“The time-suck is killing”

Watching the documentary Picture a Scientist, directed by Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney, for New Scientist, 22 June 2020.

What is it about the institutions of science that encourages bullying? That pushes a young geologist down an Antarctic hillside, or blows grit in her eyes? That tells a black chemist to straighten her hair before applying for a job? Or swipes vital equipment from the lab (already tiny and ill-appointed) of a promising geneticist?

As a PhD student on her first research trip to Antarctica, the geologist Jane Willenbring was first insulted, then bullied, then physically abused by her supervisor. The second scientist featured in this film, Raychelle Burks, a black chemist, has been regularly mistaken for the cleaning staff and challenged when she uses the staff car park. The third, geneticist Nancy Hopkins, had her ground-breaking work on zebra fish constantly disrupted by colleagues who seemed to think they needed her equipment more than she did.

Willenbring deplores a culture which advantages those who put up and shut up. PhD students depend upon their supervisors for opportunities and funding. They are painfully aware that an ill-disposed supervisor can foreclose all avenues of professional advancement. It pays them, therefore, to be tolerant of their supervisor’s “quirks” — to see no evil in them, and speak no evil of them. In this dynamic of patron and client, the opportunities for abuse are rife.

In spite of this, all three women achieved success in their careers. Alongside her fulltime career, including her role as director of the Scripps Cosmogenic Isotope Laboratory, Willenbring champions science education for girls. Raychelle Burks, an analytical chemist based in Washington, is quickly becoming the most visible chemist of her generation, and a STEM celebrity on YouTube. Hopkins initiated a sea change in the institutional culture of MIT, creating an example of best practice that institutions around the world https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18424676-400-its-a-womans-world/ are beginning to follow. This is not a bleak film, by any measure. And the women, for sheer charisma and smarts, are an inspiration and a delight.

At the same time, one is left with a profound sense how much good science may be lost, when accomplished scientists have to spend time fighting for their right to come to work at all. Willenbring studies the responses of the earth’s crust to climate change. Burks develops cheap, easy forensic tests for war zones and disaster relief. Hopkins researches cancer. All three have become passionate advocates for the welfare of women in science; all three insist that they would much rather have been allowed to do their jobs. “The time-suck is killing,” says Burks.

Picture a Scientist is not just about individual scientists. It is also about how institutions work, and about how science can improve our understanding of them. The idea that institutions embody bias and prejudice is resisted by managers. It took Nancy Hopkins years to convince MIT that its female staff were being crammed into campus’s smallest laboratories. She was met, not with conspiracy, but with incredulity. After all, no one at a managerial level at MIT had ever decreed that women should be treated this way! Managers were reluctant to even consider the evidence Hopkins presented. She herself feared that she would gain a reputation for being “difficult”.

In 1999, MIT and its provost Robert Brown decided to own and set about correcting the examples of sexual discrimination Hopkins and her fellows female colleagues at MIT http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html brought to light.

Moss-Racusin spells out the moral for deans and provosts. “The time has passed for intuition,” she says. “We have the evidence, the data.”

Hopkins regrets the research time she sacrificed to transforming MIT. “Such a waste of time and energy,” she sighs, “when all you wanted was to be a scientist.”

Watching this film, I cannot agree. There is nothing trivial — and certainly nothing easy — about making science measurably better.

Belgium explained

Watching the sitcom Space Force for New Scientist, 2 June 2020.

As recruitment advertisements go, the video released to Twitter on 6 May was genuinely engaging. Young people stared off into the Milky Way, as rockets of indeterminate scale rolled out of unmarked hangers.

“Some people look to the stars and ask, ‘What if?'” drawled the voice-over artist. “Our job is to have an answer.”

This admirably down-to-earth sentiment was cooked up by the US Space Force, the most recently founded arm of the US military, officially brought into being by President Donald Trump on 21 December 2019.

It’s been the butt of humour ever since. On 18 January the Space Force showed off its uniforms to Twitter. Apparently there’s a use for camouflage in space. Six days later it revealed its logo — a sort of straightened-out, think-inside-the-box version of — yes — the Federation symbol from Star Trek.

Then — the coup de grace — Netflix announced it would be streaming a sitcom about the whole enterprise, created by producer Greg Daniels and actor Steve Carell.

A lot of expectation has been gathering around this fictional Space Force. Greg Daniels’s writing and production credits include the US version of The Office, Parks and Recreation and King of the Hill. Everyone’s expecting a savage parody. So any initial disappointment with the show ought to come tempered with the realisation that the real Space Force, at its birth, would outcompete any television satire.

On the same day the U.S. Space Force’s recruitment video was released, 6 May, General Jay Raymond, its Chief of Space Operations, had a piece of advice for Carell, who plays the Space Force chief in the new sitcom: “Get a haircut,” he grinned, during a webinar hosted by the nonprofit Space Foundation. “He’s looking a little too shaggy if he wants to play [me].”

I’m glad he can see the funny side. While the fictional General Naird and his head of science Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich) spar spiritedly over the launch procedures of one giant-looking rocket after another, in the real world the redoubtable General Raymond is being tasked with defending US satellites from laser and projectile attack from multiple potentially hostile forces, all on a start-up budget of $40m. Think about it. There are streets in London where that wouldn’t buy you a house. Meanwhile the total US annual military budget stands at $738 billion.

Space Force the sitcom is, likewise, a labour of love, produced on an obviously low budget. It would not feel strange, at this point, if the showrunners abandoned parody entirely and went over to give General Raymond a hug.

Space Force’s small satisfactions take a while to build. Naird’s elevation means the family must relocate from Washington to an old NORAD facility in Colorado (an “up and coming” state, according to Naird. His wife, played by Lisa Kudrow, sobs softly into her pillow). At work, Dr. Mallory insists on taking two steps of at a time when he climbs a staircase, even though his fitness isn’t quite up to it: trust Malkovich to make comedy gold out of nothing. Other cast members underplay themselves. Improv comedian Tawny Newsome, as helicopter pilot Angela Ali, plays straight-woman to both Naird and his exasperated and lonely daughter. Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang gets decent lines, but in demeanour he remains the soberest of Mallory’s team of interchangeable scientists.

Trump wants boots on the Moon. American boots. What does that mean? Naird, in a speech, tries to clarify: “Boots with US feet in them, I mean. Can’t be certain where the boots will be made. Maybe Mexico, maybe Portugal.”

This is the main point: what does it mean to make nationalistic noises about space when doing anything worthwhile up there requires massive international cooperation? In a later episode, Naird demands to know what the foremost aeronautical engineering theorist in Belgium is doing on his oh-so-secret base. Gently, Mallory explains: Belgium is part of the European Space Agency, and that’s because Belgium is part of Europe.

Space Force arrives at an difficult moment. We may, after all, have had enough parody, and no-one on this show seems entirely sure what comes next. A little kindness, perhaps. An acknowledgement that the US is a nation among nations. A general agreement that we should not turn space into “an orgy of death”.

And if the show is not quite what we expected, still, there is real charm in watching gruff General Naird expressing his feelings at last, and learning to get along with his teenage daughter.

Pretty tragic

Is Michel Comte’s past celebrity a burden? “You carry it on your fucking back,” he says. “It took ten years for people to notice I was visiting Africa for months at a time. It took twenty years before people starting listening to what I’ve been saying since my first gallery show.”

A conversation for the Financial Times, 20 May 2020.

Joy in the detail

Reading Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider by Stephen Heard for the Spectator, 16 May 2020

Heteropoda davidbowie is a species of huntsman spider. Though rare, it has been found in parts of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and possibly Thailand. (The uncertainty arises because it’s often mistaken for a similar-looking species, the Heteropoda javana.) In 2008 a German collector sent photos of his unusual-looking “pet” to Peter Jäger, an arachnologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. Consequently, and in common with most other living finds, David Bowie’s spider was discovered twice: once in the field, and once in the collection.

Bowie’s spider is famous, but not exceptional. Jäger has discovered more than 200 species of spider in the last decade, and names them after politicians, comedians and rock stars to highlight our ecological plight. Other researchers find more pointed ways to further the same cause. In the first month of Donald Trump’s administration, Iranian-Canadian entomologist Vazrick Nazari discovered a moth with a head crowned with large, blond comb-over scales. There’s more to Neopalpa donaldtrumpi than a striking physical resemblance: it lives in a federally protected area around where the border wall with Mexico is supposed to go. Cue headlines.

Species are becoming extinct 100 times faster than they did before modern humans arrived. This makes reading a book about the naming of species a curiously queasy affair. Nor is there much comfort to be had in evolutionary ecologist Stephen Heard’s observation that, having described 1.5 million species, we’ve (at very best) only recorded half of what’s out there. There is, you may recall, that devastating passage in Cormac McCarthy’s western novel Blood Meridian in which Judge Holden meticulously records a Native American artifact in his sketchbook — then destroys it. Given that to discover a species you must, by definition, invade its environment, Holden’s sketch-and-burn habit appears to be a painfully accurate metonym for what the human species is doing to the planet. Since the 1970s (when there used to be twice as many wild animals than there are now) we’ve been discovering and endangering new species in almost the same breath.

Richard Spruce, one of the Victorian era’s great botanical explorers, who spent 15 years exploring the Amazon from the Andes to its mouth, is a star of this short, charming book about how we have named and ordered the living world. No detail of his bravery, resilience and grace under pressure come close to the eloquence of this passing quotation, however: “Whenever rains, swollen streams, and grumbling Indians combined to overwhelm me with chagrin,” he wrote in his account of his travels, “I found reason to thank heaven which had enabled me to forget for the moment all my troubles in the contemplation of a simple moss.”

Stephen Heard, an evolutionary ecologist based in Canada, explains how extraordinary amounts of curiosity have been codified to create a map of the living world. The legalistic-sounding codes by which species are named are, it turns out, admirably egalitarian, ensuring that the names amateurs give species are just as valid as those of professional scientists.

Formal names are necessary because of the difficulty we have in distinguishing between similiar species. Common names run into this difficulty all the time. There too many of them, so the same species gets different names in different languages. At the same time, there aren’t enough of them, so that, as Heard points out, “Darwin’s finches aren’t finches, African violets aren’t violets, and electric eels aren’t eels;” Robins, blackbirds and badgers are entirely different animals in Europe and North America; and virtually every flower has at one time or another been called a daisy.

Also names tend, reasonably enough, to be descriptive. This is fine when you’re distinguishing between, say, five different types of fish When there are 500 different fish to sort through, however, absurdity beckons. Heard lovingly transcribes the pre-Linnaean species name of the English whiting, formulated around 1738: “Gadus, dorso tripterygio, ore cirrato, longitudine ad latitudinem tripla, pinna ani prima officulorum trigiata“. So there.

It takes nothing away from the genius of Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus, who formulated the naming system we still use today, to say that he came along at the right time. By Linnaeus’s day, it was possible to look things up. Advances in printing and distribution had made reference works possible. Linnaeus’s innovation was to decouple names from descriptions. And this, as Heard reveals in anecdote after anecdote, is where the fun now slips in: the mythopoeic cool of the baboon Papio anubis, the mischevious smarts of the beetle Agra vation, the nerd celebrity of lemur Avahi cleesi.

Hearst’s taxonomy of taxonomies makes for somewhat thin reading; this is less of a book, more like a dozen interesting magazine articles flying in close formation. But its close focus, bringing to life minutiae of both the living world and the practice of science, is welcome.

I once met Michael Land, the neurobiologist who figured out how the lobster’s eye works. He told me that the trouble with big ideas is that they get in the way of the small ones. Heard’s lesson, delivered with such a light touch, is the same. The joy, and much of the accompanying wisdom, lies in the detail.

Because he loves his mother

Watching Jeff Chan’s Code 8 for New Scientist, 7 May 2020

AROUND 4 per cent of humans are Special. Connor is one of them. Lightning shoots from his hands. His mother is Special, too. She freezes things, including – since a tumour began pressing on her brain – patches of her own skin. Connor needs money to save his mother. And, since Specials have been pushed to the social margins, this means he needs to rob a bank.

Code 8′s director, Jeff Chan, is a relative newcomer whose screenplays co-written with producer Chris Pare fold well-trodden movie ideas into interesting shapes. Grace: The Possession from 2014 was a retread of The Exorcist seen from the possessed girl’s point of view. Code 8, released to streaming services all over the world last December (but not, for some reason, in the UK until now), is a low-budget sci-fi crime thriller.

Connor, played by Robbie Amell, works in construction, wiring up houses with his bare hands. A nicely understated sequence sees his workmates walk past carrying concrete bollards under their arms, when a police raid on “illegals” drops robots from the sky that shoot a worker in the back.

After this, Connor decides he can’t take any more and ends up under the wing of Garrett (Stephen Amell, Robbie Amell’s cousin in real life), a thief whose professionalism is sorely tested by his boss, the telepathic drug lord Marcus (Greg Bryk).

Code 8 is a masterclass in how to wring a believable world out of unbelievably few dollars. This doesn’t come from its premise, which is so generic that it is hardly noticeable. Instead, what sets the film apart is the way it marries contemporary American crime fiction to sci-fi. This fusion is harder than it looks.

Since James M. Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934, American crime fiction has primarily been an exercise in social realism. It’s about life at the bottom, steeped as it is in poverty, addiction, ignorance and marginalisation. The American crime genre tries to tell the truth about these things, and the best of it succeeds.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is a literature of ideas. Detective plots are tempting for science fiction writers. Put a detective in a made-up world and get them to ask the right questions, and they can show your audience how your made-up world operates.

But that, of course, is precisely the problem: it’s only a made-up world. We aren’t being told anything about the way the real world ticks. Inventive sci-fi can feel an awful lot like under-researched crime fiction.

Somehow, Code 8 manages to be both a cracking crime caper and a solid piece of science fiction. While spotting influences is a hazardous game, my guess is it is an homage to Michael Mann’s L.A. Takedown, a fabulous TV pilot from 1989 that provided the skeleton for Mann’s much more famous 1995 blockbuster Heat.

But it is Code 8′s science-fiction element that impressed me most: a cleverly underplayed cat-cradle of a plot, tangling superpowers, social prejudice, drug addiction and state prohibition so as to create a set of intractable social problems that are both strange and instantly familiar.

Robbie and Stephen Amell have championed the film and its ideas since working on the 2016 short film of the same name. Now a TV spin-off is in the works. I do hope Stephen, in particular, attaches his name to this. Anything to get him out from under his role as the DC Multiverse’s Green Arrow…

Goodbye to all that

Reading Technologies of the Human Corpse by John Troyer for the Spectator, 11 April 2020

John Troyer, the director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, has moves. You can find his interpretative dances punctuating a number of his lectures, which go by such arresting titles as ‘150 Years of the Human Corpse in American History in Under 15 Minutes with Jaunty Background Music’ and ‘Abusing the Corpse Even More: Understanding Necrophilia Laws in the USA — Now with more Necro! And more Philia!’ (Wisconsin and Ohio are, according to Troyer’s eccentric looking and always fascinating website, ‘two states that just keep giving and giving when it comes to American necrophilia cases’.)

Troyer’s budding stand-up career has taken a couple of recent knocks. First was the ever more pressing need for him to crack on with his PhD (his dilatoriness was becoming a family joke). Technologies of the Human Corpse is yanked, not without injury, from that career-establishing academic work. Even as he assembled the present volume, however, there came another, far more personal, blow.

Late in July 2017 Troyer’s younger sister Julie was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. Her condition deteriorated far more quickly than anyone expected, and on 29 July 2018 she died. This left Troyer — the engaging young American death scholar sprung from a family of funeral directors — having to square his erudite and cerebral thoughts on death and dead bodies with the fact he’d just kissed his sister goodbye. He interleaves poetical journal entries composed during Julie’s dying and her death, her funeral and her commemoration, between chapters written by a younger, jollier and of course shallower self.

To be brutal, the poems aren’t up to much, and on their own they wouldn’t add a great deal by way of nuance or tragedy. Happily for us, however, and to Troyer’s credit, he has transformed them into a deeply moving 30-page memoir that now serves as the book’s preface. This, then, is Troyer’s monster: a powerful essay about dying and bereavement; a set of poems written off the cuff and under great stress; and seven rather disconnected chapters about what’s befallen the human corpse in the past century or so.

Even as the book was going to print, Troyer explains in a hurried postscript, his father, a retired undertaker, lost consciousness following a cardiac arrest and was very obviously dying:

“And seeing my father suddenly fall into a comatose state so soon after watching my sister die is impossible to fully describe: I understand what is happening, yet I do not want to understand what is happening.”

This deceptively simple statement from Troyer the writer is streets ahead of anything Troyer the postgrad can pull off.

But to the meat of the book. The American civil war saw several thousand corpses embalmed and transported on new-fangled railway routes across the continent. The ability to preserve bodies, and even lend them a lifelike appearance months after death, created a new industry that, in various configurations and under several names, now goes by the daunting neologism of ‘deathcare provision’. In the future, this industry will be seen ‘transforming the mostly funeralisation side of the business into a much broader, human body parts and tissue distribution system’, as technical advances make increasing use of cadavers and processed cadaver parts.

So how much is a dead body worth? Between $30,000 and $50,000, says Troyer — five times as much for donors processed into medical implants, dermal implants and demineralised bone matrices. Funds and materials are exchanged through a network of body brokers who serve as middlemen between biomedical corporations such as Johnson & Johnson and the usual sources of human cadavers — medical schools, funeral homes and mortuaries. It is by no stretch an illegal trade, nor is it morally problematic in most instances; but it is rife with scandal. As one involved party remarks: ‘If you’re cremated, no one is ever going to know if you’re missing your shoulders or knees or your head.’

Troyer is out to show how various industries serve to turn our dead bodies into ‘an unfettered source of capital’. The ‘fluid men’ of Civil War America — who toured the battlefields showing keen students how to embalm a corpse (and almost always badly) — had no idea what a strange story they had started. Today, as the anatomist Gunther von Hagens poses human cadavers in sexual positions to pique and titillate worldwide audiences, we begin to get a measure of how far we have come. Hagens’s posthumous pornography reveals, says Troyer, ‘the ultimate taxonomic power over nature: we humans, or at least our bodies, can live forever because we pull ourselves from nature’.

Technologies of the Human Corpse is a bit of a mess, but I have a lot of time for Troyer. His insights are sound, and his recent travails may yet (and at high human cost — but it was ever thus) make him a writer of some force.

 

“Fat with smell, dissonant and dirty”

The revolt against scentlessness has been gathering for a while. Muchembled namechecks avant garde perfumes with names like Bat and Rhinoceros. A dear friend of mine favours Musc Kublai Khan for its faecal notes. Another spends a small fortune to smell like cat’s piss. Right now I’m wearing Andy Tauer’s Orange Star — don’t approach unless you like Quality Street orange cremes macerated in petrol…

Reading Robert Muchembled’s Smells: A Cultural History of Odours in Early Modern Times and Isabel Bannerman’s Scent Magic: Notes from a Gardener for the Telegraph, 18 April 2020

Cog ergo sum

Reading Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain for New Scientist 15 April 2020

Ask a passer-by in 2nd-century Rome where consciousness resided — in the heart or in the head — and he was sure to say, in the heart. The surgeon-philosopher Galen of Pergamon had other ideas. During one show he had someone press upon the exposed brain of a pig, which promptly (and mercifully) passed out. Letting go brought the pig back to consciousness.

Is the brain one organ, or many? Are our mental faculties localised in the brain? 1600 years after, Galen a Parisian gentleman tried to blow his brains out with a pistol. Instead he shot away his frontal bone, while leaving the anterior lobes of his brain bare but undamaged. He was rushed to the Hôpital St. Louis, where Ernest Aubertin spent a few vain hours trying to save his life. Aubertin discovered that if he pressed a spatula on the patient’s brain while he was speaking, his speech “was suddenly suspended; a word begun was cut in two. Speech returned as soon as pressure was removed,” Aubertin reported.

Does the brain contain all we are? Eighty years after Aubertin, Montreal neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield was carrying out hundreds of brain operations to relieve chronic temporal-lobe epilepsy. Using delicate electrodes, he would map the safest cuts to make — ones that would not excise vital brain functions. For the patient, the tiniest regions, when stimulated, accessed the strangest experiences. A piano being played. A telephone conversation between two family members. A man and a dog walking along a road. They weren’t memories, so much as dreamlike glimpses of another world.

Cobb’s history of brain science will fascinate readers quite as much as it occasionally horrifies. Cobb, a zoologist by training, has focused for much of his career on the sense of smell and the neurology of the humble fruit fly maggot. The Idea of the Brain sees him coming up for air, taking in the big picture before diving once again into the minutiae of his profession.

He makes a hell of a splash, too, explaining how the analogies we use to describe the brain both enrich our understanding of that mysterious organ, and hamstring our further progress. He shows how mechanical metaphors for brain function lasted well into the era of electricity. And he explains why computational metaphors, though unimaginably more fertile, are now throttling his science.

Study the brain as though it were a machine and in the end (and after much good work) you will run into three kinds of trouble.

First you will find that reverse engineering very complex systems is impossible. In 2017 two neuroscientists, Eric Jonas and Konrad Paul Kording employed the techniques they normally used to analyse the brain to study the Mos 6507 processor — a chip found in computers from the late 1970s and early 1980s that enabled machines to run video games such as Donkey Kong, Space Invaders or Pitfall. Despite their powerful analytical armoury, and despite the fact that there is a clear explanation for how the chip works, they admitted that their study fell short of producing “a meaningful understanding”.

Another problem is the way the meanings of technical terms expand over time, warping the way we think about a subject. The French neuroscientist Romain Brette has a particular hatred for that staple of neuroscience, “coding”, an term first invoked by Adrian in the 1920s in a technical sense, in which there is a link between a stimulus and the activity of the neuron. Today almost everybody think of neural codes as representions of that stimulus, which is a real problem, because it implies that there must be an ideal observer or reader within the brain, watching and interpreting those representations. It may be better to think of the brain as constructing information, rather than simply representing it — only we have no idea (yet) how such an organ would function. For sure, it wouldn’t be a computer.

Which brings us neatly to our third and final obstacle to understanding the brain: we take far too much comfort and encouragement from our own metaphors. Do recent advances in AI bring us closer to understanding how our brains work? Cobb’s hollow laughter is all but audible. “My view is that it will probably take fifty years before we understand the maggot brain,” he writes.

One last history lesson. In the 1970s, twenty years after Penfield electrostimulation studies, Michael Gazzaniga, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studied the experiences of people whose brains had been split down the middle in a desperate effort to control their epilepsy. He discovered that each half of the brain was, on its own, sufficient to produce a mind, albeit with slightly different abilities and outlooks in each half. “From one mind, you had two,” Cobb remarks. “Try that with a computer.”

Hearing the news brought veteran psychologist William Estes to despair: “Great,” he snapped, “now we have two things we don’t understand.”