“A moist and feminine sucking”

Reading Susan Wedlich’s Slime: A natural history for the Times, 6 November 2021

For over two thousand years, says science writer Susan Wedlich, quoting German historian Richard Hennig, maritime history has been haunted by mention of a “congealed sea”. Ships, it is said, have been caught fast and even foundered in waters turned to slime.

Slime stalks the febrile dreams of landlubbers, too: Jean-Paul Sartre succumbed to its “soft, yielding action, a moist and feminine sucking”, in a passage, lovingly quoted here, that had this reader instinctively scrabbling for the detergent.

We’ve learned to fear slime, in a way that would have seemed quite alien to the farmers of ancient Egypt, who supposed slime and mud were the base materials of life itself. So, funnily enough, did German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, a champion of Charles Darwin, who saw primordial potential in the gellid lumps being trawled from the sea floor by various oceanographic expeditions. (This turned out to be calcium sulphate, precipitated by the chemical reaction between deep-sea mud and alcohol used for the preservation of aquatic specimens. Haeckel never quite got over his disappointment.)

For Susan Wedlich, it is not enough that we should learn about slime; nor even that we should be entertained by it (though we jolly well are). Wendlich wants us to care deeply about slime, and musters all the rhetorical at her disposal to achieve her goal. “Does even the word “slime” have to elicit gagging histrionics?” she exclaims, berating us for our phobia: “if we neither recognize nor truly know slime, how are we supposed to appreciate it or use it for our own ends?”

This is overdone. Nor do we necessarily know enough about slime to start shouting about it. To take one example, using slime to read our ecological future turns out to be a vexed business. There’s a scum of nutrients held together by slime floating on top of the oceans. A fraction of a millimetre thick, it’s called the “sea-surface micro-layer”. Global warming might be thinning it, or thickening it, and doing either might be increasing the chemical transport taking place between air and ocean — or retarding it — to unknown effect. So there: yet another thing to worry about.

For sure, slime holds the world together. Slimes, rather: there are any number of ways to stiffen water so that it acts as a lubricant, a glue, or a barrier. Whatever its origins, it is most conspicuous when it disappears — as when overtilling of America’s Great Plains caused the Dust Bowl in 1933, or when the gluey glycan coating of one’s blood vessels starts to mysteriously shear away during surgery.

There was a moment, in the 1920s, when slime shed its icky materiality and became almost cool. Artists both borrowed from and inspired Haeckel’s exquisite drawings of delicate maritime invertebrates. And biologists, looking for the mechanisms underpinning memory and heredity, would have liked nothing more than to find that the newly-identified protoplasm within our every cell was recording, like an Edison drum, the tremblings of a ubiquitous, information-rich aether. (Sounds crazy now, but the era was, after all, bathing in X-rays and other newly-discovered radiations.)

But slime’s moment of modishness passed. Now it’s the unlovely poster-child of environmental degradation: the stuff that will fill our soon-to-be-empty oceans, “home only to jellyfish, algae and microbial mats”, if we don’t do something sharpish to change our ecological ways.

Hand in hand with such millennial anxieties, of course, come the usual power fantasies: that we might harness all this unlovely slime — nothing more than water held in a cage of a few long-chain polymers — to transform our world, providing the base for new materials and soft robots, “transparent, stretchable, locomotive, biocompatible, remote-controlled, weavable, wearable, self-healing and shape-morphing, 3D-printed or improved by different ingredients”.

Wedlich’s enthusiasm is by no means misplaced. Slime is not just a largely untapped wonder material. It is also — really, truly — the source of life, and a key enabler of complex forms. We used to think the machinery of the first cells must have risen in clay hydrogels — a rather complicated and unlikely genesis — but it turns out that nucleic acids like DNA and RNA can sometimes form slimes on their own. Life, it turns out, does not need a substrate on which to arise. It is its own sticky home.

Slime’s effective barrier to pathogens may then have enabled complex tissues to differentiate and develop, slickly sequestered from a disease-ridden outside world. Wedlich’s tour of the human gut, and its multiple slime layers, (some lubricant, some gluey, and many armed with extraordinary electrostatic and molecular traps for one pathogen or another) is a tour de force of clear and gripping explanation.

Slime being, in essence, nothing more than stiffened water, there are more ways to make it than the poor reader could ever bare to hear about. So Wedlich very sensibly approaches her subject from the other direction, introducing slimes through their uses. Snails combine gluey and lubricating slimes to travel over dry ground one moment, cling to the underside of a leaf the next. Hagfish deter predators by jellifying the waters around them, shooting polymers from their skin like so many thousands of microscopic harpoons. Some squid, when threatened, add slime to their ink to create pseudomorphs — fake squidoids that hold together just long enough to distract a predator. Some squid pump out whole legions of such doppelgangers.

Wedlich’s own strategy, in writing Slime, is not dissimilar. She’s deliberately elusive. The reader never really feels they’ve got hold of the matter of her book; rather, they’re being provoked into punching through layer after dizzying layer, through masterpieces of fin de siecle glass-blowing into theories about the spontaneous generation of life, through the lifecycles of carnivorous plants into the tactics of Japanese balloon-bomb designers in the second world war, until, dizzy and gasping, they reach the end of Wedlich’s extraordinary mystery tour, not with a handle on slime exactly, but with an elemental and exultant new vision of what life may be: that which arises when the boundaries of earth, air and water are stirred in sunlight’s fire. It’s a vision that, for all its weight of well-marshalled modern detail, is one Aristotle would have recognised.

Life dies at the end

Reading Henry Gee’s A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth for the Times, 23 October 2021

The story of life on Earth is around 4.6 billion years long. We’re here to witness the most interesting bit (of course we are; our presence makes it interesting) and once we’re gone (wiped out in an eyeblink, or maybe, just maybe, speciated out of all recognition) the story will run on, and run down, for about another billion years, before the Sun incinerates the Earth.

It’s an epic story, and like most epic stories, it cries out for a good editor. In Henry Gee, a British palaeontologist and senior editor of the scientific journal Nature, it has found one. But Gee has his work cut out. The story doesn’t really get going until the end. The first two thirds are about slime. And once there are living things worth looking at, they keep keeling over. All the interesting species burn up and vanish like candles lit at both ends. Humans (the only animal we know of that’s even aware that this story exists) will last no time at all. And the five extinction events this planet has so far undergone might make you seriously wonder why life bothered in the first place.

We are told, for example, how two magma plumes in the late Permian killed this story just as it got going, wiping out nineteen of every species in the sea, and one out of every ten on land. It would take humans another 500 years of doing exactly what they’ve been doing since the Industrial Revolution to cause anything like that kind of damage.

A word about this: we have form in wiping things out and then regretting their loss (mammoths, dodos, passenger pigeons). And we really must stop mucking about with the chemistry of the air. But we’re not planet-killers. “It is not the Sixth Extinction,” Henry Gee reassures us. “At least, not yet.”

It’s perhaps a little bit belittling to cast Gee’s achievement here as mere “editing”. Gee’s a marvellously engaging writer, juggling humour, precision, polemic and poetry to enrich his impossibly telescoped account. His description of the lycopod forests that are the source of nearly all our coal — and whose trees grew only to reproduce, exploding into a crown of spore-bearing branches — brings to mind a battlefield of the First World War, a “craterscape of hollow stumps, filled with a refuse of water and death… rising from a mire of decay.” A little later a Lystrosaurus (a distant ancestor of mammals, and the most successful land animal ever) is sketched as having “the body of a pig, the uncompromising attitude toward food of a golden retriever, and the head of an electric can opener”.

Gee’s book is full of such dazzling walk-on parts, but most impressive are the elegant numbers he traces across evolutionary time. Here’s one: dinosaurs, unlike mammals, evolved a highly efficient one-way system for breathing that involved passing spent air through sacs distributed inside their bodies. They were air-cooled, which meant they could get very big without cooking themselves. They were lighter than they looked, literally full of hot air, and these advantages — lightweight structure, fast-running metabolism, air cooling — made their evolution into birds possible.

Here’s another tale: the make-up of our teeth — enamel over dentine over bone — is the same as you’d find in the armoured skin of the earliest fishes.

To braid such interconnected wonders into a book the size of a modest novel is essentially an exercise in precis, and a bravura demonstration of the editor’s art. Though the book (whose virtue is its brevity) is not illustrated, there six timelines to guide us through the scalar shifts necessary to comprehend the staggering longueurs involved in bringing a planet to life. Life was entirely stationary and mostly slimy until only about 600 million years ago. Just ten million years ago, grasses evolved, and with them, grazing animals and their predators, some of whom, the primates, were on their way to making us. The earliest Sapiens appeared just over half a million years ago. Only when sea levels fell, around 120,000 years ago, did Sapiens get to migrate around the planet.

As one reads Gee’s “(very) short history”, one feels time slowing down and growing more granular. This deceleration gives Gee the space he needs to depict the burgeoning complexity of life as it spreads and evolves. It’s a scalar game that’s reminiscent of Charles and Ray Eames’s 1967 films *Powers of Ten*, which depicted the relative scale of the Universe by zooming in (through the atom) and out (through the cosmos) at logarithmic speed. It’s a dizzying and exhilarating technique which, for all that, makes clear sense out of very complex narratives.

Eventually — and long after we are gone — life will retreat beneath the earth as the swelling sun makes conditions on the planet’s surface impossible. The distinctions between things will fall away as life, struggling to live, becomes colossal, colonial and homogenous. Imagine vast subterranean figs, populated by evolved, worm-like insects…

Then, your mind reeling, try and work out what on earth people mean when they say that humans have conquered and/or despoiled the planet.

Our planet deserves our care, for sure, because we have to live here. But the planet has yet to register our existence, and probably never will. We are, Gee explains, just two and a half million years into a series of ice ages that will last for tens of millions of years more. Our species’ story extends not much beyond one of these hundreds of cycles. The human-induced injection of carbon dioxide “will set back the date of the next glacial advance” — and that is all. 250 million years hence, any future prospectors (and they won’t be human), armed with equipment “of the most refined sensitivity”, might — just might — be able to detect that, a short way through the Cenozoic Ice Age, *something happened*, “but they might be unable to say precisely what.”

It takes a long time to bring complex life to a planet, and complex life, once it runs out of wriggle room, collapses in an instant. Humans already labour under a considerable “extinction debt” since they have made their habitat (“nothing less than the entire Earth”) progressively less habitable. Most everything that ever went extinct fell into the same trap. What makes our case tragic is that we’re conscious of what we’ve done; we’re trying to do something about it; and we know that, in the long run, it will never be enough.

Gee’s final masterstroke as editor is to make human sense, and real tragedy, from his unwieldy story’s glaring spoiler: that Life dies at the end.

Joy in the detail

Reading Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider by Stephen Heard for the Spectator, 16 May 2020

Heteropoda davidbowie is a species of huntsman spider. Though rare, it has been found in parts of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and possibly Thailand. (The uncertainty arises because it’s often mistaken for a similar-looking species, the Heteropoda javana.) In 2008 a German collector sent photos of his unusual-looking “pet” to Peter Jäger, an arachnologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. Consequently, and in common with most other living finds, David Bowie’s spider was discovered twice: once in the field, and once in the collection.

Bowie’s spider is famous, but not exceptional. Jäger has discovered more than 200 species of spider in the last decade, and names them after politicians, comedians and rock stars to highlight our ecological plight. Other researchers find more pointed ways to further the same cause. In the first month of Donald Trump’s administration, Iranian-Canadian entomologist Vazrick Nazari discovered a moth with a head crowned with large, blond comb-over scales. There’s more to Neopalpa donaldtrumpi than a striking physical resemblance: it lives in a federally protected area around where the border wall with Mexico is supposed to go. Cue headlines.

Species are becoming extinct 100 times faster than they did before modern humans arrived. This makes reading a book about the naming of species a curiously queasy affair. Nor is there much comfort to be had in evolutionary ecologist Stephen Heard’s observation that, having described 1.5 million species, we’ve (at very best) only recorded half of what’s out there. There is, you may recall, that devastating passage in Cormac McCarthy’s western novel Blood Meridian in which Judge Holden meticulously records a Native American artifact in his sketchbook — then destroys it. Given that to discover a species you must, by definition, invade its environment, Holden’s sketch-and-burn habit appears to be a painfully accurate metonym for what the human species is doing to the planet. Since the 1970s (when there used to be twice as many wild animals than there are now) we’ve been discovering and endangering new species in almost the same breath.

Richard Spruce, one of the Victorian era’s great botanical explorers, who spent 15 years exploring the Amazon from the Andes to its mouth, is a star of this short, charming book about how we have named and ordered the living world. No detail of his bravery, resilience and grace under pressure come close to the eloquence of this passing quotation, however: “Whenever rains, swollen streams, and grumbling Indians combined to overwhelm me with chagrin,” he wrote in his account of his travels, “I found reason to thank heaven which had enabled me to forget for the moment all my troubles in the contemplation of a simple moss.”

Stephen Heard, an evolutionary ecologist based in Canada, explains how extraordinary amounts of curiosity have been codified to create a map of the living world. The legalistic-sounding codes by which species are named are, it turns out, admirably egalitarian, ensuring that the names amateurs give species are just as valid as those of professional scientists.

Formal names are necessary because of the difficulty we have in distinguishing between similiar species. Common names run into this difficulty all the time. There too many of them, so the same species gets different names in different languages. At the same time, there aren’t enough of them, so that, as Heard points out, “Darwin’s finches aren’t finches, African violets aren’t violets, and electric eels aren’t eels;” Robins, blackbirds and badgers are entirely different animals in Europe and North America; and virtually every flower has at one time or another been called a daisy.

Also names tend, reasonably enough, to be descriptive. This is fine when you’re distinguishing between, say, five different types of fish When there are 500 different fish to sort through, however, absurdity beckons. Heard lovingly transcribes the pre-Linnaean species name of the English whiting, formulated around 1738: “Gadus, dorso tripterygio, ore cirrato, longitudine ad latitudinem tripla, pinna ani prima officulorum trigiata“. So there.

It takes nothing away from the genius of Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus, who formulated the naming system we still use today, to say that he came along at the right time. By Linnaeus’s day, it was possible to look things up. Advances in printing and distribution had made reference works possible. Linnaeus’s innovation was to decouple names from descriptions. And this, as Heard reveals in anecdote after anecdote, is where the fun now slips in: the mythopoeic cool of the baboon Papio anubis, the mischevious smarts of the beetle Agra vation, the nerd celebrity of lemur Avahi cleesi.

Hearst’s taxonomy of taxonomies makes for somewhat thin reading; this is less of a book, more like a dozen interesting magazine articles flying in close formation. But its close focus, bringing to life minutiae of both the living world and the practice of science, is welcome.

I once met Michael Land, the neurobiologist who figured out how the lobster’s eye works. He told me that the trouble with big ideas is that they get in the way of the small ones. Heard’s lesson, delivered with such a light touch, is the same. The joy, and much of the accompanying wisdom, lies in the detail.

Are you experienced?

Reading Wildhood by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers for New Scientist, 18 March 2020

A king penguin raised on Georgia Island, off the coast of Antarctica. A European wolf. A spotted hyena in the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. A north Atlantic humpback whale born near the Dominican Republic. What could these four animals have in common?

What if they were all experiencing the same life event? After all, all animals are born, and all of them die. We’re all hungry sometimes, for food, or a mate.

How far can we push this idea? Do non-human animals have mid-life crises, for example? (Don’t mock; there’s evidence that some primates experience the same happiness curves through their life-course as humans do.)

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, an evolutionary biologist, and Kathryn Bowers, an animal behaviorist, have for some years been devising and teaching courses at Harvard and the University of California at Los Angeles, looking for “horizontal identities” across species boundaries.

The term comes from Andrew Solomon’s 2014 book Far from the Tree, which contrasts vertical identities (between you and your parents and grandparents, say) with horizontal identities, which are “those among peers with whom you share similar attributes but no family ties”. The authors of Wildhood have expanded Solomon’s concept to include other species; “we suggest that adolescents share a horizontal identity,” they write: “temporary membership in a planet-wide tribe of adolescents.”

The heroes of Wildhood — Ursula the penguin, Shrink the hyena, Salt the whale and Slavc the wolf are all, (loosely speaking) “teens”, and like teens everywhere, they have several mountains to climb at once. They must learn how to stay safe, how to navigate social hierarchies, how to communicate sexually, and how to care for themselves. They need to become experienced, and for that, they need to have experiences.

Well into the 1980s, researchers were discouraged from discussing the mental lives of animals. The change in scientific culture came largely thanks to the video camera. Suddenly it was possible for behavioral scientists to observe, not just closely, but repeatedly, and in slow motion. Soon discoveries arose that could not possibly have been arrived at with the naked eye alone. An animal’s supposedly rote, mechanical behaviours turned out to be the product of learning, experiment, and experience. Stereotyped calls and gestures were unpacked to reveal, not language in the human sense, but languages nonetheless, and many were of dizzying complexity. Animals that we thought were driven by instinct (a word you’ll never even hear used these days), turned out to be lively, engaged, conscious beings, scrabbling for purchase in a confusing and unpredictable world.

The four tales that make up the bulk of Wildhood are more than “Just So” stories. “Every detail,” the authors explain, “is based on and validated by data from GPS satellite or radio collar studies, peer-reviewed scientific literature, published reports and interviews with the investigators involved”.

In addition, each offers a different angle on a wealth of material about animal behaviour. Examples of animal friendship, bullying, nepotism, exploitation and even property inheritance arrive in such numbers and at such a level of detail, it takes an ordinary, baggy human word like “friendship” or “bullying” to contain them.

“Level playing fields don’t exist in nature”, the authors assert, and this is an important point, given the book’s central claim that by understanding the “wildhoods” of other animals, we can develop better approaches “for compassionately and skillfully guiding human adolescents toward adulthood.”

The point is not to use non-human behaviour as an excuse for human misbehaviour. Lots of animals kill and exploit each other, but that shouldn’t make exploitation or murder acceptable. The point is to know which battles to pick. Making young school playtimes boring by quashing the least sign of competitiveness makes little sense, given the amount of biological machinery dedicated to judging and ranking in every animal species from humans to lobsters. On the other hand, every young animal, when it returns to its parents, gets a well-earned break from the “playground” — but young humans don’t. They’re now tied 24-7 to social media that prolongue, exaggerate and exacerbate the ranking process. Is the rise in mental health problems among the affluent young triggered by this added stress?

These are speculations and discussions for another book, for which Wildhood may prove a necessary and charming foundation. Introduced in the first couple of pages to California sea otters, swimming up to sharks one moment then fleeing from a plastic boat the next, the reader can’t help but recognise, in the animals’ overly bold and overly cautious behaviour, the gawkiness and tremor of their own adolescence.

The world bacteria made

Visiting Bacterial World at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for New Scientist, 23 November 2018

“It’s like a cheetah going after a wildebeest,” says Judith Armitage, lead scientist for Bacterial World, an exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. She’s struggling to find a simile adequate to describe Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, a predatory bacterium found, among other places, in the human gut. Indeed, it’s monstrously fast: capable of swimming 100 times its own body length every second.

Other bacteria are built for strength, not speed. Campylobacter jejuni, which we have to thank for most of our food poisoning, has a propeller-like flagellum geared so that it can heave its way through the thick mucus in the gut.

Armitage has put considerable effort into building a tiny exhibition that gives bacteria their due as the foundational components of living systems –and all I can think about is food poisoning. “Well that’s quorum sensing, isn’t it?” says Armitage, playing along. “After 24 hours or so biding their time, they decide there’s enough of them they can make you throw up.”

Above our heads hangs artist Luke Jerram’s gigantic inflatable E. coli, seen floating over visitors at the first New Scientist Live festival in 2016. It seems an altogether more sinister presence in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History: the alien overseer of a building so exuberantly Gothic (built in 1860, just in time for the famous evolution debate between Thomas Huxley and “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford) that it appears more grown than made.

Armed with just 55 exhibits, from the Wellcome Collection, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Natural History Museum in London, Armitage has managed to squeeze 3.8 billion years of history along a narrow balcony just under the museum’s glass roof. Our journey is two-fold: from the very big to the very small, and from the beginnings of life on Earth to its likely future.

Towering stromatolites, the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth, reveal the action of countless anaerobic bacteria whose trick of splitting water would result, a million years later, in an extremely rusty planet filling up with toxic oxygen. To survive, let alone thrive, in the ghastly conditions ushered in by the Great Oxygenation Event required bacterial adaptations on which all living things today depend. For example, Paenibacilla (pictured) promote crop growth, and symbiotic bacteria of the genus Rhizobium pack essential hard-to-get at iron into our vegetables. Cellular adaptations defend against caustic oxygen, and have, incidentally, thrown up all manner of unforeseen by-products, including the bioluminescence of certain fish.

As multicellular organisms, we owe the very structure of our cells to an act of bacterial symbiosis. Our biosphere is shaped to meet the needs of ubiquitous bacteria like Wolbachia, without which some species of environmentally essential insect cannot reproduce, or even survive.

Naturally, we humans have tried to muscle in on this story. For a while we’ve been able to harness some bacteria to fight off others, thereby ridding ourselves of disease. But Armitage fears the antibiotic era was just a blip. “New antimicrobials are too expensive to develop,” she observes. “Once they’re shown to work they’ll be kept on the shelf waiting for the microbial apocalypse.”

But look on the bright side. At least once the great Throwing Up is over and the human population shrinks to a disease-racked minimum, the bacteria released from our ballooning guts can get back to what they’re good at: creating vibrant ecosystems out of random raw material. “Bacteria will eat all the plastic.” Of this Armitage is certain. “But,” she adds, “it takes time for metabolic cascades to evolve. We’ll probably not be around to see it happen.”

On the way out, my eye is caught by another artwork:  uneasy and delicate pieces of crochet by Elin Thomas depicting colonies of bacteria. The original colonies were grown on personal objects: a key, a gold wedding ring; a wooden pencil. A worn sock.

Microbial World is a tremendous exhibition, punching way above its tiny weight. It doesn’t half put you in your place, though.

Microphotography

The eye of a Metapocyrtus subquadrulifer beetle

Covering the Nikon Small World competition for New Scientist,11 October 2018

Microphotography has come along way since Nikon staged the first Nikon Small World competition in 1974. Finalists in 2018 harnessed a dizzying array of photographic techniques to achieve the spectacular results displayed here. A full-colour calendar of the winners is in the works, and people in the US can look forward to a national tour of the top images.

Yousef Al Habshi from the United Arab Emirates won first prize with the image above of the compound eyes and surrounding greenish scales of a weevil, Metapocyrtus subquadrulifer.  It was made by stacking together 129 micrographs — photographs taken through a microscope. “I feel like I’m photographing a collection of jewelry,” said Al Habshi of his work with these beautiful Philippine beetles, which are more usually considered agricultural nuisances and targets for pest control.

fern sorus — structures that produce and contain spores

Rogelio Moreno from Panama won second prize for capturing the spore-containing structures of a fern (above). He used a technique called autoflorescence, in which ultraviolet light is used to pick out individual structures. Spores develop within a sporangium, and Moreno has successfully distinguished a group of these containers from the clustered structure called the sorus. Sporangiums at different stages of development show up in different colours.

Spittlebug nymph in its bubble house

Saulius Gugis from the USA photographed this spittle-bug in the process of making its “bubble-house”. The foamy structure helps the insect hide from predators, insulate itself and stay moist. The photograph won third prize.

A spider embryo with the surface stained

Other highlights from the prize include a portrayal of the first stirrings of arachnid life by Tessa Montague at Harvard University. The surface of this spider embryo (Parasteatoda tepidariorum) is picked out in pink. The cell nuclei are blue and other cell structures are green.

The mango seed weevil

Looking for all the world like an extra from Luc Besson’s sci-fi film The Fifth Element, this magnificent mango seed weevil (Sternochetus mangiferae) earned Pia Scanlon, a researcher for the Government of Western Australia, a place among the finalists.

Surreal Science at the Whitechapel: Object lessons

Visiting Surreal Science at London’s Whitechapel Gallery for New Scientist, 8 September 2018

WHENEVER the artist Salvatore Arancio visits a new city, he heads for the nearest natural history museum. He goes partly for research: his eclectic output, spanning photography and ceramics, explores how we categorise and try to understand natural and geological processes.

In the main, though, Arancio wants to be overwhelmed. “A lot of these collections are so vast, after a while you find yourself wandering around in a spaced-out state, inventing mental landscapes and narratives. It’s that feeling I’m trying to evoke here,” he tells me as we watch the assembly of his new show, Surreal Science, a collaboration with art patron George Loudon.

Loudon famously collected work by Damien Hirst and his generation years before they became global celebrities – until the day a canvas he bought wouldn’t fit through his door.

At that point, Loudon turned to the books, images and models (in clay, felt, glass and plaster) that educated 19th-century science students. “Looking back, I can see the move was a natural one,” Loudon says. “Artists like Hirst and Mark Dion were exploring the way we catalogue and represent the world. Around the time that collection felt complete I was travelling to South America a lot, and I became interested in the scientific discoveries made there – by Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates.”

This isn’t a collection in the sense that there is any demarcation to it. “It’s somebody’s personal eye that chooses this over that,” says Loudon. Nevertheless, a clear theme has emerged: how the explosion of science in the 19th century meant that scientists had to turn artist to produce educational materials for students. And, when the burden became too much, how companies of artisans emerged to satisfy the demand.

Loudon’s collection has been shown before, at the Manchester Museum last year, but Surreal Science is a different enterprise. The objects, designed to be handled, are exhibited here on open shelves, bringing the visitor tantalisingly close to the work in a very un-museumlike manner. Needless to say this makes for a nerve-racking build.

This is the moment of truth for Arancio, who had to plan this installation-cum-exhibition armed only with photographs of Loudon’s collection and sheets of careful measurements. It is the first chance he has had to see his arrangements realised in situ.

The ceramic pieces he has created provide a foil for the items in Loudon’s collection. An arrangement of ceramic flowers above an anatomical cut-away torso suggests a mandrake-like marriage of vegetable and human. Next to it is a discomforting juxtaposition of plaster models of teeth and wax copies of lemons. Models of cell division are easily mistaken for geodes. Again and again, Arancio’s ceramic pieces – pools, leaves, corals and tubular spider forms – mislead the eye, so we miscatalogue what we see.

“I tried to create pieces that carried George’s objects off into some kind of fantastic realm,” says Arancio. Even before key elements of the show are installed –proper lighting, a looping educational film from 1935 and an experimental soundtrack by The Focus Group – it is clear that the experiment has succeeded.

For Loudon, it is a vindication of his decision to collect objects that until recently weren’t recognised by the fine-art market. He moves from shelf to shelf, past exquisite Blaschka glass slugs, felt fungi, a meticulously repaired elephant bird egg. “Now these objects have lost their original purpose, we can look at them as objects of beauty,” he says. “I’m not claiming that this is art forever. I am saying it is art for today.”

Just how much does the world follow laws?

zebra

How the Zebra Got its Stripes and Other Darwinian Just So Stories by Léo Grasset
The Serengeti Rules: The quest to discover how life works and why it matters by Sean B. Carroll
Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia by Loren Graham
The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
reviewed for New Scientist, 15 October 2016

JUST how much does the world follow laws? The human mind, it seems, may not be the ideal toolkit with which to craft an answer. To understand the world at all, we have to predict likely events and so we have a lot invested in spotting rules, even when they are not really there.

Such demands have also shaped more specialised parts of culture. The history of the sciences is one of constant struggle between the accumulation of observations and their abstraction into natural laws. The temptation (especially for physicists) is to assume these laws are real: a bedrock underpinning the messy, observable world. Life scientists, on the other hand, can afford no such assumption. Their field is constantly on the move, a plaything of time and historical contingency. If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it.

Consider, for example, the charming “just so” stories in French biologist and YouTuber Léo Grasset’s book of short essays, How the Zebra Got its Stripes. Now and again Grasset finds order and coherence in the natural world. His cost-benefit analysis of how animal communities make decisions, contrasting “autocracy” and “democracy”, is a fine example of lawfulness in action.

But Grasset is also sharply aware of those points where the cause-and-effect logic of scientific description cannot show the whole picture. There are, for instance, four really good ways of explaining how the zebra got its stripes, and those stripes arose probably for all those reasons, along with a couple of dozen others whose mechanisms are lost to evolutionary history.

And Grasset has even more fun describing the occasions when, frankly, nature goes nuts. Take the female hyena, for example, which has to give birth through a “pseudo-penis”. As a result, 15 per cent of mothers die after their first labour and 60 per cent of cubs die at birth. If this were a “just so” story, it would be a decidedly off-colour one.

The tussle between observation and abstraction in biology has a fascinating, fraught and sometimes violent history. In Europe at the birth of the 20th century, biology was still a descriptive science. Life presented, German molecular biologist Gunther Stent observed, “a near infinitude of particulars which have to be sorted out case by case”. Purely descriptive approaches had exhausted their usefulness and new, experimental approaches were developed: genetics, cytology, protozoology, hydrobiology, endocrinology, experimental embryology – even animal psychology. And with the elucidation of underlying biological process came the illusion of control.

In 1917, even as Vladimir Lenin was preparing to seize power in Russia, the botanist Nikolai Vavilov was lecturing to his class at the Saratov Agricultural Institute, outlining the task before them as “the planned and rational utilisation of the plant resources of the terrestrial globe”.

Predicting that the young science of genetics would give the next generation the ability “to sculpt organic forms at will”, Vavilov asserted that “biological synthesis is becoming as much a reality as chemical”.

The consequences of this kind of boosterism are laid bare in Lysenko’s Ghost by the veteran historian of Soviet science Loren Graham. He reminds us what happened when the tentatively defined scientific “laws” of plant physiology were wielded as policy instruments by a desperate and resource-strapped government.

Within the Soviet Union, dogmatic views on agrobiology led to disastrous agricultural reforms, and no amount of modern, politically motivated revisionism (the especial target of Graham’s book) can make those efforts seem more rational, or their aftermath less catastrophic.

In modern times, thankfully, a naive belief in nature’s lawfulness, reflected in lazy and increasingly outmoded expressions such as “the balance of nature”, is giving way to a more nuanced, self-aware, even tragic view of the living world. The Serengeti Rules, Sean B. Carroll’s otherwise triumphant account of how physiology and ecology turned out to share some of the same mathematics, does not shy away from the fact that the “rules” he talks about are really just arguments from analogy.

“If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it”
Some notable conservation triumphs have led from the discovery that “just as there are molecular rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place”.

For example, in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, in 2000, there were fewer than 1000 elephants, hippos, wildebeest, waterbuck, zebras, eland, buffalo, hartebeest and sable antelopes combined. Today, with the reintroduction of key predators, there are almost 40,000 animals, including 535 elephants and 436 hippos. And several of the populations are increasing by more than 20 per cent a year.

But Carroll is understandably flummoxed when it comes to explaining how those rules might apply to us. “How can we possibly hope that 7 billion people, in more than 190 countries, rich and poor, with so many different political and religious beliefs, might begin to act in ways for the long-term good of everyone?” he asks. How indeed: humans’ capacity for cultural transmission renders every Serengeti rule moot, along with the Serengeti itself – and a “law of nature” that does not include its dominant species is not really a law at all.

Of course, it is not just the sciences that have laws: the humanities and the arts do too. In The Great Derangement, a book that began as four lectures presented at the University of Chicago last year, the novelist Amitav Ghosh considers the laws of his own practice. The vast majority of novels, he explains, are realistic. In other words, the novel arose to reflect the kind of regularised life that gave you time to read novels – a regularity achieved through the availability of reliable, cheap energy: first, coal and steam, and later, oil.

No wonder, then, that “in the literary imagination climate change was somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel”. Ghosh is keenly aware of and impressively well informed about climate change: in 1978, he was nearly killed in an unprecedentedly ferocious tornado that ripped through northern Delhi, leaving 30 dead and 700 injured. Yet he has never been able to work this story into his “realist” fiction. His hands are tied: he is trapped in “the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the Earth”.

The exciting and frightening thing about Ghosh’s argument is how he traces the novel’s narrow compass back to popular and influential scientific ideas – ideas that championed uniform and gradual processes over cataclysms and catastrophes.

One big complaint about science – that it kills wonder – is the same criticism Ghosh levels at the novel: that it bequeaths us “a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”. Lawfulness in biology is rather like realism in fiction: it is a convention so useful that we forget that it is a convention.

But, if anthropogenic climate change and the gathering sixth mass extinction event have taught us anything, it is that the world is wilder than the laws we are used to would predict. Indeed, if the world really were in a novel – or even in a book of popular science – no one would believe it.

Glimpses of the Wonderful

Glimpses of the Wonderful by Anne Thwaite, reviewed for New Scientist, 2 November 2002

WHY do we study the natural world? Today, we might answer: to uncover life’s underlying principles. In the mid-19th century, those underlying principles were thought to be already established: life was a Creation of God’s.

Ann Thwaite, a literary biographer best known for her lives of Edmund Gosse and A. A. Milne, forays into the history of science with this life of Edmund Gosse’s father, the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.

Thwaite shows that Gosse’s believed that “the gratification of scientific curiosity is worse than useless if we ignore God”. After all, what is science for, if not veneration? What Gosse never could do was abandon his belief in the revealed Word and take up the un-anthropomorphic “search for underlying principles” which would become the defining feature of modern science.

A self-styled Puritan who famously called Christmas pudding “the devil’s sweetmeat”, Gosse was also the finest naturalist of his age. He enjoyed a lifelong, friendly correspondence with Charles Darwin, and popularised the science of his day with rigour and intelligence. For most of us, though, Gosse is best known through his son’s memoir Father and Son – a poignant account of Edmund’s father’s “strange severities and eccentric prohibitions”, to which Thwaite provides a robust response.

Dogmatic belief shields us from the inevitability of death. Gosse, born into a millennial age, believed that Christ would return before he died. He spent the last hours of his life in a state of heart-rending and terrible dejection. Who can say they do not share Gosse’s terrible fear of death? His unenviable distinction was to hold fast to conventional comforts in a revolutionary age.

Thwaite weaves together Gosse’s professional studies and personal convictions, not into some dead synthesis, but into a story of a man caught in the toils of the scientific establishment as it re-geared itself for the modern age. Omphalos, Gosse’s great – and greatly lampooned – attempt to marry creationist dogma with the evolutionary record, is the work by which he is best known. It is a measure of Thwaite’s intellectual grasp that we understand how well considered that book really is, and at the same time how unworthy of him. Better that we remember Gosse as a friend remembered him: a figure to embody all the contradictions of his day, “plunging into a pool in full sacerdotal black, after a sea anemone”.