Pluck

Reading Gunpowder and Glory: The Explosive Life of Frank Brock OBE by Harry Smee and Henry Macrory for the Spectator, 21 March 2020

Early one morning in October 1874, a barge carrying three barrels of benzoline and five tons of gunpowder blew up in the Regent’s Canal, close to London Zoo. The crew of three were killed outright, scores of houses were badly damaged, the explosion could be heard 25 miles away, and “dead fish rained from the sky in the West End.”

This is a book about the weird, if obvious, intersection between firework manufacture and warfare. It is, ostensibly, the biography of a hero of the First World War, Frank Brock. And if it were the work of more ambitious literary hands, Brock would have been all you got. His heritage, his school adventures, his international career as a showman, his inventions, his war work, his violent death. Enough for a whole book, surely?

But Gunpowder and Glory is not a “literary” work, by which I mean it is neither self-conscious nor overwrought. Instead Henry Macrory (who anyway has already proved his literary chops with his 2018 biography of the swindler Whitaker Wright) has opted for what looks like a very light touch here, assembling and ordering the anecdotes and reflections of Frank Brock’s grandson Harry Smee about his family, their business as pyrotechnical artists, and, finally, about Frank, his illustrious forebear.

I suspect a lot of sweat went into such artlessness, and it’s paid off, creating a book that reads like fascinating dinner conversation. Reading its best passages, I felt I was discovering Brock the way Harry had as a child, looking into his mother’s “ancient oak chests filled with papers, medals, newspapers, books, photographs, an Intelligence-issue knuckleduster and pieces of Zeppelin and Zeppelin bomb shrapnel.”

For eight generations, the Brock family produced pyrotechnic spectaculars of a unique kind. Typical set piece displays in the eighteenth century included “Jupiter discharging lightning and thunder, Two gladiators combating with fire and sword, and Neptune finely carv’d seated in his chair, drawn by two sea horses on fire-wheels, spearing a dolphin.”

Come the twentieth century, Brock’s shows were a signature of Empire. It would take a write like Thomas Pynchon to do full justice to “a sixty foot-high mechanical depiction of the Victorian music-hall performer, Lottie Collins, singing the chorus of her famous song ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ and giving a spirited kick of an automated leg each time the word ‘boom’ rang out.”

Frank was a Dulwich College boy, and one of that generation lost to the slaughter of the Great War. A spy and an inventor — James Bond and Q in one — he applied his inherited chemical and pyrotechnical genius to the war effort — by making a chemical weapon. It wasn’t any good, though: Jellite, developed during the summer of 1915 and named after its jelly-like consistency during manufacture, proved insufficiently lethal.

On such turns of chance do reputations depend, since we remember Frank Brock for his many less problematic inventions. Dover flares burned for seven and a half minutes
and lit up an area of three miles radius, as Winston Churchill put it, “as bright as Piccadilly”. U boats, diving to avoid these lights, encountered mines. Frank’s artificial fogs, hardly bettered since, concealed whole British fleets, entire Allied battle lines.

Then there are his incendiary bullets.

At the time of the Great War a decent Zeppelin could climb to 20,000 feet, travel at 47 mph for more than 1,000 miles, and stay aloft for 36 hours. Smee and Mcrory are well within their rights to call them “the stealth bombers of their time”.

Brock’s bullets tore them out of the sky. Sir William Pope, Brock’s advisor, and a professor of chemistry at Cambridge University, explained: “You need to imagine a bullet proceeding at several thousand feet a second, and firing as it passes through a piece of fabric which is no thicker than a pocket handkerchief.” All to rupture a gigantic sac of hydrogen sufficiently to make the gas explode. (Much less easy than you think; the Hindenburg only crashed because its entire outer envelope was set on fire.)

Frank died in an assault on the mole at Zeebrugge in 1918. He shouldn’t have been there. He should have been in a lab somewhere, cooking up another bullet, another light, another poison gas. Today, he surely would be suitably contained, his efforts efficiently channeled, his spirit carefully and surgically broken.

Frank lived at a time when it was possible — and men, at any rate, were encouraged — to be more than one thing. That this heroic idea overreached itself — that rugby field and school chemistry lab both dissolved seamlessly into the Somme — needs no rehearsing.

Still, we have lost something. When Frank went to school there was a bookstall near the station which sold “a magazine called Pluck, containing ‘the daring deeds of plucky sailors, plucky soldiers, plucky firemen, plucky explorers, plucky detectives, plucky railwaymen, plucky boys and plucky girls and all sorts of conditions of British heroes’.”

Frank was a boy moulded thus, and sneer as much as you want, we will not see his like again.

 

Are you experienced?

Reading Wildhood by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers for New Scientist, 18 March 2020

A king penguin raised on Georgia Island, off the coast of Antarctica. A European wolf. A spotted hyena in the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. A north Atlantic humpback whale born near the Dominican Republic. What could these four animals have in common?

What if they were all experiencing the same life event? After all, all animals are born, and all of them die. We’re all hungry sometimes, for food, or a mate.

How far can we push this idea? Do non-human animals have mid-life crises, for example? (Don’t mock; there’s evidence that some primates experience the same happiness curves through their life-course as humans do.)

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, an evolutionary biologist, and Kathryn Bowers, an animal behaviorist, have for some years been devising and teaching courses at Harvard and the University of California at Los Angeles, looking for “horizontal identities” across species boundaries.

The term comes from Andrew Solomon’s 2014 book Far from the Tree, which contrasts vertical identities (between you and your parents and grandparents, say) with horizontal identities, which are “those among peers with whom you share similar attributes but no family ties”. The authors of Wildhood have expanded Solomon’s concept to include other species; “we suggest that adolescents share a horizontal identity,” they write: “temporary membership in a planet-wide tribe of adolescents.”

The heroes of Wildhood — Ursula the penguin, Shrink the hyena, Salt the whale and Slavc the wolf are all, (loosely speaking) “teens”, and like teens everywhere, they have several mountains to climb at once. They must learn how to stay safe, how to navigate social hierarchies, how to communicate sexually, and how to care for themselves. They need to become experienced, and for that, they need to have experiences.

Well into the 1980s, researchers were discouraged from discussing the mental lives of animals. The change in scientific culture came largely thanks to the video camera. Suddenly it was possible for behavioral scientists to observe, not just closely, but repeatedly, and in slow motion. Soon discoveries arose that could not possibly have been arrived at with the naked eye alone. An animal’s supposedly rote, mechanical behaviours turned out to be the product of learning, experiment, and experience. Stereotyped calls and gestures were unpacked to reveal, not language in the human sense, but languages nonetheless, and many were of dizzying complexity. Animals that we thought were driven by instinct (a word you’ll never even hear used these days), turned out to be lively, engaged, conscious beings, scrabbling for purchase in a confusing and unpredictable world.

The four tales that make up the bulk of Wildhood are more than “Just So” stories. “Every detail,” the authors explain, “is based on and validated by data from GPS satellite or radio collar studies, peer-reviewed scientific literature, published reports and interviews with the investigators involved”.

In addition, each offers a different angle on a wealth of material about animal behaviour. Examples of animal friendship, bullying, nepotism, exploitation and even property inheritance arrive in such numbers and at such a level of detail, it takes an ordinary, baggy human word like “friendship” or “bullying” to contain them.

“Level playing fields don’t exist in nature”, the authors assert, and this is an important point, given the book’s central claim that by understanding the “wildhoods” of other animals, we can develop better approaches “for compassionately and skillfully guiding human adolescents toward adulthood.”

The point is not to use non-human behaviour as an excuse for human misbehaviour. Lots of animals kill and exploit each other, but that shouldn’t make exploitation or murder acceptable. The point is to know which battles to pick. Making young school playtimes boring by quashing the least sign of competitiveness makes little sense, given the amount of biological machinery dedicated to judging and ranking in every animal species from humans to lobsters. On the other hand, every young animal, when it returns to its parents, gets a well-earned break from the “playground” — but young humans don’t. They’re now tied 24-7 to social media that prolongue, exaggerate and exacerbate the ranking process. Is the rise in mental health problems among the affluent young triggered by this added stress?

These are speculations and discussions for another book, for which Wildhood may prove a necessary and charming foundation. Introduced in the first couple of pages to California sea otters, swimming up to sharks one moment then fleeing from a plastic boat the next, the reader can’t help but recognise, in the animals’ overly bold and overly cautious behaviour, the gawkiness and tremor of their own adolescence.

The coasts of Britain and why to avoid them

A piece for the Financial Times to mark National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s Monsters of the Deep exhibition, 14 March 2020 

In February this year, even as Stuart Slade was in Falmouth assembling the exhibits for a new museum show on sea creatures, a 60ft fin whale was washed up and died on a nearby beach. “Nothing compares to seeing such an animal up close,” he says. “You come away awed, and full of wonder, and just a little bit afraid.”

The objects filling Slade’s gallery for the mysterious Monsters of the Deep exhibition are by turns terrifying, wonderful and funny — sometimes all three. Some are real, some reconstructed, some, like the worrisomely convincing corpse of a mermaid, are assembled out of parts to entertain or gull the public.

The show, at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, marks the moment Falmouth’s “local” museum learns to punch well above its weight, embracing global phenomena and potentially difficult themes, such as the discomfortingly large role imagination plays in how we see the real world.

Hoaxes, which you might think would be something of an embarrassment here, prove central to the exhibition’s vision. In any event, they can’t be ignored, not while Falmouth’s very own sea monster, Morgawr (first sighted in 1975), could be prowling the bay. According to a report from around the time in the Falmouth Packet: “Mrs Scott said she would ‘never forget the face on that thing’ as long as she lived.”

It transpired that Morgawr was mischievously fabricated from coordinated fictional “sightings”, but the lines between fact and fiction tend to be blurred whenever sea monsters are involved. On September 25 1808, on Stronsay in the Orkney Islands, a large carcass was washed ashore. Edinburgh’s leading natural history society, the Wernerian, decided it was a new species, probably a sea serpent.

By the time the London anatomist Sir Everard Home realised it was more likely a decayed basking shark, the Beast’s reputation had firmly rooted itself in local folklore. Google (if you dare) pictures of dead basking sharks. Their jaws, dorsal and caudal fins disappear first, leaving them with tiny heads and long necks, like ancient reptiles transported from some deep corner of the Mesozoic.

Most sea monsters are real animals, misidentified under extreme circumstances. In 1493, Christopher Columbus “quite distinctly saw three mermaids” off the coast of Haiti. “They are not so beautiful as they are said to be,” he remarked in his journal, “for their faces had some masculine traits.” They were in fact manatees: four-metre long marine mammals with prehensile upper lips and widely spaced eyes (it had been a long voyage).

Most useful to the Falmouth show are the depictions of sea monsters in art, because it’s here that we get to grips with the key question: why have creatures that do not exist persisted in our imaginations since we first put pigment to cave wall?

Some believe sea monsters are a folk memory of creatures long extinct. Native Australian legends of the fearsome Bunyip (head of an emu, body of a dog, tail of a horse) might just scrape by as descriptions of extinct Australian marsupials such as the diprotodon or Palorchestes. But what are we to make of Mishipeshu, which terrified generations of Anishinaabe in the Great Lakes region of Canada? This was an underwater panther, for whom, needless to say, no fossil records exist.

These forms of wonder and fear change across time. The Kraken is supposed to be an octopus, at least according to the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. But in 13th-century Greenland, the Kraken was more like a giant crab. Slade, who has been head of public programming in Falmouth for 15 years, says: “The conversations I’ve had about this exhibition tend all to go the same way. People point out that only 5 per cent of the oceans has been explored. From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to saying, ‘There must be something else out there that hasn’t yet been discovered.’”

The inference is mistaken but not obviously so. Back in 1893, the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley wrote in The Times: “There is not an a priori reason that I know of why snake-bodied reptiles, from fifty feet long and upwards, should not disport themselves in our seas as they did in those of the cretaceous epoch which, geologically speaking, is a mere yesterday.”

Palaeontologist Darren Naish, who is lead curator of the Falmouth exhibition, is willing to entertain Huxley’s theory: “His was the right attitude to take at the time, because the life of the deep oceans was only just being discovered.” (Monsters of the Deep makes much of the groundbreaking research expedition led by HMS Challenger, which between 1872 and 1876 discovered a staggering 4,700 new species of marine life.) “Large fossil dinosaurs and early whales, and some amazing gigantic living animals, had been discovered only relatively recently,” Naish points out. “The whale shark, the world’s biggest fish, was a mid 19th-century discovery.”

In an effort to make the new findings comprehensible, folkloric sea monsters were associated with ancient reptiles. Accounts invariably began with the observation that, for years and years, people have talked about giant serpents in the oceans and long-bodied monsters, then go on to point to the actual fossil evidence that such things were a reality. The earliest artists’ impressions have the plesiosaur (50ft long; extended neck; four oar-shaped flippers on a broad, flat body) as a giant, coiling serpent.

How, then, can we be certain that such beasts aren’t out there? In 1998, Charles Paxton, an aquatic ecologist at the Animal Behaviour Research Group at Oxford university, used a statistical technique to estimate the current diversity of large marine animals, based on their rate of discovery.

Extrapolating on data from 1830 to 1995, Paxton produced a graph showing the rate at which these animals are coming to light. He estimated that at most there are around 50 new large species still waiting to be discovered and, according to his graph, we’re likely to come across one every five-and-a-half years or so.

What will they look like? Cryptozoologists — researchers who aspire to the scientific study of undiscovered animals — have for years held out for the existence of radically novel animals, “living plesiosaurs” that have somehow survived from the time of the dinosaurs. These “cryptid” animals come with brilliant names like the super-otter and the father of all turtles (names invented by Bernard Heuvelmans, whose 1968 book In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents kick-started marine cryptozoology). They are meant to be gargantuan, more than 15 metres long, and unlike any creature known to science.

However, as Naish observes, “Of all the animals that have been discovered in recent decades, none has been radically novel.” Recent discoveries have included the Megamouth Shark and a couple of new types of beaked whale (the most recent was spotted by local whalers in Hokkaido, Japan last September). And as each new whale or shark is discovered, the chances of there still being a complete outlier in hiding — something really out there in terms of what’s possible — grow infinitesimally small.

So where did they all go, those writhing sea serpents, gargantuan crabs and city-block-sized squid? An article in an 1875 edition of the West Briton (a local Cornish weekly, still in print) offers clues. It tells the tale of two fishermen, setting nets in Gerrans Bay near Truro, who discovered a serpent “coiled about their floating cork. Upon their near approach, it lifted its head and showed signs of defiance, upon which they struck it forcibly with an oar”. Later, they pursued it and dragged it ashore for a look-see, “after which, it was killed on the rocks and most inconsiderably cast out to sea”.

Which is to say, if sea monsters existed, we must already have killed them. It’s something we’re worryingly good at. “It’s difficult to be tremendously optimistic about the persistence of ecosystems and many animal species,” says Naish, looking to the future of the oceans. “I find it hard to think that marine mammals and ray-finned fishes and sharks will persist into the future.” Instead, the sea monsters of tomorrow are going to be small and numerous, as the oceans, ever warmer and more acidic, fill with cephalopods, jellies, nematode worms and algae.

We can, however, look forward to some new invasions from the deep before that. With whole ecosystems shifting poleward as the planet warms, lionfish, sea snakes, crown-of-thorns starfish and at least three species of shark (hammerhead, ragged tooth and blacktip) are already heading for UK beaches.

Meanwhile, octopuses and squid will fill the niches vacated by over-harvested fish. Their life cycles are so short that they’ll be able to adapt faster than anything with a backbone. Right now, squid are multiplying crazily in British waters, although they’ll eventually lose out to the true inheritors of the oceans: the jellyfish.

In 2009, in the Sea of Japan, the giant Nomura jellyfish (up to two metres in diameter and weighing 200kg) began clogging and bursting fishing nets. This was deemed worthy of headlines at the time, but the jellyfish — most little more than gelatinous bags containing digestive organs and gonads — had barely begun their campaign of conquest. These days, they’re just as likely to be found blocking the seawater intake valves of British nuclear power plants.

For the future, Naish envisions a massively simplified food chain dominated by fast-growing things that can survive in warm seas where there’s very little oxygen. “You’re talking about a vast biomass but made of small detritus feeders living on algae,” he says. Given a few billion years of natural selection, some jellies may evolve into colonial super-organisms quite big enough to stride about on. “I like the idea of giant colonial jellies — like enormous but squishy islands,” he muses, “or big serpentine things that move slowly, drifting along on the weaker, less oxygenated currents of the future.”

That’s not all. A new surface fauna may evolve from mid-water and deep-water plankton, says Naish, “in which case your large surface-dwelling animals would be weird, spiny and translucent. A sea full of translucent, floating crustaceans; I see some merit in that idea.”

Mind reeling, I walk out of the exhibition past a Jenny Haniver. That’s the carcass of a ray or a skate that someone has cut and folded and dried, so that it ends up looking like a fairy, or a mermaid, demon, or dragon. No one really knows what they’re for. In some places, they’re said to have magic powers; most often they were simply made as curios for sailors. You find these sorts of things all over the world, from Mexico to Japan.

Morgawr may be a fake, and the Stronsay Beast just a hillock of rotten fish meat. Still, the monsters of the deep live. And for as long as human beings tread the earth, they cannot die.

Pollen count

THEY are red, they have stalks that look like eels, and no leaves. But Karl, the boss of the laboratory – played by the unsettling David Wilmot – has his eye on them for the forthcoming flower fair. He tells visiting investors that these genetically engineered creations are “the first mood-lifting, antidepressant, happy plant”.

Ben Whishaw’s character, Chris, smirks: “You’ll love this plant like your own child.”

Chris is in love with Alice, played by Emily Beecham, who is in love with her creations, her “Little Joes”, even to the point of neglecting her own son, Joe.

Owning and caring for a flower that, treated properly, will emit pollen that can induce happiness, would surely be a good thing for these characters. But the plant has been bred to be sterile, and it is determined to propagate itself by any means necessary.

Little Joe is an exercise in brooding paranoia, and it feeds off some of the more colourful fears around the genetic modification of plants.

Kerry Fox plays Bella, whose disappointments and lack of kids seem to put her in the frame of mind to realise what these innocent-looking blooms are up to. “The ability to reproduce is what gives every living thing meaning!” she exclaims. Her colleagues might just be sceptical about this because she is an unhappy presence in the lab, or they may already have fallen under the sway of Little Joe’s psychoactive pollen.

Popular fears around GM – the sort that dominated newspapers and scuppered the industry’s experimental programmes in the mid-1990s – are nearly as old as the science of genetics itself.

At about the turn of the 20th century, agricultural scientists in the US combined inbred lines of maize and found that crop yields were radically increased. Farmers who bought the specially bred seed found that their yields tailed off in subsequent years, so it made sense to buy fresh seed yearly because the profits from bigger crops more than covered the cost of new seeds.

In the 2000s, Monsanto, a multinational agribusiness, added “terminator” genes to the seed it was developing to prevent farmers resowing the product of the previous year’s crop. This didn’t matter to most farmers, but the world’s poorest, who still rely on replanting last year’s seed, were vociferous in their complaints, and a global scandal loomed.

Monsanto chose not, in the end, to commercialise its terminator technologies, but found it had already created a monster: an urban myth of thwarted plant fecundity that provides Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe with its science fictional plot.

What does Little Joe’s pollen do to people? Is it a vegetal telepath, controlling the behaviour of its subjects? Or does it simply make the people who enjoy its scent happier, more sure of themselves, more capable of making healthy life choices? Would that be so terrible? As Karl says, “Who can prove the genuineness of feelings? Moreover, who cares?”

Well, we do, or we should. If, like Karl, we come to believe that the “soul” is nothing more than behaviour, then people could become zombies tomorrow and no one would notice.

Little Joe’s GM paranoia may set some New Scientist readers’ teeth on edge, but this isn’t ultimately, what the movie is about. It is after bigger game: the nature of human freedom.

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532733-200-little-joe-review-we-should-worry-about-these-mind-bending-plants/#ixzz6GmLN3qNx

All fall down

Talking to Scott Grafton about his book Physical Intelligence (Pantheon), 10 March 2020.

“We didn’t emerge as a species sitting around.”

So says University of California neuroscientist Scott Grafton in the introduction to his provoking new book Physical Intelligence. In it, Grafton assembles and explores all the neurological abilities that we take for granted — “simple” skills that in truth can only be acquired with time, effort and practice. Perceiving the world in three dimensions is one such skill; so is steadily carrying a cup of tea.

At UCLA, Grafton began his career mapping brain activity using positron emission tomography, to see how the brain learns new motor skills and recovers from injury or neurodegeneration. After a career developing new scanning techniques, and a lifetime’s walking, wild camping and climbing, Grafton believes he’s able to trace the neural architectures behind so-called “goal-directed behavior” — the business of how we represent and act physically in the world.

Grafton is interested in all those situations where “smart talk, texting, virtual goggles, reading, and rationalizing won’t get the job done” — those moments when the body accomplishes a complex task without much, if any, conscious intervention.. A good example might be bagging groceries. Suppose you are packing six different items into two bags. There are 720 possible ways to do this, and — assuming that like most people you want heavy items on the bottom, fragile items on the top, and cold items together — more than 700 of the possible solutions are wrong. And yet we almost always pack things so they don’t break or spoil, and we almost never have to agonise over the countless micro-decisions required to get the job done.

The grocery-bagging example is trivial, but often, what’s at stake in a task is much more serious — crossing the road, for example — and sometimes the experience required to accomplish it is much harder to come by. A keen hiker and scrambler, Grafton studs his book with first-hand accounts, at one point recalling how someone peeled off the side of a snow bank in front of him, in what escalated rapidly into a ghastly climbing accident. “At the spot where he fell,” he writes, “all I could think was how senseless his mistake had been. It was a steep section but entirely manageable. Knowing just a little bit more about how to use his ice axe, he could have readily stopped himself.”

To acquire experience, we have to have experiences. To acquire life-saving skills, we have to risk our lives. The temptation, now that we live most of our lives in urban comfort, is to create a world safe enough that we don’t need expose ourselves to such risks, or acquire such skills.

But this, Grafton tells me, when we speak on the phone, would be a big mistake. “If all you ever are walking on is a smooth, nice sidewalk, the only thing you can be graceful on is that sidewalk, and nothing else,” he explains. “And that sets you up for a fall.”

He means this literally: “The number one reason people are in emergency rooms is from what emergency rooms call ‘ground-level falls’. I’ve seen statistics which show that more and more of us are falling over for no very good reason. Not because we’re dizzy. Not because we’re weak. But because we’re inept. ”

For more than 1.3 million years of evolutionary time, hominids have lived without pavements or chairs, handling an uneven and often unpredictable environment. We evolved to handle a complex world, and a certain amount of constant risk. “Very enriched physical problem solving, which requires a lot of understanding of physical relationships, a lot of motor control, and some deftness in putting all those understandings together — all the while being constantly challenged by new situations — I believe this is really what drives brain networks towards better health,” Grafton says.

Our chat turns speculative. The more we removed risks and challenges from our everyday environment, Grafton suggests, the more we’re likely to want to complicate and add problems to the environment, to create challenges for ourselves that require the acquisition of unusual motor skills. Might this be a major driver behind cultural activities like music-making, craft and dance?

Speculation is one thing; serious findings are another. At the moment, Grafton is gathering medical and social data to support an anecdotal observation of his: that the experience of walking in the wild not only improves our motor abilities, but also promotes our mental health.

“A friend of mine runs a wilderness programme in the Sierra Nevada for at-risk teenagers,” he explains, “and one of the things he does is to teach them how to get by for a day or two in the wilderness, on their own. It’s life-transforming. They come out of there owning their choices and their behaviour. Essentially, they’ve grown up.”

Over-performing human

Talking to choreographer Alexander Whitley for the Financial Times,  28 February 2020

On a dim and empty stage, six masked black-clad dancers, half-visible, their limbs edged in light, run through attitude after attitude, emotion after emotion. Above the dancers, a long tube of white light slowly rises, falls, tips and circles, drawing the dancers’ limbs and faces towards itself like a magnet. Under its variable cold light, movements become more expressive, more laden with emotion, more violent.

Alexander Whitley, formerly of the Royal Ballet School and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is six years into a project to expand the staging of dance with new media. He has collaborated with filmmakers, designers, digital artists and composers. Most of all, he has played games with light.

The experiments began with The Measures Taken, in 2014. Whitley used motion-tracking technology to project visuals that interacted with the performers’ movements. Then, dissatisfied with the way the projections obscured the dancers, in 2018 he used haze and narrowly focused bars of light to create, for Strange Stranger, a virtual “maze” in which his dancers found themselves alternately liberated and constrained.

At 70 minutes Overflow, commissioned by Sadler’s Wells Theatre, represents a massive leap in ambition. With several long-time collaborators — in particular the Dutch artist-designers Children of the Light — Whitley has worked out how to reveal, to an audience sat just a few feet away, exactly what he wants them to see.

Whitley is busy nursing Overflow up to speed in time for its spring tour. The company begin with a night at the Lowry in Salford on 18 March, before performing at Sadler’s Wells on 17 and 18 April.

Overflow, nearly two years in the making, has consumed money as well as time. The company is performing at Stereolux in Nantes in April and will need more overseas bookings if it is to flourish. “There’s serious doubt about the status of the UK and UK touring companies now,” says Whitley (snapping at my cheaply dangled Brexit bait); “I hope there’s enough common will to build relationships in spite of the political situation.”

It is easy to talk politics with Whitley (he is very well read), but his dances are anything but mere vehicles for ideas. And while Overflow is a political piece by any measure — a survey of our spiritual condition under survellance capitalism, for heaven’s sake — its effects are strikingly classical. It’s not just the tricksy lighting that has me thinking of the figures on ancient Greek vases. It’s the dancers themselves and their clean, elegant, tragedian’s gestures.

A dancer kneels, and takes hold of his head. He tilts it up into the light as it turns and tilts, inches from his face, and, in a shocking piece of trompe l’ioel — can he really be pulling his face apart?

Overflow is about our relationship to the machines that increasingly govern our lives. But there’s not a hint of regimentation here, or mechanisation. These dancers are not trying to perform machine. They’re trying to perform human.

Whitley laughs at this observation. “I guess, as far as that goes, they’re over-performing human. They’re caught up in the excitement and hyper-stimulation of their activity. Which is exactly how we interact with social media. We’re being hyperstimulated into excessive activity. Keep scrolling, keep consuming, keep engaging!”

It was an earlier piece, 2016’s Pattern Recognition, that set Whitley on the road to Overflow. “I’d decided to have the lights moving around the stage, to give us the sense of depth we’d struggled to achieve in The Measures Taken. But very few people I talked to afterwards realised or understood that our mobile stage lights were being driven by real-time tracking. They thought you could achieve what we’d achieved just through choreography. At which point a really obvious insight arrived: that interactivity is interesting, first and foremost, for the actor involved in the interaction.”

In Overflow, that the audience feels left out is no longer a technical problem: it’s the whole point of the piece. “We’re all watching things we shouldn’t be watching, somehow, through social media and the internet,” says Whitley. “That the world has become so revealed is unpleasant. It’s over-exposed us to elements of human nature that should perhaps remain private. But we’re all bound up in it. Even if we’re not doing it, we’re watching it.”

The movements of the ensemble in Overflow are the equivalent of emoji: “I was interested in how we could think of human emotions just as bits of data,” Whitley explains. In the 1980s a psychologist called Robert Plutchik stated that there were eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. “We stuck pins at random into this wheel chart he invented, choosing an emotion at random, and from that creating an action that somehow embodied or represented it. And the incentive was to do so as quickly and concisely as possible, and as soon it’s done, choose another one. So the dancers are literally jumping at random between all these different human emotions. It’s not real communication, just an outpouring of emotional information.”

The solos are built using material drawn from each dancer’s movement diary. “The dancers made diary entries, which I then filmed, based on how they were feeling each day. They’re movement dairies: personal documents of their emotional lives, which I then chopped up and jumbled around and gave back to them as a video to learn.”

In Whitley’s vision, the digital realm isn’t George Orwell’s Big Brother, dictating our every move from above. It’s more like the fox and the cat in the Pinnochio story, egging a naive child into the worst behaviours, all in the name of independence and free expression. “Social media encourage us to act more, to feel more, to express more, because the more we do that, the more capital they can generate from our data, and the more they can understand and predict what we’re likely to do next.”

This is where the politics comes in: the way “emotion, which incidentally is the real currency of dance, is now the major currency of the digital economy”.

It’s been a job of work, packing such cerebral content into an emotional form like dance. But Whitley says it’s what keeps him working, ” that sheer impossibility of pinning down ideas that otherwise exist almost entirely in words. As soon as you scratch the surface, you realise there’s huge amount of communication always at work through the body and drawing ideas from a more cerebral world into the physical, into the emotional, is a constant fascination. There are lifetimes of enquiry here. It’s what keeps me coming back.”

Nicholas, c’est moi

Watching Color Out of Space for New Scientist, 12 February 2020

Nicholas Cage’s efforts to clear his debts after 2012’s catastrophic run-in with the IRS continue with yet another relatively low-budget movie, Color Out of Space, a film no-one expects much of. (It’s in US cinemas now; by the time it reaches UK screens, on 28 February, it will already be available on Blu-Ray.)

Have you ever watched a bad film and found yourself dreaming about it months afterwards? Color Out of Space is one of those.

To begin: in March 1927 the author H. P Lovecraft wrote what would become his personal favourite story. In “The Color Out of Space”, a meteor crashes into a farmer’s field in the Massachusetts hills. The farmer’s crops grow huge, but prove inedible. His livestock go mad. So, in the end, does the farmer, haunted by a colour given off by a visiting presence in the land: a glow that belongs on no ordinary spectrum.

This is Lovecraft’s riff on a favourite theme of fin-de-siecle science fiction: the existence of new rays, and with them, new ways of seeing. The 1890s and 1900s were, after all, radiant years. Victor Schumann discovered ultraviolet radiation in 1893. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1896. J. J. Thomson discovered that cathode rays were streams of electrons in 1897. Prosper-René Blondlot discovered N-rays in 1903 — only they turned out not to exist: an artefact of observational error and wishful thinking.

And this is pretty much what the local media assume has happened when Nathan Gardner, the not-very-effective head of a household that is downsizing after unspecified health problems and financial setbacks, describes the malevolent light he catches spilling at odd moments from his well. The man’s a drunk, is what people assume. A fantasist. An eccentric.

The film is yet another attempt to fuse American Gothic to a contemporary setting. Director Richard Stanley (who brough us 1990’s Hardware, another valuable bad movie) has written a script that, far from smoothing out the discrepancies between modern and pre-modern proprieties, manners, and ways of speaking, leaves them jangling against each other in a way that makes you wonder What On Earth Is Going On.

And what is going on, most of the time, is Nicholas Cage as Gardner. Has anyone before or since conveyed so raucously and yet so well the misery, the frustration, the rage, the self-hatred of weak men? Every time he gets into a fist-fight with a car interior I think to myself, Ah, Nicholas, c’est moi.

Even better, Cage’s on-screen wife here is Joely Richardson, an actress who packs a lifetime’s disappointments into a request to pass the sugar.

Alien life is not like earth life and to confront it is to invite madness, is the general idea. But with tremendous support from on-screen children Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer, Cage and Richardson turn what might have been a series of uninteresting personal descents into a family tragedy of Jacobean proportions. If ever hell were other people, then at its deepest point you would find the Gardner family, sniping at each other across the dinner table.

Color Out of Space mashes up psychological drama, horror, and alien invasion. It’s not a film you admire. It’s a film you get into internal arguments with, as you try and sort all the bits out. In short, it does exactly what it set out to do. It sticks.

An embarrassment, a blowhard, a triumph

Watching Star Trek: Picard for New Scientist, 24 January 2020

Star Trek first appeared on television on 8 September 1966. It has been fighting the gravitational pull of its own nostalgia ever since – or at least since the launch of the painfully careful spin-off Star Trek: The Next Generation 21 years later.

The Next Generation was the series that gave us shipboard counselling (a questionable idea), a crew that liked each other (a catastrophically mistaken idea) and Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, who held the entire farrago together, pretty much single-handed, for seven seasons.

Now Picard is back, retired, written off, an embarrassment and a blowhard. And Star Trek: Picard is a triumph, praise be.

Something horrible has happened to the “synthetics” (read: robots) who, in the person of Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner, returning briefly here) once promised so much for the Federation. Science fiction’s relationship with its metal creations is famously fraught: well thought-through robot revolt provided the central premise for Battlestar Galactica and Westworld, while Dune, reinvented yet again later this year as a film by Blade Runner 2049‘s Denis Villeneuve, is set in a future that abandoned artificial intelligence following a cloudy but obviously dreadful conflict.

And there is a perfectly sound reason for this mayhem. After all, any machine flexible enough to do what a robot is expected to do is going to be flexible enough to down tools – or worse. What Picard‘s take on this perennial problem will be isn’t yet clear, but the consequences of all the Federation’s synthetics going haywire is painfully felt: it has all but abandoned its utopian remit. It is now just one more faction in a fast-moving, galaxy-wide power arena (echoes of the Trump presidency and its consequences are entirely intentional).

Can Picard, the last torchbearer of the old guard, bring the Federation back to virtue? One jolly well hopes so, and not too quickly, either. Picard is, whatever else we may say about it, a great deal of fun.

There are already some exciting novelties, though the one I found most intriguing may turn out to be a mere artefact of getting the show off the ground. Picard’s world – troubled by bad dreams quite as much as it is enabled by world-shrinking technology – is oddly surreal, discontinuous in ways that aren’t particularly confusing but do jar here and there.

Is the Star Trek franchise finally getting to grips with the psychological consequences of its mastery of time and space? Or did the producers simply shove as much plot as possible into the first episode to get the juggernaut rolling? The latter seems more likely, but I hold out hope.

The new show bears its burden of twaddle. The first episode features a po-faced analysis of Data’s essence. No, really. His essence. That’s a thing, now. How twaddle became an essential ingredient on The Next Generation – and now possibly Picard – is a mystery: the original Star Trek never felt the need to saddle itself with such single-use, go-nowhere nonsense. But by now, like a hold full of tribbles, the twaddle seems impossible to shake off (Star Trek: Discovery, I’m looking at you).

Oh, but why cavil? Stewart brings a new vulnerability and even a hint of bitterness to grit his seemlessly fluid recreation of Picard, and the story promises an exciting and fairly devastating twist to the show’s old political landscape. Picard, growing old disgracefully? Oh, please make it so!

“I heard the rustling of the dress for two whole hours”

By the end of the book I had come to understand why kindness and cruelty cannot vanquish each other, and why, irrespective of our various ideas about social progress, our sexual and gender politics will always teeter, endlessly and without remedy, between “Orwellian oppression and the Hobbesian jungle”…

Reading Strange Antics: A history of seduction by Clement Knox, 1 February 2020