Priority message

Exploring The Current War for New Scientist, 10 August 2019

Let’s begin by being boorish. Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. The German-born precision mechanic Heinrich Goebel demonstrated a practical prototype in 1854.

But of course you can play this game with pretty much any invention. The correct response to such nit-picking is given to Edison himself – inventor of the phonograph, inventor of motion pictures, holder of over 2000 patents – in a new movie, The Current War, which lays out, as surely as any circuit diagram, the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to bring electric light to America at the end of the 19th century.

Salt. Fat. Flour. Water. Only when you put all the ingredients together, in the right proportions, using the right method, so people will spend their hard-earned pennies on the stuff, do you get bread. Priority – being the first to file a patent – is not won by dreaming alone. Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, teaches this hard lesson to his personal secretary Samuel Insull, an entertainingly exasperated Tom Holland.

The film itself is the bloodied but unbowed victim of no end of industry trouble. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival ahead of a scheduled release of November 2017 by the Weinstein Company. But as allegations about Harvey Weinstein gathered and grew in severity, the decision was made to quietly shelve the film for a while.

It doesn’t feel like an old movie, but it does feel like an odd one. Big, bold, none-too-subtle speeches by playwright Michael Mitnick are directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon as though they were set pieces by Martin Scorcese, for whom he once worked as a personal assistant.

Inventor George Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon in a sensitive, understated performance which rather puts Cumberbatch’s familiar schtick to shame) has developed a system of electrification using alternating current. For cost and efficiency, this has Edison’s direct-current system beat. Westinghouse offers Edison a partnership, but Edison behaves like a cad, disparaging Westinghouse’s “lethal” technology and executing dogs, sheep and eleven horses with AC to prove his point. Irony piles on irony as Edison’s demonstrations lead him inevitably towards designing, much against his better ethical judgement, the first electric chair.

In the world outside the cinema, the “war of the currents” is not yet done. DC lost out to AC in the early days of electrification because efficient long-distance transmission required high voltages while the public needed safer, lower voltages. That required transformers, which existed for AC networks, but not for DC.

When it comes to transmitting large amounts of power over long distances, however, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) is way more efficient than conventional AC lines.

The length and capacity of new HVDC projects has risen fast, particularly in China, and calculations suggest that continent-wide HVDC “supergrids” could help smooth out the variable levels of power created by renewable sources.

In 2009 an influential study by Gregor Czish, of Kassel University in Germany, proposed a “super grid” to connect various European countries and bordering regions including North Africa, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, and at a total cost that virtually guarantees cheap green electricity for all.

No one’s heard of Czish, of course, though his insight may give the next generation cheap green energy and a chance to save civilisation from global warming.

It was ever thus: we only remember Nikola Tesla (The Current War’s peculiar third wheel, an AC pioneer and inventor of fluorescent light) because David Bowie played him in Christopher Nolan’s magical puzzler The Prestige.

Priority is a twisty business, and fame is twistier still. Westinghouse so despised the whole business he burned his papers, ensuring that his deeds alone would outlast him. “If you want to be remembered,” he says in the film, “it’s simple: shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”

 

The end of the line

Watching The Hummingbird Project, written and directed by Kim Nguyen, for New Scientist, 10 July 2019

IT IS 2011, a couple of years after the Great Recession. Quantitative analyst Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and his programmer cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgård) have found a way to steal a march on Wall Street: trading a millisecond ahead of the competition.

Where will they find this tiny, telling pinch of extra time? They plan to make it themselves, by stretching an optical fibre from Kansas City Internet Exchange to New York in as straight a line as possible. While everyone else waits 17 milliseconds for their information (the beat of a hummingbird’s wing is the film’s poetic, and accurate enough, conceit), Vincent, Anton and their backers will only have to wait 16 milliseconds. That’s time enough to squeeze in a few thousand algorithmically generated trades.

The trick will be to lay the cable as straight as the law allows. Never mind Amish farms, Appalachian mountain ranges, loneliness, obsession or physical frailty. They will build this thousand-mile long, 4-inch wide fibre tunnel if it kills them.

Scripted and filmed like a true-life story (after all, who in their right mind would make up a thriller about high-frequency trading infrastructures?) The Hummingbird Project, incredibly, springs entirely from the head of writer-director Kim Nguyen. It can’t quite decide whether to be a think piece or a buddy movie, but it can be staggeringly funny. Salma Hayek has indecent amounts of fun as Eva, the cousins’ abandoned boss.“I think we can break the walls of perception together!” she screams at one point, in a frantic attempt to keep them on her payroll.

It is one of those stories that, in being made up, encapsulates a lot of historical and technical insight. Hayek’s Eva can talk “nanosecond financial engineering” all she wants. As a sceptical investor notes, her style of trading is really just scalping: profiting off small, short-lived price anomalies between financial exchanges.

Scalping is hard because one hefty loss wipes out millions of tiny profitable trades. And it is also impossible to do without computers because markets adjust quicker than the eye can follow.

When world markets crashed in 2008, this strategy took a lot of the heat. It was easier for politicians to point the finger at runaway tech and artificially accelerated trading than to challenge and dismantle key institutions. But while trading algorithms have caused the odd “flash crash”, they do far more to sustain a market economy than to threaten it. This is why so-called mechanical arbitrage runs over half the trades in many markets.

Vincent and Anton’s project is entirely reasonable in a world that puts commercial operations as close to market exchanges as possible to steal millisecond advantages over competitors. Hanging over the cousins’ project is a rival bid to leave fibre behind and send financial information by microwave (and the discussion of “pulse-shaping algorithms” will warm the heart of any telecoms engineer). Today, the industry is even more complex, with atomic clocks to arbitrate the timing of financial information. Financial instruments that scalp multiple markets are driving the creation of strategic data centres in unlikely places, as banks head for space via Elon Musk’s Starlink servers.

All of which gives the film a curiously nostalgic feel. Do you recall when it took a thousandth of a second to win or lose a fortune? What slowcoaches we were, eight years ago.

Planck comes to Marvel’s rescue

Watching Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame for New Scientist, 15 May 2019

AFTER a spectacular false start, the heroes of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: End Game gather around a cobbled-together time machine. They’re out to stop Thanos, a supervillian whose solution to the universe’s resource depletion problem is to annihilate half of all life.

Stopping Thanos will not be easy, since the film — the capstone on 21 other interconnected movies in the Marvel cinematic universe — opens with Thanos having already achieved his goal. Many of our favourite characters are already dead. Given that vases do not unbreak themselves, how then will the surviving Avengers bring half the world back to life?

Revisiting and resetting past narratives is a necessity for long-running drama franchises. And as the deceased Bobby Ewing discovered when he stepped out of his shower in 1986, erasing two whole seasons of Dynasty’s soapy story arc, it can be a hard pill for viewers to swallow.

You’d think science fiction franchises would have an easier time of it, armed as they are with all manner of P T Barnum tricks, but the truth’s more complicated. The world of the X-Men draws to a close this year with two films, Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants. The franchise’s constant, piecemeal reinventions have been sloppy, but only so as to stay half-way faithful to their even more sloppy comic-book sources. On the plus side, we’ve had the passage of time, and the price paid for wisdom, brought to life by the unaging, unkillable, and ever more excruciatingly lonely figure of Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman.

From the always mindbending Doctor Who to the unforgettably weird final seasons of the Battlestar Galactica retread, it’s clear that you can tell truths about time, age, mortality, loss and regret in playful ways without ever opening a science textbook, and I wish to heaven someone had pointed this out to Star Trek, notorious for being the franchise where overblown popular science goes to die.

Since The Next Generation, Star Trek has saddled itself with a science bible that almost makes sense. And why not? Einstein’s equations do allow for the existence of time machines. And physicist Kip Thorne’s work in the 1980s on time-space wormholes does allow for the transmission of information through time. But hang on a minute: time machines aren’t practical, and the kind of messages you can actually send from the future aren’t ever going to be interesting, and the more you cite real science, the more you leave yourself open to people who begin sentences with phrases like “Yes but…” and “I think you’ll find…”

Avengers: Endgame’s hokey solution to time travel works far better, I reckon, by colliding two chunks of utter nonsense at high narrative speed. Take one master thief, Scott Lang (played by the always affable Paul Rudd), give him a suit that lets him shrink small enough to enter “the quantum realm”, point out (correctly) that at this scale time and space cease to mean very much, and hey presto, you have yourself a time machine powered entirely by jazz-hands and flim-flam. Smart-alec viewers can’t contradict the science, because there is no science here, and hasn’t been since 1899.

This was the year German theoretical physicist Max Planck evolved a model of the physical universe that relied upon ratios (which are timeless and universally true) rather than measurements (which depend upon who’s making the ruler). In the universe Planck drew up, the speed of light, the electromagnetic wave function, and the gravitational constant all have a value of 1. From this fiendish piece of dimensional analysis, you can work the shortest distance imaginable — the point at which the terms “here” or “there” cease to have meaning.

In a space smaller than the Planck length squared, information cannot exist — which is why a single photon entering a black hole, increases the area of the event horizon by 10-66 cm2. As Ant Man, understandably, did not say.

Stanley Kubrick at the Design Museum

The celebrated film director Stanley Kubrick never took the future for granted. In films as diverse as Dr. Strangelove: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick’s focus was always savagely humane, unpicking the way the places we inhabit make us think and feel. At the opening of a new exhibition at the London Design Museum in Holland Park, David Stock and I spoke to co-curator Adriënne Groen about Kubrick’s most scientifically inflected film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and how Kubrick masterminded a global effort to imagine one possible future: part technological utopia, part sterile limbo, and, more than 50 years since its release, as gripping as hell.

You can see the interview here.

How Stanley Kubrick‘s collaboration with science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke led to 2001 is well known. “The ‘really good’ science-fiction movie is a great many years overdue,” Clarke enthused, as the men began their work on a project with the working title Journey Beyond the Stars.

For those who want a broader understanding of how Kubrick gathered, enthused and sometimes (let’s be brutally frank, here) exploited the visionary talent available to him, The Design Museum’s current exhibition is essential viewing. There are prototypes of the pornographic furniture from the opening dolly shot of A Clockwork Orange, inspired by the work of artist Allen Jones but fashioned by assistant production designer Liz Moore when Jones decided not to hitch his cart – and reputation – to Kubrick’s controversial vision.

But it’s the names that recur again and again, from film to film, over decades of creative endeavour, that draw one in. The costume designer Milena Canonero was a Kubrick regular and, far from being swamped, immeasurably enriched Kubrick’s vision. (There’s a wonderful production photograph here of actor Malcolm McDowell trying on some of her differently styled droog hats.)

Kubrick was fascinated by the way people respond to being regimented – by the architectural brutalism of the Thamesmead estate in A Clockwork Orange, or by a savage gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, or by their own fetishism in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s fascination with how people think and behave is well served by this show, which will give anyone of a psychological bent much food for thought.

 

11 April 2019: Smart Robots, Mortal Engines

Come to Cinema 3 at London’s Barbican Centre, where I’ll be kicking off a season of Stanislaw Lem on film with the Brothers Quay, artists Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal, and Dr Mark Bould, author of the BFI Classics monograph on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

We’ve got some short films kick off the evening at 6.45pm on Thursday 11 April. More details here.

NASA, Kennedy and me

(Not that I wish to oversell this, you understand…)

Come along to New Scientist Live at 2.30pm on Saturday 22 September and you’ll find me talking to documentary-maker Rory Kennedy about how NASA shapes life on the ground, how it juggles the competing promises of the Moon and Mars, and how public and private space initiatives can work together. Kennedy will also be discussing her life as a documentary film-maker,  her memories of her uncle “Jack” Kennedy, and how the Apollo program inspired her philanthropic career.

Tickets and details here

The Endless: Timeless avant-garde

Watching Benson and Moorhead’s The Endless for New Scientist, 21 July 2018

SINCE they escaped a UFO death cult, nothing much has gone right for Justin and his younger brother Aaron. They clean apartments for a living, subsist on junk food and have rotten luck with women. The arrival of a mysterious videotape convinces them that they should revisit the cult for the sake of “closure”, though it’s obvious that Justin is only going for Aaron’s sake, and what Aaron actually wants most out of this is some decent salad.

But when Justin attempts to jog around the settlement he gets caught in time (although he doesn’t know it at first). Other things are amiss, too, like the third moon. And the rope into nowhere. And an evening heat blur that turns the whole valley into shimmering mirrors.

It transpires that the friendly, gentle people our heroes ran from a decade ago are living in the presence of an unidentified “something”. It is invisible, but it isn’t hiding. Indeed, it is trying to communicate by showing them, through old photographs and videotapes, what it sees.

This low-budget Lovecraftian thriller explores territory we more usually associate with the heavyweights of the 1970s avant-garde – with the tangled story arcs of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the cunningly withheld narrative revelations of Andrei Tarkovsky’s groundbreaking film Solaris. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out here: The Endless is very nearly this decade’s Solaris.

But while the intelligent planet in that film was innocent, even as its little “gifts” sent the scientists studying it clear off their heads, the entity presiding over The Endless is more overtly malign: like the wanton boy in King Lear killing flies for sport, perhaps.

It is trapping people in time, affording them just enough free will to recognise their plight, but not quite enough to escape it.

But then, isn’t that just like life? We nearly all live out days that by most objective measures are more or less the same as each other.

Justin and Aaron’s cleaning job was certainly a trap of this sort. And are they any worse off now? It is, after all, a very laid-back, well-behaved sort of death cult, up there in the hills behind San Diego. Its spokesman Hal talks a lot, but he’s not in any real sense a leader. The group seems happy, and the beer they make and sell is top notch. All is as Aaron remembers from his childhood: a lot of nice people preparing a lot of good food.

Maybe Justin’s the one with the problem, that he cannot see the charm in living a looped existence here. Knowing they are trapped and being looked at, this “cult” at least has the graciousness to imagine that they are also being looked after. And who’s to say their metaphysical jailer has not handed them a chance – an endless series of chances, apparently – to become the best people they can be?

The directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also play the brothers Justin and Aaron. (Benson is, wonderfully, a dead ringer for Richard Dreyfuss.) And they have made The Endless dovetail neatly with their first micro-budget feature Resolution (2012). This kind of self-reflexive game-playing can get old extremely quickly, and a rather clunky emotional working-out between the brothers at the climax of the movie should serve as an amber light. Any further with this and self-indulgence will swallow them whole.

My guess, though, is that these two know what they are doing. In Spring (2014) they managed to turn the love affair between an American soldier and a vampiric octopus into one of the most funny, touching and ultimately profound screen love affairs since Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Benson (who writes) and Moorhead (who wields the cameras) take the hokiest ideas and discover in them rich seams of human experience. They’re not ironic. They’re not distant. They’re not portentous. And if they can only hold their nerve they will improve the science fiction genre immeasurably.

How two dead power stations fuel the art of catastrophe

fuikushima

Borrowed Time, Jerwood Space, London, for New Scientist, 16 March 2016.

THE current crop of young artists showing in London look pretty incorruptible. Handed £20,000 each to make films about economic unease and ecological anxiety, Alice May Williams (fresh-ish out of Goldsmiths, University of London) and Karen Kramer (who cut her artistic teeth at the Parsons School of Design, New York City) have made video installations that deliver on this minatory brief. And they have done so with the sort of bloodless precision that leaves a visitor to Borrowed Time unsure whether to admire their high seriousness or worry at their apparent lack of character.

Be patient: both pieces reward closer attention. There are, ultimately, two very strong, staggeringly incompatible visions at work here.

Through its fictional narrator-protagonist, Kramer’s The Eye That Articulates Belongs on Land gives viewers the opportunity to wander the deserted, out-of-bounds byways neighbouring Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant while growing increasingly upset.

Actor Togo Igawa’s choked voice-over suggests a wronged salaryman driving back and forth over his pet shih-tzu. Pictures of urban dereliction lovingly reference the 2011 release of radioactive material from the plant (worldwide casualties to date: nil) while providing not much more than a passing reference to the tsunami (Tohoku district casualties: just shy of 16,000) that triggered the plant’s meltdowns.

The power plant offered us “a false promise of dominion” apparently – a formulation I’m sure to recall next time I turn on a kettle for a cuppa – before Nature Wrought Her Terrible Judgement.

Actually, Kramer might not be going this far – it’s hard to tell. But she is dangerously close, achieving with the line “They let loose a reaction here that belongs on the surface of the sun!” an impressive hat-trick: at once morally irrelevant, intellectually vacuous and factually incorrect. The piece then degenerates into a paranoid animation involving shards of uranium glass and a mummified fox.

Meanwhile, in Dream City – More, Better, Sooner, Alice May Williams invites us to stare at her toes, and, beyond, at the towers of the long-since decommissioned Battersea power station, a crumbling Art Deco masterpiece. This gem is currently aswarm with builders, surveyors, architects and their ilk as that swampy, vital, smelly, industrious corner of London gets a landscaped corporate makeover after 30 years of dithering.

Williams is taking deep, centring breaths, following the advice of a meditation teacher. She is learning to let go of past errors and future plans, and to embrace the now. In other words, Williams’s well-being involves letting go of the very forces, prejudices and habits that make her city tick. Can you imagine the mess we would be in if our utilities “embraced the now”? The disjunct between personal time and civic time is built steadily, with humour and poetry and a tremendous sense of mounting threat. “SHOP STAY EAT LIVE WORK and PLAY”, a hoarding screams. A promise or a threat?

“Sometimes we are right inside the drawings,” Williams sighs, interleaving the view from her window with corporate videos, blueprints and historical footage to capture the inevitable bind of city living. That bind has us living inside other people’s visions, hardly able to distinguish between big-business blather and the untethered voices of our own suicidal ideations.

Both films play to our fears, but only Williams understands what’s worth fearing. Disasters are not and never were the point. They are like rain and eclipses: inevitable. The reason we have complex societies is to handle disasters. A famine here, a flood there, a cave-in at the mine. The rest is window dressing, and none of it comes out the way it is meant to.

All over London, the kettles are boiling merrily as the old power station is turned into a retail-residential park “with community built in”. We can embrace the now all we want, but the city has no such luxury. That is what makes it such a terrifying friend.

“I love what I do and I’m really good at it”

martian

No matter how far he runs, Matt Damon cannot escape the attentions of New Scientist

 

Towards the end of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, marooned NASA astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) says goodbye to the habitat that has kept him alive for more than 500 days. As he enters the airlock to leave, he pauses, turns – and there, on a table, is his space helmet. Sourly, he snatches it up: he has nearly gone and killed himself again.

Set about 30 years in the future, The Martian tells the story of how Watney survives at the very cusp of death, at which every trivial error, every moment of forgetfulness, will kill him in about 35 seconds. Jeopardy is the stuff of adventure movies. What makes all this different is its remarkable lack of interest in what jeopardy feels like “inside”, and its loving depiction of how people should deal with it.

Before he shot his last scene at the Korda Filmpark, outside Budapest in Hungary, CultureLab caught up with Damon, who was tasked with conveying what it would be like to survive for 18 months only on potatoes grown in your own faeces. He explained: “Ridley and I agreed The Martian is not one of those existential survival movies. Neither is it just a popcorn kind of whizz-bang, he’s-never-really-in-danger type of experience. The key is to have the audience feel the enormity without it seeming ponderous. And it has to be funny, because Watney and his colleagues are capable of doing really dangerous things and having a good sense of humour about them.”

No wonder NASA got behind the film: its tale of the administration’s daring, unsanctioned bid to rescue one of their own gives every department a hero. But where The Martian gets interesting is in its refusal to take heroism at face value. Watney survives because he is smart and knowledgeable, can get by without company and likes the sound of his own voice; and because coming up with a strong, snarky one-liner can make his whole day. He survives because, as he says in a message meant for his parents, “I love what I do and I’m really good at it.”

This distillation of NASA’s philosophy is endorsed by Ellen Ochoa, director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, who praised Weir’s book for encapsulating aspects of mission training. “It is a very realistic scenario of what we go through when we train crew members and flight controllers, who must quickly analyse a situation and prioritise tasks,” she said. She added that resilience is “probably the single most important characteristic to have as an explorer, and Watney proves to be extraordinarily resilient”.

The film’s whole approach favours accuracy over visual bombast. Less spectacular than Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), and a lot less silly than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), The Martian has exploited NASA’s enthusiasm well, conjuring up habitats, spacesuits, spacecraft and launch vehicles that carry its stamp of approval.

Is The Martian a nerd thriller? For sure: you can’t have Damon declaring he will “have to science the shit out of this” and not find yourself moving your biros to your shirt pocket. But it’s more than a love letter to science. It is an entertaining depiction of a way of behaving that keeps people alive in extreme circumstances: love your job; embrace the little you can do and do it; like it or not, death is always coming, so to hell with it. This, more than any amount of Mars-mission razz, is the real heart of The Martian, the source of its optimism, and a quality deserving of praise.