swallow.

Latest Reading – Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation

O.K. – so I was the last person on the planet to see E.T., I still watch TV on a cathode ray tube, and I’m seven years late reading Olivia Judson’s hugely entertaining, accessible, not to say stimulating, guide to evolutionary biology: Dr.Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, making this an admittedly after-the-event review, but a recommendation all the same.

Throughout the guide, Judson stays in character as sex therapist Dr Tatiana, helping all manner of creatures out with their sex problems – agony aunt style.

Olivia Judson
Olivia Judson (Photo: Tim Jones)

And creatures it is.  Ranging from a stick insect jaded with the tedium of ten week copulations; to a praying mantis who finds sex so much more satisfying after biting off her lover’s head; to a fruit fly dismayed that he’s run out of sperm; to a queen bee’s concern that her mates leave their genitalia inside her after sex.

Mixed in with these familiar heterosexual and homosexual practices are gang rape, cannibalism, self-sacrifice, and deception – all to a background of hopeless promiscuity.

The entertainment is delivered by a fascinating cast of cads, bints, sluts, and whores, bonking away at romantic locations  – including the inside of a rat’s intestines.

Lestes sponsa (Emerald Damselfly)
Damsel flies “have evolved some of the fanciest penises around”  Lestes sponsa (Photo: Tim Jones)

That’s the language and tone then: spirited rather than crude I’d say, but probably not first choice for your great gran.

The anthropomorphism is extreme, caricatured, and humorous enough to make any questions around ambiguity and appropriateness non-issues (at least for me).   It’s clever too, each section introducing a discussion on an aspect of evolutionary biology with some fun, if not a giggle, then quickly morphing into serious, yet always palatable, science.

Stick Insect
Stick insects can copulate for 10 weeks continuously (Photo: Tim Jones)

The concepts are familiar: sex ratios, altruism, asexual vs sexual reproduction, dangers of recessive genes and such like; so perhaps I’ve not been under a log after all.  I kept getting flashbacks to ideas I’d first read about in Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene or Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen.  By comparison, Judson’s style in the guise of Dr Tatiana is deliberately and overtly entertaining; but not at the cost of scholarly rigor (there are 62 pages of  Notes and Bibliography).

Praying Mantis
Male praying mantis prefer not to give head (Photo: Tim Jones)

Previous reading certainly didn’t stop me picking up a bunch of new facts and figures on the more macabre and icky side of sexual reproduction.  Knowledge any schoolboy/girl  would be proud to have in his/her  armoury.

Insects dominate Dr Tatiana’s surgery hours, but mammals and birds  do get a look in.   Like the girl hyena concerned over the size of her pseudo-phallus, or the moorhen bemused that his girlfriends are always fighting with each other.

But now I’m giving too much away.

Amazon have the paperback Dr Tatiana on for about £6.50 in the UK, and there’s also a DVD of the TV series based on the book.  No brainer – go get it!