You wouldn’t stop here for gas

Reading Lyndsie Bourgon’s Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in the Woods for the Telegraph, 12 July 2022

Worldwide, the illegal timber trade is worth around 157 billion dollars a year. According to oral historian Lyndsie Bourgon, thirty per cent of the world’s wood trade is illegal, and around 80 per cent of all Amazonian wood harvested today is “poached” (a strange term to apply to timber, which would struggle to fit into the largest poche or pocket — but evocative nonetheless). $1 billion worth of wood is poached yearly in North America.

Bourgon focuses her account on thefts from public lands and forest parks of the Pacific North-West. There are giants here, and Methuselahs. “Old-growth” trees, more than two hundred years old, are intagliated with each others’ root systems, with fungal hyphae and with other soil systems we’ve barely begun to understand. Entire ecosystems may stand or fall on the survival of a single 800-year-old red cedar — an organism so huge it may take weeks or months to saw up and remove from the forest, leaving a trail of sawdust, felling wedges and abandoned equipment.

That the trade in such timber was not sustainable has never been a secret, and to save some of the world’s oldest and biggest trees, the Redwood National Park was established in 1968.

But while the corporations received compensation for their lost profits, the promised direct government relief for workers never materialised. “Do you know what it’s like to work 20 years, then sleep in a pick-up truck?” asked Seattle’s archbishop Thomas Murphy, at a 1994 summit attended by the new president, Bill Clinton; “A way of life is dying.”

North America’s oldest timber companies were founded near the town of Orick, on the banks of the Redwood Creek in Humboldt County, California. Orick’s first commercial sawmill opened in 1908. Orick is now home to just under 400 people. You wouldn’t stop here for gas on your way to a luxury cabin on US Forest Service land, or a heated yurt by Park Canada.

To live in Orick is to feel the walls closing in: one woodsman turned poacher, Danny Garcia, likens the sensation “to having your car break down in the middle of nowhere — you’ve no cash to fix it and no way out.”

This, says Garcia, is where his “tree troubles” started, but he wasn’t the first to go sawing chunks out of giants. His partner in crime Chris Guffie says: “I’ve been at it for so doggone long. It’s like Yogi Bear and the park ranger.”

“To begin to understand the sadness and violence of poaching,” says Bourgon, “we need to consider how a tree became something that could be stolen in the first place.” Like it or not, conservation has patrician roots: in the 1890s, organisations like the New York Sportsmen’s Club lobbied to ensure access to game and fish for its members. Dedicated hunting and fishing seasons suited their sporting clientele, but as a letter to a Wyoming paper put it: “When you say to a ranchman, ‘You can’t eat game, except in season,’ you make him a poacher, because he is neither going hungry himself nor have his family do so…”

Remove land from a community, Bourgon argues, and you make poaching “a deed of necessity”. So why not buy the land and give it back to its people, along with the tools to protect and manage it. Going by the experiences of the 59 community forests that now dot the province of British Columbia, community forests create twice as many jobs as those run by independent industry.

Of necessity, however, Bourgon spends more pages explaining the workings of a solution more palatable to central authority: an ever-more interconnected system of police surveillance, involving cameras, magnetic plates, LIDAR and, most recently, genetic testing. Even as Bourgon wrote this book, a genetic map was being assembled to make wood products, at least in the Pacific North-West, traceable to their original growing locations. The brilliance of this effort, spearheaded by Rich Cronn at the Oregon State University at Corvallis, cannot hide the fact that it is facilitating an age-old mistake: substituting enforcement for engagement.

Bourgon gives a voice both to the rangers risking their lives to save some of the planet’s oldest trees, and to poachers like Danny Garcia whose original sin was his unwillingness to leave the home of his ancestors. Full of the most varied testimonies, and by no mean fudging the issue that timber poaching is a crime and an environmental violation, Tree Thieves nonetheless testifies to the love of the woodsman for the wood. Drive through Orick sometime, and you will discover that communities are an ecology, too, and one worthy of care.

“Does it all stop at the tree?”

Watching Brian and Charles, directed by Jim Archer, for New Scientist, 6 July 2022

Amateur inventor Brian Gittins has been having a bad time. He’s painfully shy, living alone, and has become a favourite target of the town bully Eddie Tomington (Jamie Michie).

He finds some consolation in his “inventions pantry” (“a cowshed, really”), from which emerges one ludicrously misconceived invention after another. His heart is in the right place; his tricycle-powered “flying cuckoo clock”, for instance, is meant as a service to the whole village. People would simply have to look up to tell the time.

Unfortunately, Brian’s invention is already on fire.

Picking through the leavings of fly-tippers one day, the ever-manic loner finds the head of a shop mannequin — and grows still. The next day he sets about building something just for himself: a robot to keep him company as he grows ever more graceless, ever more brittle, ever more alone.

Brian Gittins sprang to life on the stand-up and vlogging circuit trodden by his creator, comedian and actor David Earl. Earl’s best known for playing Kevin Twine in Ricky Gervais’s sit-com Derek, and for smaller roles in other Gervais projects including Extras and After Life. And never mind the eight-foot tall robot: Earl’s Brian Gittins dominates this gentle, fantastical film. His every grin to camera, whenever an invention fails or misbehaves or underwhelms, is a suppressed cry of pain. His every command to his miraculous robot (“Charles Petrescu” — the robot has named himself) drips with underconfidence and a conviction of future failure. Brian is a painfully, almost unwatchably weak man. But his fortunes are about to turn.

The robot Charles (mannequin head; washing machine torso; tweeds from a Kenneth Clark documentary) also saw first light on the comedy circuit. Around 2016 Rupert Majendie, a producer who likes to play around with voice-generating software, phoned up Earl’s internet radio show (best forgotten, according to Earl; “just awful”) and the pair started riffing in character: Brian, meet Charles.

Then there were three: Earl’s fellow stand-up Chris Hayward inhabited Charles’s cardboard body; Earl played Brian, Charles’s foil and straight-man; meanwhile Majendie sat at the back of the venue (pubs and msuic venues; also London’s Soho Theatre) with his laptop, providing Charles’s voice. This is Brian and Charles’s first full-length film outing, and it was a hit with the audience at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In this low-budget mockumentary, directed by Jim Archer, a thunderstorm brings Brian’s robot to life. Brian wants to keep his creation all to himself. In the end, though, his irrepressible robot attracts the attention of Tomington family, his brutish and malign neighbours, who seem to have the entire valley under their thumb. Charles passes at lightning speed through all the stages of childhood (“Does it all stop at the tree?” he wonders, staring over Brian’s wall at the rainswept valleys of north Wales) and is now determined to make his own way to Honolulu — a place he’s glimpsed on a travel programme, but can never pronounce. It’s a decision that draws him Charles out from under Brian’s protection and, ineluctably, into servitude on the Tomingtons’ farm.

But the experience of bringing up Charles has changed Brian, too. He no longer feels alone. He has a stake in something now. He has, quite unwittingly, become a father. The confrontation and crisis that follow are as satisfying and tear-jerking as they are predictable.

Any robot adaptable enough to offer a human worthwhile companionship must, by definition, be considered a person, and be treated us such, or we would be no better than slave-owners. Brian is a graceless and bullying creator at first, but the more his robot proves a worthy companion, the more Brian’s behaviour matures in response. This is Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit in reverse: here, it’s not the toy that needs to become real; it’s Brian, the toy’s human owner.

And this, I think, is the exciting thing about personal robots: not that they could make our lives easier, or more convenient, but that their existence would challenge us to become better people.

“Neigh-CHURE!”

The farming crisis; for the Telegraph, 19 June 2022

It’s time for the UK to transform agriculture: to achieve levels of food security not contemplated since the Second World War; to capture fast-developing far eastern markets in meat and dairy while reducing (for reasons that are medically unclear) the amount of meat and dairy eaten at home; to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050; and to reintroduce the lynx and the wolf. All of this at once, in a manner that won’t add a further spike to people’s already spiking grocery bills, and preferably before the grain shortages triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine complicate matters still further by lowering the gluten content and hence the quality of a British loaf, not to mention triggering a famine across the whole of north Africa.

Were all things equal (and they very much aren’t) we would still have a crisis on our hands. You only have to look out the window. Ninety-seven per cent of British wildflower meadows are gone, and we’re 44 million individual birds poorer than we were fifty years ago. The UK’s flying insect population has declined by about 60 per cent in the last 20 years.

This particular crisis doesn’t feel nearly as urgent as it should, thanks to what fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly has dubbed “shifting baseline syndrome” — our tendency, when we ask what nature should look like, to reference a period no more distant than our own childhoods.

It takes considerable study and real writerly skill to convey what our land should (or at any rate, could) look like, which is why Isabella Tree’s four-year-old book Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm is already a classic, with its talk of species-rich wildflower meadows in every parish and coppice woods teeming with butterflies. A mere four generations ago, she writes, we knew ”rivers swimming with burbot – now extinct in Britain – and eels, and… summer nights peppered with bats and moths and glow-worms.” In those days the muddy North Sea was clear as gin, she says, filtered by oyster beds as large as Wales. “Yet we live in denial of these catastrophic losses.”

Since the publication of Feral in 2013, campaigning journalist George Monbiot has led calls to rewild our desertified and sheep-scraped landscape. He says Britain is the most zoophobic nation in Europe, and he may have a point. While even a simple beaver release here can trigger a storm of protest, on the continent reintroduced animals are extending their ranges without trouble or controversy all over mainland Europe. Bear numbers have doubled. Herds of wisent roam Dutch nature reserves. There are wolves all across Europe (and no, they don’t eat people).

Our island hang-ups are historical, according to Isabella Tree. A great many of our national myths are bound up in the idea that human habitations were hewn out of dense wildwood in ages past — in other words, we had to make a choice between a productive working landscape, or nature, but we couldn’t have both. That just-so story might explain British land use, but it has little to do with the way nature and farming actually work. Tree and the regenerative farming community argue that traditional farming and forestry practices like haymaking, pollarding and coppicing create multiple habitats, supporting a much greater variety of wildlife than closed-canopy woodland ever could, or did. According to this lobby, what we need is not a return to nature, as such, but a return to actual farming.

What we have now is not farming so much as its massively instrumentalised cousin: “agricultural production”. The supermarkets like it because they can guarantee year-round supplies of entirely uniform food products. But the price of treating farming as just another financial and engineering challenge, rather than as a biological activity has been, on the one hand, despoliation and extinction, and on the other, exhausted soils and crippling fertiliser bills.

When barrister Sarah Langford left London and began regenerating 200 acres of Suffolk land — a story told in her new book Rooted: Stories of Life, Land and a Farming Revolution — she found that forty per cent of her income was going on artificial fertiliser and sprays, and most of the rest on machinery, diesel and labour. Her few thousand pounds of profit a year is typical for the industry.

Farmers really do live on government subsidies, because actually producing food loses more money than it makes. A third of the country’s farmers would be bankrupt without basic payments. What they have been asked to do since the end of the Second World War — overproduce food — is destroying the world, and they are the ones left carrying the can. Farming is bad for the soil, bad for the planet, bad for the climate, bad for our waistlines, bad for our health! Meanwhile farmers are going to the wall, abandoning the land, and choosing death as a way out of debt: more than one farm worker in the UK takes their own life each week.

In Sarah Langford’s book, her response to this dire state of things — to attempt not just to farm her land, but to regenerate it — sets her at loggerheads with her Uncle Charlie, an experienced Hampshire farmer. The irascible Charlie and his mates (“Nature!” they tease poor Sarah, “NEIGH-CHURE!”) form an entertaining and sceptical chorus to Langford’s efforts at sustainable farming — a career change she did not plan, but which was more or less forced on her by a temporary snag in the family finances followed by a whopping fire.

Langford’s book is full of telling detail, as when, while applying for a five-year Countryside Stewardship scheme, on a form 123 pages long, and referring to a manual 312 pages long, she discovers that she still has to fill in the Basic Payment form, which has completely different set of codes for each option. But Rooted is more than a memoir; Langford manages to contain and convey the whole scale of the coming agricultural revolution.

Our current food system evolved out of a dangerous assumption that all the world’s bounty lay a mere sea-voyage away. The Second World War put paid to that fond notion, and the experience of importing 20 million tons of food a year in the teeth of U-boat attacks inspired the 1947 Agriculture Act. Its framework of government subsidies and guaranteed prices may sound a bad idea now; back then there was an economic recovery to pay for and a food supply to secure.

The Act, and similarly intentioned legislation elsewhere in the world, worked a treat. Langford tells us that the first journal article to warn of growing levels of food waste was published in 1980, just 25 years after the abolition of rationing. Today the world produces 1.7 times as much food as it did in 1960, on about a third of the land. The only problem being, this is more food than we need — enough to feed three billion people who don’t exist yet. Globally, we throw away 2.5 billion tonnes of food every year, while eating just 40 per cent of all the food we produce. In the UK a full third of all fruits and vegetables bound for the supermarkets are rejected.

Those of us who live amidst relative plenty tend to prioritise the environmental issues this raises over the ones about distribution and equity. But heaven knows the environmental issues are serious enough, witness the major declines in over half our nation’s species since 2002. Whoever would have imagined that we would ever risk running out of dormice, or water voles, or hedgehogs?

The overwhelmingly urban lobby that would blame farming for these ills finds its champion in campaigning environmental journalist George Monbiot. For them, Monbiot’s latest, Regenesis, bears good tidings — nothing less than “the beginning of the end of most agriculture.”

Monbiot introduces us a soil bacterium studied by scientists working for NASA in the 1960s. He explains how, though fermentation, we can cultivate this bacterium. Once dried, it can be turned into a cheap protein-rich flour. This flour could feed the world, in a production process that consumes no more energy than any cash-strapped developing country could afford through solar power, and which requires 17,000 times less land than you’d need to produce the same amount of, say, soybean protein.

To the 98.5 per cent of us in this country who have no working connection to the land, Monbiot’s Rousseauist future sounds too good to be true. All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to see Britain smothered in wildwood stalked by beavers, bears and pine martens?

But history is not kind to “hero projects” of this sort, and Monbiot’s breathless conjurations of the future of the food that would emerge from farming’s demise are somewhat disconcerting. A morsel that tastes like seared steak but with the texture of scallops? A mousse that breaks on the tongue like panna cotta but has the flavour of jamon iberico? All whipped up in some lab, apparently, by “inventive chefs working with scientists”.

Actually, to swap breweries for barns wouldn’t be particularly science fictional: fermentation is a practice older than farming. But for Monbiot to mix an argument about largely untested technologies with a diatribe against Welsh sheep farming (yes, Monbiot is worrying the sheep again) smacks of bad faith.

In his superbly acerbic diary Land of Milk and Honey: Digressions of a Rural Dissident, columnist and cattle farmer Jamie Blackett is out to defend, not farming as it is (which he frankly considers a nightmare — there is less distance between Blackett and Monbiot than you might expect) but farming as it was practised in his father’s day. By yesterday’s pre-CAP logic, it makes sense to mix livestock and arable, and even to focus entirely on livestock and dairy in the UK where the climate dictates that grass is the best crop to grow (and sometimes the only one).

Blackett, citing the huge margins involved in turning cheap vegetable oils, sugars and carbohydrates into fake meats and fake milk, reckons veganism is the best thing that ever happened to the processed food industry since Cadbury’s stuck their Finger of Fudge up at the very concept of the balanced diet. He complains that “without the ability to grow meat and milk the only solution is to plant the land up with trees and go and do something else for thirty years while they grow” — which is, of course, precisely what Monbiot is advocating in Regenesis.

But need the debate about the future of farming be so polarised? The popular response to the Amazon Prime’s TV show Clarkson’s Farm — surely the unlikeliest of vehicles Jeremy Clarkson has ever ridden — suggests we might not be so short of goodwill, after all. And the legislative framework that’s being assembled post-Brexit at least holds out the possibility of real and positive change for the British countryside.

Anyone who thinks Brexit caught British agricultural thinking by surprise hasn’t been paying attention. The 2020 Agriculture Act is the largest shift in farm and rural policy since the UK joined the Common Agricultural Policy in 1973. In England, the old subsidy payments will be phased out by 2028, replaced by a new Environmental Land Management System which will reward farmers with public money for producing “public goods”. Conservation manager Jake Feinnes lists them in his book Land Healer: “clean, plentiful water, clean air, thriving plants and wildlife, a reduction in and prevention of environmental hazards, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change” and “‘beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment’.”

Can this act change, fast enough for it to matter, a governing culture that has spent three quarters of a century micromanaging British agriculture into its current, monstrous form? Having been encouraged (and not just encouraged — forced) to squeeze every last calorie they can from their ever-more blighted patrimony, are farmers likely to embrace the government’s green new deal?

Blackett is sceptical. “For the last twenty years,” he writes, “I have been receiving payments for hedges, ponds, rushy pasture, water margins, wild-flower meadows and winter stubbles. The payments have been miserly, never quite enough to compensate… The final straw came when I was made to keep a diary like a primary school child. I have come to the conclusion that it is better to farm for maximum profit and use any surplus for conservation on my land than to be a poorly paid serf of the Green State.”

For Blackett, whether or not Defra’s ideas are well-intentioned or not is beside the point. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. He’d rather farmers were left alone to exercise their own judgement, and then “there will be more biodiversity, fewer wildfires and less greenhouse gas in consequence, for the benefit of us all.”

Oddly — in light of the specious battle lines George Monbiot draws between conservationists and working farmers — Blackett’s irascible anti-state-interference rhetoric finds a very close echo in Birds, Beasts and Bedlam, a wonderfully garrulous memoir by Derek Gow, an outspoken champion of rewilding, responsible for the reintroduction of beavers and white storks into the UK. At first glance, Gow comes across as a sort of anti-Blackett, and yet he has nothing but praise for British farmers, a “hearty culture where if you helped your neighbours, they helped you”. This, he reckons, is about as far as you can get “from the egotistical and odd world of nature conservation where big stories were talked and small deeds were done.”

Gow’s rewilding efforts are frustrated less by farmers (who are a curious bunch at heart, and can follow an argument) as by conversation charities themselves (“small, grey non-entities standing together on a dias”). “If you wish to bludgeon badgers,” Gow writes, “a way can be found. If you wish, on the other hand, to restore fading species for nature conservation purposes, then you have to fill in 90-page documents which will be thoroughly scrutinised eventually and returned to you with a further suite of impossibly complex questions.”

Independent spirits like Gow and Blackett desperately need a venue in which they can thrash out their opinions and share their knowledge. And it may be that a culture of regenerative farming will encourage that much-needed exchange.

On Great Farm in north Norfolk, Jake Fiennes has made some small changes that allow the land to remain in food production, but which also allow nature to thrive. His particular hobby horse is the soil, and all the ways he has found to enhance the relationship between his crops and the bacteria and fungi in his soil, so as to reduce the amount of manure and fertiliser he uses, even while increasing yields.

Fiennes’s brand of regenerative farming (and others — there are as many innovative farming techniques as there are innovative farmers) promises to restore crashing mammal, bird and insect populations, make the landscape better able to survive droughts and floods, lock away carbon as organic matter, and still produce high quality food. The soil science is new (and startling: it turns out that plant roots exude chemicals as nourishment for microbes, and up to 96 per cent of carbon a plant processes is used to feed soil and fungi). But the takeaway is as old as the hills: rotate your crops, keep the ground covered as much as you can, ensure a mixed environment and a healthy hedgerow so your predators cancel out your pests. The detail is fascinating, but at the sharp end of the business, “regenerative farming” is less about having ideas than about ignoring, as far as possible, the present market’s more perverse incentives.

Fiennes skewers such absurdities very well. For instance, under CAP farmers were paid to set aside ten per of their land to discourage overproduction. They just needed to keep their land in “agricultural condition”. Soon near-destitute farmers were filling in ponds, ripping out wide hedgerows, straightening the meanders of streams and chopping down woodland so as to turn ‘permanent ineligible features’ into set-aside.

For all the anxiety washing about the agriculture sector, there are signs — strong signs — of promise. We need a decent amount of food security, and we have it; though Britain currently produces less than 60 per cent of its own food, the Dimbleby report, the first independent survey of the British food system in 75 years, suggests that 74 per cent of our food could be sourced at home — a figure considered excellent for food security. We need a sensible tariff system to defend our agricultural sector during its transformation from CAP’s culture of over-production and set-aside, to the provision of public environmental goods. World Trade Organisation rules allow for exactly this. And, funnily enough, farmers know how to farm; at very worst, the next generation now has reason to remember and learn.

Novice farmer Sarah Langford, the novice regenerative farmer, bemoans her feeling “of muddling around in the half-light of knowledge”. She says she sees “how easy it is to think you’re doing the right thing while causing harm.”

Her point is that farming is hard to do. Hard — but not impossible. And it’s a task made immeasurably easier, once farmers are given the freedom to remember who they are.

Making waves

Reading Frank Close’s Elusive: How Peter Higgs solved the mystery of mass, for New Scientist, 29 June 2022

In Elusive, physicist Frank Close sets out to write about Peter Higgs, whose belief in the detectability of a very special particle that was to bear his name earned him a Nobel prize in 2013.

But Higgs’s life resists narrative. He has had a successful career. His colleagues enjoy his company. He didn’t over-publish, or get into pointless spats. Now in his mid-nineties, Higgs keeps his own counsel and doesn’t use email.

So that left Close with writing a biography, not of the man, but of “his” particle, the Higgs boson – and with answering some important questions. How do we explain fundamental forces so limited in their reach, they cannot reach outside the nucleus of an atom? Why is this explanation compelling enough that we entertained its outrageous implication: that there existed a fundamental field everywhere in the universe, a sort of aether, that we could not detect? Why did this idea occur to six thinkers, independently, in 1964? And how did it justify the cool €10 billion it took to hunt for the particle that this wholly conjectural field predicted?

To understand, let’s start with our universe. Forget solid matter for a moment. Think instead of fields. The universe is full of them, and when we put energy into these fields it’s as though we dropped a stone into a lake – we make waves. In this analogy, you are also in the lake: there is no shore, no “outside” from which you can see the whole wave. Instead, as the wave passes through a point in space, you will notice a change in some value at that point.

These changes show up as particles. Light, for example, is a wave in the electromagnetic field, yet when we observe the effect that wave has on a point in space, we detect a particle – a photon.

Some waves are easier to make than others, and travel farther. Photons travel outwards as fast as the universe allows. Gravitational waves are as fast, but decay sharply with distance.

The mathematics used to model such fields makes a kind of sense. But we also need a mathematics to explain why the other fields we know about are infinitesimally small, extending no farther than the dimensions of the atomic nucleus.

For the mathematics to work for such small fields, it requires another, more mysterious, infinite field: one that doesn’t decay with distance, and that always has a value greater than zero. This field interacts with everything bar light. If you are a photon, you get to zip along at the universal speed limit. But if you are anything else, this additional field slows you down.

We call the effect of this field mass. Photons are massless, so travel very quickly, while everything else has some amount of mass, and consequently travels more slowly. It is easy to set the electromagnetic field trembling – just light a match. To set off a wave in the mass-generating field, however, takes much more energy.

In 1998, CERN began work on its Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27-kilometre-long particle accelerator 100 metres under the French-Swiss border. On 4 July 2012, a particle collision in the LHC released such phenomenal energy that it set off a mass-generating wave. As this wave passed through the machine’s detectors a new particle was observed. In detecting this particle, physicists confirmed the existence of the mass-generating field – and our present model of how the universe works (the standard model of particle physics) was completed.

Both of Close’s subjects, Peter Higgs and his particle, prove elusive in the end. Newcomers should start their journey of discovery elsewhere – perhaps with Sean Carroll’s excellent webinars and books.

But Close, and this difficult, brilliant book, will be waiting, smiling, at the end of the road.

 

 

What the fuck was THAT?

Watching Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, for New Scientist, 8 June 2022

Near the climax of Joseph Kosinski’s delirious sequel to 1986 hit Top Gun, a fifth-generation fighter engages Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s F/A-18 in a dogfight around vertiginous snow-capped mountains. Suddenly this huge, hulking, superpowered wonderplane banks, stalls and turns, hanging over Mav (Tom Cruise, even more steely-eyed than usual) and his wingman Rooster (Miles Teller) as though it’s painted itself on the sky.

“What the ____ was THAT?” Rooster cries, though an actual graduate of TOPGUN (official name, the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program) would probably know a Herbst manoeuvre when they saw one.

The Herbst (also known as a J-turn) is the kind of acrobatic manoeuvre you can pull only if you’re flying one of a handful of very expensive fighters designed and built since 2010. The Russian Sukhoi Su-57 is one such; China has the Chengdu J-20.

We’re not told which aircraft — or indeed, what well-provisioned rogue state — Mav is up against here, but he is in trouble: his F/A-18 multirole combat jet is no slouch, but, being a child of the 1990s, it is neither super-stealthy nor supermanoeuvrable.

“Fifth-gens” are not the only nemesis Mav must confront. He’s also holding out against progress, personified by a rear admiral nicknamed the Drone Ranger who (in a splendidly sour cameo by Ed Harris) declares that drones are the future, and that carrier-based fighter pilots like Mav are dinosaurs.

Most of the time, however, Maverick steers clear of ideas, and devotes itself wholly to 1980s nostalgia, as Tom Cruise’s Pete Mitchell (now a test pilot) sets about making his peace with the orphaned son of his old wingman Nick “Goose” Bradshaw. This is a well-told tale of misunderstanding and redemption, interspersed throughout with one-liners and easter eggs for fans of the earlier film. In one touching and funny scene, Mav gets to thank Ice (now, God help us all, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet) for keeping him in fighter planes and out of promotion. Of Kelly McGillis’s Charlie, Mav’s love interest in the first movie, there is no mention — but not every storyline can look back, and in this film, Mav’s old flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) proves no pushover.

This is a peculiar project: part war film (as our heroes steal a plane from under the noses of the enemy), part techno-thriller (as Mav the test-pilot breaks all speed records and reaches an insane 3.5km a second), and part sports movie (as Mav welds his brilliant TOPGUN pupils into a world-peace-saving team; by that measure, mind you, you could argue that all Hollywood blockbusters are sports movies at heart).

Films can be good fun-fair rides quite as much as they can be good dramas, and it would be silly to criticise this thrilling display of real-world aeronautical stunt work for its lack of narrative realism. The presence of real planes and real pilots (and, after three months’ training, real airborne cast-members) makes this, in a profound sense, about as realistic a film as it is possible to get.

What we might look forward to eventually, though, is a film that looks for excitement, peril and heroism in a more contemporary theatre, featuring aerial combat that’s truly fifth-generation: super-stealthy, super-manoeuvreable, and drone-enhanced.

Until someone makes that imaginative leap (and, crucially, can take a huge global audience along for the ride), we can expect armed-forces movies to draw more and more on science fiction for their plots. Why is the pilot dog-fighting with Mav and Rooster dressed like an Imperial TIE-fighter pilot from Star Wars? Why is the illegal uranium enrichment plant that’s the target of Mav’s raid equipped with a two-metre wide exhaust vent lifted from Star Wars’s Death Star? Because this is what science fiction is, much of the time: a filler, a place-holder, a hoarding that reads, “Coming soon: the future”.

Models of innocence and contentment

Reading Mark Witton and Ellinor Michel’s The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, for New Scientist, 1 June 2022

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a huge success — so huge, in 1852 the huge iron and glass structure that had contained it was reassembled on parkland in Penge in South London to form the centrepiece of a complex of gardens, fountains and unusual attractions.

Dispel any notion that Penge was an afterthought: the permanent exhibition cost nine times as much as the Great Exhibition itself. And the Geological Court — arguably its most beguiling attraction — continues to enchant and inspire.

Cleverly landscaped and planted to evoke lost landscapes, peppered with artificial geological features and sculptures of long-extinct creatures, this naturalistic celebration of geology and palaeontology opened to the public in 1854. Whole teams of experts were involved in the enterprise, led by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, geologist David Thomas Ansted, and mining engineer James Campbell. Theirs was the world’s first attempt at depicting prehistoric worlds at scale in sculptural form.

Today elephantine sloths, Jurassic marine reptiles and delicate pterosaurs continue to watch other warily from the banks of artificial islands. Delicate, weathered, and in most cases colourless (the British weather is not kind to Victorian cement) they are also oddly modern-looking. The whole concept of a “dinosaur” was hardly over a decade old when the Court opened, and the field was advancing fast. Visitors were startled to discover that dinosaurs weren’t at all the appalling dragons that artists had imagined just a few years before. “It seems a very model of innocence and contentment,” wrote one journalist of the Iguanodon, “a huge antediluvian illustration of the amiability produced by a strictly vegetarian face.”

Paleoartist Mark P Witton and evolutionary biologist Ellinor Michel have assembled a work of scholarship that’s also a rich visual resource, indispensable for historians and prehistorians alike. Given the sheer vulnerability and fragility of the site, a record this rich and detailed — and so frankly charming — is long overdue.

A spear through the cheeks

Reading Dimitris Xygalatas’s Ritual for New Scientist, 1 June 2022

“I always feel my stomach churn when I look at someone being impaled by a spear through the cheeks,” writes Dimitris Xygalatas, a Connecticut anthropologist specialising in the study of extreme rituals. The Thaipusam Kavadi ritual in Mauritius is his favourite (if that is quite the word): men endure many piercings, ranging from a few needles through the cheeks to several hundred spikes perforating the entire body, “as well as hooks from which they hang bells or limes”.

It’s a florid affair, but by no means exceptional. From the hazing ordeals of US college fraternities to the arduous initiations practised in criminal gangs and military groups around the world, ritual is everywhere. “If you can find a human society without any rituals,” writes Xygalatas, “I will happily reimburse you the cost of this book.”

Why rituals exist is a puzzle. Ask a young man from Greece, Bulgaria or Spain why he walks over burning coals every year, and he is most likely to shrug and say he’s doing as his father and grandfather did. Further explanations are more subtle and full of symbolism, but no more revealing. The Thaipusam Kavadi ritual is said to commemorate the occasion when Murugan received his mighty spear from his mother, enabling him to lead a divine army against the demons, led by the demon Soorapadman, who had kidnapped the gods. So there.

But what if those baroque just-so stories were explanations after the event — genuine attempts to rationalise behaviours more ancient than any tale — more ancient, indeed, than reason itself?

Not every ritual performer in this book is human. Magpies, crows and ravens perform death rites. So do elephants and dolphins. Chimpanzees build cairns and visit what we might dare to call sacred trees; at any rate, these regular tree-visits are an occasion for dancing and feverish excitement. The pattern is not hard to spot: the more social a species is, the more ritualistic it is.

Suppose ritual behaviour evolved very early, especially in avian and mammalian lines; then it shouldn’t be too hard to spot what’s advantageous about this adaptation. Perhaps ritual is the primary mechanism by which we develop theory of mind and establish group identity. More specifically, social beings become anxious in the absence of their fellows. Grief, though maladaptive, is simply a special case of the anxiety that bind social groups together. That being the case, death rituals might exist to ameliorate the anxiety triggered by bereavement.

Xygalatas has spent 20 years putting bones on these ideas. His is now a hybrid field. Biometric sensors and hormonal sampling are used to explore the neuro-physiological effects of various rituals; while more traditional ethnographic methods, including behavioural measurements, psychometric tests and surveys, reveal some of the motivations behind ritual practices.

The results are not altogether convincing. The work is solid enough, but Xygalatas couches his conclusions in terms of how healthful ritual practices can be. We’ve known for a while that intense physical exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication — or would be, if you could only get your demotivated, mood-disordered client out of bed in the morning. “Cultural rituals may help circumvent this problem by exerting external pressure to participate,” says Xygalatas. This does not feel to me like a compelling reason to go walking over hot coals.

Xygalatas can hardly be blamed for wanting to put the most positive spin he can on this fascinating and rapidly developing field of study.

Even as I was reading this book, however, news came that Russian kindergarten children were dressing up as tanks and nuclear missiles, in time for Russia’s 8 May Victory Day parade.

Xygalatas’s always fascinating account begs a sequel, about how ritual so often proves maladaptive among hypersocial Homo sapiens.

 

Talking about different worlds

Listening to Matthew de Abaitua’s The Dolittle Machine on BBC Radio 4, 25 May 2022 for New Scientist

Might we one day invent a translation device, enabling us to talk to the animals — and hear their replies? This could be good for the planet (especially if we learned to say “sorry” to all those species we’ve pushed to extinction). It would definitely be good for us, says science fiction writer Matthew de Abaitua, presenting this deceptively winsome speculation about animal languages.

No two species experience the world in the same way. If animals have language at all, then they are talking and thinking about different worlds. How then can translation progress?

Already we use machine-learning algorithms to translate foreign languages. These algorithms spot which words most commonly appear next to each other. By matching these patterns across languages, a machine can begin to translate from one language into another. The hope is that the same method can, by listening to squeaks, songs and stridulations, find common terms in the languages (if they exist) of other species.

The differences in life experience between species are huge. A loquacious bat may struggle to describe to a human what echolocation is like. A dolphin may not be able to offer a bat much insight into the experience of an animal whose every breath is the outcome of a conscious decision. A human may struggle to explain his taxes to a dolphin. But bat, dolphin and human may still be able to talk about what common experiences exist, like hunger, and danger, and family.

The Dolittle Machine is a superb distillation of a complex field. Best of all, it leaves us feeling a little less alone.

Micro-wasps that live on other parasitoid wasps that live inside caterpillars and others

Reading Seirian Sumner’s Endless Forms: The secret world of wasps, 25 May 2022

“It is almost impossible to walk into a bookshop these days and not bump into a beautiful book about bees,” Seirian Sumner grumbles. The London-based behavioural ecologist has, like the rest of us, reached “peak bee”. What are bees, anyway, but merely wasps that have forgotten how to hunt? The ‘original bee’ was a solitary wasp who turned vegetarian, just as the ‘first ant’ was a wasp that lost its wings.

Wasps are where the scientific action is: why, there are probably more distinct species of wasp than there are beetles! Did you know that there are swarming wasps in South America that build colonies “that look like air balloons, exotic fruits, gourds, cowpats, lumps of mud, Roman vases and even chamberpots?” That the study of wasp venom is helping us understand the more severe symptoms presented by COVID-19? That the familiar yellowjacket Vespula which terrorises our picnics can discriminate between similar-looking human faces?

Wait.

What…?

Seirian Sumner dares us to pause in wonderment. Behold the hyperparasitoids: micro-wasps that live on other parasitoid wasps, that live inside caterpillars, eating them from the inside out!
Savour the chemical cocktail of toxins, enzymes and amines with which the solitary hunting wasp simultaneously paralyses, cleanses and preserves prey fifteen times its body weight, “a helpless but healthy sack of living nutrients”! Admire her gleaming weaponised ovipositor!

The odd thing about wasps is not that we steer clear of them; it’s that we’ve learned so recently to ignore them. Much of the foundational learning offered up in this dense, anecdotal, intermittently stomach-churning labour of love is drawn from researchers active at the end of the nineteenth century. These people were even tougher-minded than Sumner. (“What lessons can we not learn from her transcendental chemistry?” exclaimed Leon Dufour, contemplating a wasp’s suspiciously fresh-looking weeks-old beetle victims. “How immensely superior to our own pickling-processes is that of the wasp!”)

With a level of glee last evinced by the kid at camp who urged you to put your hand in that hollow tree trunk, Sumner guides us through the evolution of hymenopteran sociality. Wasp societies represent the first stages in the evolution of altruism. Most small-colonied wasps follow a simple rule of succession: the older you are, the closer you come to being crowned queen. In more complex wasp societies, aggression is the norm, as rival nestmates bite and sting each other to death. This correlation between social complexity and violence is not reassuring. I now find myself looking askance at those highly social bees.

Endless Forms is an exuberant, garrulous, generous survey of its field. I can’t wait to read selected passages to my children.

“Material of negative value”

Watching Lars Edman and William Johansson’s documentary Arica for New Scientist, 11 May 2022

Forty years ago the Swiss company Boliden sold nearly 200,000 tonnes of smelter sludge — rich in mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals — to the Chilean reprocessing company Promel.

Promel dumped almost the entire consignment beside a row of residential houses in the port town of Arica (current population, over 200,000), and a generation of children grew up playing in the stuff.

The residential quarter, meanwhile — a government housing project for low-income families — grew and grew, until it surrounded the site of contamination.

In 1999 the Chilean government struck an uneasy peace with the victims of this wholly avoidable environmental catastrophe. Promel no longer exists (though its former manager is more than happy to issue not-so-veiled threats of violence to the filmmakers here). Families closest to the site have been evacuated; their properties are now dens for drug dealers.

What’s Boliden’s responsibility in all this? Chilean-born Swiss filmmaker Lars Edman returns to his birthplace and the site of his 2006 documentary The Toxic Playground to follow the legal case assembled by an international legal team against Boliden, a company whose due diligence regarding toxic materials turned out to be not nearly diligent enough. The chief protagonist of The Toxic Playground was Rolf Svedberg, former environmental director of Boliden’s Rönnskär smelting plant in Skelleftea, Sweden. It was his site visit and report that green-lit the sale and transport of what Boliden’s legal team call “material of negative value”. Brought face to face with the consequences of that report, and hosted by a community riddled with cancer, bone deformities and birth defects, Svedberg distress was visible.

Eleven years on, though, Svedberg has the legal case to think of, not to mention his current role: he’s a judge at Sweden’s Supreme Court for the Environment. Svedberg’s displays of fear and dismal self-justifications in Arica are all the more powerful for filmmaker Lars Edman’s obvious sympathy for his old acquaintance.

Boliden’s legal consultants bring in experts who assemble arcane explanations and a particularly ludicrous wind-tunnel experiment to show that living next to tailings containing 17 per cent arsenic could not possibly have affected anyone’s health.

Opposing Boliden are 800 plaintiffs (out of a population of 18000) armed with a single series of urine tests from 2011 and evidence that would be overwhelming were it not so maddeningly anecdotal. An interviewee, Elia, points out houses from her front gate:
“The lady who lived in the house with the bars sold the house and died of cancer. Next door is Dani Ticona. She had aggressive cancer in her head and died too. And her son’s wife had a baby who died. But he doesn’t want to talk to anyone about it. Marisa Pena has got stomach cancer. The lady who bought her house has facial cancer. And on the other side, that gentleman also has cancer. And over there…” On and on like this.

Boliden’s legal team performs a familiar trick, sowing doubt by suggesting that laboratory science and field science are the same thing, and standards of proof are the same for both. In the end, though, the case comes down to public accountability. If Boliden had to deal with ordinary consumers, it would have saved money and reputation long since by owning the problem.

Boliden, however, deals with corporations and governments, and its reputation rests on problem-free operations. It pays Boliden to stay silent.

Law is a rhetorical art, as its finest exponents, from Cicero to John Mortimer, ably demonstrate. We may like to think that justice can be scientifically determined, but in doing so we misunderstand the nature both of science and the law. Tragedy, poverty, blame and shame cannot be reduced to what one legal wag here calls “numbers, preferably with a lot of decimals”.

Protest, eloquence and argument are as essential for justice as they were in the making of this daunting, elegaic documentary.