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

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

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

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

Wait.

What…?

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

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

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

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

Safe and clean and a nightmare

Reading Serhii Plokhy’s Atoms and Ashes for the Telegraph, 8 May 2022

Jimmy Carter is the only US president to have had hands-on experience of nuclear reactors. As part of the US Navy’s nuclear submarine program, he once helped disassemble a Canadian research reactor that had gone into meltdown. His enthusiasm for the technology was, to say the least, measured: “US dependence on nuclear power should be kept to the minimum necessary to meet our needs,” he told the UN General Assembly in 1976, tying the fortunes of the industry ever more tightly to immediate geopolitical demands.

But the nuclear industry has never been able to respond to such demands quickly enough. Right now, Germany is finding this out the hard way. The country decommissioned its nuclear fleet after the 2011 Fukushima accident. Ill-suited to renewables, beset by winter doldrums and long overcasts, it bet on being able to import its energy. Now it finds itself in a hopeless tangle, under pressure to stop importing Russian gas, yet unable to reverse its nuclear decommissioning programme.

It’s this unwieldiness, this inflexibility that puts nuclear power, time and again, on the wrong side of history, and powers the deeper arguments running under Serhii Plohki’s terrifying compendium of notorious nuclear mishaps.

The ostensible theme of Atoms and Ashes is straightforward: what happens when nuclear power generation goes wrong?

Rejecting the distinction between military and civil nuclear programmes (the uranium 235 and plutonium used in nuclear munitions are, after all, usually obtained from civil reactors), Plohky begins in the Marshall islands in March 1954 where, according to a notorious White House briefing, “the wind failed to follow the predictions,” spreading fallout from a US thermonuclear test across Rongelap and other inhabited islands.

In the UK, around 12 kilogrammes of uranium escaped through the stacks of the Windscale piles between 1954 and 1957, giving maybe 300 people terminal cancer.

In 1979 a nuclear core melted down inside a reactor on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. No uncontrolled release of radiation ever occurred.

There’s a pattern here, and let’s not be bashful: the West won. Compare these chapters with the ones about the nuclear waste fires at Kyshtym in the Urals in 1957 (nadir of an environmental catastrophe so severe, some of the 20,000 square miles contaminated were turned into a nature park to keep people out) and the explosion at Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine in 1986 (which killed over thirty outright and over the years has likely seeded 4000 people with terminal cancer). These accounts spell out exactly what to expect when you deny vital information to people and then bully them into performing impossible miracles on shoddy equipment. If civil nuclear power were a theatre of the Cold War (and it was) then the West, with its capitalistic working practices, won hands down.

But complacency is not an option. The peaceful application of nuclear power was the industry’s grail in those dark years, but “atoms for peace” far from ending want and war, have merely encouraged nuclear proliferation. (India produced its first plutonium in a reactor supplied by Canada, calling its first nuclear test a “peaceful nuclear explosion”.)

Not can we comfortably assume that, like the oil industry, like the hydo-electric industry, nuclear power is evolving and improving and becoming safer year on year.

True, the oil industry kills 264 times as many people as the nuclear industry, to produce just over seven times the amount of useful energy. True, nuclear power produces barely three fifths the amount of carbon that solar energy does, and generates four times as much power.

But the build quality of nuclear reactors across the globe is probably going down, not up, as reactor design loses research funding in the developed world, while relatively primitive reactors, further “simplified” to cut costs, are sold to unstable states hungry for nuclear prestige.

Plohki’s last major chapter analyses the multiple reactor meltdown at Fukushima in 2011. The earthquake which hit on Friday 11 March — an 8.9 on the Richter scale — shook the entire planet on its axis and jolted the whole of Japan several feet sideways. The tsunami that followed was far more terrible than the Fukushima Daiichi designers had allowed for. Yet no one died from acute radiation poisoning, and while cancer deaths cannot be ruled out, studies have as yet found no increase in the rate of such deaths.

Reasons for the deep unease that swept the globe following the Fukushima accident will be found neither in the figures, nor in the historical circumstances. (The worst that happened politically was that the prime minster, Naoto Kan, was roundly pilloried for grandstanding on Japanese TV.)

No, what really got under everyone’s skin were the eight painfully long days of pure terror during which the Fukushima disaster unfolded, with its various equipment failures, meltdowns, and releases of radioactive materials.

Look at it this way: were some poor sod to lose control of his muscle car on a cattle grid near Penistone, we would merely shrug and sigh. But imagine if the act of wrapping that car around a tree took over a week, and each excruciating moment of it were broadcast live on television. What would our reactions be then? Come Monday, how many of us would leave our cars in the garage?

On the outside, Atoms and Ashes looks like an altogether unnecessary contribution to the “Say something should happen” argument against nuclear power. But Plohki’s gripping, measured accounts of human error and staggering heroism in the face of the slow, unwieldy and terrifying forces of nuclear power get under the skin of problem.

We’ve developed a clean, safe energy generation system. But never mind the materials it uses, the machine itself scares the living daylights out of us: slow, inexorable, mysterious, and persistent (no nuclear power station has ever been fully decommissioned).

Nuclear power is safe, and clean, and a nightmare — and one cannot simply reason one’s way out of a nightmare.

The past in light materials

Reading Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter for The Times, 30 April 2022 

Bulgaria’s best known contemporary novelist gets into a tremendous historical tangle in Time Shelter, the tale of how a fictional Georgi Gospodinov (let’s call him GG) helps create the world’s first “clinic for the past”. Here, past ages (1980s Soviet Sofia, for example) are recreated to relieve an elderly clientele from the symptoms of senile dementia.

The bald premise here isn’t as fanciful as it might sound. I assume that while writing, Gospodinov was all over news stories about the Alexa nursing home in Dresden, which in 2017 recreated spaces from communist-era East Germany as a form of therapy.

From this shred of clinical fact, GG’s mind, like Stephen Leacock’s Lord Ronald, rides off in all directions.

GG’s boss at the clinic is his lugubrious time-jumping alter-ego Gaustine (who’s cropped up before, most memorably in Gospodinov’s 2011 novel The Physics of Sorrow and in an eponymous story in his 2007 collection And Other Stories). Gaustine hires GG to run the clinic; GG’s own father becomes a client.

Soon, carers and hangers-on are hankering to stay at the clinic, and Gaustine dreams up grand plans indeed — to build time clinics in every town; to build whole towns set in the past; ultimately, to induce whole nations to reenact their favourite historical eras! “The more a society forgets,” Gaustine observes, “the more someone produces, sells, and fills the freed-up niches with ersatz-memory… The past made from light materials, plastic memory as if spit out by a 3-D printer.”

This is a book about memory: how it fades, and how it is restored, even reinvented, in the imaginations of addled individuals, and in the civic discourse of fractious states.

As the clinic’s grandest schemes bear fruit, there’s political satire of the slapstick kind, as when “one day the president of a Central European country went to work in the national costume. Leather boots, tight pants, an embroidered vest, a small black bow above a white shirt, and a black bowler hat with a red geranium.” The scene in which a three-square-kilometre Bulgarian flag is dropped over the crowds in Sofia’s oldest park, the Borisova Gradina, is a fine piece of comic invention.

As the dream of European unity frays, and each European country embraces what it imagines (and votes) to be its best self, Gospodinov’s notes on national character and historical determinism threaten to swallow the book. But in a development that the reader will welcome (though it’s bad news all the way for GG) our narrator flees time-torn Bulgaria (torn between complacent Soviet nerds and keen reenactors of an unsuccessful national uprising in 1876), finds himself a cheap cell in a Franciscan monastery outside Zurich, and comes face to face with his own burgeoning dementia. “The great leaving is upon you,” GG announces, sliding from first person into second, from second into third, as his mind comes apart.

Gospodinov chillingly describes the process of mental ageing: “Long, lonely manoeuvres, waiting, more like trench warfare, lying in wait, hiding out, quick sorties, prowling the battlefield ‘between the clock and the bed,’ as one of the elderly Munch’s final self-portraits is called.”

Of course, this passage would have been ten times more chilling without that artistic reference tacked on the end. So what, exactly, is Gospodinov trying to do?

His story is strong enough — the tale of an innocent caught up in a compelling aquaintance’s hare-brained scheme. But Gospodinov is one of those writers who thinks novels can, and perhaps should, contain more than just a story. Notes, for example. Political observations. Passages of philosophy. Diary entries. Quotations.

GG comes back again and again to Thomas Mann’s polyphonic novel The Magic Mountain, but he could just as easily have cited Robert Musil, or James Joyce, or indeed Milan Kundera, whose mash-ups of story, essay and memoir (sometimes mashed even further by poor translation) bowled readers over in the 1980s.

Can novels really hold so much? Gospodinov risks a mischievous line or two about what a really brave, true, “inconsolable” novel would look like: “one in which all stories, the happened and the unhappened, float around us in the primordial chaos, shouting and whispering, begging and sniggering, meeting and passing one another by in the darkness.”

Not like a novel at all, then.

The risk with a project like this is that it slips fiction’s tracks and becomes nothing more than an overlong London Review of Books article, a boutique window displaying Gospodinov’s cultural capital: “Ooh! Look! Edvard Munch! And over there — Primo Levi!” A trove for quotation-hunters.

Happily for the book — not at all happily for Europe — Vladimir Putin’s rape of Ukraine has saved Time Shelter from this hostile reading. In its garish light, Gospodinov’s fanciful and rambling meditation on midlife crisis, crumbling memory and historical reenactment is proving psychologically astute and shockingly prescient.

Gospodinov’s Europe — complacent, sentimental and underconfident — is pretty much exactly the Europe Putin imagines he’s gone to war with. Motley, cacophonous, and speciously postmodern, it’s also the false future from which — and with a terribly urgency — we know we must awake.

 

A surprisingly narrow piano

Reading Richard Mainwaring’s Everybody Hertz for the Spectator, 30 April 2022.

Imagine that all the frequencies nature affords were laid out on an extended piano keyboard. Never mind that some waves are mechanical, propagated through air or some other fluid, and other waves are electromagnetic, and can pass through a vacuum. Lay them down all together, and what do you get?

The startling answer is: a surprisingly narrow piano. To play X-rays (whose waves cycle up to 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 times per second), our pianist would have to travel a mere nine metres to the right of middle C. Wandering nine and a half metres in the other direction, our pianist would then be able to sound the super-bass note generated by shockwaves rippling through the hot gas around a supermassive black hole in the Perseus cluster — a wave that cycles just once every 18.5 million years.

Closer to home, how big do you think that piano would have to be for it to play every note distinguishable by the human ear? You’d have to add barely a single octave to either side of a regular concert grand.

Readers of Richard Mainwaring’s wonderfully titled book will fall into two camps. Some will want to hear what this “infinite piano” conceit reveals about the natural world; about the (considerable) auditory abilities of spiders, say, or how 23 high-stepping fitness junkies caused a tremor that evacuated the the 39-storey Techno Mart building in Seoul, South Korea.

Other readers, though entertained well enough by Mainwaring’s extraordinary clear and concise science writing, won’t be able to get that infinite piano out of their heads. It’s a metaphor so engaging, so intuitive, it’s quite as exciting as anything else in the book (for all that the book features ghosts, whales, Neolithic chambered cairns and Nikolai Tesla).

Mainwaring is a musician and a composer, and the business of music runs under even his most abstruse intellectual excursions. A Marsquake recorded on On 6 April 2019, sped up by a factor of 60, sounds, he tells us, “not unlike someone blowing over the top of a half-full wine bottle in Westminster Abbey”. Fully concentrating on a task generates brainwaves of around 40 Hz or more: ”it’s a wonder we can’t hear them humming, as they are at the same frequency as the opening bass note of Cypress Hill’s ‘Insane in the Brain’.”

This is infotainment at its most charming and lightweight; tonally, it’s of a piece with the musical stunts (for example, arranging a performance by massed tuning-forks) that Mainwaring has regularly staged for BBC1’s pre-watershed magazine programme The ONE Show. The glimpses Mainwaring gives us into the peculiar, fractured, distraction-filled business of modern music making are quite as fascinating as his tales of planetary resonance and the latest thinking about olfaction. He can also be tremendously catty, as when he pricks the vaingloriousness of virtuoso bass players (“Know your role, bassists – stay out of the way.”)

Like any ebullient teacher, he won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. There’s always one misery-guts at the back of the class whose teeth will be set on edge, and now and again Mainwaring’s humour is a little forced. This is usually because he’s hit on some neat metaphor and doesn’t know when to stop beating on it. We should set against this, though, his willingness to dive (and deeply, too) into any number of abstruse subjects, from religious experiences to Edwardian vibrators.

Throughout, Mainwaring keeps a sharp eye out for specious claims and pretensions. There is, he says, nothing magical about “the God-given, superhero ability of perfect pitch” — the ability to identify a note from its frequency. Indeed, before 1955, the year the ISO standardised “A” at 440 Hz, there was no such thing as perfect pitch. (Interestingly, though, speakers of Mandarin, a language dependent on tonal inflexion, are rather better at guessing notes than the rest of us.)

On the other hand there is, as Mainwaring ably demonstrates, an extraordinary spiritual power to music, particularly around the note A forty-seven white keys to the left of middle C. (That’s 19 cycles per second, or 19 Hertz, we say now, in honour of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves). This “A” can trigger cold sweats, fits of severe depression, and even sightings of dead people. Mainwaring traces the use of low notes and infrasound from the more inaccessible tunnels of French caves (where little ochre dots marked where prehistoric singers should stand to sound especially resonant and amplified) to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor which, on any decent organ, generates infrasonic byproducts by means of two chords and a low pedal D.

Though horribly abused and exploited by various new Age fads over the years, the old intuition still holds: vibrations reveal much about life, consciousness and the integrity of matter. Mainwaring’s clear-eyed forays into medicine, psychology and spirituality reflect as much.

It’s a commonplace of popular science that the world is looked at best through this or that funny-shaped window of the author’s choosing. But Mainwaring’s garrulous offering is the real deal.

The worst day ever

Reading Riley Black’s The Last Days of the Dinosaurs for New Scientist, 20 April 2022

Welcome to Hell Creek, in what is now Montana. Readers had best not get too attached to the inhabitants dreamt into being in the first chapter of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: the Tyrannosaurus rex, “her reddish brown hide now draped in orange and gold from the low-angled light of the evening sun”; the low-slung herbivore Ankylosaurus, defending herself with a tail club the size of a car tyre; the new-born Alamosaurus sanjuanensis chick, that will never get to grow into one of the largest animals to ever walk the Earth.

Tomorrow, a seven-mile-wide meteor will plough into the ancient Yucatán, triggering the extinction of around three quarters of all species on Earth. Along with all non-avian dinosaurs, great batwinged pterosaurs will perish; later, invertebrates like ammonites will stutter and stop in seas made corrosive by acid rain. Most early mammals — those that didn’t go up in flames, or get blasted off into outer space — will eventually starve; and with them, most lizards, snakes, and birds.

Subsequent chapters offer glimpses of the aftermath, each separated by an exponentially longer interval. An hour after impact and in Hell Creek, over 4,500 kilometres away from the impact, a puzzled Ankylosaurus fights for its footing at the edge of a trembling lake. Safe in her burrow, a squirrel-like Mesodma sleeps through a day of pulsing, planetary conflagration. A month in, and little two-toed Acheroraptors are poking about amongst the decaying debris, unaware of the cold and hunger to come.

Time accelerates. A year, a hundred years, a thousand years go by. We venture far from Hell Creek, many times, and learn much about dinosaurs and their long history, about the mechanisms of evolution and climate, and about the deep history of our planet. We learn to abandon old notions of a planet healing itself, or of life returning to some ideal degree of diversity. Mass extinctions are not “opportunities”, and when living designs are lost, in the great game of adaptation and extinction, they stay lost. Life got through by the skin of its teeth.

Hell Creek remains central throughout, as is only reasonable, since its geology appears to record in such extraordinary detail the events immediately following the giant Chicxulub asteroid’s impact. We glimpse it as an Eden, gardened by towering herbivores. We see it go up in flames. We say goodbye to the place as new plants smother and entangle it, creating the jungle environments from which complex behaviours and communities — both primate and avian — will be born. Throughout, the author’s shifting cast of characters remains vivid and charming.

Indeed, it’s as if Black — a palaeontologist and prolific writer, and no doubt familiar to many readers for her Laelaps blog — had set up camp in the very heart of the valley. This is palaeontology written with the immediacy of natural history.

In a long appendix, Black explains what’s real in this book, and what she’s made up. No need to be disconcerted. Without a leavening of intelligent speculation, palaeontologists have never been able to say anything useful. it’s a point Black makes splendidly, with reference to an illustrated study from 1863, The World Before the Deluge.

This book was published just a couple of years after the discovery of the first decent fossilised skeleton of Archaeopteryx — a previously missing link between reptiles and birds. The only problem was the head was missing. “Did Archaeopteryx have a beak? Teeth? Both? Neither? There was no way to answer the question,” Black explains. “And so The World Before the Deluge portrayed Archaeopteryx flying high above Jurassic conifers totally headless.”

Black’s approach is much more sensible, adding to The Last Days of the Dinosaurs whatever she needs — a head here, a behaviour there — to give us living, more-or-less reliable glimpses into the days after the worst day ever suffered by life on Earth.

 

“One cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance”

Reading David Flusfeder’s Luck for New Scientist, 6 April 2022 

The Russian novelist Fyodor Doystoyevsky was a gambling addict. He believed, if he could only maintain his composure, the various strategies and “systems” he dreamt up to beat the roulette wheel would one day pay off. But no strategy can game pure chance.

David Flusfeder’s book is not about randomness, or statistics, or the behaviour of numbers. It is, quite specifically, about luck, defined as “the operations of chance taken personally.” Flusfeder is a semi-professional poker player, and knows whereof he speaks.

His eccentric, insightful meditations focus on Fortune’s favourites and its gulls — from the Marquis de Dangeau, 18th-century Versailles’ wiliest card shark, to Thomas Bastard, Oxford University’s most comprehensively shunned epigrammatist. Weaving backwards and forwards through western history, Flusfeder encounters more familiar figures too, from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Niels Bohr to four-times lottery winner Joan Ginther, “the luckiest woman on Earth”.

In an effort to stop his project sprawling, Flusfeder has given its structure over to chance. The 14 essays here are largely self-contained, and they have to be, since they’re presented in an order determined by an on-line randomiser.

Doystoyevsky’s experience predominates. Even after he managed to cure himself of his addiction, the novelist retained the conviction “that in games of chance, if one has perfect control of one’s will, so that the subtlety of one’s intelligence and one’s power of calculation are preserved, one cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance and to win.”

Flusfeder reckons poor Fyodor was born in the wrong place; he should have been playing poker with French settlers in New Orleans, for the card game they invented in 1829 really does reward composure, and nerve, as well as luck.

Not that poker is an altogether rational pursuit. If it were, then Flusfeder would not be wearing green underpants to every important game. Superstition abounds on the poker circuit, as it does wherever people wield little or no control over their lives. Professional tennis, where “there is so much time to think, and doubt, and lose the learned rhythms of technique, and to be afraid”, is awash with fetishes, tics, and absurd pre-match “routines”.

Superstition, according to Flusfeder, is not some primitive psychic excrescence that can be discarded. It’s merely the florid expression of heuristic thinking, without which we wouldn’t be able to function at all. We don’t constantly re-evaluate the world. We make reasonable assumptions about how it works, and we rely on those assumptions. We develop habits. We conjure up a deterministic world in which what happened yesterday reliably guides our actions tomorrow.

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood.

This attitude, caught so superbly by the poet Alexander Pope, works well enough for day-to-day life, but trouble attends our efforts to institutionalise such thinking. Swathes of economic practice, and not a little theory, are predicated on this nonsense — the idea that past results are a guide to future performance.

Statistician David Spiegelhalter, who studies the public perception of risk, is blunt about this: probability does not exist outside the mind, he says: “It is not an objective aspect of the world. It’s a way to operationalise a belief.” At best it’s the map for a territory that, being unbounded, is immeasurable and unknowable.

Vulnerable to the vagaries of chance, how should we conduct ourselves?

Rather than cower timidly, avoiding all randomness, we might develop prudence, seizing opportunities while sidestepping unnecessary risks. Still, against the vicissitudes of fortune, prudence is a thin shield indeed.

Virtue may be our better armour. A life lived with honesty and integrity will at least feel consistent, whether we are suffering adversity or enjoying good fortune.

Or as the early renaissance poet Petrarch put it, “Many times whom fortune has made bond, virtue has made free.”

Now and again they kill people

Reading Andrew Scull’s Desperate Remedies for the Telegraph, 3 April 2022

Are mental illnesses real?

Well, says, Andrew Scull, they hurt; they blight lives; now and again they kill people. So there’s that.

But are they illnesses in any recognisable sense? They can’t be cured. Some people, after years of suffering, experience complete remission for no reason. The search for reliable genetic markers for schizophrenia and major depression has proved a snark-hunt. And so on: Desperate Remedies is the story of what happens when the world stubbornly refuses to reward our efforts at rational understanding.

There are two traditions in psychiatry. The first, greatly shaped by our experience with syphilis, assumes that mental illness is an organic failing, perhaps the result of an infection. Henry Cotton is the unlovely poster child of this tendency, a man whose fin de siecle war on “focal infection” involved the surgical removal, of teeth and tonsils first of all, then colons and cervixes, and then just about anything his knife could reach — and killed very nearly half his clientele.

The other tradition, mindful especially of those traumatised by war, assumes mental illness is grounded in individual experience. At its psychoanalytic height, in the twenty years following the second world war, it could blame just about everything on the parents. The Hungarian-American psychoanalyst Franz Alexander believed that “the asthmatic wheeze was the ‘suppressed cry’ of a patient suffocated by an over-attentive mother.” The current crop of trauma therapies — springing from the roots of 1960s-era PTSD like mushrooms after a spring rain — is the latest lurid flowering of this tradition.

Meanwhile psychiatrists — the poor bloody footsoldiers in this intellectual conflict — have been treating ordinary people in oversubscribed, underfunded institutions (or in the absence of those institutions, where “care in the community” holds sway). It’s their “desperate remedies” — from shock therapies to lobotomies — that form the core of this book.

Andrew Scull’s erudite, precise, blisteringly critical history of 200 years of psychiatry spends many pages explaining what happens when overambitious clinicians meet clients deprived of their rights. (Not everyone in the profession is a Nurse Ratched, but it’s worth remembering that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was drawn from personal experience.)

In spite of everything, Scull still holds out the narrow possibility that psychiatry has a future, if it would only calm down and own up to its limitations. In the psychopharmological present, for instance, much that we’re told works, doesn’t work. Or doesn’t work for very long. Or is accompanied by so many side effects that many feel they would be better off if it didn’t work. What actually works doesn’t work nearly as well as the press says it works. And — the cherry on the cake — we don’t know why it works. (Any piece of folk wisdom you may have picked up about “dopamine imbalances” or “serotonin levels” is almost certainly wrong.)

The opioid crisis in the United States is a public health scandal that’s been waiting to happen since the early 1940s, when Arthur Sackler, among others, worked out how to couch drug advertisements as clinical information. In its wake, the efficacy of countless drugs is being reassessed. Old trials are being picked over, old claims re-examined. The result? “GlaxoSmithKline has all but closed its psychiatric laboratories,” Scull remarks, surveying the ruins left by this latest “paradigm shift” in psychiatry; “AstraZeneca has essentially dropped internal research on psychopharmacology, and Pfizer has dramatically reduced its spending in the psychiatric arena.”

Were all their efforts quackery? Of course not. It is easy (and cheap) to cherry-pick horror stories from Scull’s impassioned history. But his far more worrying point is that plenty of the effort expended over the last 200 years was intelligent, sincere, and honestly conducted — and that, too, has brought only marginal and temporary relief to the suffering mind.

 

A normal process

Reading What Is Regeneration by Jane Maienschein and Kate MacCord for New Scientist, 30 March 2022

Some animals are able to regrow lost or damaged parts. Crabs and lobsters regenerate whole tentacles and claws. Many more animals have lifecycles that involve the wholesale shedding and regrowth of certain tissues. (Unlike hydras and some worms, we humans cannot regrow our heads; but we can regrow our fingernails.)

Regeneration is such a peculiar property, it is surprisingly often ignored or discounted. The 18th-century French naturalist René-Antoine Réaumur spoke to people who made their living by fishing and was surprised when they dismissed stories of limb regeneration as mere “fables”. (His own somewhat bloodthirsty experiments on the local crayfish showed otherwise.)

So is regeneration a mere oddity? Is there any underlying logic to it? And what does it have to do with the grander mysteries of birth, death and development?

Jane Maienschein directs the History and Philosophy of Science Project at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Kate MacCord administers the centre’s effort to study how regeneration works across the scales of complex living systems. This book is their collaborative effort to understand why regeneration occurs when it does, and whether the regeneration of communities (the gut flora in your intestines after a course of antibiotics, say, or the regeneration of woodland after a forest fire) bears anything more than a semantic relationship with the kind of regeneration those crayfish enjoyed in the weeks following their unlucky encounter with M. Réaumur.

Regeneration turns out to be one of those simple, discrete, observable phenomena that, the closer we look at them, seem to vanish into thin air. For instance, when we think about regeneration, are we thinking about regeneration of structure, or regeneration of function, or both? How we think about regeneration impacts whether and where we think it occurs.

The authors’ history of regeneration begins with Aristotle and ends with Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz’s current work on cellular signalling. Their account pivots on Thomas Hunt Morgan (better known as a pioneer of chromosomal genetics) and in particular on his book Regeneration of 1901. Morgan, more than anyone before or since, attempted to establish clear boundaries around the phenomenon of regeneration. The terminology he invented remains useful. Restorative regeneration occurs in response to injury. Physiological regeneration describes replacement, as when a bird moults its feathers or an elk its antlers and a new structures grow in their place. Morphallaxis refers to cases of reshaping, as when a hydra, cut to pieces, reorganises itself into a new hydra without going through the normal processes of cell division.

Morgan’s observations and analysis established that the mechanisms of regeneration are not (as our authors put it) “a special response to changing environmental conditions but, rather, an internal normal process of growth and development. Nor is regeneration an evolutionary adaptation to external conditions, even though the process may be useful.”

So here’s the problem: if the mechanisms of regeneration cannot be distinguished from the mechanisms of growth and development, what’s to stop everything regenerating all the time? What dictates lawful regrowth, and why does it happen only in some tissues, only in some species, and only some of the time?

Far from being an interesting curio, regeneration turns out to be a window through which we glimpse the tightly imbricated (if not impossibly entangled) feedback loops from which the living world, at every scale, is composed. The words of geneticist François Jacob, writing in 1974 and quoted here, barely conveys the scale of the challenge the authors reveal: “every object that biology studies is a system of systems.”

No wonder that regeneration remains largely a mystery; that hopeful regenerative therapies using stem cells usually fail (and usually for unfathomable reasons); and that even the simplest ecosystems elude our control.

Maienschein and MacCord take fewer than 150 pages to anatomise the complexities and ambiguities that their simple question throws up. It is to their further credit that they do not make the biology any more complex or ambiguous than it has to be.

Don’t stick your butter-knife in the toaster

Reading The End of Astronauts by Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees for the Times, 26 March 2002

NASA’s Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built, is now sitting on the launch pad. It’s the super heavy lifting body for Artemis, NASA’s international programme to establish a settlement on the Moon. The Artemis consortium includes everyone with an interest in space, from the UK to the UAE to Ukraine, but there are a few significant exceptions: India, Russia, and China. Russia and China already run a joint project to place their own base on the Moon.

Any fool can see where this is going. The conflict, when it comes, will arise over control of the moon’s south pole, where permanently sunlit pinnacles provide ideal locations for solar collectors. These will power the extraction of ice from permanently night-filled craters nearby. And the ice? That will be used for rocket fuel.

The closer we get to putting humans in space, the more familiar the picture of our future becomes. You can get depressed about that hard-scrabble, piratical future, or exhilarated by it, but you surely can’t be surprised by it.

What makes this part of the human story different is not the exotic locations. It’s the fact that wherever we want to go, our machines will have to go there first. (In this sense, it’s the *lack* of strangeness and glamour that will distinguish our space-borne future — our lives spent inside a chain of radiation-hardened Amazon fulfilment centres.)

So why go at all? The argument for “boots on the ground” is more strategic than scientific. Consider the achievements of NASA’s still-young Perseverance lander, lowered to the surface of Mars at the end of 2018, and with it a lightweight proof-of-concept helicopter called Ingenuity. Through these machines, researchers around the world are already combing our neighbour planet for signs of past and present life.

What more can we do? Specifically, what (beyond dying, and most likely in horrible, drawn-out ways) can astronauts do that space robots cannot? And if robots do need time to develop valuable “human” skills — the ability to spot geographical anomalies, for instance (though this is a bad example, because machines are getting good at this already) — doesn’t it make sense to hold off on that human mission, and give the robots a chance to catch up?

The argument to put humans into space is as old as NASA’s missions to the moon, and to this day it is driven by many of that era’s assumptions.

One was the belief (or at any rate the hope) that we might make the whole business cheap and easy by using nuclear-powered launch vehicles within the Earth’s atmosphere. Alas, radiological studies nipped that brave scheme in the bud.

Other Apollo-era assumptions have a longer shelf-life but are, at heart, more stupid. Dumbest of all is the notion — first dreamt up by Nikolai Fyodorov, a late-nineteenth century Russian librarian — that exploring outer space is the next stage in our species’ evolution. This stirring blandishment isn’t challenged nearly as often as it ought to be, and it collapses under the most cursory anthropological or historical interrogation.

That the authors of this minatory little volume — the UK’s Astronomer Royal and an award-winning space sciences communicator —
beat Fedorov’s ideas to death with sticks is welcome, to a degree. “The desire to explore is not our destiny,” they point out, “nor in our DNA, nor innate in human cultures.”

The trouble begins when the poor disenchanted reader asks, somewhat querulously, Then why bother with outer space at all?

Their blood lust yet unslaked, our heroes take a firmer grip their cudgels. No, the moon is not “rich” in helium 3, harvesting it would be a nightmare, and the technology we’d need so we can use it for nuclear fusion remains hypothetical. No, we are never going to be able to flit from planet to planet at will. Journey times to the outer planets are always going to be measured in years. Very few asteroids are going to be worth mining, and the risks of doing so probably outweigh the benefits. And no, we are not going to terraform Mars, the strongest argument against it being “the fact that we are doing a poor job of terraforming Earth.” In all these cases it’s not the technology that’s against us, so much as the mathematics — the sheer scale.

For anyone seriously interested in space exploration, this slaughter of the impractical innocents is actually quite welcome. Actual space sciences have for years been struggling to breathe in an atmosphere saturated with hype and science fiction. The superannuated blarney spouted by Messrs Musk and Bezos (who basically just want to get into the mining business) isn’t helping.

But for the rest of us, who just want to see some cool shit — will no crumb of romantic comfort be left to us?

In the long run, our destiny may very well lie in outer space — but not until and unless our machines overtake us. Given the harshness and scale of the world beyond Earth, there is very little that humans can do there for themselves. More likely, we will one day be carried to the stars as pets by vast, sentimental machine intelligences. This was the vision behind the Culture novels of the late great Iain Banks. And there — so long as they got over the idea they were the most important things in the universe — humans did rather well for themselves.

Rees and Goldsmith, not being science fiction writers, can only tip their hat to such notions. But spacefaring futures that do not involve other powers and intelligences are beginning to look decidedly gimcrack. Take, for example, the vast rotating space colonies dreamt up by physicist Gerard O’Neill in the 1970s. They’re designed so 20th-century vintage humans can survive among the stars. And this, as the authors show, makes such environments impossibly expensive, not to mention absurdly elaborate and unstable.

The conditions of outer space are not, after all, something to be got around with technology. To survive in any numbers, for any length of time, humans will have to adapt, biologically and psychologically, beyond their current form.

The authors concede that for now, this is a truth best explored in science fiction. Here, they write about immediate realities, and the likely the role of humans in space up to about 2040.

The big problem with outer space is time. Space exploration is a species of pot-watching. Find a launch window. Plot your course. Wait. The journey to Mars is a seven-month curve covering more than ten times the distance between Mars and Earth at their closest conjunction — and the journey can only be made once every twenty-six months.

Gadding about the solar system isn’t an option, because it would require fuel your spacecraft hasn’t got. Fuel is great for hauling things and people out of Earth’s gravity well. In space, though, it becomes bulky, heavy and expensive.

This is why mission planners organise their flights so meticulously, years in advance, and rely on geometry, gravity, time and patience to see their plans fulfilled. “The energy required to send a laboratory toward Mars,” the authors explain, “is almost enough to carry it to an asteroid more than twice as far away. While the trip to the asteroid may well take more than twice as long, this hardly matters for… inanimate matter.”

This last point is the clincher. Machines are much less sensitive to time than we are. They do not age as we do. They do not need feeding and watering in the same way. And they are much more difficult to fry. Though capable of limited self-repair, humans are ill-suited to the rigours of space exploration, and perform poorly when asked to sit on their hands for years on end.

No wonder, then, that automated missions to explore the solar system have been NASA’s staple since the 1970s, while astronauts have been restricted to maintenance roles in low earth orbit. Even here they’re arguably more trouble than they’re worth. The Hubble Space Telescope was repaired and refitted by astronauts five times during its 40-year lifetime — but at a total cost that would have paid for seven replacement telescopes.

Reading The End of Astronauts is like being told by an elderly parent, again and again, not to stick your butter-knife in the toaster. You had no intention of sticking your knife in the toaster. You know perfectly well not to stick your knife in the toaster. They only have to open their mouths, though, and you’re stabbing the toaster to death.

Not quite a coincidence

Reading Antone Martinho-Truswell’s The Parrot in the Mirror for New Scientist, 9 March 2022

Organisms adapt over evolutionary time to their changing surroundings. This creates, over time, a living world of quite jaw-dropping diversity. It also generates some astonishing coincidences — if “coincidence” is quite the right word to describe how two quite unlike species, adapting to identical environments, end up looking and behaving the same. For instance, the pangolins of Africa and the armadilloes of South America look like close cousins; in fact they’re more closely related to humans than they are to each other.

Convergent evolution doesn’t have to be so visually obvious. Take humans and birds: few readers will take on trust Sydney-based zoologist Martinho-Truswell’s assertion that we “look like a strangely featherless bird”.

By the time I finished The Parrot in the Mirror, though, I found that image both compelling and reasonable. Martinho-Truswell explores the traits shared by humans and birds, from our unusual longevity to our advanced social skills, from our parenting styles to our intelligence and even our use of language. These, the author argues, are all extraordinary examples of convergent evolution at work.

Crudely, Martinho-Truswell’s argument goes like this:

Once birds could fly, they could elude almost all predators. And since they were unlikely to be eaten in any given year, it made sense for birds to go on living, producing more eggs and offspring. Increased longevity followed. With longevity came increased intelligence. Long-living animals need to be smart because they get to be the parents of young who develop over a longer period. And because longer development requires a bigger egg and a bigger yolk sac, and because an egg can only get so big, most birds hatch out very immature, helpless young, that require enormous amounts of care. This care is provided by pair bonded parents, sometimes supplemented by a larger community, hence the evolution of complex social behaviour and language (or song, at any rate).

The human story is a twisted mirror-image of the avian one. Communal behaviour among primates promoted the evolution of intelligence, and this reduced the likelihood of predation. Longevity followed, boosting intelligence further, to the point where big-brained human young have to be born immature and helpless so as not to kill their mothers in childbirth.

For different reasons, then, humans and birds evolved measurable intelligence. But how do we compare our abilities? Can we even talk about bird smarts and human smarts in the same sentence?

Martinho-Truswell’s handling of this subject is very well done. A balance has to be stuck between precision and imagination. On the one hand, a duckling’s ability to imprint upon its mother shortly after the moment of its birth puts it well ahead of chimpanzees, parrots, pigeons, crows and even human children, but this one hardwired ability doesn’t necessarily make the duckling more intelligent. On the other hand, it would be a dull observer indeed that did not see in Irene Pepperberg’s thirty-year study of language use in Alex, an African Grey parrot, quite staggering evidence of advanced cognition. (Alex not only asked questions; it asked them, and got annoyed if people offered dumb responses.)

Containing the niceties of convergent evolution in a straightforward narrative is not easy. Evolutionary causes and effects do not follow each other in neat, storybook fashion, and there’s always the temptation, reading this book, to take Martinho-Truswell’s acts of narrative shorthand at face value and suppose that humans, 50 million years behind parrots in the evolution of intelligence, somehow became more human by actually mimicking their distant avian cousins. (Distant cousins indeed, by the way: the last common ancestor of birds and mammals died out 320 million years ago.)

But it is surely better to be very slightly misled by a gripping story than to be bludgeoned by a dull one. Martinho-Truswell has written a superb introduction to a surprisingly complex and fraught field of study. Having read it, you will not look at yourself in the mirror in quite the same way.