“Neigh-CHURE!”

The farming crisis; for the Telegraph, 19 June 2022

It’s time for the UK to transform agriculture: to achieve levels of food security not contemplated since the Second World War; to capture fast-developing far eastern markets in meat and dairy while reducing (for reasons that are medically unclear) the amount of meat and dairy eaten at home; to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050; and to reintroduce the lynx and the wolf. All of this at once, in a manner that won’t add a further spike to people’s already spiking grocery bills, and preferably before the grain shortages triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine complicate matters still further by lowering the gluten content and hence the quality of a British loaf, not to mention triggering a famine across the whole of north Africa.

Were all things equal (and they very much aren’t) we would still have a crisis on our hands. You only have to look out the window. Ninety-seven per cent of British wildflower meadows are gone, and we’re 44 million individual birds poorer than we were fifty years ago. The UK’s flying insect population has declined by about 60 per cent in the last 20 years.

This particular crisis doesn’t feel nearly as urgent as it should, thanks to what fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly has dubbed “shifting baseline syndrome” — our tendency, when we ask what nature should look like, to reference a period no more distant than our own childhoods.

It takes considerable study and real writerly skill to convey what our land should (or at any rate, could) look like, which is why Isabella Tree’s four-year-old book Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm is already a classic, with its talk of species-rich wildflower meadows in every parish and coppice woods teeming with butterflies. A mere four generations ago, she writes, we knew ”rivers swimming with burbot – now extinct in Britain – and eels, and… summer nights peppered with bats and moths and glow-worms.” In those days the muddy North Sea was clear as gin, she says, filtered by oyster beds as large as Wales. “Yet we live in denial of these catastrophic losses.”

Since the publication of Feral in 2013, campaigning journalist George Monbiot has led calls to rewild our desertified and sheep-scraped landscape. He says Britain is the most zoophobic nation in Europe, and he may have a point. While even a simple beaver release here can trigger a storm of protest, on the continent reintroduced animals are extending their ranges without trouble or controversy all over mainland Europe. Bear numbers have doubled. Herds of wisent roam Dutch nature reserves. There are wolves all across Europe (and no, they don’t eat people).

Our island hang-ups are historical, according to Isabella Tree. A great many of our national myths are bound up in the idea that human habitations were hewn out of dense wildwood in ages past — in other words, we had to make a choice between a productive working landscape, or nature, but we couldn’t have both. That just-so story might explain British land use, but it has little to do with the way nature and farming actually work. Tree and the regenerative farming community argue that traditional farming and forestry practices like haymaking, pollarding and coppicing create multiple habitats, supporting a much greater variety of wildlife than closed-canopy woodland ever could, or did. According to this lobby, what we need is not a return to nature, as such, but a return to actual farming.

What we have now is not farming so much as its massively instrumentalised cousin: “agricultural production”. The supermarkets like it because they can guarantee year-round supplies of entirely uniform food products. But the price of treating farming as just another financial and engineering challenge, rather than as a biological activity has been, on the one hand, despoliation and extinction, and on the other, exhausted soils and crippling fertiliser bills.

When barrister Sarah Langford left London and began regenerating 200 acres of Suffolk land — a story told in her new book Rooted: Stories of Life, Land and a Farming Revolution — she found that forty per cent of her income was going on artificial fertiliser and sprays, and most of the rest on machinery, diesel and labour. Her few thousand pounds of profit a year is typical for the industry.

Farmers really do live on government subsidies, because actually producing food loses more money than it makes. A third of the country’s farmers would be bankrupt without basic payments. What they have been asked to do since the end of the Second World War — overproduce food — is destroying the world, and they are the ones left carrying the can. Farming is bad for the soil, bad for the planet, bad for the climate, bad for our waistlines, bad for our health! Meanwhile farmers are going to the wall, abandoning the land, and choosing death as a way out of debt: more than one farm worker in the UK takes their own life each week.

In Sarah Langford’s book, her response to this dire state of things — to attempt not just to farm her land, but to regenerate it — sets her at loggerheads with her Uncle Charlie, an experienced Hampshire farmer. The irascible Charlie and his mates (“Nature!” they tease poor Sarah, “NEIGH-CHURE!”) form an entertaining and sceptical chorus to Langford’s efforts at sustainable farming — a career change she did not plan, but which was more or less forced on her by a temporary snag in the family finances followed by a whopping fire.

Langford’s book is full of telling detail, as when, while applying for a five-year Countryside Stewardship scheme, on a form 123 pages long, and referring to a manual 312 pages long, she discovers that she still has to fill in the Basic Payment form, which has completely different set of codes for each option. But Rooted is more than a memoir; Langford manages to contain and convey the whole scale of the coming agricultural revolution.

Our current food system evolved out of a dangerous assumption that all the world’s bounty lay a mere sea-voyage away. The Second World War put paid to that fond notion, and the experience of importing 20 million tons of food a year in the teeth of U-boat attacks inspired the 1947 Agriculture Act. Its framework of government subsidies and guaranteed prices may sound a bad idea now; back then there was an economic recovery to pay for and a food supply to secure.

The Act, and similarly intentioned legislation elsewhere in the world, worked a treat. Langford tells us that the first journal article to warn of growing levels of food waste was published in 1980, just 25 years after the abolition of rationing. Today the world produces 1.7 times as much food as it did in 1960, on about a third of the land. The only problem being, this is more food than we need — enough to feed three billion people who don’t exist yet. Globally, we throw away 2.5 billion tonnes of food every year, while eating just 40 per cent of all the food we produce. In the UK a full third of all fruits and vegetables bound for the supermarkets are rejected.

Those of us who live amidst relative plenty tend to prioritise the environmental issues this raises over the ones about distribution and equity. But heaven knows the environmental issues are serious enough, witness the major declines in over half our nation’s species since 2002. Whoever would have imagined that we would ever risk running out of dormice, or water voles, or hedgehogs?

The overwhelmingly urban lobby that would blame farming for these ills finds its champion in campaigning environmental journalist George Monbiot. For them, Monbiot’s latest, Regenesis, bears good tidings — nothing less than “the beginning of the end of most agriculture.”

Monbiot introduces us a soil bacterium studied by scientists working for NASA in the 1960s. He explains how, though fermentation, we can cultivate this bacterium. Once dried, it can be turned into a cheap protein-rich flour. This flour could feed the world, in a production process that consumes no more energy than any cash-strapped developing country could afford through solar power, and which requires 17,000 times less land than you’d need to produce the same amount of, say, soybean protein.

To the 98.5 per cent of us in this country who have no working connection to the land, Monbiot’s Rousseauist future sounds too good to be true. All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to see Britain smothered in wildwood stalked by beavers, bears and pine martens?

But history is not kind to “hero projects” of this sort, and Monbiot’s breathless conjurations of the future of the food that would emerge from farming’s demise are somewhat disconcerting. A morsel that tastes like seared steak but with the texture of scallops? A mousse that breaks on the tongue like panna cotta but has the flavour of jamon iberico? All whipped up in some lab, apparently, by “inventive chefs working with scientists”.

Actually, to swap breweries for barns wouldn’t be particularly science fictional: fermentation is a practice older than farming. But for Monbiot to mix an argument about largely untested technologies with a diatribe against Welsh sheep farming (yes, Monbiot is worrying the sheep again) smacks of bad faith.

In his superbly acerbic diary Land of Milk and Honey: Digressions of a Rural Dissident, columnist and cattle farmer Jamie Blackett is out to defend, not farming as it is (which he frankly considers a nightmare — there is less distance between Blackett and Monbiot than you might expect) but farming as it was practised in his father’s day. By yesterday’s pre-CAP logic, it makes sense to mix livestock and arable, and even to focus entirely on livestock and dairy in the UK where the climate dictates that grass is the best crop to grow (and sometimes the only one).

Blackett, citing the huge margins involved in turning cheap vegetable oils, sugars and carbohydrates into fake meats and fake milk, reckons veganism is the best thing that ever happened to the processed food industry since Cadbury’s stuck their Finger of Fudge up at the very concept of the balanced diet. He complains that “without the ability to grow meat and milk the only solution is to plant the land up with trees and go and do something else for thirty years while they grow” — which is, of course, precisely what Monbiot is advocating in Regenesis.

But need the debate about the future of farming be so polarised? The popular response to the Amazon Prime’s TV show Clarkson’s Farm — surely the unlikeliest of vehicles Jeremy Clarkson has ever ridden — suggests we might not be so short of goodwill, after all. And the legislative framework that’s being assembled post-Brexit at least holds out the possibility of real and positive change for the British countryside.

Anyone who thinks Brexit caught British agricultural thinking by surprise hasn’t been paying attention. The 2020 Agriculture Act is the largest shift in farm and rural policy since the UK joined the Common Agricultural Policy in 1973. In England, the old subsidy payments will be phased out by 2028, replaced by a new Environmental Land Management System which will reward farmers with public money for producing “public goods”. Conservation manager Jake Feinnes lists them in his book Land Healer: “clean, plentiful water, clean air, thriving plants and wildlife, a reduction in and prevention of environmental hazards, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change” and “‘beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment’.”

Can this act change, fast enough for it to matter, a governing culture that has spent three quarters of a century micromanaging British agriculture into its current, monstrous form? Having been encouraged (and not just encouraged — forced) to squeeze every last calorie they can from their ever-more blighted patrimony, are farmers likely to embrace the government’s green new deal?

Blackett is sceptical. “For the last twenty years,” he writes, “I have been receiving payments for hedges, ponds, rushy pasture, water margins, wild-flower meadows and winter stubbles. The payments have been miserly, never quite enough to compensate… The final straw came when I was made to keep a diary like a primary school child. I have come to the conclusion that it is better to farm for maximum profit and use any surplus for conservation on my land than to be a poorly paid serf of the Green State.”

For Blackett, whether or not Defra’s ideas are well-intentioned or not is beside the point. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. He’d rather farmers were left alone to exercise their own judgement, and then “there will be more biodiversity, fewer wildfires and less greenhouse gas in consequence, for the benefit of us all.”

Oddly — in light of the specious battle lines George Monbiot draws between conservationists and working farmers — Blackett’s irascible anti-state-interference rhetoric finds a very close echo in Birds, Beasts and Bedlam, a wonderfully garrulous memoir by Derek Gow, an outspoken champion of rewilding, responsible for the reintroduction of beavers and white storks into the UK. At first glance, Gow comes across as a sort of anti-Blackett, and yet he has nothing but praise for British farmers, a “hearty culture where if you helped your neighbours, they helped you”. This, he reckons, is about as far as you can get “from the egotistical and odd world of nature conservation where big stories were talked and small deeds were done.”

Gow’s rewilding efforts are frustrated less by farmers (who are a curious bunch at heart, and can follow an argument) as by conversation charities themselves (“small, grey non-entities standing together on a dias”). “If you wish to bludgeon badgers,” Gow writes, “a way can be found. If you wish, on the other hand, to restore fading species for nature conservation purposes, then you have to fill in 90-page documents which will be thoroughly scrutinised eventually and returned to you with a further suite of impossibly complex questions.”

Independent spirits like Gow and Blackett desperately need a venue in which they can thrash out their opinions and share their knowledge. And it may be that a culture of regenerative farming will encourage that much-needed exchange.

On Great Farm in north Norfolk, Jake Fiennes has made some small changes that allow the land to remain in food production, but which also allow nature to thrive. His particular hobby horse is the soil, and all the ways he has found to enhance the relationship between his crops and the bacteria and fungi in his soil, so as to reduce the amount of manure and fertiliser he uses, even while increasing yields.

Fiennes’s brand of regenerative farming (and others — there are as many innovative farming techniques as there are innovative farmers) promises to restore crashing mammal, bird and insect populations, make the landscape better able to survive droughts and floods, lock away carbon as organic matter, and still produce high quality food. The soil science is new (and startling: it turns out that plant roots exude chemicals as nourishment for microbes, and up to 96 per cent of carbon a plant processes is used to feed soil and fungi). But the takeaway is as old as the hills: rotate your crops, keep the ground covered as much as you can, ensure a mixed environment and a healthy hedgerow so your predators cancel out your pests. The detail is fascinating, but at the sharp end of the business, “regenerative farming” is less about having ideas than about ignoring, as far as possible, the present market’s more perverse incentives.

Fiennes skewers such absurdities very well. For instance, under CAP farmers were paid to set aside ten per of their land to discourage overproduction. They just needed to keep their land in “agricultural condition”. Soon near-destitute farmers were filling in ponds, ripping out wide hedgerows, straightening the meanders of streams and chopping down woodland so as to turn ‘permanent ineligible features’ into set-aside.

For all the anxiety washing about the agriculture sector, there are signs — strong signs — of promise. We need a decent amount of food security, and we have it; though Britain currently produces less than 60 per cent of its own food, the Dimbleby report, the first independent survey of the British food system in 75 years, suggests that 74 per cent of our food could be sourced at home — a figure considered excellent for food security. We need a sensible tariff system to defend our agricultural sector during its transformation from CAP’s culture of over-production and set-aside, to the provision of public environmental goods. World Trade Organisation rules allow for exactly this. And, funnily enough, farmers know how to farm; at very worst, the next generation now has reason to remember and learn.

Novice farmer Sarah Langford, the novice regenerative farmer, bemoans her feeling “of muddling around in the half-light of knowledge”. She says she sees “how easy it is to think you’re doing the right thing while causing harm.”

Her point is that farming is hard to do. Hard — but not impossible. And it’s a task made immeasurably easier, once farmers are given the freedom to remember who they are.

Making waves

Reading Frank Close’s Elusive: How Peter Higgs solved the mystery of mass, for New Scientist, 29 June 2022

In Elusive, physicist Frank Close sets out to write about Peter Higgs, whose belief in the detectability of a very special particle that was to bear his name earned him a Nobel prize in 2013.

But Higgs’s life resists narrative. He has had a successful career. His colleagues enjoy his company. He didn’t over-publish, or get into pointless spats. Now in his mid-nineties, Higgs keeps his own counsel and doesn’t use email.

So that left Close with writing a biography, not of the man, but of “his” particle, the Higgs boson – and with answering some important questions. How do we explain fundamental forces so limited in their reach, they cannot reach outside the nucleus of an atom? Why is this explanation compelling enough that we entertained its outrageous implication: that there existed a fundamental field everywhere in the universe, a sort of aether, that we could not detect? Why did this idea occur to six thinkers, independently, in 1964? And how did it justify the cool €10 billion it took to hunt for the particle that this wholly conjectural field predicted?

To understand, let’s start with our universe. Forget solid matter for a moment. Think instead of fields. The universe is full of them, and when we put energy into these fields it’s as though we dropped a stone into a lake – we make waves. In this analogy, you are also in the lake: there is no shore, no “outside” from which you can see the whole wave. Instead, as the wave passes through a point in space, you will notice a change in some value at that point.

These changes show up as particles. Light, for example, is a wave in the electromagnetic field, yet when we observe the effect that wave has on a point in space, we detect a particle – a photon.

Some waves are easier to make than others, and travel farther. Photons travel outwards as fast as the universe allows. Gravitational waves are as fast, but decay sharply with distance.

The mathematics used to model such fields makes a kind of sense. But we also need a mathematics to explain why the other fields we know about are infinitesimally small, extending no farther than the dimensions of the atomic nucleus.

For the mathematics to work for such small fields, it requires another, more mysterious, infinite field: one that doesn’t decay with distance, and that always has a value greater than zero. This field interacts with everything bar light. If you are a photon, you get to zip along at the universal speed limit. But if you are anything else, this additional field slows you down.

We call the effect of this field mass. Photons are massless, so travel very quickly, while everything else has some amount of mass, and consequently travels more slowly. It is easy to set the electromagnetic field trembling – just light a match. To set off a wave in the mass-generating field, however, takes much more energy.

In 1998, CERN began work on its Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27-kilometre-long particle accelerator 100 metres under the French-Swiss border. On 4 July 2012, a particle collision in the LHC released such phenomenal energy that it set off a mass-generating wave. As this wave passed through the machine’s detectors a new particle was observed. In detecting this particle, physicists confirmed the existence of the mass-generating field – and our present model of how the universe works (the standard model of particle physics) was completed.

Both of Close’s subjects, Peter Higgs and his particle, prove elusive in the end. Newcomers should start their journey of discovery elsewhere – perhaps with Sean Carroll’s excellent webinars and books.

But Close, and this difficult, brilliant book, will be waiting, smiling, at the end of the road.

 

 

What the fuck was THAT?

Watching Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, for New Scientist, 8 June 2022

Near the climax of Joseph Kosinski’s delirious sequel to 1986 hit Top Gun, a fifth-generation fighter engages Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s F/A-18 in a dogfight around vertiginous snow-capped mountains. Suddenly this huge, hulking, superpowered wonderplane banks, stalls and turns, hanging over Mav (Tom Cruise, even more steely-eyed than usual) and his wingman Rooster (Miles Teller) as though it’s painted itself on the sky.

“What the ____ was THAT?” Rooster cries, though an actual graduate of TOPGUN (official name, the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program) would probably know a Herbst manoeuvre when they saw one.

The Herbst (also known as a J-turn) is the kind of acrobatic manoeuvre you can pull only if you’re flying one of a handful of very expensive fighters designed and built since 2010. The Russian Sukhoi Su-57 is one such; China has the Chengdu J-20.

We’re not told which aircraft — or indeed, what well-provisioned rogue state — Mav is up against here, but he is in trouble: his F/A-18 multirole combat jet is no slouch, but, being a child of the 1990s, it is neither super-stealthy nor supermanoeuvrable.

“Fifth-gens” are not the only nemesis Mav must confront. He’s also holding out against progress, personified by a rear admiral nicknamed the Drone Ranger who (in a splendidly sour cameo by Ed Harris) declares that drones are the future, and that carrier-based fighter pilots like Mav are dinosaurs.

Most of the time, however, Maverick steers clear of ideas, and devotes itself wholly to 1980s nostalgia, as Tom Cruise’s Pete Mitchell (now a test pilot) sets about making his peace with the orphaned son of his old wingman Nick “Goose” Bradshaw. This is a well-told tale of misunderstanding and redemption, interspersed throughout with one-liners and easter eggs for fans of the earlier film. In one touching and funny scene, Mav gets to thank Ice (now, God help us all, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet) for keeping him in fighter planes and out of promotion. Of Kelly McGillis’s Charlie, Mav’s love interest in the first movie, there is no mention — but not every storyline can look back, and in this film, Mav’s old flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) proves no pushover.

This is a peculiar project: part war film (as our heroes steal a plane from under the noses of the enemy), part techno-thriller (as Mav the test-pilot breaks all speed records and reaches an insane 3.5km a second), and part sports movie (as Mav welds his brilliant TOPGUN pupils into a world-peace-saving team; by that measure, mind you, you could argue that all Hollywood blockbusters are sports movies at heart).

Films can be good fun-fair rides quite as much as they can be good dramas, and it would be silly to criticise this thrilling display of real-world aeronautical stunt work for its lack of narrative realism. The presence of real planes and real pilots (and, after three months’ training, real airborne cast-members) makes this, in a profound sense, about as realistic a film as it is possible to get.

What we might look forward to eventually, though, is a film that looks for excitement, peril and heroism in a more contemporary theatre, featuring aerial combat that’s truly fifth-generation: super-stealthy, super-manoeuvreable, and drone-enhanced.

Until someone makes that imaginative leap (and, crucially, can take a huge global audience along for the ride), we can expect armed-forces movies to draw more and more on science fiction for their plots. Why is the pilot dog-fighting with Mav and Rooster dressed like an Imperial TIE-fighter pilot from Star Wars? Why is the illegal uranium enrichment plant that’s the target of Mav’s raid equipped with a two-metre wide exhaust vent lifted from Star Wars’s Death Star? Because this is what science fiction is, much of the time: a filler, a place-holder, a hoarding that reads, “Coming soon: the future”.

Models of innocence and contentment

Reading Mark Witton and Ellinor Michel’s The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, for New Scientist, 1 June 2022

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a huge success — so huge, in 1852 the huge iron and glass structure that had contained it was reassembled on parkland in Penge in South London to form the centrepiece of a complex of gardens, fountains and unusual attractions.

Dispel any notion that Penge was an afterthought: the permanent exhibition cost nine times as much as the Great Exhibition itself. And the Geological Court — arguably its most beguiling attraction — continues to enchant and inspire.

Cleverly landscaped and planted to evoke lost landscapes, peppered with artificial geological features and sculptures of long-extinct creatures, this naturalistic celebration of geology and palaeontology opened to the public in 1854. Whole teams of experts were involved in the enterprise, led by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, geologist David Thomas Ansted, and mining engineer James Campbell. Theirs was the world’s first attempt at depicting prehistoric worlds at scale in sculptural form.

Today elephantine sloths, Jurassic marine reptiles and delicate pterosaurs continue to watch other warily from the banks of artificial islands. Delicate, weathered, and in most cases colourless (the British weather is not kind to Victorian cement) they are also oddly modern-looking. The whole concept of a “dinosaur” was hardly over a decade old when the Court opened, and the field was advancing fast. Visitors were startled to discover that dinosaurs weren’t at all the appalling dragons that artists had imagined just a few years before. “It seems a very model of innocence and contentment,” wrote one journalist of the Iguanodon, “a huge antediluvian illustration of the amiability produced by a strictly vegetarian face.”

Paleoartist Mark P Witton and evolutionary biologist Ellinor Michel have assembled a work of scholarship that’s also a rich visual resource, indispensable for historians and prehistorians alike. Given the sheer vulnerability and fragility of the site, a record this rich and detailed — and so frankly charming — is long overdue.

A spear through the cheeks

Reading Dimitris Xygalatas’s Ritual for New Scientist, 1 June 2022

“I always feel my stomach churn when I look at someone being impaled by a spear through the cheeks,” writes Dimitris Xygalatas, a Connecticut anthropologist specialising in the study of extreme rituals. The Thaipusam Kavadi ritual in Mauritius is his favourite (if that is quite the word): men endure many piercings, ranging from a few needles through the cheeks to several hundred spikes perforating the entire body, “as well as hooks from which they hang bells or limes”.

It’s a florid affair, but by no means exceptional. From the hazing ordeals of US college fraternities to the arduous initiations practised in criminal gangs and military groups around the world, ritual is everywhere. “If you can find a human society without any rituals,” writes Xygalatas, “I will happily reimburse you the cost of this book.”

Why rituals exist is a puzzle. Ask a young man from Greece, Bulgaria or Spain why he walks over burning coals every year, and he is most likely to shrug and say he’s doing as his father and grandfather did. Further explanations are more subtle and full of symbolism, but no more revealing. The Thaipusam Kavadi ritual is said to commemorate the occasion when Murugan received his mighty spear from his mother, enabling him to lead a divine army against the demons, led by the demon Soorapadman, who had kidnapped the gods. So there.

But what if those baroque just-so stories were explanations after the event — genuine attempts to rationalise behaviours more ancient than any tale — more ancient, indeed, than reason itself?

Not every ritual performer in this book is human. Magpies, crows and ravens perform death rites. So do elephants and dolphins. Chimpanzees build cairns and visit what we might dare to call sacred trees; at any rate, these regular tree-visits are an occasion for dancing and feverish excitement. The pattern is not hard to spot: the more social a species is, the more ritualistic it is.

Suppose ritual behaviour evolved very early, especially in avian and mammalian lines; then it shouldn’t be too hard to spot what’s advantageous about this adaptation. Perhaps ritual is the primary mechanism by which we develop theory of mind and establish group identity. More specifically, social beings become anxious in the absence of their fellows. Grief, though maladaptive, is simply a special case of the anxiety that bind social groups together. That being the case, death rituals might exist to ameliorate the anxiety triggered by bereavement.

Xygalatas has spent 20 years putting bones on these ideas. His is now a hybrid field. Biometric sensors and hormonal sampling are used to explore the neuro-physiological effects of various rituals; while more traditional ethnographic methods, including behavioural measurements, psychometric tests and surveys, reveal some of the motivations behind ritual practices.

The results are not altogether convincing. The work is solid enough, but Xygalatas couches his conclusions in terms of how healthful ritual practices can be. We’ve known for a while that intense physical exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication — or would be, if you could only get your demotivated, mood-disordered client out of bed in the morning. “Cultural rituals may help circumvent this problem by exerting external pressure to participate,” says Xygalatas. This does not feel to me like a compelling reason to go walking over hot coals.

Xygalatas can hardly be blamed for wanting to put the most positive spin he can on this fascinating and rapidly developing field of study.

Even as I was reading this book, however, news came that Russian kindergarten children were dressing up as tanks and nuclear missiles, in time for Russia’s 8 May Victory Day parade.

Xygalatas’s always fascinating account begs a sequel, about how ritual so often proves maladaptive among hypersocial Homo sapiens.

 

Talking about different worlds

Listening to Matthew de Abaitua’s The Dolittle Machine on BBC Radio 4, 25 May 2022 for New Scientist

Might we one day invent a translation device, enabling us to talk to the animals — and hear their replies? This could be good for the planet (especially if we learned to say “sorry” to all those species we’ve pushed to extinction). It would definitely be good for us, says science fiction writer Matthew de Abaitua, presenting this deceptively winsome speculation about animal languages.

No two species experience the world in the same way. If animals have language at all, then they are talking and thinking about different worlds. How then can translation progress?

Already we use machine-learning algorithms to translate foreign languages. These algorithms spot which words most commonly appear next to each other. By matching these patterns across languages, a machine can begin to translate from one language into another. The hope is that the same method can, by listening to squeaks, songs and stridulations, find common terms in the languages (if they exist) of other species.

The differences in life experience between species are huge. A loquacious bat may struggle to describe to a human what echolocation is like. A dolphin may not be able to offer a bat much insight into the experience of an animal whose every breath is the outcome of a conscious decision. A human may struggle to explain his taxes to a dolphin. But bat, dolphin and human may still be able to talk about what common experiences exist, like hunger, and danger, and family.

The Dolittle Machine is a superb distillation of a complex field. Best of all, it leaves us feeling a little less alone.

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.

“Material of negative value”

Watching Lars Edman and William Johansson’s documentary Arica for New Scientist, 11 May 2022

Forty years ago the Swiss company Boliden sold nearly 200,000 tonnes of smelter sludge — rich in mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals — to the Chilean reprocessing company Promel.

Promel dumped almost the entire consignment beside a row of residential houses in the port town of Arica (current population, over 200,000), and a generation of children grew up playing in the stuff.

The residential quarter, meanwhile — a government housing project for low-income families — grew and grew, until it surrounded the site of contamination.

In 1999 the Chilean government struck an uneasy peace with the victims of this wholly avoidable environmental catastrophe. Promel no longer exists (though its former manager is more than happy to issue not-so-veiled threats of violence to the filmmakers here). Families closest to the site have been evacuated; their properties are now dens for drug dealers.

What’s Boliden’s responsibility in all this? Chilean-born Swiss filmmaker Lars Edman returns to his birthplace and the site of his 2006 documentary The Toxic Playground to follow the legal case assembled by an international legal team against Boliden, a company whose due diligence regarding toxic materials turned out to be not nearly diligent enough. The chief protagonist of The Toxic Playground was Rolf Svedberg, former environmental director of Boliden’s Rönnskär smelting plant in Skelleftea, Sweden. It was his site visit and report that green-lit the sale and transport of what Boliden’s legal team call “material of negative value”. Brought face to face with the consequences of that report, and hosted by a community riddled with cancer, bone deformities and birth defects, Svedberg distress was visible.

Eleven years on, though, Svedberg has the legal case to think of, not to mention his current role: he’s a judge at Sweden’s Supreme Court for the Environment. Svedberg’s displays of fear and dismal self-justifications in Arica are all the more powerful for filmmaker Lars Edman’s obvious sympathy for his old acquaintance.

Boliden’s legal consultants bring in experts who assemble arcane explanations and a particularly ludicrous wind-tunnel experiment to show that living next to tailings containing 17 per cent arsenic could not possibly have affected anyone’s health.

Opposing Boliden are 800 plaintiffs (out of a population of 18000) armed with a single series of urine tests from 2011 and evidence that would be overwhelming were it not so maddeningly anecdotal. An interviewee, Elia, points out houses from her front gate:
“The lady who lived in the house with the bars sold the house and died of cancer. Next door is Dani Ticona. She had aggressive cancer in her head and died too. And her son’s wife had a baby who died. But he doesn’t want to talk to anyone about it. Marisa Pena has got stomach cancer. The lady who bought her house has facial cancer. And on the other side, that gentleman also has cancer. And over there…” On and on like this.

Boliden’s legal team performs a familiar trick, sowing doubt by suggesting that laboratory science and field science are the same thing, and standards of proof are the same for both. In the end, though, the case comes down to public accountability. If Boliden had to deal with ordinary consumers, it would have saved money and reputation long since by owning the problem.

Boliden, however, deals with corporations and governments, and its reputation rests on problem-free operations. It pays Boliden to stay silent.

Law is a rhetorical art, as its finest exponents, from Cicero to John Mortimer, ably demonstrate. We may like to think that justice can be scientifically determined, but in doing so we misunderstand the nature both of science and the law. Tragedy, poverty, blame and shame cannot be reduced to what one legal wag here calls “numbers, preferably with a lot of decimals”.

Protest, eloquence and argument are as essential for justice as they were in the making of this daunting, elegaic documentary.

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.