Tyrants and geometers

Reading Proof!: How the World Became Geometrical by Amir Alexander (Scientific American) for the Telegraph, 7 November 2019

The fall from grace of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s superintendant of finances, was spectacular and swift. In 1661 he held a fete to welcome the king to his gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte. The affair was meant to flatter, but its sumptuousness only served to convince the absolutist monarch that Fouquet was angling for power. “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France,” Voltaire observed; “at two in the morning he was nobody.”

Soon afterwards, Fouquet’s gardens were grubbed up in an act, not of vandalism, but of expropriation: “The king’s men carefully packed the objects into crates and hauled them away to a marshy town where Louis was intent on building his own dream palace,” the Israeli-born US historian Amir Alexander tells us. “It was called Versailles.”

Proof! explains how French formal gardens reflected, maintained and even disseminated the political ideologies of French monarchs. from “the Affable” Charles VIII in the 15th century to poor doomed Louis XVI, destined for the guillotine in 1793. Alexander claims these gardens were the concrete and eloquent expression of the idea that “geometry was everywhere and structured everything — from physical nature to human society, the state, and the world.”

If you think geometrical figures are abstract artefacts of the human mind, think again. Their regularities turn up in the natural world time and again, leading classical thinkers to hope that “underlying the boisterous chaos and variety that we see around us there may yet be a rational order, which humans can comprehend and even imitate.”

It is hard for us now to read celebrations of nature into the rigid designs of 16th century Fontainebleau or the Tuileries, but we have no problem reading them as expressions of political power. Geometers are a tyrant’s natural darlings. Euclid spent many a happy year in Ptolemaic Egypt. King Hiero II of Syracuse looked out for Archimedes. Geometers were ideologically useful figures, since the truths they uncovered were static and hierarchical. In the Republic, Plato extols the virtues of geometry and advocates for rigid class politics in practically the same breath.

It is not entirely clear, however, how effective these patterns actually were as political symbols. Even as Thomas Hobbes was modishly emulating the logical structure of Euclid’s (geometrical) Elements in the composition of his (political) Leviathan (demonstrating, from first principles, the need for monarchy), the Duc de Saint-Simon, a courtier and diarist, was having a thoroughly miserable time of it in the gardens of Louis XIV’s Versailles: “the violence everywhere done to nature repels and wearies us despite ourselves,” he wrote in his diary.

So not everyone was convinced that Versailles, and gardens of that ilk, revealed the inner secrets of nature.

Of the strictures of classical architecture and design, Alexander comments that today, “these prescriptions seem entirely arbitrary”. I’m not sure that’s right. Classical art and architecture is beautiful, not merely for its antiquity, but for the provoking way it toys with the mechanics of visual perception. The golden mean isn’t “arbitrary”.

It was fetishized, though: Alexander’s dead right about that. For centuries, Versailles was the ideal to which Europe’s grand urban projects aspired, and colonial new-builds could and did out-do Versailles, at least in scale. Of the work of Lutyens and Baker in their plans for the creation of New Delhi, Alexander writes: “The rigid triangles, hexagons, and octagons created a fixed, unalterable and permanent order that could not be tampered with.”

He’s setting colonialist Europe up for a fall: that much is obvious. Even as New Delhi and Saigon’s Boulevard Norodom and all the rest were being erected, back in Europe mathematicians Janos Bolyai, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Bernhard Riemann were uncovering new kinds of geometry to describe any curved surface, and higher dimensions of any order. Suddenly the rigid, hierarchical order of the Euclidean universe was just one system among many, and Versailles and its forerunners went from being diagrams of cosmic order to being grand days out with the kids.

Well, Alexander needs an ending, and this is as good a place as any to conclude his entertaining, enlightening, and admirably well-focused introduction to a field of study that, quite frankly, is more rabbit-hole than grass.

I was in Washington the other day, sweating my way up to the Lincoln Memorial. From the top I measured the distance, past the needle of the Washington Monument, to Capitol Hill. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant built all this: it’s a quintessential product of the Versailles tradition. Alexander calls it “nothing less than the Constitutional power structure of the United States set in stone, pavement, trees, and shrubs.”

For nigh-on 250 years tourists have been slogging from one end of the National Mall to the other, re-enacting the passion of the poor Duc de Saint-Simon in Versailles, who complained that “you are introduced to the freshness of the shade only by a vast torrid zone, at the end of which there is nothing for you but to mount or descend.”

Not any more, though. Skipping down the steps, I boarded a bright red electric Uber scooter and sailed electrically east toward Capitol Hill. The whole dignity-dissolving charade was made possible (and cheap) by map-making algorithms performing geometrical calculations that Euclid himself would have recognised. Because the ancient geometer’s influence on our streets and buildings hasn’t really vanished. It’s been virtualised. Algorithmized. Turned into a utility.

Now geometry’s back where it started: just one more invisible natural good.

Fatally punctured by a sword-swallower’s blade

Visiting Flop: 13 stories of failure at The Octagon, University College London, for New Scientist, 6 November 2019

Quitting your job? Then remember to clear out your locker. One former employee of University College London left a bottle of home-made plum brandy in a drawer. The macerated plum was eventually discovered, mulled over (sorry), misidentified as a testicle (species unknown), and added to the university’s collection. Now that same collection fuels Flop, in UCL’s tiny Octagon gallery.

It’s not so much an exhibition as a series of provocations. (A notice by the last case asks you to share your own accounts of failure on a postcard “so we can all start learning from each other’s mistakes.”) After all, what is a failure? Do failures exist outside of the realm of human judgement? (“Can animals have accidents?” is a favourite undergraduate philosophy question. Humans can: one of the more gruesome exhibits here is a human heart, fatally punctured by a sword-swallower’s blade.)

How we define failure depends on our changing needs and circumstances. There was a time, not very long ago, when the plethora of human languages seemed indicative of some deep, Biblical failure to establish amity across our species. Concerted efforts were made to establish a single, synthetic language through which we might all be understood. There’s a fascinating page here from an essay by John Wilkins, whose Royal Society language project attempted to establish an analytical language that would allow people to communicate despite not sharing the same tongue. It foundered because the Royal Society couldn’t agree on how many essential concepts existed in the world.

Now that we live among artificially intelligent agents, the best of whom are more than capable of translating even spoken speech in real time, we find failure in our reduction of linguistic diversity. We bemoan the loss of languages (3000 of them have perished since 1910) , and mourn the cultural deficit left by their demise.

Can objects fail? Only in the sense that they fail to perform an expected action. Silly Putty, a perenially popular toy, was the result of a failed attempt to produce a synthetic rubber substitute during World War II. People can “fail” in much the same way. Percy Wyndham Lewis was kicked out of the Slade School of Fine Art for arguing with his lecturers, and went on to become the foremost avant-garde artist and writer of his generation.

If these examples of failure feel a bit tenuous, well, that’s really the point Flop wants to make: what’s interesting is how we deal with failures, not how we define them.
“Perhaps contrasting failure with success is the real problem,” the introductory material explains. “If every activity has to end in either one or the other, it denies the nuanced and messy complexities of life.”

Pig-philosophy

Reading Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality
by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky (Yale University Press) for the Telegraph, 28 October 2019

Objective truth is elusive and often surprisingly useless. For ages, civilisation managed well without it. Then came the sixteenth century, and the Wars of Religion, and the Thirty Years War: atrocious conflicts that robbed Europe of up to a third of its population.

Something had to change. So began a half-a-millennium-long search for a common moral compass: something to keep us from ringing each other’s necks. The 18th century French philosopher Condorcet, writing in 1794, expressed the evergreen hope that empiricists, applying themselves to the study of morality, would be able “to make almost as sure progress in these sciences as they had in the natural sciences.”

Today, are we any nearer to understanding objectively how to tell right from wrong?

No. So say James Davison Hunter, a sociologist who in 1991 slipped the term “culture wars” into American political debate, and Paul Nedelisky, a recent philosophy PhD, both from the University of Virginia. For sure, “a modest descriptive science” has grown up to explore our foibles, strengths and flaws, as individuals and in groups. There is, however, no way science can tell us what ought to be done.

Science and the Good is a closely argued, always accessible riposte to those who think scientific study can explain, improve, or even supersede morality. It tells a rollicking good story, too, as it explains what led us to our current state of embarrassed moral nihilism.

“What,” the essayist Michel de Montaigne asked, writing in the late 16th century, “am I to make of a virtue that I saw in credit yesterday, that will be discredited tomorrow, and becomes a crime on the other side of the river?”

Montaigne’s times desperately needed a moral framework that could withstand the almost daily schisms and revisions of European religious life following the Protestant Reformation. Nor was Europe any longer a land to itself. Trade with other continents was bringing Europeans into contact with people who, while eminently businesslike, held to quite unfamiliar beliefs. The question was (and is), how do we live together at peace with our deepest moral differences?

The authors have no simple answer. The reason scientists keep trying to formulate one is same reason the farmer tried teaching his sheep to fly in the Monty Python sketch: “Because of the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed.” Imagine conjuring up a moral system that was common, singular and testable: world peace would follow at an instant!

But for every Jeremy Bentham, measuring moral utility against an index of human happiness to inform a “felicific calculus”, there’s a Thomas Carlyle, pointing out the crashing stupidity of the enterprise. (Carlyle called Bentham’s 18th-century utilitarianism “pig-philosophy”, since happiness is the sort of vague, unspecific measure you could just as well apply to animals as to people.)

Hunter and Nedelisky play Carlyle to the current generation of scientific moralists. They range widely in their criticism, and are sympathetic to a fault, but to show what they’re up to, let’s have some fun and pick a scapegoat.

In Moral Tribes (2014), Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene sings Bentham’s praises:”utilitarianism becomes uniquely attractive,” he asserts, “once our moral thinking has been objectively improved by a scientific understanding of morality…”

At worst, this is a statement that eats its own tail. At best, it’s Greene reducing the definition of morality to fit his own specialism, replacing moral goodness with the merely useful. This isn’t nothing, and is at least something which science can discover. But it is not moral.

And if Greene decided tomorrow that we’d all be better off without, say, legs, practical reason, far from faulting him, could only show us how to achieve his goal in the most efficient manner possible. The entire history of the 20th century should serve as a reminder that this kind of thinking — applying rational machinery to a predetermined good — is a joke that palls extremely quickly. Nor are vague liberal gestures towards “social consensus” comforting, or even welcome. As the authors point out, “social consensus gave us apartheid in South Africa, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and genocide in Armenia, Darfur, Burma, Rwanda, Cambodia, Somalia, and the Congo.”

Scientists are on safer ground when they attempt to explain how our moral sense may have evolved, arguing that morals aren’t imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles, but are values derived from reactions and judgements that improve the odds of group survival. There’s evidence to back this up and much of it is charming. Rats play together endlessly; if the bigger rat wrestles the smaller rat into submission more than three times out of five, the smaller rat trots off in a huff. Hunter and Nedelisky remind us that Capuchin monkeys will “down tools” if experimenters offer them a reward smaller than that they’ve already offered to other Capuchin monkeys.

What does this really tell us, though, beyond the fact that somewhere, out there, is a lawful corner of necessary reality which we may as well call universal justice, and which complex creatures evolve to navigate?

Perhaps the best scientific contribution to moral understanding comes from studies of the brain itself. Mapping the mechanisms by which we reach moral conclusions is useful for clinicians. But it doesn’t bring us any closer to learning what it is we ought to do.

Sociologists since Edward Westermarck in 1906 have shown how a common (evolved?) human morality might be expressed in diverse practices. But over this is the shadow cast by moral skepticism: the uneasy suspicion that morality may be no more than an emotive vocabulary without content, a series of justificatory fabrications. “Four legs good,” as Snowball had it, “two legs bad.”

But even if it were shown that no-one in the history of the world ever committed a truly selfless act, the fact remains that our mythic life is built, again and again, precisely around an act of self- sacrifice. Pharaonic Egypt had Osiris. Europe and its holdings, Christ. Even Hollywood has Harry Potter. Moral goodness is something we recognise in stories, and something we strive for in life (and if we don’t, we feel bad about ourselves). Philosophers and anthropologists and social scientist have lots of interesting things to say about why this should be so. The life sciences crew would like to say something, also.

But as this generous and thoughtful critique demonstrates, and to quite devastating effect, they just don’t have the words.

“You made a person!”

Watching Ang Lee’s Gemini Man for New Scientist, 30 October 2019 

“You made a person!” cries Will Smith (tearful, stressed, and twenty-five years younger than he ought to be). “Out of another person! And then you sent me to kill him!”

He’s facing off against his adoptive dad Clay Verris (Clive Owen) who makes perfect soldiers for a living — or tries to. (Smith’s “Junior” is his latest wheeze.)

Why Junior must kill his “clone-father” Henry Brogan, an exhausted hitman (also played by Will Smith, this time at his real age — and has a black actor ever been given a whiter name?), is never made entirely clear.

Junior wants answers, as do we all, though it’s obvious by now we’re not going to get them: not from a script that’s been kicking around Hollywood for 20 years, and not from a director whose bleached, hectic, high frame-rate 3-D cinematography lends walls and machinery greater physical presence than faces.

Gemini Man hurls itself into not one, but two gaping logic holes. First, the film relies on the inherent menace implicit in the idea of human cloning. But who in their right mind would ever be afraid of a mere clone? We deal with far more serious incursions of the uncanny every day, from the bodyless ubiquity of digital personal assistants like Siri and Alexa, to the creepy co-evolutionary pals-for-ever antics of our pet dogs and cats, to the not inconsiderable challenge that is other people, many of whom look, speak, and behave quite differently to ourselves.

The only film that ever made clones scary was The Boys from Brazil (1978), in which a Brazilian clinic starts churning out copies of Adolf Hitler — and even here the hero comes to realise that the clones themselves are utterly harmless, that it’s the Nazis who should be commanding our attention.

Problem number two: by the time you’ve made your “perfect soldiers” flexible enough to do the job you want them to do, you’ve given them enough agency to disobey you.

This bind has driven the plot of much good robot-infused literature, from the synthetic human’s birth in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1920), to its entanglement in some famous puzzle-stories by Isaac Asimov (who famous Three Laws of Robotics are basically three laws of slavery with a sugar coating).

Algis Budrys set the capstone on this sort of tale in 1957 with the short story “First to Serve”, in which a government engineering team are driven round the bend in the effort to create an obedient military robot. “Haven’t you got it through your head?” a researcher cries in exasperation: “Pimmy’s the perfect soldier, all of him, with all his abilities. That includes individuality, curiosity, judgment — and intelligence. Cut one part of that, and he’s no good. You’ve got to take the whole cake, or none at all. One way you starve — and the other way you choke.”

A word about Gemini Man’s de-ageing technology, which supposedly took 20 years’ development before it was good enough to halve Will Smith’s age. First, it didn’t. David Fincher made The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008. Second, it needs a script to make it work. (Scorcese’s The Irishman (still in cinemas when this was written) is so involving, you never notice that young De Niro’s face is wobbling about on a more than seventy-year-old body). Third: Will Smith looks way better now than he did as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Hit the gym, dear middle-aged readers, you have everything to live for.

Nam June Paik: Doing away with structure once and for all

Visiting Nam June Paik at Tate Modern for the Financial Times, 24 October 2019

In 1963 one of the more notorious members of Darmstadt’s new music community, Nam June Paik, stuck around fifty strips of audio tape to the wall of the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal in Germany.

“I wanted to let the audience… act and play by itself,” he wrote, “so I have resigned the performance of music… I made various kinds of musical instruments… to expose them in a room so that the congregation may play them as they please.”

Exhausted and alienated by the difficult musics coming out of Darmstadt — Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, serialism and all the rest — visitors lapped up Paik’s free-wheeling alternative. You’d go up to the wall and rub the playback head of a dismantled tape recorder along the strips, back and forth, hunting for sounds, scratches, white noise, and hey presto! you almost became a composer.

“You have to be a lot rougher with this than you think,” a gallery worker explained, showing me the Tate’s recreated Random Access. “Really scrape.”

So I scraped. And I still couldn’t get much of a sound out of the wall-mounted speakers, and now the gallery wall is covered in dirty brown ferrous oxide streaks.

The original wasn’t very effective, either. The point was that Paik was giving you permission to play, to experiment. The Swiss artist and career eccentric Josef Beuys took Paik at his word and destroyed one of the the pianos in Paik’s first solo show with an axe. And Paik dug it; they became lifelong friends.

How do you represent an artist whose chosen medium is the audience? Who spends his time chivvying it into life by gestures, situations, shocks, pornography? How do you preserve Zen of Head (1962), in which Paik dipped his head in black ink and used it to draw a line on a length of paper? How do you honour his nearly thirty-year collaboration with the cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman, when Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saens (1969) involves her climbing up a ladder and vanishing into a water-filled oil drum?

The many representative works gathered by the Tate can only go so far to represent Paik’s whole practice. TV Buddha (1974) is a statuette of a seated Buddha, gazing at its own televised image. Three Eggs (1975-82) — one real, one nested in an empty television, and the third a televised image of the first egg — goes beyond mere solipsism to suggest something more complex. There are robots made from TV sets here, lines of code from early experiments at Bell Labs in New Jersey, abd TV bras and TV spectacles that seem to have fallen out of one of the calmer moments of the Japanese cyberpunk horror flick Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Newcomers would be left hopelessly at sea were it not that the Tate has also assembled a huge amount of documentation, and arranged it in a fashion that is not just informative: it’s revelatory.

Programmes. Posters. Photographs. Snatches of 8mm. Mostly they record events in tiny rooms, the visitors all crammed together, everyone laughing, having a good time. Wall by wall, case by case, we begin to understand what we missed.

Paik was a collector, a collaborator, an impresario. He urged others to enact the strangest dreams. In New York, in 1964, a topless Charlotte Moorman saws away at her cello, and Alison Knowles sheds her panties and shoves them down the throat of the least talented art critic in the room.

But Paik had other dreams, too, which which for years he kept strictly to himself. As early as 1961 he had given up studying art and was avidly reading Popular Mechanics. In Tokyo, with the engineer Shuya Abe, he co-invented the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer. This added single-colour channels to broadcast images in real time, distorted, colorised, and superimposed multiple images, and was in essence the technology that would soon give Top of the Pops and the MTV music channel their visual signature.

Paik’s use of TV as a medium is now what everyone most remembers about him, thanks mostly to his monumental “matrices”: sculptural video collages assembled using steel gantries and neon tubing and multiple cathode-ray televisions. There’s a late example here called Internet Dream (1994), and nearby, a recreation of the video installation Sistine Chapel, which in 1993 graced the pavilion of a newly-unified Germany at the Venice Biennale. Thrown across walls and ceiling by TV projectors, disembodied David Bowies and Janis Joplins, Lou Reeds and Ryuichi Sakamotos jostle for space with parties of Gobi desert Mongolians. It’s intoxicating. Dated. Kitsch. It’s the fruit both in flower and in rot.

“Thanks to Paik,” he wrote about himself (never a good sign) ” we discover that our entire world can become sound — or rather that it *is* sound… he does away with structure once and for all.”

And, oh dear, just look where that liquefaction has led. By giving us permission to create, Paik stripped away the structures that let us receive, appreciate, and judge. His mentor John Cage did much the same for music. And around Cage and Paik, Moorman and Beuys swirled a loose, revolutionary band of brothers and sisters who, under the banner of a movement called Fluxus, abandoned the commodified single art object and sought to create democratic art; an art of the everyday.

The idea that audiences also knew something about art filled these self-appointed shamans with impatience. The audience’s ideas were third-hand, third-rate, bourgeois prisons from which they might yet be liberated.

Liberated into what, though? Into boredom? Into consumption? All you can do with this work is participate in it. Swallow it. Go see In Real Life, Olafur Eliasson’s collection of kid-friendly novelties, if you want to see where this attitude leads. It runs next door till January 5.

As I left Paik’s show, I paused by a wall-mounted TV, where pianist Manon-Liu Winter plays her own composition on Paik’s prepared piano (now too fragile to travel). The one with the barbed wire, whose keyboard once triggered sirens, heaters, ventilators and tape recorders.

Now, though, it’s just a ruined piano. Winter picks her way across its atrocious keyboard like Jack Skellington, trying to discover the secret of Christmas by measuring the presents under the tree with a tape measure. This is indeed a revelatory exhibition — but you may come away liking Paik less.

Nothing to do except try not to die

Moving to Mars for New Scientist, 18 October 2019

Step into Moving to Mars, an exhibition of Mars mission and colony design at London’s Design Museum, and you are confronted, immediately, with some very good reasons not to move there. Minatory glowing wall texts announce that Mars was not made for you; that there is no life and precious little water; that, clad in a space suit, you will never touch, taste or smell the planet you now call “home”. As Lisa Grossman wrote for New Scientist a couple of years ago, “What’s different about Mars is that there is nothing to do there except try not to die.”

It’s an odd beginning for such an up-beat and celebratory show, but it provides some valuable dark ground against which the rest of the show can sparkle — a show that is, as its chief curator Justin McGuirk remarks, “not about Mars; this is an exhibition about people.”

Next up: a quick yet lucid dash through what the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls “the history of Mars in the human mind”. A Babylonian clay tablet and a Greek vase speak to our early cosmological ideas about the planets; a poster for the film Total Recall (the good one, from 1990), reminds us of Mars’s psychological menace.

The bulk of the show focuses on our current plans for the red planet. There are real space suits and models of real rovers, maquettes of 3D-printed Martian settlements and prototypes of Mars-appropriate clothing and furniture. Mission architectures and engineering sketches line the walls. Real hammers meant for the International Space Station (hollow, and loaded with ball bearings to increase their utility in zero-gravity) are wall-mounted beside a nifty low-gravity table that has yet to leave, and may indeed never leave, Earth. This, of course, is the great strength of approaching science through design: reality and speculation can be given equal visual weight, drawing us into an informed conversation about what it is we actually want from the future. Some readers may remember a tremendous touring exhibition, Hello Robot in 2017, which did much the same for robotics and artificial intelligence.

Half way round the show, I relaxed in a fully realised Martian living pod by the international design firm Hassell and their engineering partners Eckersley O’Callaghan. They’d assembled this as part of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge — the agency’s programme to develop habitat ideas for deep space exploration — and it combines economy, recycling, efficiency and comfort in surprising ways. Xavier De Kestelier, Hassell’s head of design technology and innovation, was on hand to show me around, and was particularly proud of the chairs here, which are are made of recycled packaging: “The more you eat, the more you sit!”

So much for the promise of Martian living. The profound limitations of that life were brought home to me a working hydroponic system by Growstack. Its trays of delicious cress and lettuce reminded me, rather sharply, that for all the hype, we are still a very long way from being able to feed ourselves away from our home world. We’re still at the point, indeed, where a single sunflower and a single zinnia, blossoming aboard the ISS — the former in 2012, the latter in 2016 — still make headlines.

The Growstack exhibit and other materials about Martian horticulture also marked an important cultural shift, away from the strategic, militarised thinking that characterised early space exploration in the Cold War, and towards more humane, more practical questions about how one lives an ordinary life in such extraordinary, and extraordinarily limited, environments.

it’s no surprise that the Russian were thinking seriously about these questions long before the rest of us, and it was good to see Russian space cultures given their due in this impressively international show. All through the 19th century, researchers for the Tsarist government tried to develop agriculture in mostly frozen and largely infertile Siberia. Well into the Soviet era, soil scientists undertook extreme expeditions over vast distances in pursuit of insane agricultural speculations. It shows up in their popular culture. “Hold on, geologist,” ran one pop song of 1951, “hold out, geologist, you are brother of the wind and sun!” And then there are the films of Pavel Vladimirovich Klushantsev, born 1910 in St Petersburg.

Klushantsev’s documentary Road to the Stars (1957), a meticulous, scientifically accurate vision to the physics, engineering, ergonomics of space travel, was followed seven years later by Moon (1965), describing the exploration, mining, settlement and domestication of a new land. Both films feature succulent gardens glistening under space domes, and workers eager to tend them, and bowls full of peaches beside every workstation, offering a little, literal taste of home.

I was delighted to see here a screen showing *Mars* (1968), a much less celebrated effort — Klushantsev’s saturated, multicoloured vision of man on the Red Planet. It’s the film with the dog in the spacesuit: an image people who’ve never heard of this director treasure for its kitsch value. It’s the film that earned him a telegram which read: “Due to the low quality of your work, we hereby inform you that we are terminating your contract with the studio.”

So much for the Soviet imagination.

But other cultures, each with their own deep, historical motivations, have since stepped up with plans to settle Mars. My favourites projects originate in the Middle East, where subterranean irrigation canals were greening the desert a full millennium before the astronomer Percival Lowell thought he spotted similar structures on Mars. (The underground networks called khettaras in Morocco irrigated much of its northern oasis region right up until the early 1970s, when government policies began to favour dam construction.)

Having raised major cities in one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth — and this in less than a generation — we should hardly be surprised that the rulers of the United Arab Emirates believe it’s feasible to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2117. A development hub, “Mars Scientific City”, is scheduled to open in Dubai in the next three to four years, and will feature a laboratory that will simulate the red planet’s terrain and harsh environment. It will be, I suppose, a sort of extension of the 520-day Mars 500 simulation that in 2011 sent six volunteers on a round trip to the Red Planet without stepping out of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

The playfulness of “Martian thinking” is quite properly reflected in this playful and family-orientated exhibition. The point, made very well here, is that this play, this freedom from strictures and established lines of thought, is essential to good design. Space forces you to work from first principles. It forces you to think about mass, and transport, and utility, and reusability. And I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that Eleanor Watson, the assistant curator on this show, has been chosen to curate this year’s Global Grad Show, which in November will be bringing the most innovative new design thinking to Dubai — a city which, in contending with its own set of environmental extremes, often feels half way to Mars already.

As I was leaving Moving to Mars I was drawn up short by what looked like some cycling gear. Anna Talvi, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, has constructed her flesh-hugging clothing to act as a sort of “wearable gym” to counter the muscle wasting and bone loss caused by living in low gravity. She has also tried to tackle the serious psychological challenges of space exploration, by permeating her fabrics with comforting scents. Her X.Earth perfumed gloves “will bring you back to your Earth-memory place at the speed of thought”, with the the smell of freshly cut grass, say, or the smell of your favourite horse.

Those gloves, even more than that hydroponically grown lettuce, brought home to me the sheer hideousness of space exploration. It’s no accident that this year’s most ambitious science fiction movies, Aniara and Ad Astra, have both focused on the impossible mental and spiritual toll we’d suffer, were we ever to swap our home planet for a life of manufactured monotony.

There’s a new realism creeping into our ideas of living off-world, along with a resurgence of optimism and possibility. And this is good. We need light and shade as we plan our next great adventure. How else can we ever hope to become Martian?

“Intelligence is the wrong metaphor for what we’ve built”

Travelling From Apple to Anomaly, Trevor Paglen’s installation at the Barbican’s Curve gallery in London, for New Scientist, 9 October 2019

A COUPLE of days before the opening of Trevor Paglen’s latest photographic installation, From “Apple” to “Anomaly”, a related project by the artist found itself splashed all over the papers.

ImageNet Roulette is an online collaboration with artificial intelligence researcher Kate Crawford at New York University. The website invites you to provide an image of your face. An algorithm will then compare your face against a database called ImageNet and assign you to one or two of its 21,000 categories.

ImageNet has become one of the most influential visual data sets in the fields of deep learning and AI. Its creators at Stanford, Princeton and other US universities harvested more than 14 million photographs from photo upload sites and other internet sources, then had them manually categorised by some 25,000 workers on Amazon’s crowdsourcing labour site Mechanical Turk. ImageNet is widely used as a training data set for image-based AI systems and is the secret sauce within many key applications, from phone filters to medical imaging, biometrics and autonomous cars.

According to ImageNet Roulette, I look like a “political scientist” and a “historian”. Both descriptions are sort-of-accurate and highly flattering. I was impressed. Mind you, I’m a white man. We are all over the internet, and the neural net had plenty of “my sort” to go on.

Spare a thought for Guardian journalist Julia Carrie Wong, however. According to ImageNet Roulette she was a “gook” and a “slant-eye”. In its attempt to identify Wong’s “sort”, ImageNet Roulette had innocently turned up some racist labels.

From “Apple” to “Anomaly” also takes ImageNet to task. Paglen took a selection of 35,000 photos from ImageNet’s archive, printed them out and stuck them to the wall of the Curve gallery at the Barbican in London in a 50-metre-long collage.

The entry point is images labelled “apple” – a category that, unsurprisingly, yields mostly pictures of apples – but the piece then works through increasingly abstract and controversial categories such as “sister” and “racist”. (Among the “racists” are Roger Moore and Barack Obama; my guess is that being over-represented in a data set carries its own set of risks.) Paglen explains: “We can all look at an apple and call it by its name. An apple is an apple. But what about a noun like ‘sister’, which is a relational concept? What might seem like a simple idea – categorising objects or naming pictures – quickly becomes a process of judgement.”

The final category in the show is “anomaly”. There is, of course, no such thing as an anomaly in nature. Anomalies are simply things that don’t conform to the classification systems we set up.

Halfway along the vast, gallery-spanning collage of photographs, the slew of predominantly natural and environmental images peters out, replaced by human faces. Discrete labels here and there indicate which of ImageNet’s categories are being illustrated. At one point of transition, the group labelled “bottom feeder” consists entirely of headshots of media figures – there isn’t one aquatic creature in evidence.

Scanning From “Apple” to “Anomaly” gives gallery-goers many such unexpected, disconcerting insights into the way language parcels up the world. Sometimes, these threaten to undermine the piece itself. Passing seamlessly from “android” to “minibar”, one might suppose that we are passing from category to category according to the logic of a visual algorithm. After all, a metal man and a minibar are not so dissimilar. At other times – crossing from “coffee” to “poultry”, for example – the division between categories is sharp, leaving me unsure how we moved from one to another, and whose decision it was. Was some algorithm making an obscure connection between hens and beans?

Well, no: the categories were chosen and arranged by Paglen. Only the choice of images within each category was made by a trained neural network.

This set me wondering whether the ImageNet data set wasn’t simply being used as a foil for Paglen’s sense of mischief. Why else would a cheerleader dominate the “saboteur” category? And do all “divorce lawyers” really wear red ties?

This is a problem for art built around artificial intelligence: it can be hard to tell where the algorithm ends and the artist begins. Mind you, you could say the same about the entire AI field. “A lot of the ideology around AI, and what people imagine it can do, has to do with that simple word ‘intelligence’,” says Paglen, a US artist now based in Berlin, whose interest in computer vision and surveillance culture sprung from his academic career as a geographer. “Intelligence is the wrong metaphor for what we’ve built, but it’s one we’ve inherited from the 1960s.”

Paglen fears the way the word intelligence implies some kind of superhuman agency and infallibility to what are in essence giant statistical engines. “This is terribly dangerous,” he says, “and also very convenient for people trying to raise money to build all sorts of shoddy, ill-advised applications with it.”

Asked what concerns him more, intelligent machines or the people who use them, Paglen answers: “I worry about the people who make money from them. Artificial intelligence is not about making computers smart. It’s about extracting value from data, from images, from patterns of life. The point is not seeing. The point is to make money or to amplify power.”

It is a point by no means lost on a creator of ImageNet itself, Fei-Fei Li at Stanford University in California, who, when I spoke to Paglen, was in London to celebrate ImageNet’s 10th birthday at the Photographers’ Gallery. Far from being the face of predatory surveillance capitalism, Li leads efforts to correct the malevolent biases lurking in her creation. Wong, incidentally, won’t get that racist slur again, following ImageNet’s announcement that it was removing more than half of the 1.2 million pictures of people in its collection.

Paglen is sympathetic to the challenge Li faces. “We’re not normally aware of the very narrow parameters that are built into computer vision and artificial intelligence systems,” he says. His job as artist-cum-investigative reporter is, he says, to help reveal the failures and biases and forms of politics built into such systems.

Some might feel that such work feeds an easy and unexamined public paranoia. Peter Skomoroch, former principal data scientist at LinkedIn, thinks so. He calls ImageNet Roulette junk science, and wrote on Twitter: “Intentionally building a broken demo that gives bad results for shock value reminds me of Edison’s war of the currents.”

Paglen believes, on the contrary, that we have a long way to go before we are paranoid enough about the world we are creating.

Fifty years ago it was very difficult for marketing companies to get information about what kind of television shows you watched, what kinds of drinking habits you might have or how you drove your car. Now giant companies are trying to extract value from that information. “I think,” says Paglen, “that we’re going through something akin to England and Wales’s Inclosure Acts, when what had been de facto public spaces were fenced off by the state and by capital.”

Hurtling towards zero

Watching Richard Ladkani’s Sea of Shadows for New Scientist, 2 October 2019

This is the story of the world’s smallest whale, the vaquita, reduced in number to fewer than 30 individuals, and hiding out in the extreme south-western corner of its territory in the Sea of Cortez. It is not a story that will end well, though Richard Ladkani (whose 2016 Netflix documentary The Ivory Game was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2017) has made something here which is very hard to look away from.

This is not an environmental story. This is a true crime. No-one’s interested in hunting the vaquita. The similarly sized Totoaba fish, which shares the vaquita’s waters, is another matter. It’s called the cocaine of the sea — a nickname that makes no sense whatsoever until you learn that the Mexican drug cartels have moved into the totoaba business to satisfy demand from the Chinese luxury market. (It’s the usual film-flam: the fish’s swim bladders are supposed to possess rare medical properties. )

Illegal gill nets that catch the totoaba — itself a rapidly declining population — also catch and kill vaquitas. The government talks a good environmental game but has let the problem get out of hand. Law-abiding fishing communities are ruined by blanket fishing bans while the illegals operate with near-impunity. Late on in the film, there’s some CCTV footage of a couple of soldiers having some car trouble. They ask for help from a passing motorist. Who shoots one of the soldiers dead. Bam. Just like that. And drives away. Meet Oscar Parra, the tortoaba padron of Santa Clara. (I said you couldn’t look away; I didn’t say you wouldn’t want to.)

Things are so bad, a scheme is dreamt up to remove the remaining vaquitas from the ocean and keep them in captivity. It’s an absurdly desperate move, because virtually nothing is known about the vaquita’s disposition and habits. (Some locals believe the creature is a myth dreamt up by a hostile government to bankrupt the poor: how’s that for fake news?) Project leader Cynthia Smith explains the dilemma facing the vaquita: “possible death in our care or certain death in the ocean”. She knows what she’s doing — she a senior veterinarian for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program — but no one has ever tried to capture, let alone keep, a vaquita before. This could go very wrong indeed. (And still, you cannot look away…)

Sea of Shadows won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in February this year; National Geographic snapped it up for $3million. It’s built around a collaborative investigation between Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of Earth League International (the hero-detectives of The Ivory Game) and Carlos Loret de Mola, a popular correspondent and news anchor in Mexico, whose topical show Despierta reaches an international audience of 35 million people a day. Crosta and de Mola and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, their maritime partners in crime-prevention, are all of them expert in handling and appealing to the media. Everything about this film that might rankle the viewer is entirely deliberate — the film’s “whodunnit” structure, the way all content is crammed into a pre-storyboarded narrative, then squeezed to release a steady drip-drip-drip of pre-digested information. Sea of Shadows is pure NatGeo fodder, and if you don’t like that channel much, you won’t like this at all.

Just bear in mind, the rest of us will be perching on the edge of our sofas, in thrall to drone-heavy cinematography that owes not a little to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 thriller Sicario, rocked by a thumping score full of dread and menace, and appalled by a story headed pell-mell for the dark.

Rare resources are doomed to extinction eventually because the rarer a resource is, the more expensive it is, and the more incentive there is to trade in it. This is why, past a certain point, rare stocks hurtle towards zero.

Can the vaquita be saved? Sea of Shadows was made in 2018 and says there are fewer than 30 vaquitas in the ocean.

Today there are fewer than 10.

From a hot desert to a cold one

On 27 September 2019, Hazza Al Mansouri became the first Emirati to go to space. For the National in Dubai, podcast host Suhail Rather rang around for opinions on the UAE space programme and where it’s headed. With a human colony on Mars planned for 2117 and a probe headed for the red planet next year, we chatted about what Hazza’s mission means for the local population.

Normal fish and stubby dinosaurs

Reading Imagined Life by James Trefil and Michael Summers for New Scientist, 20 September 2019

If you can imagine a world that is consistent with the laws of physics,” say physicist James Trefil and planetary scientist Michael Summers, “then there’s a good chance that it exists somewhere in our galaxy.”

The universe is dark, empty, and expanding, true. But the few parts of it that are populated by matter at all, are full of planets. Embarrassingly so: interstellar space itself is littered with hard-to-spot rogue worlds, ejected early on in their solar system’s history, and these worlds may outnumber orbiting planets by a factor of two to one. (Not everyone agrees: some experts reckon rogues may out-number orbital worlds 1000 to one. One of the reasons the little green men have yet to sail up to the White House, is that they keep hitting space shoals.)

Can we conclude, then, that this cluttered galaxy is full of life? The surprising (and frustrating) truth is that we genuinely have no idea. And while Trefil and Summers are obviously primed to receive with open arms any visitors who happen by, they do a splendid job, in this, their second slim volume together of explaining just how tentative and speculative our thoughts about exobiology actually are, and why.

Exoplanets came out in 2013; Imagined Life is a sort of sequel and is, if possible, even more accessible. In just 14 pages, the authors outline the physical laws constraining the universe. Then they rattle through the various ways we can define life, and why spotting life on distant worlds is so difficult (“For just about every molecule that we could identify [through spectroscopy] as a potential biomarker of life on an exoplanet, there is a nonbiological production mechanism.”). They list the most likely types of environment on which life may have evolved, from water worlds to Mega Earths (expect “normal fish… and stubby dinosaurs”), from tidally locked planets to wildly exotic (but by no means unlikely) superconducting rogues. And we haven’t even reached the meat of this tiny book yet – a tour, planet by imaginary planet, of the possibilities for life, intelligence, and civilisation in our and other galaxies.

Most strange worlds are far too strange for life, and the more one learns about chemistry, the more sober one’s speculations become. Water is common in the universe, and carbon not hard to find, and this is as well, given the relative uselessness of their nearest equivalents (benzene and silicon, say). The authors argue enthusiastically for the possibilities of life that’s “really not like us”, but they have a hard time making it stick. Carbon-based life is pretty various, of course, but even here there may be unexepected limits on what’s possible. Given that, out of 140 amino acids, only 22 have been recruited in nature, it may be that mechanisms of inheritance converge on a surprisingly narrow set of possibilities.

The trick to finding life in odd places, we discover, is to look not out, but in, and through. “Scientists are beginning to abandon the idea that life has to evolve and persist on the surface of planets” the authors write, laying the groundwork for their description of an aquatic alien civilisation for whom a mission to the ocean surface “would be no stranger to them than a mission to Mars is to us.”

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ stock assumption that life most likely breeds intelligence most likely breeds technology. Nothing in biology , or human history, suggests as much. Humans in their current iteration may be far odder than we imagine. But what the hell: Imagined Life reminds me of those books I grew up with, full of artists’ impressions of the teeming oceans of Venus. Only now, the science is better; the writing is better; and the possibiliities, being more focused, are altogether more intoxicating.