A surprisingly narrow piano

Reading Richard Mainwaring’s Everybody Hertz for the Spectator, 30 April 2022.

Imagine that all the frequencies nature affords were laid out on an extended piano keyboard. Never mind that some waves are mechanical, propagated through air or some other fluid, and other waves are electromagnetic, and can pass through a vacuum. Lay them down all together, and what do you get?

The startling answer is: a surprisingly narrow piano. To play X-rays (whose waves cycle up to 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 times per second), our pianist would have to travel a mere nine metres to the right of middle C. Wandering nine and a half metres in the other direction, our pianist would then be able to sound the super-bass note generated by shockwaves rippling through the hot gas around a supermassive black hole in the Perseus cluster — a wave that cycles just once every 18.5 million years.

Closer to home, how big do you think that piano would have to be for it to play every note distinguishable by the human ear? You’d have to add barely a single octave to either side of a regular concert grand.

Readers of Richard Mainwaring’s wonderfully titled book will fall into two camps. Some will want to hear what this “infinite piano” conceit reveals about the natural world; about the (considerable) auditory abilities of spiders, say, or how 23 high-stepping fitness junkies caused a tremor that evacuated the the 39-storey Techno Mart building in Seoul, South Korea.

Other readers, though entertained well enough by Mainwaring’s extraordinary clear and concise science writing, won’t be able to get that infinite piano out of their heads. It’s a metaphor so engaging, so intuitive, it’s quite as exciting as anything else in the book (for all that the book features ghosts, whales, Neolithic chambered cairns and Nikolai Tesla).

Mainwaring is a musician and a composer, and the business of music runs under even his most abstruse intellectual excursions. A Marsquake recorded on On 6 April 2019, sped up by a factor of 60, sounds, he tells us, “not unlike someone blowing over the top of a half-full wine bottle in Westminster Abbey”. Fully concentrating on a task generates brainwaves of around 40 Hz or more: ”it’s a wonder we can’t hear them humming, as they are at the same frequency as the opening bass note of Cypress Hill’s ‘Insane in the Brain’.”

This is infotainment at its most charming and lightweight; tonally, it’s of a piece with the musical stunts (for example, arranging a performance by massed tuning-forks) that Mainwaring has regularly staged for BBC1’s pre-watershed magazine programme The ONE Show. The glimpses Mainwaring gives us into the peculiar, fractured, distraction-filled business of modern music making are quite as fascinating as his tales of planetary resonance and the latest thinking about olfaction. He can also be tremendously catty, as when he pricks the vaingloriousness of virtuoso bass players (“Know your role, bassists – stay out of the way.”)

Like any ebullient teacher, he won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. There’s always one misery-guts at the back of the class whose teeth will be set on edge, and now and again Mainwaring’s humour is a little forced. This is usually because he’s hit on some neat metaphor and doesn’t know when to stop beating on it. We should set against this, though, his willingness to dive (and deeply, too) into any number of abstruse subjects, from religious experiences to Edwardian vibrators.

Throughout, Mainwaring keeps a sharp eye out for specious claims and pretensions. There is, he says, nothing magical about “the God-given, superhero ability of perfect pitch” — the ability to identify a note from its frequency. Indeed, before 1955, the year the ISO standardised “A” at 440 Hz, there was no such thing as perfect pitch. (Interestingly, though, speakers of Mandarin, a language dependent on tonal inflexion, are rather better at guessing notes than the rest of us.)

On the other hand there is, as Mainwaring ably demonstrates, an extraordinary spiritual power to music, particularly around the note A forty-seven white keys to the left of middle C. (That’s 19 cycles per second, or 19 Hertz, we say now, in honour of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves). This “A” can trigger cold sweats, fits of severe depression, and even sightings of dead people. Mainwaring traces the use of low notes and infrasound from the more inaccessible tunnels of French caves (where little ochre dots marked where prehistoric singers should stand to sound especially resonant and amplified) to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor which, on any decent organ, generates infrasonic byproducts by means of two chords and a low pedal D.

Though horribly abused and exploited by various new Age fads over the years, the old intuition still holds: vibrations reveal much about life, consciousness and the integrity of matter. Mainwaring’s clear-eyed forays into medicine, psychology and spirituality reflect as much.

It’s a commonplace of popular science that the world is looked at best through this or that funny-shaped window of the author’s choosing. But Mainwaring’s garrulous offering is the real deal.

Nicholas, c’est moi

Watching Color Out of Space for New Scientist, 12 February 2020

Nicholas Cage’s efforts to clear his debts after 2012’s catastrophic run-in with the IRS continue with yet another relatively low-budget movie, Color Out of Space, a film no-one expects much of. (It’s in US cinemas now; by the time it reaches UK screens, on 28 February, it will already be available on Blu-Ray.)

Have you ever watched a bad film and found yourself dreaming about it months afterwards? Color Out of Space is one of those.

To begin: in March 1927 the author H. P Lovecraft wrote what would become his personal favourite story. In “The Color Out of Space”, a meteor crashes into a farmer’s field in the Massachusetts hills. The farmer’s crops grow huge, but prove inedible. His livestock go mad. So, in the end, does the farmer, haunted by a colour given off by a visiting presence in the land: a glow that belongs on no ordinary spectrum.

This is Lovecraft’s riff on a favourite theme of fin-de-siecle science fiction: the existence of new rays, and with them, new ways of seeing. The 1890s and 1900s were, after all, radiant years. Victor Schumann discovered ultraviolet radiation in 1893. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1896. J. J. Thomson discovered that cathode rays were streams of electrons in 1897. Prosper-René Blondlot discovered N-rays in 1903 — only they turned out not to exist: an artefact of observational error and wishful thinking.

And this is pretty much what the local media assume has happened when Nathan Gardner, the not-very-effective head of a household that is downsizing after unspecified health problems and financial setbacks, describes the malevolent light he catches spilling at odd moments from his well. The man’s a drunk, is what people assume. A fantasist. An eccentric.

The film is yet another attempt to fuse American Gothic to a contemporary setting. Director Richard Stanley (who brough us 1990’s Hardware, another valuable bad movie) has written a script that, far from smoothing out the discrepancies between modern and pre-modern proprieties, manners, and ways of speaking, leaves them jangling against each other in a way that makes you wonder What On Earth Is Going On.

And what is going on, most of the time, is Nicholas Cage as Gardner. Has anyone before or since conveyed so raucously and yet so well the misery, the frustration, the rage, the self-hatred of weak men? Every time he gets into a fist-fight with a car interior I think to myself, Ah, Nicholas, c’est moi.

Even better, Cage’s on-screen wife here is Joely Richardson, an actress who packs a lifetime’s disappointments into a request to pass the sugar.

Alien life is not like earth life and to confront it is to invite madness, is the general idea. But with tremendous support from on-screen children Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer, Cage and Richardson turn what might have been a series of uninteresting personal descents into a family tragedy of Jacobean proportions. If ever hell were other people, then at its deepest point you would find the Gardner family, sniping at each other across the dinner table.

Color Out of Space mashes up psychological drama, horror, and alien invasion. It’s not a film you admire. It’s a film you get into internal arguments with, as you try and sort all the bits out. In short, it does exactly what it set out to do. It sticks.

Just a nuclear-powered dinosaur

Pondering the science of Godzilla for New Scientist, 12 June 2019

FOR Japanese children, Godzilla is the ultimate scary adult: fierce, honourable, clumsy and a bit out of control. For their grandparents, he’s the irradiated embodiment of wartime tragedy, a bad memory come to life. For the rest of us, I suppose, he’s “just” a nuclear-powered dinosaur.

Godzilla is also a pay cheque. Films featuring the epic creature, almost all by the Japanese studio Toho, have been produced since 1954, a cinematic franchise record. The current release, Godzilla: King of the monsters, is the 35th, and the third to be produced entirely within the Hollywood system.

Its human stars play the shattered Russell family. Millie Bobby Brown from TV hit Stranger Things is Madison, whose brother Andrew was killed during a 2014 kaiju (monster) attack on San Francisco. Her dad Mark is literally living with wolves; her mum Emma prefers kaiju to people.

Terroristic eco-warriors are out to awaken Godzilla’s subterranean cousins in an effort to bring the planet “back into balance” – and Emma is inclined to help them. Newsreel images of ruined San Francisco make her point: in five short years it has turned to jungle, accelerated by ionising radiation spilling from Godzilla’s insides.

Why do movies, stretching back to the giant ants of Them!, assume that excess radiation promotes growth? The evidence has always pointed the other way. Ionising radiation weakens and breaks up DNA, damaging cells enough to kill them, or cause them to mutate in ways that, somehow or other, lead to the grave. In humans, epidemiological studies show that even low doses of radiation increase the risk of cancer.

Still, human nature being what it is, whenever a new kind of ray is detected, we speculate about its magical properties. Radium, a radioactive metal, was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, and though it eventually killed her, it still found its way into the food chain thanks to products like Hippman-Blach bakery’s Radium Bread (made with radium-laced water, which was supposed to cure everything from arthritis to impotence to wrinkles).

Is there more to this accelerated-growth idea than magical thinking? “Hormesis” is the controversial notion that things that are dangerous in high doses might be beneficial to human health at lower levels. Some lab studies have shown the effect in action. Whether there is radiation hormesis, however, is a big question – and a timely one.

China’s space programme has studied the ability of plants to develop and thrive in conditions of microgravity and exposure to cosmic radiation in space. Since 1987, 66 mutant varieties have been cultivated through its space-breeding efforts.

So far, so workaday: “atomic gardening” has been around since the 1950s, exposing plants to radioactive sources (typically cobalt-60) to generate mutations, and over 2000 new varieties of agriculturally useful plants have been created this way.

The Chinese results, however, are a bit weird. Plants positively mutated during space flight have grown faster than their irradiated Earth-grown counterparts. Space-bred mutations do better than their “atomically gardened” controls, and no one is sure why.

Is there something magical about cosmic rays? Probably not, though if I were Godzilla (traditionally Earth’s first line of defence against alien attack) I would watch my back.