The Penguins of Venus

Reading Our Accidental Universe by Chris Lintott for the Telegraph, 8 March 2024

Phosphine — a molecule formed by one phosphorous atom and three atoms of hydrogen — is produced in bulk only (and for reasons that are obscure) in the stomachs of penguins. And yet something is producing phosphine high in the clouds of Venus — and at just the height that conditions are most like those on the surface of the Earth. Unable to land (unless they wanted to be squished and fried under Venus’s considerable atmosphere), and armoured against a ferociously acidic atmosphere, the penguins of Venus haunt the dreams of every stargazer with an ounce of poetry in their soul.

Chris Lintott is definitely one of these. An astrophysicist at Oxford University and presenter of BBC’s The Sky at Night, Lintott also co-founded Galaxy Zoo, an online crowdsourcing project where we can volunteer our time, classifying previously unseen galaxies. The world might be bigger than we can comprehend and wilder than we can understand, but Lintott reckons our species’ efforts at understanding are not so shoddy, and can and should be wildly shared.

Our Accidental Universe is his bid to seize the baton carried by great popularisers like Carl Sagan and Patrick Moore: it’s an anecdotal tour of the universe, glimpsed through eccentric observations, tantalising mysteries, and discoveries stumbled upon by happenstance.

Lintott considers the possibilities for life outside the Earth, contemplates rocks visiting from outside the solar system, peers at the night sky with eyes tuned to radio and microwaves, and shakes a fist at the primordial particle fog that will forever obscure his view of the universe’s first 380,000 years.

Imagine if we lived in some globular star cluster: that spectacular night sky of ours would offer no visible hint of the universe beyond. We might very well imagine our neighbouring stars, so near and so bright, were the sum total of creation — and would get one hell of a shock once we got around to radio astronomy.

Even easier to imagine — given the sheer amount of liquid water that’s been detected already just within our own solar system brought above freezing by tidal effects on moons orbiting gas giant planets — we might have evolved in some lightless ocean, protected from space by a kilometres-thick icecap. What would we know of the universe then? Whatever goes on in the waters of moons like icy Enceladus, it’s unlikely to involve much astronomy.

As luck would have it, though, growing up on land, on Earth, has given us a relatively unobscured view of the entire universe. Once in 1995, so as to demonstrate a fix to its wonky optics, the operators of the Hubble Space Telescope pointed their pride and joy at (apparently) nothing, and got back a picture chock-full of infant galaxies.

Science is a push-me pull-you affair in which observation inspires theory, and theory directs further observation. Right now, the night sky is turning out to be much more various than we expected. The generalised “laws” we evolved in the last century to explain planet formation and the evolution of galaxies aren’t majorly wrong; but they are being superseded by the carnival of weird, wonderful, exceptional, and even, yes, accidental discoveries we’re making, using equipment unimaginable to an earlier generation. Several techniques are discussed here, but the upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) takes some beating. Sprouting across southern Africa and western Australia, this distributed radio telescope, its components strung together by supercomputers, will, says Lintott, “be sensitive to airport radar working on any planet within a few hundred light-years”.

Observing the night sky with such tools, Lintott says, will be “less like an exercise in cerebral theoretical physics and more like reading history.”

Charming fantasies of space penguins aside (and “never say never” is my motto), there’s terror and awe to be had in Lintott’s little book. We scan the night sky and can’t help but wonder if there is more life out there — and yet we have barely begun to understand what life actually is. Lintott’s descriptions of conditions on the Jovian moon Titan — where tennis ball-sized drops of methane fall from orange clouds — suggest a chemistry so complex that reactions may be able to reproduce and evolve. “Is this chemical complexity ‘life’? he asks. “I don’t know.”

Neither do I. And if they ever send me on some First Contact mission amid the stars, I’m taking a bucket of fish.

Making time for mistakes

Reading In the Long Run: The future as a political idea by Jonathan White for the Financial Times, 2 February 2024

If you believe there really is no time for political mistakes on some crucial issue — climate change, say, or the threat of nuclear annihilation — then why should you accept a leader you did not vote for, or endorse an election result you disagree with? Jonathan White, a political sociologist at the London School of Economics, has written a short book about a coming crisis that democratic politics, he argues, cannot possibly accommodate: the world’s most technologically advanced democracies are losing their faith in the future.

This is not a new thought. In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein predicted how governments geared to crisis management would turn ever more dictatorial as their citizens grew ever more distracted and malleable. In the Long Run White is less alarmist but more pessimistic, showing how liberal democracy blossoms, matures, and ultimately shrivels through the way it imagines its own future. Can it survive in the world where high-school students are saying things like ‘I don’t understand why I should be in school if the world is burning’?

A broken constitution, an electorate that’s ignorant or misguided, institutions that are moribund and full of the same old faces, year after year — these are not nearly the serious problems for democracy they appear to be, says White: none of them undermines the ideal, so long as we believe that there’s a process of self-correction going on.

Democracy is predicated on an idea of improvability. It is, says White, “a future-oriented form, always necessarily unfinished”. The health of a democracy lies not in what it thinks of itself now, but in what hopes it has for its future. A few pages on France’s Third Republic — a democratic experiment that, from latter part of the 19th century to the first decades of the 20th, lurched through countless crises and 103 separate cabinets to become the parliamentary triumph of its age — would have made a wonderful digression here, but this is not White’s method. In the Long Run relies more on pithy argument than on historical colour, offering us an exhilarating if sometimes dizzingly abstract historical fly-through of the democratic experiment.

Democracy arose as an idea in the Enlightenment, via the evolution of literary Utopias. White pays special attention to Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1771 novel The Year 2440: A Dream if Ever There Was One, for dreaming up institutions that are not just someone’s good idea, but actual extensions of the people’s will.

Operating increasingly industrialised democracies over the course of the 19th century created levels of technocratic management that inevitably got in the way of the popular will. When that process came to a crisis in the early years of the 20th century, much of Europe faced a choice between command-and-control totalitarianism, and beserk fascist populism.

And then fascism, in its determination to remain responsive and intuitive to the people’s will, evolved into Nazism, “an ideology that was always seeking to shrug itself off,” White remarks; “an -ism that could affirm nothing stable, even about itself”. Its disastrous legacy spurred post-war efforts to constrain the future once more, “subordinating politics to economics in the name of stability.” With this insightful flourish, the reader is sent reeling into the maw of the Cold War decades, which turned politics into a science and turned our tomorrows into classifiable resources and tools of competitive advantage.

White writes well about 20th-century ideologies and their endlessly postponed utopias. The blandishments of Stalin and Mao and other socialist dictators hardly need glossing. Mind you, capitalism itself is just as anchored in the notion of jam tomorrow: what else but a faith in the infinitely improvable future could have us replacing our perfectly serviceable smartphones, year after year after year?

And so to the present: has runaway consumerism now brought us to the brink of annihilation, as the Greta Thunbergs of this world claim? For White’s purposes here, the truth of this claim matters less than its effect. Given climate change, spiralling inequality, and the spectres of AI-driven obsolescence, worsening pandemics and even nuclear annihilation, who really believes tomorrow will look anything like today?

How might democracy survive its own obsession with catastrophe? It is essential, White says, “not to lose sight of the more distant horizons on which progressive interventions depend.” But this is less a serious solution, more an act of denial. White may not want to grasp the nettle, but his readers surely will: by his logic (and it seems ungainsayable), the longer the present moment lasts, the worse it’ll be for democracy. He may not have meant this, but White has written a very frightening book.

A snapshot of how a city survives

Watching Occupied City by Steve McQueen for New Scientist, 31 January 2024

Artist and director Steve McQueen’s new documentary unfolds at a leisurely pace. Viewers will be glad of the 15-minute intermission baked into the footage, some two hours into the film’s over-four-hour runtime. If you need to make a fast getaway, now’s your chance — but I’ll bet the farm that you’ll return to your seat.

McQueen, a Londoner, now lives in Amsterdam with his wife Bianca Stigter, and Occupied City is based on Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945, Stigter’s monumental account of the city’s wartime Nazi occupation.

Narrator Melanie Hyams recites the book’s gazetteer of the occupation, address by address, while McQueen films each place as it appears today. Here is the street market where they used to hand out Star of David patches to the city’s Jews. (60,000 of the city’s 80,000 Jews were expelled during the second world war, and almost all of those taken were subsequently murdered.) Outside this now busy cafe, someone once found a potato in the gutter, and burned a book to cook it. At this site, in the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-1945, the diving boards at a since demolished swimming pool were chopped up for firewood. Here, a family was saved. There, a resistance worker was betrayed.

Though many of the buildings still stand, the word “demolished” recurs again and again, and it’s rare that McQueen’s street photography does not capture some new bit of demolition or construction. Amsterdam does not stay still. So how does a living, changing city remember itself?

There are acts of commemoration of course — among them a royal visit to a Jewish holocaust memorial, and a municipal apology for the predations of the city’s participation in the slave trade. But a city’s identity runs deeper than memorials surely? Do drinkers at this bar remember the Jews who were beaten outside their windows? Do the occupants of that flat know about the previous owners, a Jewish couple who committed suicide, sooner than live under Nazi occupation?

Stigter’s Atlas is an act of remembrance. Her husband’s film is different: a snapshot of how a city survives being managed and choreographed, corralled and contained. Some of Occupied City was shot during a five-week Covid lockdown. We see the modern city beset by plague, even as we hear of how, in the past, it was brought near to destruction by foreign occupation. McQueen draws no facile parallels here. Rather, we’re encouraged to see that restrictions are restrictions and curfews are curfews, whoever imposes them, and whatever their motives. What’s interesting is to see how people react to civil control, as it becomes (whether through necessity or not) increasingly heavy-handed.
At a big anti-fascist rally, conducted outside the city’s Concertgebouw concert hall, a speaker announces that “Democracy is more fragile then ever.”

Is it, though? Occupied City would suggest otherwise. It’s a film full of ordinary people, eating, playing guitar (badly), playing videogames, smoking, sheltering from the rain, and walking dogs in the mist. It’s a film about citizenry who survived one lethal onslaught now handling another one — not so obviously violent, perhaps, but pervasive and undoubtedly lethal.

Occupied City is not about what people believe. It’s about how they behave. And, lo and behold, people are mostly decent. Leave us alone, and we’ll go tobogganing, or skating, or cycling, or dancing. We’re civically minded by nature. The nightmares, the riots, the beating and betrayals — these only surface when you start putting us in boxes.

A spirit of anarchism pervades this monumental movie. It’s not anti-authoritarian, exactly; it’s just not that interested in what authority thinks. Reeling as we are from the dislocations of Covid, it’s a comfort, and a challenge, to be reminded that cities are, when you come down to it, nothing more than their people.

The world’s biggest money machine

Reading Who Owns This Sentence by David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu for the Telegraph, 3 January 2024

Is there such a thing as intellectual property? Once you’ve had an idea, and disseminated it through manuscript or sculpture, performance or song, is it still yours?

The ancients thought so. Long before copyright was ever dreamed of, honour codes policed the use and reuse of the work of poets and playwrights, and throughout the history of the arts, proven acts of plagiarism have brought down reputational damage sufficient to put careless and malign scribblers and daubers out of business.

At the same time, it has generally been acceptable to repurpose a work, for satire or even for further development. Pamela had many more adventures outside of Samuel Richardson’s novel than within it, though (significantly) it is Richardson’s original novel that people still buy.

No one in the history of the world has ever argued that artists should not be remunerated. Nor has the difference between an ingenious repurposing of material and its fraudulent copy ever been particularly hard to spot. And though there will always be edge cases, that, surely, is where the law steps in, codifying natural justice in a way useful to sincere litigants. So you would think.

Alexandre Montagu, an intellectual property lawyer, and David Bellos, a literary academic, think otherwise. Their forensic, fascinating history of copyright reveals a highly contingent history — full of ambiguity and verbal sophistry, as meanings shift and interests evolve.

The idea of copyright arose from state control of the media. This arose in response to the advent of cheap unregulated printing, which had fostered the creation and circulation of “scandalous, false and politically dangerous trash”. (That social media have dragged us back to the 17th century is a point that hardly needs rehearsing.)

In England, the Licensing of the Press Act of 1662 gave the Stationer’s Company an exclusive right to publish books. Wisely, such a draconian measure expired after a set term, and in 1710 the Statute of Anne established a rather more author-friendly arrangement. Authors would “own” their own work for 28 years — they would possess it, and they would have to answer for it. They could also assign their rights to others to see that this work was disseminated. Publishers, being publishers, assumed such rights then belonged to them in perpetuity, making what Daniel Defoe called a “miserable Havock” of authors’ rights law that pertains to this day.

True copyright was introduced in 1774, and the term over which an author has rights over their own work has been extended year on year; in most territories, it now covers the author’s lifetime plus seventy years. The definition of an “author” has been widened, too, to include sculptors, song-writers, furniture makers, software engineers, calico printers — and corporations.

Copyright is like the cute baby chimp you bought at the fair that grows into a fully grown chimpanzee that rips your kid’s arms off. Recent decades, the authors claim, “have turned copyright into a legal machine that restores to modern owners of content the rights and powers that eighteenth-century publishers lost, and grants them wider rights than their predecessors ever thought of asking for.”

And don’t imagine for a second that these owners are artists. Bellos and Montagu trace all the many ways contemporary creatives and their families are forced into surrendering their rights to an industry that now controls between 8 and 12 per cent of the US economy and is, the authors say, “a major engine of inequality in the twenty-first century”.

Few predicted that 18th-century copyright, there to protect the interests of widows and orphans, would have evolved into an industry that in 1996 seriously tried to charge girl-scout camp organisers for singing “God Bless America” around the campfire; and actually has managed to assert in court that acts of singular human genius are responsible for everyday items ranging from sporks to inflatable banana costumes.

Modern copyright’s ability to sequester and exploit creations of every kind for three or four generations is, the authors say, the engine driving “the biggest money machine the world has seen”, and one of the more disturbing aspects of this development is the lack of accompanying public interest and engagement.

Bellos and Montagu have extracted an enormous amount of fun out of their subject, and have sauced their sardonic and playful prose with buckets full of meticulously argued bile. What’s not to love about a work of legal scholarship that dreams up “a song-and-dance number based on a film scene in Gone with the Wind performed in the Palace of Culture in Petropavlovsk” and how it “might well infringe The Rights Of The American Trust Bank Company”?

This is not a book about “information wanting to be free” or any such claptrap. It is about a whole legal field failing in its mandate, and about how easily the current dispensation around intellectual property could come crumbling down. It is also about how commonly held ideas of propriety and justice might build something better in place of our current ideas of “I.P.”. Bellos and Montagu’s challenge to intellectual property law is by turns sobering and cheering: doing better than this will hardly be rocket science.

Conduits of disease and death

Reading Foreign Bodies by Simon Schama for the Financial Times, 9 June 2023

Right up until the middle of the 19th century, huge deposits of steaming human ordure were carted out of Paris and over the channel to fertilise the fields of England. And good riddance to the stuff, since letting it rot in place would surely have produced a miasma responsible — so most Parisians thought — for everything from smallpox to cholera to bubonic plague.

But Julien Proust (Marcel’s father) realised that there was something wrong with this picture. Even before the germ theory of disease gained currency, Proust conjectured that infection spread, not so much through proximity to decomposing matter, but by its being transported, most likely by people. As Schama puts it: “the very means used to bind the parts of empires more closely – shortening distances, abbreviating shipping schedules, reducing costs, optimizing profits, doing things the modern way – had themselves become the flowing conduits of disease and death.”

Proust is one of a pantheon of heroes (and I do not use the ‘H’ word lightly) propelling Simon Schama’s epic and impassioned history of vaccination from disconcertingly ancient times to the vexed present day.

His book, says Schama, is one more product of the Covid-19 lockdowns, when “parliaments of legislators were reduced to socially distanced barking from the hollow shell of their chambers, while parliaments of birds flocked and chattered.”

While the rest of us were enjoying (at least as far as we could) the birdsong, Schama was contemplating what Covid-19 represents for the planet. His conclusion is: nothing good. The waves of terrifying diseases coming at the world faster and faster are almost always transmitted by animals, and “mutuality between humans and animals has been dangerously disrupted.”

Schama has an historian’s tragic view of life, exacerbated here by his having (like the rest of us) to chain himself to his home office. From here the rise and fall of civilisations have seemed to him “so many vanity projects compared to the entropy of the habitable planet”.

Schama is far too interested in people to spin this apocalyptic jag too far. Soon enough he gets stuck into the stories of the men and women who, confronted by contagion, have tried, and still try (often against rabid opposition — and I don’t use the ‘R’ word lightly, either) to do something about it.

Though Schama’s richest materials here are to do with vaccination,
Foreign Bodies ultimately tilts at a bigger target: how medical knowledge and political force intersect to fight epidemic disease. And when your fatality rates reach ninety per cent, as they did when bubonic plague struck Hong Kong in 1894, you can bet that force will be pretty much your only weapon. Whole neighbourhoods of Kowloon were walled off as British soldiers pulled sick family members out of hiding in closets and chests and bore them off to the Hygeia, rumoured to be a death-ship from which not one in ten would emerge alive. (“This was in fact true.”)

In India, facing the same death toll and the same desperate, militarised sanitation campaign, rumours spread that hospitals had been ordered to cut out the hearts of patients to send to Queen Victoria for her vengeful satisfaction.

This is why, even at some cost to life, governments fight shy of making life-saving treatments compulsory: a show of force invariably does as much damage as the disease. Ronald Reagan understood this: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help’” he once quipped — though I doubt that he had in mind scenes as apocalyptic as Schama’s.

With the aplomb of a young A. J. P. Taylor, Schama neatly balances the obligation to disparage empire with the historian’s love of valorous action. He pricks the pretensions of the Raj, whose grandees thought they had materially bettered the lives of Indians; but he handsomely acknowledges the human efforts expended, in crowded slums and roadside clinics, pursuing that fond vision.

“Something about inoculators, vaccinators and epidemiologists gets under the skin of public tribunes,” frets Schama, “for whom nothing, certainly not epidemiology, is politics-free.”

Might future historians see Anthony Fauci, who as Chief Medical Advisor saw the US through AIDS and Covid, as some sort of imperial shill? They will if they ponder the fulminations of (now former) Fox news anchor Tucker Carlson, who had Fauci down as “a dangerous fraud who has done things that in most countries at most times in history would be understood very clearly to be very serious crimes.”

Compared to what Fauci’s been put through, the British establishment’s treatment of Foreign Bodies’ central figure, the fin-de-siecle vaccine pioneer Waldemar Haffkine, seems positively benign. Haffkine, a Jew from Odessa without so much as a medical degree, wanted to totally upend the Indian Medical Service’s handling of epidemics, replacing brutal quarantine measures with vaccines, mostly of his own devising. Not only did he come up with the first vaccine against cholera (and inoculated nearly 23,000 in his first year in India); by the spring of 1899, a Haffkine serum was protecting half a million Indians against bubonic plague and was being shipped as far afield as Russia. Incredibly, one locally contaminated batch ruined the man’s career and scotched his global plans.

Or maybe not so incredibly: our politics have hardly grown more forgiving, as any AstraZeneca executive involved in the Covid response can tell you.

“Falsely accused scapegoats recur with depressingly predictable regularity in the long history of inoculation,” says Schama. “They are often demonised as the bringers of false hope, the reckless spreaders of contagion, sometimes even secret spies or enemies of a Nation’s health.”

Vaccination is a wildly counter-intuitive process. “It is,” says Schama, “an extraordinary leap of faith for a healthy person or a parent of a healthy child to expose themselves or their offspring to what is essentially a toxin.”

So it is that in each generation, in the face of each new emergency, the powerful have a choice: gamble on hard-won, hard-to-explain knowledge — or appeal to native instinct. And if you want to be told that knowledge and decency win out every time, well, Schama says it: “it is probably best not to ask an historian.”

Being kind to the blarney

Reading Yuval Noah Harari’s How Humans Took Over the World (Unstoppable Us 1) for the Telegraph, 9 October 2022

“And just think how sad the last mammoth must have been all on her own,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, as he invites his pre-teen audience to contemplate our species’ long track record in wiping out countless varieties of big animal (giant flightless birds; elephantine sloths; the list is long).

Harari is spreading his young person’s history of humankind across four illustrated volumes. This is the first, and describes how we managed to exterminate our way to planetary dominance (so a certain mawkishness is allowable). Following the Bauplan of Harari’s 2011 adult bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, we can reasonably look forward to a triumphalist futuristic fourth volume in which all the monsters that terrified and/or fed our ancestors are resurrected by our CRISPR-wielding post-human descendants and released into some sort of 3D-printed world zoo.

Why survey such a vast sweep of evolutionary history through the keyhole of “what we really know”? Why not say what you’ve got to say, and leave the error-correction to your young reader’s own curiosity and further reading? When I was a kid, Patrick Moore was still writing about Venus’s already rather unlikely world ocean. I was inspired by such unchained speculation, and I don’t think I sustained any lasting intellectual harm.

But we are where we are: the world is haunted by the spectre of untruth and is besotted with the wisdom of crowds, and Harari is at pains in his afterword to point out how carefully staff at Penguin and his own “social impact company” Sapienship weighed every sentence and every illustration, lest it might misrepresent something or “hurt people”.

As a consequence, How Humans Took Over the World is, for all its many strengths, one of the least odd books I have ever read.

How Humans Took Over the World is an easy-to-read epic that sets out to be scrupulously truthful about what we do and do not know about the past. In simple, direct terms, Harari explains that we’re the only species that believes stories; stories enabled cooperation; and cooperation made it possible for us to smother and consume large amounts of the planet.

Harari’s ebullience as a storyteller is infectious. No sooner does he dry his eyes over the fate of the mammoth, than he is gleefully explaining how easy they were to get rid of. (With that long a gestation period, and that small a herd, you only had to kill a couple of mammoths a year to wipe them out.)

Harari’s concludes that we’re not a very nice species. This is risky, if only because self-hate is cheap and saves us the trouble of doing anything or changing anything about ourselves. The gloomy shade of Jean-Jacques Rousseau hovers over Harari’s dismissal of religion as a means by which powerful hominins cozened an unfair quantity of bananas from their weaker brethren. The idea that religion might be humanity’s millennia-old effort to tell uplifting stories about itself, all in the teeth of cosmic meaninglessness and the inevitability of death, gets no look-in here, though Harari still spends an inordinate amount of time being kind to the blarney and tosh spun by animists and shamans, those snake-oil salesmen of yore.

Harari’s setting us up for a thunderous and inspiring last chapter, in which we see Homo sapiens poised to use its storytelling superpower to more constructive effect.

If thousands of people believe in the same story, then they’ll all follow the same rules, and this is why we rule the world (“whereas poor chimps are locked up in zoos”).

To save the world we have been so busy consuming, we need to come up with a story about ourselves that’s better than the ones we’ve told each other in the past (or, to be less judgemental about it, a story that’s better suited to our planet’s present).

“If you can invent a good story that enough people believe,” Harari writes, “you can conquer the world.”

It is unlikely that this will be written by Harari. Though he’s packaged as a seer, there’s little in his work that is truly surprising or sui generis.

His chief skill — displayed here even more remarkably than in his work for adults — is his ability to spin complex material into a rollicking tale while still telling the truth.

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.


The tools at our disposal

Reading Index, A History of the, by Dennis Duncan, for New Scientist, 15 September 2021

Every once in a while a book comes along to remind us that the internet isn’t new. Authors like Siegfried Zielinski and Jussi Parikka write handsomely about their adventures in “media archaeology”, revealing all kinds of arcane delights: the eighteenth-century electrical tele-writing machine of Joseph Mazzolari; Melvil Dewey’s Decimal System of book classification of 1873.

It’s a charming business, to discover the past in this way, but it does have its risks. It’s all too easy to fall into complacency, congratulating the thinkers of past ages for having caught a whiff, a trace, a spark, of our oh-so-shiny present perfection. Paul Otlet builds a media-agnostic City of Knowledge in Brussels in 1919? Lewis Fry Richardson conceives a mathematical Weather Forecasting Factory in 1922? Well, I never!

So it’s always welcome when an academic writer — in this case London based English lecturer Dennis Duncan — takes the time and trouble to tell this story straight, beginning at the beginning, ending at the end. Index, A History of the is his story of textual search, told through charming portrayals of some of the most sophisticated minds of their era, from monks and scholars shivering among the cloisters of 13th-century Europe to server-farm administrators sweltering behind the glass walls of Silicon Valley.

It’s about the unspoken and always collegiate rivalry between two kinds of search: the subject index (a humanistic exercise, largely un-automatable, requiring close reading, independent knowledge, imagination, and even wit) and the concordance (an eminently automatable listing of words in a text and their locations).

Hugh of St Cher is the father of the concordance: his list of every word in the bible and its location, begun in 1230, was a miracle of miniaturisation, smaller than a modern paperback. It and its successors were useful, too, for clerics who knew their bibles almost by heart.

But the subject index is a superior guide when the content is unfamiliar, and it’s Robert Grosseteste (born in Suffolk around 1175) who we should thank for turning the medieval distinctio (an associative list of concepts, handy for sermon-builders), into something like a modern back-of-book index.

Reaching the present day, we find that with the arrival of digital search, the concordance is once again ascendant (the search function, Ctl-F, whatever you want to call it, is an automated concordance), while the subject index, and its poorly recompensed makers, are struggling to keep up in an age of reflowable screen text. (Sewing embedded active indexes through a digital text is an excellent idea which, exasperatingly, has yet to catch on.)

Running under this story is a deeper debate, between people who want to access their information quickly, and people (especially authors) who want people to read books from beginning to end.

This argument about how to read has been raging literally for millennia, and with good reason. There is clear sense in Socrates’ argument against reading itself, as recorded in Plato’s Phaedrus (370 BCE): “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding,” his mythical King Thamus complains. Plato knew a thing or two about the psychology of reading, too: people who just look up what they need “are for the most part ignorant,” says Thamus, “and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”

Anyone who spends too many hours a day on social media will recognise that portrait — if they have not already come to resemble it.

Duncan’s arbitration of this argument is a wry one. Scholarship, rather than being timeless and immutable, “is shifting and contingent,” he says, and the questions we ask of our texts “have a lot to do with the tools at our disposal.”

‘God knows what the Chymists mean by it’

Reading Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf: How the Elements Were Named, by
Peter Wothers, for The Spectator, 14 December 2019

Here’s how the element antimony got its name. Once upon a time (according to the 17th-century apothecary Pierre Pomet), a German monk (moine in French) noticed its purgative effects in animals. Fancying himself as a physician, he fed it to “his own Fraternity… but his Experiment succeeded so ill that every one who took of it died. This therefore was the reason of this Mineral being call’d Antimony, as being destructive of the Monks.”

If this sounds far-fetched, the Cambridge chemist Peter Wothers has other stories for you to choose from, each more outlandish than the last. Keep up: we have 93 more elements to get through, and they’re just the ones that occur naturally on Earth. They each have a history, a reputation and in some cases a folklore. To investigate their names is to evoke histories that are only intermittently scientific. A lot of this enchanting, eccentric book is about mining and piss.

The mining:

There was no reliable lighting or ventilation; the mines could collapse at any point and crush the miners; they could be poisoned by invisible vapours or blown up by the ignition of pockets of flammable gas. Add to this the stifling heat and the fact that some of the minerals themselves were poisonous and corrosive, and it really must have seemed to the miners that they were venturing into hell.

Above ground, there were other difficulties. How to spot the new stuff? What to make of it? How to distinguish it from all the other stuff? It was a job that drove men spare. In a 1657 Physical Dictionary the entry for Sulphur Philosophorum states simply: ‘God knows what the Chymists mean by it.’

Today we manufacture elements, albeit briefly, in the lab. It’s a tidy process, with a tidy nomenclature. Copernicum, einsteinium berkelium: neologisms as orderly and unevocative as car marques.

The more familiar elements have names that evoke their history. Cobalt, found in
a mineral that used to burn and poison miners, is named for the imps that, according to the 16th-century German Georgius Agricola ‘idle about in the shafts and tunnels and really do nothing, although they pretend to be busy in all kinds of labour’. Nickel is kupfernickel, ‘the devil’s copper’, an ore that looked like valuable copper ore but, once hauled above the ground, appeared to have no value whatsoever.

In this account, technology leads and science follows. If you want to understand what oxygen is, for example, you first have to be able to make it. And Cornelius Drebbel, the maverick Dutch inventor, did make it, in 1620, 150 years before Joseph Priestley got in on the act. Drebbel had no idea what this enchanted stuff was, but he knew it sweetened the air in his submarine, which he demonstrated on the Thames before King James I. Again, if you want a good scientific understanding of alkalis, say, then you need soap, and lye so caustic that when a drunk toppled into a pit of the stuff ‘nothing of him was found but his Linnen Shirt, and the hardest Bones, as I had the Relation from a Credible Person, Professor of that Trade’. (This is Otto Tachenius, writing in 1677. There is lot of this sort of thing. Overwhelming in its detail as it can be, Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf is wickedly entertaining.)

Wothers does not care to hold the reader’s hand. From page 1 he’s getting his hands dirty with minerals and earths, metals and the aforementioned urine (without which the alchemists, wanting chloride, sodium, potassium and ammonia, would have been at a complete loss) and we have to wait till page 83 for a discussion of how the modern conception of elements was arrived at. The periodic table doesn’t arrive till page 201 (and then it’s Mendeleev’s first table, published in 1869). Henri Becquerel discovers radioactivity barely four pages before the end of the book. It’s a surprising strategy, and a successful one. Readers fall under the spell of the possibilities of matter well before they’re asked to wrangle with any of the more highfalutin chemical concepts.

In 1782, Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau published his Memoir upon Chemical Denominations, the Necessity of Improving the System, and the Rules for Attaining a Perfect Language. Countless idiosyncracies survived his reforms. But chemistry did begin to acquire an orderliness that made Mendeleev’s towering work a century later — relating elements to their atomic structure — a deal easier.

This story has an end. Chemistry as a discipline is now complete. All the major problems have been solved. There are no more great discoveries to be made. Every chemical reaction we do is another example of one we’ve already done. These days, chemists are technologists: they study spectrographs, and argue with astronomers about the composition of the atmospheres around planets orbiting distant stars; they tinker in biophysics labs, and have things to say about protein synthesis. The heroic era of chemical discovery — in which we may fondly recall Gottfried Leibniz extracting phosphorus from 13,140 litres of soldiers’ urine — is past. Only some evocative words remain; and Wothers unpacks them with infectious enthusiasm, and something which in certain lights looks very like love.

Tyrants and geometers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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