Fatally punctured by a sword-swallower’s blade

Visiting Flop: 13 stories of failure at The Octagon, University College London, for New Scientist, 6 November 2019

Quitting your job? Then remember to clear out your locker. One former employee of University College London left a bottle of home-made plum brandy in a drawer. The macerated plum was eventually discovered, mulled over (sorry), misidentified as a testicle (species unknown), and added to the university’s collection. Now that same collection fuels Flop, in UCL’s tiny Octagon gallery.

It’s not so much an exhibition as a series of provocations. (A notice by the last case asks you to share your own accounts of failure on a postcard “so we can all start learning from each other’s mistakes.”) After all, what is a failure? Do failures exist outside of the realm of human judgement? (“Can animals have accidents?” is a favourite undergraduate philosophy question. Humans can: one of the more gruesome exhibits here is a human heart, fatally punctured by a sword-swallower’s blade.)

How we define failure depends on our changing needs and circumstances. There was a time, not very long ago, when the plethora of human languages seemed indicative of some deep, Biblical failure to establish amity across our species. Concerted efforts were made to establish a single, synthetic language through which we might all be understood. There’s a fascinating page here from an essay by John Wilkins, whose Royal Society language project attempted to establish an analytical language that would allow people to communicate despite not sharing the same tongue. It foundered because the Royal Society couldn’t agree on how many essential concepts existed in the world.

Now that we live among artificially intelligent agents, the best of whom are more than capable of translating even spoken speech in real time, we find failure in our reduction of linguistic diversity. We bemoan the loss of languages (3000 of them have perished since 1910) , and mourn the cultural deficit left by their demise.

Can objects fail? Only in the sense that they fail to perform an expected action. Silly Putty, a perenially popular toy, was the result of a failed attempt to produce a synthetic rubber substitute during World War II. People can “fail” in much the same way. Percy Wyndham Lewis was kicked out of the Slade School of Fine Art for arguing with his lecturers, and went on to become the foremost avant-garde artist and writer of his generation.

If these examples of failure feel a bit tenuous, well, that’s really the point Flop wants to make: what’s interesting is how we deal with failures, not how we define them.
“Perhaps contrasting failure with success is the real problem,” the introductory material explains. “If every activity has to end in either one or the other, it denies the nuanced and messy complexities of life.”

“You made a person!”

Watching Ang Lee’s Gemini Man for New Scientist, 30 October 2019 

“You made a person!” cries Will Smith (tearful, stressed, and twenty-five years younger than he ought to be). “Out of another person! And then you sent me to kill him!”

He’s facing off against his adoptive dad Clay Verris (Clive Owen) who makes perfect soldiers for a living — or tries to. (Smith’s “Junior” is his latest wheeze.)

Why Junior must kill his “clone-father” Henry Brogan, an exhausted hitman (also played by Will Smith, this time at his real age — and has a black actor ever been given a whiter name?), is never made entirely clear.

Junior wants answers, as do we all, though it’s obvious by now we’re not going to get them: not from a script that’s been kicking around Hollywood for 20 years, and not from a director whose bleached, hectic, high frame-rate 3-D cinematography lends walls and machinery greater physical presence than faces.

Gemini Man hurls itself into not one, but two gaping logic holes. First, the film relies on the inherent menace implicit in the idea of human cloning. But who in their right mind would ever be afraid of a mere clone? We deal with far more serious incursions of the uncanny every day, from the bodyless ubiquity of digital personal assistants like Siri and Alexa, to the creepy co-evolutionary pals-for-ever antics of our pet dogs and cats, to the not inconsiderable challenge that is other people, many of whom look, speak, and behave quite differently to ourselves.

The only film that ever made clones scary was The Boys from Brazil (1978), in which a Brazilian clinic starts churning out copies of Adolf Hitler — and even here the hero comes to realise that the clones themselves are utterly harmless, that it’s the Nazis who should be commanding our attention.

Problem number two: by the time you’ve made your “perfect soldiers” flexible enough to do the job you want them to do, you’ve given them enough agency to disobey you.

This bind has driven the plot of much good robot-infused literature, from the synthetic human’s birth in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1920), to its entanglement in some famous puzzle-stories by Isaac Asimov (who famous Three Laws of Robotics are basically three laws of slavery with a sugar coating).

Algis Budrys set the capstone on this sort of tale in 1957 with the short story “First to Serve”, in which a government engineering team are driven round the bend in the effort to create an obedient military robot. “Haven’t you got it through your head?” a researcher cries in exasperation: “Pimmy’s the perfect soldier, all of him, with all his abilities. That includes individuality, curiosity, judgment — and intelligence. Cut one part of that, and he’s no good. You’ve got to take the whole cake, or none at all. One way you starve — and the other way you choke.”

A word about Gemini Man’s de-ageing technology, which supposedly took 20 years’ development before it was good enough to halve Will Smith’s age. First, it didn’t. David Fincher made The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008. Second, it needs a script to make it work. (Scorcese’s The Irishman (still in cinemas when this was written) is so involving, you never notice that young De Niro’s face is wobbling about on a more than seventy-year-old body). Third: Will Smith looks way better now than he did as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Hit the gym, dear middle-aged readers, you have everything to live for.

Nothing to do except try not to die

Moving to Mars for New Scientist, 18 October 2019

Step into Moving to Mars, an exhibition of Mars mission and colony design at London’s Design Museum, and you are confronted, immediately, with some very good reasons not to move there. Minatory glowing wall texts announce that Mars was not made for you; that there is no life and precious little water; that, clad in a space suit, you will never touch, taste or smell the planet you now call “home”. As Lisa Grossman wrote for New Scientist a couple of years ago, “What’s different about Mars is that there is nothing to do there except try not to die.”

It’s an odd beginning for such an up-beat and celebratory show, but it provides some valuable dark ground against which the rest of the show can sparkle — a show that is, as its chief curator Justin McGuirk remarks, “not about Mars; this is an exhibition about people.”

Next up: a quick yet lucid dash through what the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls “the history of Mars in the human mind”. A Babylonian clay tablet and a Greek vase speak to our early cosmological ideas about the planets; a poster for the film Total Recall (the good one, from 1990), reminds us of Mars’s psychological menace.

The bulk of the show focuses on our current plans for the red planet. There are real space suits and models of real rovers, maquettes of 3D-printed Martian settlements and prototypes of Mars-appropriate clothing and furniture. Mission architectures and engineering sketches line the walls. Real hammers meant for the International Space Station (hollow, and loaded with ball bearings to increase their utility in zero-gravity) are wall-mounted beside a nifty low-gravity table that has yet to leave, and may indeed never leave, Earth. This, of course, is the great strength of approaching science through design: reality and speculation can be given equal visual weight, drawing us into an informed conversation about what it is we actually want from the future. Some readers may remember a tremendous touring exhibition, Hello Robot in 2017, which did much the same for robotics and artificial intelligence.

Half way round the show, I relaxed in a fully realised Martian living pod by the international design firm Hassell and their engineering partners Eckersley O’Callaghan. They’d assembled this as part of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge — the agency’s programme to develop habitat ideas for deep space exploration — and it combines economy, recycling, efficiency and comfort in surprising ways. Xavier De Kestelier, Hassell’s head of design technology and innovation, was on hand to show me around, and was particularly proud of the chairs here, which are are made of recycled packaging: “The more you eat, the more you sit!”

So much for the promise of Martian living. The profound limitations of that life were brought home to me a working hydroponic system by Growstack. Its trays of delicious cress and lettuce reminded me, rather sharply, that for all the hype, we are still a very long way from being able to feed ourselves away from our home world. We’re still at the point, indeed, where a single sunflower and a single zinnia, blossoming aboard the ISS — the former in 2012, the latter in 2016 — still make headlines.

The Growstack exhibit and other materials about Martian horticulture also marked an important cultural shift, away from the strategic, militarised thinking that characterised early space exploration in the Cold War, and towards more humane, more practical questions about how one lives an ordinary life in such extraordinary, and extraordinarily limited, environments.

it’s no surprise that the Russian were thinking seriously about these questions long before the rest of us, and it was good to see Russian space cultures given their due in this impressively international show. All through the 19th century, researchers for the Tsarist government tried to develop agriculture in mostly frozen and largely infertile Siberia. Well into the Soviet era, soil scientists undertook extreme expeditions over vast distances in pursuit of insane agricultural speculations. It shows up in their popular culture. “Hold on, geologist,” ran one pop song of 1951, “hold out, geologist, you are brother of the wind and sun!” And then there are the films of Pavel Vladimirovich Klushantsev, born 1910 in St Petersburg.

Klushantsev’s documentary Road to the Stars (1957), a meticulous, scientifically accurate vision to the physics, engineering, ergonomics of space travel, was followed seven years later by Moon (1965), describing the exploration, mining, settlement and domestication of a new land. Both films feature succulent gardens glistening under space domes, and workers eager to tend them, and bowls full of peaches beside every workstation, offering a little, literal taste of home.

I was delighted to see here a screen showing *Mars* (1968), a much less celebrated effort — Klushantsev’s saturated, multicoloured vision of man on the Red Planet. It’s the film with the dog in the spacesuit: an image people who’ve never heard of this director treasure for its kitsch value. It’s the film that earned him a telegram which read: “Due to the low quality of your work, we hereby inform you that we are terminating your contract with the studio.”

So much for the Soviet imagination.

But other cultures, each with their own deep, historical motivations, have since stepped up with plans to settle Mars. My favourites projects originate in the Middle East, where subterranean irrigation canals were greening the desert a full millennium before the astronomer Percival Lowell thought he spotted similar structures on Mars. (The underground networks called khettaras in Morocco irrigated much of its northern oasis region right up until the early 1970s, when government policies began to favour dam construction.)

Having raised major cities in one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth — and this in less than a generation — we should hardly be surprised that the rulers of the United Arab Emirates believe it’s feasible to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2117. A development hub, “Mars Scientific City”, is scheduled to open in Dubai in the next three to four years, and will feature a laboratory that will simulate the red planet’s terrain and harsh environment. It will be, I suppose, a sort of extension of the 520-day Mars 500 simulation that in 2011 sent six volunteers on a round trip to the Red Planet without stepping out of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

The playfulness of “Martian thinking” is quite properly reflected in this playful and family-orientated exhibition. The point, made very well here, is that this play, this freedom from strictures and established lines of thought, is essential to good design. Space forces you to work from first principles. It forces you to think about mass, and transport, and utility, and reusability. And I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that Eleanor Watson, the assistant curator on this show, has been chosen to curate this year’s Global Grad Show, which in November will be bringing the most innovative new design thinking to Dubai — a city which, in contending with its own set of environmental extremes, often feels half way to Mars already.

As I was leaving Moving to Mars I was drawn up short by what looked like some cycling gear. Anna Talvi, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, has constructed her flesh-hugging clothing to act as a sort of “wearable gym” to counter the muscle wasting and bone loss caused by living in low gravity. She has also tried to tackle the serious psychological challenges of space exploration, by permeating her fabrics with comforting scents. Her X.Earth perfumed gloves “will bring you back to your Earth-memory place at the speed of thought”, with the the smell of freshly cut grass, say, or the smell of your favourite horse.

Those gloves, even more than that hydroponically grown lettuce, brought home to me the sheer hideousness of space exploration. It’s no accident that this year’s most ambitious science fiction movies, Aniara and Ad Astra, have both focused on the impossible mental and spiritual toll we’d suffer, were we ever to swap our home planet for a life of manufactured monotony.

There’s a new realism creeping into our ideas of living off-world, along with a resurgence of optimism and possibility. And this is good. We need light and shade as we plan our next great adventure. How else can we ever hope to become Martian?

“Intelligence is the wrong metaphor for what we’ve built”

Travelling From Apple to Anomaly, Trevor Paglen’s installation at the Barbican’s Curve gallery in London, for New Scientist, 9 October 2019

A COUPLE of days before the opening of Trevor Paglen’s latest photographic installation, From “Apple” to “Anomaly”, a related project by the artist found itself splashed all over the papers.

ImageNet Roulette is an online collaboration with artificial intelligence researcher Kate Crawford at New York University. The website invites you to provide an image of your face. An algorithm will then compare your face against a database called ImageNet and assign you to one or two of its 21,000 categories.

ImageNet has become one of the most influential visual data sets in the fields of deep learning and AI. Its creators at Stanford, Princeton and other US universities harvested more than 14 million photographs from photo upload sites and other internet sources, then had them manually categorised by some 25,000 workers on Amazon’s crowdsourcing labour site Mechanical Turk. ImageNet is widely used as a training data set for image-based AI systems and is the secret sauce within many key applications, from phone filters to medical imaging, biometrics and autonomous cars.

According to ImageNet Roulette, I look like a “political scientist” and a “historian”. Both descriptions are sort-of-accurate and highly flattering. I was impressed. Mind you, I’m a white man. We are all over the internet, and the neural net had plenty of “my sort” to go on.

Spare a thought for Guardian journalist Julia Carrie Wong, however. According to ImageNet Roulette she was a “gook” and a “slant-eye”. In its attempt to identify Wong’s “sort”, ImageNet Roulette had innocently turned up some racist labels.

From “Apple” to “Anomaly” also takes ImageNet to task. Paglen took a selection of 35,000 photos from ImageNet’s archive, printed them out and stuck them to the wall of the Curve gallery at the Barbican in London in a 50-metre-long collage.

The entry point is images labelled “apple” – a category that, unsurprisingly, yields mostly pictures of apples – but the piece then works through increasingly abstract and controversial categories such as “sister” and “racist”. (Among the “racists” are Roger Moore and Barack Obama; my guess is that being over-represented in a data set carries its own set of risks.) Paglen explains: “We can all look at an apple and call it by its name. An apple is an apple. But what about a noun like ‘sister’, which is a relational concept? What might seem like a simple idea – categorising objects or naming pictures – quickly becomes a process of judgement.”

The final category in the show is “anomaly”. There is, of course, no such thing as an anomaly in nature. Anomalies are simply things that don’t conform to the classification systems we set up.

Halfway along the vast, gallery-spanning collage of photographs, the slew of predominantly natural and environmental images peters out, replaced by human faces. Discrete labels here and there indicate which of ImageNet’s categories are being illustrated. At one point of transition, the group labelled “bottom feeder” consists entirely of headshots of media figures – there isn’t one aquatic creature in evidence.

Scanning From “Apple” to “Anomaly” gives gallery-goers many such unexpected, disconcerting insights into the way language parcels up the world. Sometimes, these threaten to undermine the piece itself. Passing seamlessly from “android” to “minibar”, one might suppose that we are passing from category to category according to the logic of a visual algorithm. After all, a metal man and a minibar are not so dissimilar. At other times – crossing from “coffee” to “poultry”, for example – the division between categories is sharp, leaving me unsure how we moved from one to another, and whose decision it was. Was some algorithm making an obscure connection between hens and beans?

Well, no: the categories were chosen and arranged by Paglen. Only the choice of images within each category was made by a trained neural network.

This set me wondering whether the ImageNet data set wasn’t simply being used as a foil for Paglen’s sense of mischief. Why else would a cheerleader dominate the “saboteur” category? And do all “divorce lawyers” really wear red ties?

This is a problem for art built around artificial intelligence: it can be hard to tell where the algorithm ends and the artist begins. Mind you, you could say the same about the entire AI field. “A lot of the ideology around AI, and what people imagine it can do, has to do with that simple word ‘intelligence’,” says Paglen, a US artist now based in Berlin, whose interest in computer vision and surveillance culture sprung from his academic career as a geographer. “Intelligence is the wrong metaphor for what we’ve built, but it’s one we’ve inherited from the 1960s.”

Paglen fears the way the word intelligence implies some kind of superhuman agency and infallibility to what are in essence giant statistical engines. “This is terribly dangerous,” he says, “and also very convenient for people trying to raise money to build all sorts of shoddy, ill-advised applications with it.”

Asked what concerns him more, intelligent machines or the people who use them, Paglen answers: “I worry about the people who make money from them. Artificial intelligence is not about making computers smart. It’s about extracting value from data, from images, from patterns of life. The point is not seeing. The point is to make money or to amplify power.”

It is a point by no means lost on a creator of ImageNet itself, Fei-Fei Li at Stanford University in California, who, when I spoke to Paglen, was in London to celebrate ImageNet’s 10th birthday at the Photographers’ Gallery. Far from being the face of predatory surveillance capitalism, Li leads efforts to correct the malevolent biases lurking in her creation. Wong, incidentally, won’t get that racist slur again, following ImageNet’s announcement that it was removing more than half of the 1.2 million pictures of people in its collection.

Paglen is sympathetic to the challenge Li faces. “We’re not normally aware of the very narrow parameters that are built into computer vision and artificial intelligence systems,” he says. His job as artist-cum-investigative reporter is, he says, to help reveal the failures and biases and forms of politics built into such systems.

Some might feel that such work feeds an easy and unexamined public paranoia. Peter Skomoroch, former principal data scientist at LinkedIn, thinks so. He calls ImageNet Roulette junk science, and wrote on Twitter: “Intentionally building a broken demo that gives bad results for shock value reminds me of Edison’s war of the currents.”

Paglen believes, on the contrary, that we have a long way to go before we are paranoid enough about the world we are creating.

Fifty years ago it was very difficult for marketing companies to get information about what kind of television shows you watched, what kinds of drinking habits you might have or how you drove your car. Now giant companies are trying to extract value from that information. “I think,” says Paglen, “that we’re going through something akin to England and Wales’s Inclosure Acts, when what had been de facto public spaces were fenced off by the state and by capital.”

Hurtling towards zero

Watching Richard Ladkani’s Sea of Shadows for New Scientist, 2 October 2019

This is the story of the world’s smallest whale, the vaquita, reduced in number to fewer than 30 individuals, and hiding out in the extreme south-western corner of its territory in the Sea of Cortez. It is not a story that will end well, though Richard Ladkani (whose 2016 Netflix documentary The Ivory Game was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2017) has made something here which is very hard to look away from.

This is not an environmental story. This is a true crime. No-one’s interested in hunting the vaquita. The similarly sized Totoaba fish, which shares the vaquita’s waters, is another matter. It’s called the cocaine of the sea — a nickname that makes no sense whatsoever until you learn that the Mexican drug cartels have moved into the totoaba business to satisfy demand from the Chinese luxury market. (It’s the usual film-flam: the fish’s swim bladders are supposed to possess rare medical properties. )

Illegal gill nets that catch the totoaba — itself a rapidly declining population — also catch and kill vaquitas. The government talks a good environmental game but has let the problem get out of hand. Law-abiding fishing communities are ruined by blanket fishing bans while the illegals operate with near-impunity. Late on in the film, there’s some CCTV footage of a couple of soldiers having some car trouble. They ask for help from a passing motorist. Who shoots one of the soldiers dead. Bam. Just like that. And drives away. Meet Oscar Parra, the tortoaba padron of Santa Clara. (I said you couldn’t look away; I didn’t say you wouldn’t want to.)

Things are so bad, a scheme is dreamt up to remove the remaining vaquitas from the ocean and keep them in captivity. It’s an absurdly desperate move, because virtually nothing is known about the vaquita’s disposition and habits. (Some locals believe the creature is a myth dreamt up by a hostile government to bankrupt the poor: how’s that for fake news?) Project leader Cynthia Smith explains the dilemma facing the vaquita: “possible death in our care or certain death in the ocean”. She knows what she’s doing — she a senior veterinarian for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program — but no one has ever tried to capture, let alone keep, a vaquita before. This could go very wrong indeed. (And still, you cannot look away…)

Sea of Shadows won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in February this year; National Geographic snapped it up for $3million. It’s built around a collaborative investigation between Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of Earth League International (the hero-detectives of The Ivory Game) and Carlos Loret de Mola, a popular correspondent and news anchor in Mexico, whose topical show Despierta reaches an international audience of 35 million people a day. Crosta and de Mola and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, their maritime partners in crime-prevention, are all of them expert in handling and appealing to the media. Everything about this film that might rankle the viewer is entirely deliberate — the film’s “whodunnit” structure, the way all content is crammed into a pre-storyboarded narrative, then squeezed to release a steady drip-drip-drip of pre-digested information. Sea of Shadows is pure NatGeo fodder, and if you don’t like that channel much, you won’t like this at all.

Just bear in mind, the rest of us will be perching on the edge of our sofas, in thrall to drone-heavy cinematography that owes not a little to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 thriller Sicario, rocked by a thumping score full of dread and menace, and appalled by a story headed pell-mell for the dark.

Rare resources are doomed to extinction eventually because the rarer a resource is, the more expensive it is, and the more incentive there is to trade in it. This is why, past a certain point, rare stocks hurtle towards zero.

Can the vaquita be saved? Sea of Shadows was made in 2018 and says there are fewer than 30 vaquitas in the ocean.

Today there are fewer than 10.

Normal fish and stubby dinosaurs

Reading Imagined Life by James Trefil and Michael Summers for New Scientist, 20 September 2019

If you can imagine a world that is consistent with the laws of physics,” say physicist James Trefil and planetary scientist Michael Summers, “then there’s a good chance that it exists somewhere in our galaxy.”

The universe is dark, empty, and expanding, true. But the few parts of it that are populated by matter at all, are full of planets. Embarrassingly so: interstellar space itself is littered with hard-to-spot rogue worlds, ejected early on in their solar system’s history, and these worlds may outnumber orbiting planets by a factor of two to one. (Not everyone agrees: some experts reckon rogues may out-number orbital worlds 1000 to one. One of the reasons the little green men have yet to sail up to the White House, is that they keep hitting space shoals.)

Can we conclude, then, that this cluttered galaxy is full of life? The surprising (and frustrating) truth is that we genuinely have no idea. And while Trefil and Summers are obviously primed to receive with open arms any visitors who happen by, they do a splendid job, in this, their second slim volume together of explaining just how tentative and speculative our thoughts about exobiology actually are, and why.

Exoplanets came out in 2013; Imagined Life is a sort of sequel and is, if possible, even more accessible. In just 14 pages, the authors outline the physical laws constraining the universe. Then they rattle through the various ways we can define life, and why spotting life on distant worlds is so difficult (“For just about every molecule that we could identify [through spectroscopy] as a potential biomarker of life on an exoplanet, there is a nonbiological production mechanism.”). They list the most likely types of environment on which life may have evolved, from water worlds to Mega Earths (expect “normal fish… and stubby dinosaurs”), from tidally locked planets to wildly exotic (but by no means unlikely) superconducting rogues. And we haven’t even reached the meat of this tiny book yet – a tour, planet by imaginary planet, of the possibilities for life, intelligence, and civilisation in our and other galaxies.

Most strange worlds are far too strange for life, and the more one learns about chemistry, the more sober one’s speculations become. Water is common in the universe, and carbon not hard to find, and this is as well, given the relative uselessness of their nearest equivalents (benzene and silicon, say). The authors argue enthusiastically for the possibilities of life that’s “really not like us”, but they have a hard time making it stick. Carbon-based life is pretty various, of course, but even here there may be unexepected limits on what’s possible. Given that, out of 140 amino acids, only 22 have been recruited in nature, it may be that mechanisms of inheritance converge on a surprisingly narrow set of possibilities.

The trick to finding life in odd places, we discover, is to look not out, but in, and through. “Scientists are beginning to abandon the idea that life has to evolve and persist on the surface of planets” the authors write, laying the groundwork for their description of an aquatic alien civilisation for whom a mission to the ocean surface “would be no stranger to them than a mission to Mars is to us.”

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ stock assumption that life most likely breeds intelligence most likely breeds technology. Nothing in biology , or human history, suggests as much. Humans in their current iteration may be far odder than we imagine. But what the hell: Imagined Life reminds me of those books I grew up with, full of artists’ impressions of the teeming oceans of Venus. Only now, the science is better; the writing is better; and the possibiliities, being more focused, are altogether more intoxicating.

“Chuck one over here, Candy Man!”

 

Watching Ad Astra for New Scientist, 18 September 2019

It is 2033. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is told that his father Clifford, the decorated space explorer, may still be alive, decades after he and the crew of his last mission fell silent in orbit around Neptune.

Clifford’s Lima mission was sent to the outer edges of the heliosphere – the region of the sun’s gravitational influence – the better to scan the galaxy’s exoplanets for intelligent life. Now the Lima’s station’s antimatter generator is triggering electrical storms on distant Earth, and all life in the solar system is threatened.

McBride sets off on a secret mission to Mars. Once there, he is handed a microphone. He reads out a message to his dad. When he finishes speaking, he and the sound engineers pause, as if awaiting an instant reply from Clifford, the message’s intended recipient, somewhere in orbit around Neptune. What?

Eventually a reply is received (ten days later, presumably, given that Mars and Neptune are on average more than four billion kilometres apart). No-one wants to tell McBride what his dad said except the woman responsible for the Mars base (the wonderful Ruth Negga, looking troubled here, as well she might). The truths she shares about Roy’s father convince the audience, if not Roy himself, that the authorities are quite right to fear Clifford, quite right to seek a way to neutralise him, and quite right in their efforts to park his unwitting son well out of the way.

But Roy, at great risk to himself, and with actions that will cost several lives, is determined on a course for Neptune, and a meeting with his dad.

Ad Astra is a psychodrama about solipsistic fathers and abandoned sons, conducted in large part through monologues and close-ups of Brad Pitt’s face. And this is as well, since Pitt’s performance is easily the most coherent and thrilling element in a film that is neither.

Not, to be fair, that Ad Astra ever aspired to be exciting in any straightforward way. Pirates and space monkeys aside (yes, you read that right) Ad Astra is a serious, slow-burn piece about our desire to explore the world, and our desire to make meaning and connection, and how these contrary imperatives tear us apart in the vastness of the cosmic vacuum.

It ought to have worked.

The fact that it’s serious should have worked: four out of five of writer-director James Gray’s previous films were nominated for Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. Ad Astra itself was inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems by Tracy K. Smith, all about gazing up at the stars and grieving for her father.

The film’s visuals and sound design should have worked. It draws inspiration for its dizzying opening sequence from the well-documented space-parachuting adventures of Felix Baumgartner in 2012, adopts elsewhere the visual style and sound design of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 hit film Gravity, and, when we get to Mars, tips its hat to the massy, reinforced concrete interiors of Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 Blade Runner 2049. For all that, it still feels original: a fully realised world.

The incidental details ought to have worked. There’s much going on in this film to suggest that everyone is quietly, desperately attempting to stabilise their mood, so as not to fly off the handle in the cramped, dull, lifeless interiors beyond Earth. The whole off-world population is seen casually narcotising itself: “Chuck one over here, Candy Man!” Psychological evaluations are a near-daily routine for anyone whose routine brings them anywhere near an airlock, and these automated examinations (shades of Blade Runner 2049 again) seem to be welcomed, as one imagines Catholic confession would be welcomed by a hard-pressed believer.

Even the script, though a mess, might have worked. Pitt turns the dullest lines into understated character portraits with a well-judged pause and the tremor of one highly trained facial muscle. Few other cast members get a word in edgewise.

What sends Ad Astra spinning into the void is its voiceover. Grey is a proven writer and director, and he’s reduced Ad Astra’s plot down to seven-or-so strange, surreal, irreducible scenes, much in the manner of his cinematic hero Stanley Kubrick. Like Kubrick, he’s kept dialogue to the barest minimum. Like Kubrick, he’s not afraid of letting a good lead actor dominate the screen. And then someone – can it really have been Gray himself? – had the bright idea to vitiate all that good work by sticking Roy McBride’s internal monologue over every plot point, like a string of Elastoplasts.

Consequently, the audience are repeatedly kicked out of the state of enchantment they need to inhabit if they’re going to see past the plot holes to the movie’s melancholy heart.

The devil of this film is that it fails so badly, even as everyone is working so conspicuously hard to make a masterpiece. “Why go on?” Roy asks in voiceover, five minutes before the credits roll. “Why keep trying?”

Why indeed?

Lost in the quiet immensities

Watching Aniara for New Scientist, 7 September 2019

In the opening sequence of the Swedish sci-fi film Aniara, a space elevator rises into low earth orbit to meet an interplanetary cruiser, bound for new settlements on Mars. (The Earth, pillaged to destruction by humanity, is by now literally burning.)

But when we cut to its interior, the elevator turns out to be, well, a night bus. A tight focus on lead actress Emelie Jonsson, staring out a misted-up window into the featureless dark, accentuates, rather than conceals, the lack of set.

The interplanetary cruiser Aniara is a pretty decent piece of model work on the outside but on the inside, it’s a ferry. I know, because work for New Scientist once had me sailing down the coast of Norway on board the same vessel, or one very like it, for an entire week.

Have writer-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja turned out a film so low-budget that they couldn’t afford any sets? Have they been inept enough to reveal the fact in the first reel?

No, and no. Aniara is, on the contrary, one of the smartest movies of 2019.

Aniara’s journey to Mars is primarily a retail opportunity. Go buy some duty-free knits while your kids knock each other off plastic dinosaurs in the soft-play area. Have your picture taken with some poor bugger on a minimum wage dressed as large, stupid-looking bird. Don’t worry: in a real crisis, there’s always the pitch-and-putt.

When the worst happens — colliding with a piece of space debris, the Aniara is nudged off course into interstellar space with no hope of return or rescue — the lights flicker, someone trips on some stairs, a couple of passengers complain about the lack of information, and the hospitality crew work the mall bearing complementary snacks.

“Transtellar Cruise Lines would like to apologize to passengers for the continuing delay to this flight. We are currently awaiting the loading of our complement of small lemon-soaked paper napkins for your comfort, refreshment and hygiene during the journey.”

Not Aniara, this, but a quotation from Douglas Adams’s peerless radio tie-in novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, to which Aniara serves as a particularly bleak twin. Don’t think for a moment this is a film without humour. There’s a scene in which the captain (played with pitch-perfect ghastliness by Arvin Kananian) reassures his castaway passengers that rescue is imminent while playing televised billiards. Balls and pockets; planets and gravity wells. It’s every useless planetary mechanics lecture you’ve ever suffered through and you realise, watching it, that everyone is doomed.

“They awoke screaming and clawing at their straps and life support systems that held them tightly in their seats.” (Adams again, because I couldn’t resist, and besides, it’s as good a summation as any of where Aniara is headed.)

Not only will there be no rescue. It begins to dawn on our heroine, Mimaroben (a sort of ship’s counsellor armed with a telepathic entertainment system that (you guessed it) kills itself) that there there is no such thing as rescue. “You think Mars is Paradise?” she scolds a passenger. “It’s cold.” May as well be here as there, is her conclusion. Death’s a waiting game, wherever you run.

Aniara is based on a long narrative poem by the Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and the sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, reviewing a 1964 American edition of the poem, said it “transcends panic and terror and even despair [and] leaves you in the quiet immensities”. So there.

But I don’t care how bleak it is. I am sick to the back teeth of those oh-so-futuristic science fiction films, and their conjuring-up of scenarios that, however “dystopic”, are really only there to ravish the eye and numb the mind.

Aniara gets the future right — which is to say, it portrays the future as though it were the present. When we finally build a space elevator, it’s going to be the equivalent of a bus. When we fly to Mars, it’ll be indistinguishable from a ferry. The moment we attain the future, it becomes now, and now is not a place you go in order to exprerience a frisson of wonder or horror. It’s where you’re stuck, trying — and sometimes failing — to scrape together a meaning for it all.

Transports of delight

Exploring Driverless: Who is in control? at London’s Science Museum for New Scientist, 31 August 2019

Durham Cathedral’s stained glass windows inspired artist Dominic Wilcox’s contribution to Driverless, a tiny but thought-provoking exhibition at London’s Science Museum.

It occurred to Wilcox that artificial intelligence could make traffic collisions a thing of the past, which means “we don’t need the protection systems that are built into contemporary cars”, he told design magazine Dezeen. “We can just have a shell of any design.”

His Stained Glass Driverless Sleeper Car of the Future is the sort of vehicle we may be driving when road safety has improved to the point where we can build cars out of whatever we want. It suggests a future in which safety is no longer a set of barriers, cages, buffers and lights, and is instead a dance of algorithms. Rather than measuring out a bike lane, say, we will have an algorithm that decides whether to leave a smaller distance to the bicycle on its left to reduce the chance of hitting a truck on its right.

What if that causes more cyclists, but fewer passengers, to die every year? Such questions aren’t new. But they are having to be asked again and in a different and disconcerting form as we move more safety systems off the roads and into vehicles.

On show is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Moral Machine”, a website using more than 40 million participants’ decisions on what to do in certain situations to inform our autonomous machinery design. The findings can be unsettling: would-be designers are more likely to sacrifice your safety if you are fat, a criminal or a dog

This is a show as much about possible futures as it is about the present. Interviews, archival footage, models and some interactive displays create a series of provocations, more than a fully fledged exhibition.

I especially liked the look of the MIT Senseable City Lab and the AMS Institute’s “Roboats”, currently on trial on Amsterdam’s canals. These autonomous floating platforms form spontaneous bridges and event platforms and can transport goods and people.

The exhibition spends much of its time off-road, investigating drone swarms and privacy, flocking behaviour and mine clearance, ocean mapping and planetary surveillance.

Don’t let its size put you off: this little show is full of big surprises.

Priority message

Exploring The Current War for New Scientist, 10 August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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