“Me, Washoe”

Watching Nick Lehane: Chimpanzee  at Barbican Centre, London
for New Scientist, 20 January 2020

The puppet, a life-sized female chimpanzee, is made out of wood, rope, carved hard foam and paper mâché. She gazes out at the audience from a raised platform and, through movement alone, weaves her tale. When she was young, she lived as part of a human family. Now she is incarcerated in a research laboratory, deprived of company, her mind slowly deteriorating.

Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman operate the chimpanzee, the sole actor in a puppet play running at the Barbican Centre in London. The play, Chimpanzee, by Brooklyn-based actor and puppeteer Nick Lehane, is a highlight of 2020’s London International Mime Festival. It is a moving story that is attracting attention from neurologists and cognitive scientists along with the usual performing-arts crowd.

Lehane conceived the show after reading Next of Kin, a memoir by psychologist and primate researcher Roger Fouts. Fouts’s tales of experiments in fostering young chimpanzees in human homes had obvious dramatic potential. Then, as Lehane looked deeper, he discovered a much darker story.

The Fouts family’s own chimps enjoyed a relatively comfortable life once they outgrew their human home. But other chimpanzees in similar programmes found themselves sold to research labs, living out almost inconceivably solitary lives of confinement and vivisection.

Modern efforts to communicate with chimpanzees began in 1967 at the University of Nevada, Reno, when primatologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner set up a project to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to a chimp called Washoe. These experiments have so transformed our view of chimp culture that many of the original researchers are campaigning to end the practice of keeping primates in captivity. (It is still legal to keep primates as pets in the UK.)

Chimpanzee vocalisations aren’t under conscious control, but the apes can communicate using body gestures. “This happens naturally in the wild,” says Mary Lee Jensvold, who advised Nick Lehane on his play. A former student of Roger Fouts, she too campaigns to end primate captivity. “And because chimps live in communities that are relatively closed and quite aggressive with each other, each community has its own repertoire of gestures. Where there’s some overlap, there are differences in how the gestures are articulated.”

In other words, each community speaks in its own accent, and this, says Jensvold, “really speaks to chimpanzees being cultural beings“.

As the sign-language studies grew more ambitious, the Gardners and their colleagues Roger and Deborah Fouts took the chimps into their own homes, acculturating them as humans as far they could to encourage communication.

The obvious question – what is it like growing up in a family that contains chimpanzees? – is the only question Roger Fouts’s son Joshua struggles to answer: “The reality is it’s all I knew.” Joshua, now a media scholar, was raised in a family whose rituals involved members that weren’t human, whose human members would sign to each other so the chimpanzees wouldn’t feel left out of the conversation, and the experience has left him with a profound sense that every non-human has inherent sapience. “When I’m walking down the sidewalk, and I see a human walking with their dog,” he says, “I tend to greet the dog.”

Roger Fouts and his colleagues found that their animals used ASL to communicate with each other, creating phrases by combining signs to denote novel objects.

Washoe was the first chimpanzee to wield ASL in a convincing fashion. Others followed: when Washoe’s mate Moja didn’t know the word for “thermos”, he referred to it as a “metal cup drink”. When Washoe was shown an image of herself in the mirror, and asked what she was seeing, she replied: “Me, Washoe.”

The researchers could hardly credit what they were seeing – and some of their peers still don’t. Jensvold believes there may be a cultural conflict at work. “In the US, comparative psychology has historically been a very lab-based science, where you set up these contrived experiments in order to answer your research questions,” she says. “Out of Europe comes an ethological approach, which is really more about taking the time to observe.”

The sign language research has drawn Jensvold and her colleagues into animal welfare and protection. “We can’t keep doing to them what we’ve been doing,” she says.

Joshua recalls the moment his father reached the same conclusion: “About midway through his career, Roger realised that this was an experiment that should never have been done. Out of the desire to determine what it is about humans that makes us special, we’ve effectively condemned these chimpanzees to a life of incarceration. They’re enculturated to our behaviours. They can never be reintroduced to the wild.”

There are no captive chimps in New York, so Nick Lehane’s research for his play consisted almost entirely of watching videos. According to Jensvold, he couldn’t have picked a better form of study. “With video tape,” she says, “you can take close observation down to a minute level.”

By the time Jensvold got involved in Lehane’s project, there was already a performance ready for her to judge. For Lehane, that was a heart-in-mouth moment: “I was afraid that despite our best efforts, we had missed the mark. If anyone was going to think that we had missed something vital about chimp movement or behaviour, it would be Mary Lee.”

He needn’t have worried. “Chimpanzee was phenomenal,” says Jensvold. “I was spotting things that I knew other people in the audience, people who weren’t experts, weren’t going to notice. He captured these incredible nuances.” She pauses: “So the level of suffering that he’s depicting: he gets that right, too.”

How does Lehane’s chimpanzee convey emotion, given that chimp and human expressions don’t overlap at all precisely?

“A lot of it is in the miming of breath patterns,” says Lehane. “Short little pants and hoots look happy; deep intense heaves and cough will register as a different emotion.”

“One of the things I think is so cool about puppetry is that the audience fills in so many blanks,” he says. “I can’t tell you the number of times that someone has said, ‘How did you make the puppet cry?’ ‘How did you make the puppet frown?’ ‘I loved it when the puppet blinked!’ It tickles me because I just didn’t do any of those things.”

Is there a danger here that the audience is merely anthropomorphising his subject, interpreting his chimpanzee as little more than a funny-shaped human?

In answer, Lehane quotes primatologist Frans de Waal: “To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”

 

Cutting up the sky

Reading A Scheme of Heaven: Astrology and the Birth of Science by Alexander Boxer
for the Spectator, 18 January 2020

Look up at sky on a clear night. This is not an astrological game. (Indeed, the experiment’s more impressive if you don’t know one zodiacal pattern from another, and rely solely on your wits.) In a matter of seconds, you will find patterns among the stars.

We can pretty much apprehend up to five objects (pennies, points of light, what-have-you) at a single glance. Totting up more than five objects, however, takes work. It means looking for groups, lines, patterns, symmetries, boundaries.

The ancients cut up the sky into figures, all those aeons ago, for the same reason we each cut up the sky within moments of gazing at it: because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend the sky at all.

Our pattern-finding ability can get out of hand. During his Nobel lecture in 1973 the zoologist Konrad Lorenz recalled how he once :”… mistook a mill for a sternwheel steamer. A vessel was anchored on the banks of the Danube near Budapest. It had a little smoking funnel and at its stern an enormous slowly-turning paddle-wheel.”

Some false patterns persist. Some even flourish. And the brighter and more intellectually ambitious you are, the likelier you are to be suckered. John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court philosopher, owned the country’s largest library (it dwarfed any you would find at Oxford or Cambridge). His attempt to tie up all that knowledge in a single divine system drove him into the arms of angels — or at any rate, into the arms of the “scrier” Edward Kelley, whose prodigious output of symbolic tables of course could be read in such a way as to reveal fragments of esoteric wisdom.

This, I suspect, is what most of us think about astrology: that it was a fanciful misconception about the world that flourished in times of widespread superstition and ignorance, and did not, could not, survive advances in mathematics and science.

Alexander Boxer is out to show how wrong that picture is, and A Scheme of Heaven will make you fall in love with astrology, even as it extinguishes any niggling suspicion that it might actually work.

Boxer, a physicist and historian, kindles our admiration for the earliest astronomers. My favourite among his many jaw-dropping stories is the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. This is the process by which the sun, each mid-spring and mid-autumn, rises at a fractionally different spot in the sky each year. It takes 26,000 years to make a full revolution of the zodiac — a tiny motion first detected by Hipparchus around 130 BC. And of course Hipparchus, to make this observation at all, “had to rely on the accuracy of stargazers who would have seemed ancient even to him.”

In short, a had a library card. And we know that such libraries existed because the “astronomical diaries” from the Assyrian library at Nineveh stretch from 652BC to 61BC, representing possibly the longest continuous research program ever undertaken in human history.

Which makes astrology not too shoddy, in my humble estimation. Boxer goes much further, dubbing it “the ancient world’s most ambitious applied mathematics problem.”

For as long as lives depend on the growth cycles of plants, the stars will, in a very general sense, dictate the destiny of our species. How far can we push this idea before it tips into absurdity? The answer is not immediately obvious, since pretty much any scheme we dream up will fit some conjunction or arrangement of the skies.

As civilisations become richer and more various, the number and variety of historical events increases, as does the chance that some event will coincide with some planetary conjunction. Around the year 1400, the French Catholic cardinal Pierre D’Ailly concluded his astrological history of the world with a warning that the Antichrist could be expected to arrive in the year 1789, which of course turned out to be the year of the French revolution.

But with every spooky correlation comes an even larger horde of absurdities and fatuities. Today, using a machine-learning algorithm, Boxer shows that “it’s possible to devise a model that perfectlly mimics Bitcoin’s price history and that takes, as its input data, nothing more than the zodiac signs of the planets on any given day.”

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem explored this territory in his novel The Chain of Chance: “We now live in such a dense world of random chance,” he wrote in 1975, “in a molecular and chaotic gas whose ‘improbabilities’ are amazing only to the individual human atoms.” And this, I suppose, is why astrology eventually abandoned the business of describing whole cultures and nations (a task now handed over to economics, another largely ineffectual big-number narrative) and now, in its twilight, serves merely to gull individuals.

Astrology, to work at all, must assume that human affairs are predestined. It cannot, in the long run, survive the notion of free will. Christianity did for astrology, not because it defeated a superstition, but because it rendered moot astrology’s iron bonds of logic.

“Today,” writes Boxer, “there’s no need to root and rummage for incidental correlations. Modern machine-learning algorithms are correlation monsters. They can make pretty much any signal correlate with any other.”

We are bewitched by big data, and imagine it is something new. We are ever-indulgent towards economists who cannot even spot a global crash. We credulously conform to every algorithmically justified norm. Are we as credulous, then, as those who once took astrological advice as seriously as a medical diagnosis? Oh, for sure.

At least our forebears could say they were having to feel their way in the dark. The statistical tools you need to sort real correlations from pretty patterns weren’t developed until the late nineteenth century. What’s our excuse?

“Those of us who are enthusiastic about the promise of numerical data to unlock the secrets of ourselves and our world,” Boxer writes, “would do well simply to acknowledge that others have come this way before.”

Can you use a bottle opener?

Visiting the Baltic in Gateshead for Animalesque: Art across species and beings.
For New Scientist, 15 January 2020.

EXHIBITIONS about our relationship with the environment tend to be bombastic. Either they preach doom and destruction, or they reckon our children will soon be living lives of plenty on artificial atolls.

Animalesque at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK, knows better than this. In an international selection of art, sculpture and film, curator Filipa Ramos points out how little we know about other species, and how much we might still learn. With this humility comes hope that we can reform our relations with Earth.

Research has a major role to play, but it can only go so far. One unassuming TV monitor is screening a video from Tupilakosaurus, a long-running project by Danish-Greenlandic artist Pia Arke. It is a telling but not unsympathetic satirical film, in which examinations of a fossil dinosaur throw up folk tales, mangled histories and surreal mountains of paperwork as researchers try to represent and classify the Arctic’s life and history.

Often, we find out about other species only as we are evicting and replacing them. This happened to the Malayan tiger, which now numbers just some 300 wild cats in the Malay Peninsula. 2 or 3 Tigers (2015) by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen is a 19-minute, two- screen video, made using CGI and some very dodgy operatic singing, about the were-tigers of Malayan folklore. As ancestors, companions, competitors, protectors, destroyers and gods, tigers were central to the indigenous culture. Western settlers couldn’t find any there, however, until one sprang out of the forest in 1835 and attacked a hapless surveyor’s theodolite.

Our most stable cross-species relationships are with domesticated animals, even if they are sometimes discomforting or guilt-ridden affairs. In French artist Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), a macaque explores an abandoned restaurant in Fukushima, Japan, an area gutted by the 2011 tsunami. Identifying the species of our protagonist takes a while. You would be forgiven for thinking you were watching a girl, because the macaque is wearing a wig and an eerily beautiful mask (pictured above).

The uncanny collision of categories (girl and pet, puppet and creature) only becomes more dizzying when you discover that Huyghe recruited his “star” from a Tokyo restaurant where the macaque spent many apparently happy hours working as a waiter.

It is a film of great pathos, more moving and less disturbing than this bald description suggests. It speaks to our difficulty understanding other animals, steeped as we are in human concerns.

The difficulty is real, can research help us? Degreecoordinates, Shared traits of the Hominini (humans, bonobos and chimpanzees) (2015) attempts it. For this, UK artist Marcus Coates worked with primatologist Volker Sommer to list questions relevant to all three: do you resolve conflicts using sex? Can you use a bottle opener? Do you kiss? Are you preoccupied with hierarchy and status?

Human answers vary, but so do those gleaned from studying individual chimps and bonobos. The differences between individuals of each of the three species far exceed those across species. Animalesque celebrates what we share – and what we can learn.

 

A pontiff set upon by angels

Watching Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela for New Scientist, 15 January 2020.

WINTER in southern Siberia. By a long-winded, painstaking method involving levers, ropes and a fair amount of cursing, vehicles that have fallen through the thawing ice of Lake Baikal can be hauled back onto the surface.

The crew working on Aquarela were filming one such operation when an SUV shot past in a shower of ice, then plunged nose-first into the freezing water, killing one of its occupants.

There is nothing exploitative about the footage that, after much soul-searching, Russian film-maker Victor Kossakovsky used to front his poetic, narrative-less documentary about the power and weirdness of water. Locals and police slip and topple, hacking frantically at the ice, while the accident’s sole survivor stumbles about, frenzied with terror and getting in everyone’s way.

Kossakovsky is one of those rare documentary makers who still believes that the camera alone can capture truth. His expensive and time-consuming method of waiting, watching and witnessing the world is rarely supported by an industry obsessed with narratives and sound bites. Bravo, then, to Participant Media and the film’s many other backers, large and small, for Aquarela: the strangest, most powerful eco-documentary you are ever likely to see.

Captured at a staggering 96 frames per second, Aquarela‘s tracking shots, even in extreme close-up, are completely flicker-free. This makes them surreally present, in a way that demolishes scale and has you gripping the arms of your chair. Virtually no cinemas are equipped to screen such footage: this is a film made with an eye to posterity, and the plaudits that come with being a cinematic first.

Just as much study – and, no doubt, expense – has gone into the super-stabilisation of the camera used to capture the swells of a storm-tossed mid-Atlantic. If ever a present-day sequence could recreate the urban myth surrounding L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, in which early audiences were convinced an on-screen train was going to drive into them and fled to the back of the cinema, it is a ride over one of Aquarela‘s impending waves.

Why recommend a film that no cinema chain can yet screen properly? Buying the Blu-Ray disc or watching it on a streaming service (we will tell you when it arrives in our Don’t Miss column) is likely to convey only a fraction of its magic. But that fragment is jaw-dropping. After so many eco-docs, with their predictable 5-second glimpses of calving icebergs, here, finally, is a film that lingers on the berg as it sinks and rises, turns and crumbles, until an ice fragment floats by that looks for all the world like a pontiff set upon by angels.

This is a film that makes even a placid ocean surface strange, as oblique light catches the ripples within each little wave. Those ripples, in such a harsh, angled, almost monochrome light, resemble the stress fractures you find in flint or bottle glass. As such, the water, for all its movement, looks like a weirdly animated mineral, and those ocean swells really do look like mountains – the cliche made vivid at last.

This isn’t a film about our relationship with water. From continent to continent, glacier to ocean, burst dam to waterfall, Aquarela is about water’s indifference to any relationship we might try to strike up with it. It is a most disconcerting film.

‘God knows what the Chymists mean by it’

Reading Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf: How the Elements Were Named, by
Peter Wothers, for The Spectator, 14 December 2019

Here’s how the element antimony got its name. Once upon a time (according to the 17th-century apothecary Pierre Pomet), a German monk (moine in French) noticed its purgative effects in animals. Fancying himself as a physician, he fed it to “his own Fraternity… but his Experiment succeeded so ill that every one who took of it died. This therefore was the reason of this Mineral being call’d Antimony, as being destructive of the Monks.”

If this sounds far-fetched, the Cambridge chemist Peter Wothers has other stories for you to choose from, each more outlandish than the last. Keep up: we have 93 more elements to get through, and they’re just the ones that occur naturally on Earth. They each have a history, a reputation and in some cases a folklore. To investigate their names is to evoke histories that are only intermittently scientific. A lot of this enchanting, eccentric book is about mining and piss.

The mining:

There was no reliable lighting or ventilation; the mines could collapse at any point and crush the miners; they could be poisoned by invisible vapours or blown up by the ignition of pockets of flammable gas. Add to this the stifling heat and the fact that some of the minerals themselves were poisonous and corrosive, and it really must have seemed to the miners that they were venturing into hell.

Above ground, there were other difficulties. How to spot the new stuff? What to make of it? How to distinguish it from all the other stuff? It was a job that drove men spare. In a 1657 Physical Dictionary the entry for Sulphur Philosophorum states simply: ‘God knows what the Chymists mean by it.’

Today we manufacture elements, albeit briefly, in the lab. It’s a tidy process, with a tidy nomenclature. Copernicum, einsteinium berkelium: neologisms as orderly and unevocative as car marques.

The more familiar elements have names that evoke their history. Cobalt, found in
a mineral that used to burn and poison miners, is named for the imps that, according to the 16th-century German Georgius Agricola ‘idle about in the shafts and tunnels and really do nothing, although they pretend to be busy in all kinds of labour’. Nickel is kupfernickel, ‘the devil’s copper’, an ore that looked like valuable copper ore but, once hauled above the ground, appeared to have no value whatsoever.

In this account, technology leads and science follows. If you want to understand what oxygen is, for example, you first have to be able to make it. And Cornelius Drebbel, the maverick Dutch inventor, did make it, in 1620, 150 years before Joseph Priestley got in on the act. Drebbel had no idea what this enchanted stuff was, but he knew it sweetened the air in his submarine, which he demonstrated on the Thames before King James I. Again, if you want a good scientific understanding of alkalis, say, then you need soap, and lye so caustic that when a drunk toppled into a pit of the stuff ‘nothing of him was found but his Linnen Shirt, and the hardest Bones, as I had the Relation from a Credible Person, Professor of that Trade’. (This is Otto Tachenius, writing in 1677. There is lot of this sort of thing. Overwhelming in its detail as it can be, Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf is wickedly entertaining.)

Wothers does not care to hold the reader’s hand. From page 1 he’s getting his hands dirty with minerals and earths, metals and the aforementioned urine (without which the alchemists, wanting chloride, sodium, potassium and ammonia, would have been at a complete loss) and we have to wait till page 83 for a discussion of how the modern conception of elements was arrived at. The periodic table doesn’t arrive till page 201 (and then it’s Mendeleev’s first table, published in 1869). Henri Becquerel discovers radioactivity barely four pages before the end of the book. It’s a surprising strategy, and a successful one. Readers fall under the spell of the possibilities of matter well before they’re asked to wrangle with any of the more highfalutin chemical concepts.

In 1782, Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau published his Memoir upon Chemical Denominations, the Necessity of Improving the System, and the Rules for Attaining a Perfect Language. Countless idiosyncracies survived his reforms. But chemistry did begin to acquire an orderliness that made Mendeleev’s towering work a century later — relating elements to their atomic structure — a deal easier.

This story has an end. Chemistry as a discipline is now complete. All the major problems have been solved. There are no more great discoveries to be made. Every chemical reaction we do is another example of one we’ve already done. These days, chemists are technologists: they study spectrographs, and argue with astronomers about the composition of the atmospheres around planets orbiting distant stars; they tinker in biophysics labs, and have things to say about protein synthesis. The heroic era of chemical discovery — in which we may fondly recall Gottfried Leibniz extracting phosphorus from 13,140 litres of soldiers’ urine — is past. Only some evocative words remain; and Wothers unpacks them with infectious enthusiasm, and something which in certain lights looks very like love.

Russian enlightenment

Attending Russia’s top non-fiction awards for the TLS, 11 December 2019

Founded in 2008, the Enlightener awards are modest by Western standards. The Russian prize is awarded to writers of non-fiction, and each winner receives seven million rubles – just over £8,500. This year’s ceremony took place last month at Moscow’s School Of Modern Drama, and its winners included Pyotr Talantov for his book exploring the distinction between modern medicine and its magical antecedents, and Elena Osokina for a work about the state stores that sold food and goods at inflated prices in exchange for foreign currency, gold, silver and diamonds. But the organizer’s efforts also extend to domestic and foreign lecture programmes, festivals and competitions. And at this year’s ceremony a crew from TV Rain (or Dozhd, an independent channel) was present, as journalists and critics mingled with researchers in medicine and physics, who had come to show support for the Zimin Foundation which is behind the prizes.

The Zimin Foundation is one of those young–old organizations whose complex origin story reflects the Russian state’s relationship with its intelligentsia. It sprang up to replace the celebrated and influential Dynasty Foundation, whose work was stymied by legal controversy in 2015. Dynasty had been paying stipends to young biologists, physicists and mathematicians: sums just enough that jobbing scientists could afford Moscow rents. The scale of the effort grabbed headlines. Its plan for 2015 – the year it fell foul of the Russian government – was going to cost it 435 million rubles: around £5.5 million.

The Foundation’s money came from Dimitry Zimin’s sale, in 2001, of his controlling stake in VimpelCom, Russia’s second-largest telecoms company.  Raised on non-fiction and popular science, Zimin (pictured) decided to use the money to support young researchers. (“It would be misleading to claim that I’m driven by some noble desire to educate humankind”, he remarked in a 2013 interview. “It’s just that I find it exciting.”)

As a child, Zimin had sought escape in the Utopian promises of science. And no wonder: when he was two, his father was killed in a prison camp near Novosibirsk. A paternal uncle was shot three years later, in 1938. He remembers his mother arguing for days with neighbours in their communal apartment about who was going to wash the floors, or where to store luggage. It was so crowded that when his mother remarried, Dmitry barely noticed. In 1947, Eric Ashby, the Australian Scientific Attaché to the USSR, claimed “it can be said without fear of contradiction that nowhere else in the world, not even in America, is there such a widespread interest in science among the common people”. “Science is kept before the people through newspapers, books, lectures, films, exhibitions in parks and museums, and through frequent public festivals in honour of scientists and their discoveries. There is even an annual ‘olympiad’ of physics for Moscow schoolchildren.” Dimitry Zimin was firmly of this generation.

Then there were books, the “Scientific Imaginative Literature” whose authors had a section all of their own at the Praesidium of the Union of Soviet Writers. Romances about radio. Thrillers about industrial espionage. Stirring adventure stories about hydrographic survey missions to the arctic. The best of these science writers won lasting reputations in the West. In 1921 Alexander Oparin had the bold new idea that life resulted from non-living processes; The Origin of Life came out in English translation in New York in 1938. Alexander Luria’s classic neuropsychological case study The Mind of a Mnemonist described the strange world of a client of his, Solomon Shereshevsky, a man with a memory so prodigious it ruined his life. An English translation first appeared in 1960 and is still in print.

By 2013 Zimin, at the age of eighty, was established as one of the world’s foremost philanthropists, a Carnegie Trust medalist like Rockefeller and the Gateses, George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. But that is a problem in a country where the leaders fear successful businesspeople. In May 2015, just two months after Russia’s minister of education and science, Dmitry Livanov, presented Zimin with a state award for services to science, the Dynasty Foundation was declared a “foreign agent”. “So-called foreign funds work in schools, networks move about schools in Russia for many years under the cover of supporting talented youth”, complained Vladimir Putin, in a speech in June 2015. “Actually they are just sucking them up like a vacuum cleaner.” Never mind that Dynasty’s whole point was to encourage homegrown talent to return. (According to the Association of Russian-Speaking Scientists, around 100,000 Russian-speaking researchers work outside the country.)

Dynasty was required to put a label on their publications and other materials to the effect that they received foreign funding. To lie, in other words. “Certainly, I will not spend my own money acting under the trademark of some unknown foreign state”, Zimin told the news agency Interfax on May 26. “I will stop funding Dynasty.” But instead of stopping his funding altogether, Zimin founded a new foundation, which took over Dynasty’s programmes, including the Enlighteners. Constituted to operate internationally, it is a different sort of beast. It does not limit itself to Russia. And on the Monday following this year’s Enlightener awards it announced a plan to establish new university laboratories around the world. The foundation already has scientific projects up and running in New York, Tel Aviv and Cyprus, and cultural projects at Tartu University in Estonia and in London, where it supports Polity Press’s Russian translation programme.

In Russia, meanwhile, history continues to repeat itself.  In July 2019 the Science and Education Ministry sent a list of what it later called “recommendations” to the institutions it controls. The ministry should be notified in detail of any planned meetings with foreigners and provide the names. At least two Russian researchers must be present at any meeting with foreigners. Contact with foreigners outside work hours is only allowed with a supervisor’s permission. Details of any after-hours contact must be summarized, along with copies of the participants’ passports. This doesn’t just echo the Soviet limits on international communication. It copies them, point by point.

In Soviet times, of course, many scientists and engineers lived in golden cages, enjoying unprecedented social status. But with the Soviet collapse in 1991 came a readjustment in political values that handed the industrial sector to speculators, while leaving experts and technicians without tenure, without prospects; above all, without salaries.

The wheel will keep turning, of course. In 2018 Putin promised that science and innovation were now his top priorities. And things are improving: research and development now receives 1 per cent of the country’s GDP. But Russia has a long way to go to recover its scientific standing, and science does poorly in a politically isolated country. The Enlighteners – Russia’s only major award for non-fiction – are as much an attempt to create a civic space for science as they are a celebration of a genre that has powered Russian dreaming for over a hundred years.

Breakfast with Ryoji Ikeda

Meeting the artist Ryoji Ikeda for the Financial Times, 29 November 2019

At breakfast in a Paris café, the artist and composer Ryoji Ikeda looks ageless in a soft black cap and impenetrably dark glasses, dressed all in black so as to resemble the avatar from an indie video game.

His work too is severe, the spectrum reduced to grayscale, light to pixels, sound to spikes. Yet Ikeda is no minimalist: he is interested in the complexity that explodes the moment you reduce things to their underlying mathematics.

An artist in light, video, sound and haptics (his works often tremble beneath your feet), Ikeda is out to make you dizzy, to overload your senses, to convey, in the most visceral manner (through beats, high volumes, bright lights and image-blizzards) the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world. “I like playing around with the thresholds of perception,” he says. “If it’s too safe, it’s boring. But you have to know what you’re doing. You can hurt people.”

Ikeda’s stringent approach to his work began in the deafening underground clubs of Kyoto. There, in the mid-1990s, he made throbbing sonic experiences with Dumb Type, a coalition of technologically adept experimental artists. And he can still be this immediate when he wants to be: visitors to the main pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale found themselves squeezed through “Spectra III” (first assembled in 2008), a white corridor so evenly and brightly lit your eyes rejected what they saw, leaving you groping your way out as if in total darkness.

These days, though, he is better known for installations that go straight for the cerebral and mathematical. His ongoing “data-verse” project consists of three massively complex computer animations. The first part, “data-verse 1”, is based on static data from CERN, Nasa, the Human Genome Project and other open sources. “data-verse” contains animations, tables, graphs, matrices, 3D models, Lidar projections, maps. But what is being depicted here: something very small, or very big? There’s no way to tell. The data have peeled away from the things they represent and are dancing their own pixelated dance. Numbers have become rivers. At last the viewer’s mind surrenders to the flow and rhythm of this frenetic 12-minute piece.

It would be polite to say that “data-verse” is beautiful — but it isn’t. Rather, it is sublime, evoking a world stripped back to its mathematical bones. “If it’s beautiful, you can handle it; the sublime, you cannot,” Ikeda says. “If you stand in some great whited-out landscape in Lapland, the Sahara or the Alps, you feel something like fear. You’re trying to draw inform­ation from the world, but it’s something that your brain cannot handle.”

Similarly, the symmetrical, self-similar “data-verse” is an artwork that your mind struggles to navigate, tugging at every locked door in an attempt to regain purchase on the world.

“You try to understand, but you give up — and then it’s nice. Because now you are experiencing this piece the same way you listen to music,” Ikeda says. “It’s simply a manipulation of numbers and relationships, like a musical composition. It’s very different from the sort of visual art where you’re looking through the surface of the painting or the sculpture to see what it represents.”

When we meet, Ikeda is on his way to Tokyo Midtown, and the unveiling of “data-verse 2” (this one based on dynamic data “like the weather, or stock exchanges”). The venue is Beyond Watchmaking, an exhibition arranged by his patron, the eccentric family-run Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet. The third part of data-verse is due to be unveiled next year.

It is a vastly ambitious project but Ikeda has always tended towards the expansive. He pulls out of his suitcase an enormously heavy encyclopedia of sonic visualisations. “I wanted you to see this,” he says with a touching pride, leafing through page after page of meticulously documented oscilloscoped forms. Encyclopedia Cyclo.id was compiled with his friend Carsten Nicolai, the German multimedia artist, in 1999. Each figure here represents a particular sound. The more complex figures resemble watch faces. “It’s for designers, really,” Ikeda shrugs, shutting the book, “and architects.”

And the point of this? That lawful, timeless mathematics underpins the world and all our activities within it.

Ikeda spends 10 months out of every 12 travelling: “I really work in the airport or the kitchen. I don’t like the studio.” Months spent working out problems on paper and in his head are interspersed with intense, collaborative “cooking sessions” with a coterie of exceptional coders — creative sessions in which all previous assumptions are there to be challenged.

However, “data-verse” is likely to be Ikeda’s last intensely technological artwork. At the moment he is inclining more towards music and has been arranging some late compositions by John Cage in a purely acoustic project. As comfortable as he is around microphones, amps and computers, Ikeda isn’t particularly affiliated to machines.

“For a long time, I was put in the media-art category,” he says, “and I was so uncomfortable, because so much of that work is toylike, no depth to it at all. I’m absolutely not like this.”

Ikeda’s art, built not from things but from quantities and patterns, has afforded him much freedom. But he is acutely aware that others have more freedom still: “Mathematicians,” he sighs, “they don’t care about a thing. They don’t even care about time. It’s very interesting.”

668 televisions (some of them broken)

Visiting the Nam June Paik exhibition at Tate Modern for New Scientist, 27 November 2019

A short drive out of Washington DC, in an anonymous industrial unit, there is an enormous storage space crammed to the brim with broken television sets, and rolling stack shelving piled with typewriters, sewing machines and crudely carved coyotes.

This is the archive of the estate of Nam June Paik, the man who predicted the internet, the Web, YouTube, MOOCs, and most other icons of the current information age; an artist who spent much of his time engineering, dismantling, reusing, swapping out components, replacing old technology with better technology, delivering what he could of his vision with the components available to him. Cathode ray tube televisions. Neon. Copper. FORTRAN punch cards. And a video synthesizer, designed with the Tokyo artist-engineer Shuya Abe in 1969. The signature psychedelic video effects of Top of the Pops and MTV began life here.

Paik was born in Seoul in 1932, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and educated in Germany, where he met the composers Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and John Cage. A fascinating retrospective show currently at London’s Tate Modern celebrates his involvement with that loose confederacy of artist-anarchists known as Fluxus. (Yoko Ono was a patron. David Bowie and Laurie Anderson were hangers-on.)

Beneath Paik’s celebrated, and celebrity-stuffed concerts, openings and “happenings” — there’s what amounts — in the absence of Paik’s controlling intelligence (he died in 2006) — to a pile of junk. 668 televisions, some of them broken. A black box the size of a double refrigerator, containing the hardware to drive one of Paik’s massive “matrices”, Megatron/Matrix, an eight-channel, 215-screen video wall, in pieces now, a nightmare to catalogue, never mind reconstruct, stored in innumerable tea chests.

The trick for Saisha Grayson, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s curator of time-based media, and Lynn Putney its associate registrar, is to distinguish the raw material of Paik’s work from the work itself. Then curators like Tate Modern’s Sook Kyung Lee must interpret that work for a new generation, using new technology. Because let’s face it: in the end, more or less everything Paik used to make his art will end up in the bin. Consumer electronics aren’t like a painter’s pigments, which can be analysed and copied, or like a sculptor’s marble, which can, at a pinch, be repaired.

“Through Paik’s estate we are getting advice and guidance about what the artist really intended to achieve,” Lee explains, “and then we are simulating those things with new technology.”

Paik’s video walls — the works by which he’s best remembered, are monstrously heavy and absurdly delicate. But the Tate has been able to recreate Paik’s Sistine Chapel for this show. Video projectors to fill a room with a blizzard of cultural and pop-cultural imagery from around the world — a visual melting pot reflective of Paik’s vision of a technological utopia, in which “telecommunication will become our springboard for new and surprising human endeavors.” The projectors are new but the feel of this recreated piece is not so very different to the 1994 original.

To stand here, bombarded by Bowie and Nixon and Mongolian throat singers and all the other flitting, flickering icons of Paik’s madcap future, is to remember all our hopes for the information age: “Video-telephones, fax machines, interactive two-way television… and many other variations of this kind of technology are going to turn the television set into an «expanded-media» telephone system with thousands of novel uses,” Paik enthused in 1974, “not only to serve our daily needs, but to enrich the quality of life itself.”

Worth losing sleep over

Watching Human Nature, directed by Adam Bolt, for New Scientist, 27 November 2019.

Mature and intelligent, Human Nature shows us how gene editing works, explores its implications and – in a field awash with alarmist rhetoric and cheap dystopianism – explains which concerns are worth losing sleep over.

This gripping documentary covers a lot of ground, but also works as a primer on CRISPR, the spectacular technology that enables us to cut and paste genetic information with something like the ease with which we manipulate text on a computer. Human Nature introduces us to key start-ups and projects that promise to predict, correct and maybe enhance the genetic destinies of individuals. It explores the fears this inspires, and asks whether they are reasonable. Its conclusions are cautious, well-argued and largely optimistic.

Writers Regina Sobel and Adam Bolt (who also directs) manage to tell this story through interviews. Key players in the field, put at their ease during hours of film-making, speak cogently to camera. There is no narration.

Ned Piyadarakorn’s graphics are ravishing and yet absurdly simple to grasp. They need to be, because this is an account hardly less complex than those in the best popular science books. As the film progressed, I began to suspect that the film-makers assume we aren’t idiots. This is so rare an experience that it took a while to sink in.

There are certain problems the film can’t get round, though. There are too many people in white coats moving specks from one Petri dish to another. It couldn’t be otherwise, given the technology involves coats, specks, Petri dishes and little else by way of props the general viewer can understand. That this is a source of cool amusement rather than irritation is largely due to the charisma of the film’s cast of researchers, ethicists, entrepreneurs, diagnosticians, their clients and people with conditions that could be helped by the technique, such as schoolboy David Sanchez, who has sickle-cell anaemia. We learn that researchers are running clinical trials using CRISPR to test a therapy for his condition.

Foundational researchers like Jennifer Doudna and Jill Banfield, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Fyodor Urnov provide star quality. Provocateurs like Stephen Hsu, a cheerful promoter of designer babies, and the longevity guru George Church are given room to explain why they aren’t nearly as crazy as some people assume.

Then the bioethicist Alta Charo makes the obvious but frequently ignored point that the Brave New World nightmare CRISPR is said to usher in is a very old and well-worn future indeed. Sterilisations, genocide and mass enslavement have been around a lot longer than CRISPR, she says, and if the new tech is politically abused, we will only have our ourselves to blame.

There is, of course, the possibility that CRISPR will let loose some irresistibly bad ideas. Consider the mutation in a gene called ADRB1, which allows us to get by on just 4 hours’ sleep a night. I would leap at the chance of a therapy that freed up my nights – but I wonder what would happen if everyone else followed suit. Would we all live richer, more fulfilled lives? Or would I need a letter from my doctor when I applied for a 16-hour factory shift?

The point, as Human Nature makes all too clear, is that the questions we should be asking about gene editing are only superficially about the technology. At heart, they are questions about ourselves and our values.