Two hundred years of electro-foolery come good

Reading We Are Electric by Sally Adee for the Times, 28 January 2023

In an attempt to elucidate the role of electricity in biology, German polymath Alexander von Humboldt once stuck a charged wire up his bum and found that “a bright light appears before both eyes”.

Why the study of biological electricity should prove so irremediably smutty — so that serious ”electricians” (as the early researchers called themselves) steered well clear of bodies for well over a century — is a mystery science journalist Sally Adee would rather not have to re-hash, though her by-the-by account of “two hundred years of electro-foolery”, during which quacks peddled any number of cockeyed devices to treat everything from cancer to excessive masturbation, is highly entertaining.

And while this history of electricity’s role in the body begins, conventionally enough, with Volta and Galvani, with spasming frog’s legs and other fairly gruesome experiments, this is really just necessary groundwork, so that Adee can better explain recent findings that are transforming our understanding of how bodies grow and develop, heal and regenerate.

Why bodies turn out the way they do has proved a vexing puzzle for the longest while. Genetics offers no answer, as DNA contains no spatial information. There are genes for, say, eye colour, but no genes for “grow two eyes”, and no genes for “stick two eyes in front of your head”

So if genes don’t tell us the shape we should take as we grow, what does? The clue is in the title: we are, indeed, electric.

Adee explains that the forty trillion or so cells in our bodies are in constant electrical communication with each other. This chatter generates a field that dictates the form we take. For every structure in the body there is a specific membrane voltage range, and our cells specialise to perform different functions in line with the electrical cues they pick up from their neighbours. Which is (by way of arresting illustration) how in 2011 a grad student by the name of Sherry Aw managed, by manipulating electrical fields, to grow eyes on a developing frog’s belly.

The wonder is that this news will come as such a shock to so many readers (including, I dare say, many jobbing scientists). That our cells communicate electrically with each other without the mediation of nerves, and that the nervous system is only one of at least two (and probably many more) electrical communications systems — all this will come as a disconcerting surprise to many. Did you know you only have to put skin, bone, blood, nerve — indeed, any biological cell — into a petri dish and apply an electric field, and you will find all the cells will crawl to the same end of the dish? It’s taken decades before anyone thought to unpick the enormous implications of that fact.

Now we have begun to understand the importance of electrical fields in biology, we can begin to manipulate them. We’ve begun to restore some function after severe spinal injury (in humans) regrown whole limbs (in mice), and even turned cancerous tumours back into healthy tissue (in petri dishes).

Has bio-electricity — once the precinct of quacks and contrarians — at last come into its own? Has it matured? Has it grown up?

Well, yes and no. Adee would like to deliver a clear, single message about bioelectricity, but the field itself is still massively divided. On the one hand there are ground-breaking researches being conducted into development, regeneration and healing. On the other, there are those who think electricity in the body is mostly to do with nerves and brains, and their project — to hack peoples’ minds through their central nervous systems and usher in some sort of psychoelectric utopia — shows no sign of faltering.

In the 1960s the American neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch worked on the assumption that the way neurons fire is a kind of biological binary code. this led to a new school of thought, called cybernetics — a science of communications and automatic control systems, both living and mechanical. The idea was we should be able to drive an animal like a robot by simply activating specific circuits, an idea “so compelling” says Adee, “there wasn’t much point bothering with whether it was based in fact.”

Very many other researchers Adee writes about are just as wedded to the idea of the body as a meat machine.

This book arose from an article Adee wrote for the magazine New Scientist about her experiences playing DARWARS Ambush!, a military training simulation conducted in a Californian defence lab that (maybe) amped up her response times and (maybe) increased her focus — all by means of a headset that magnetically tickled precise regions in her brain.

Within days of the article’s publication in early 2012, Adee had become a sort of Joan of Arc figure for the online posthumanist community, and even turns up in Noah Yuval Harai’s book, where she serves as an Awful Warning about men becoming gods.

Adee finally admits that she would “love to take this whole idea of the body as an inferior meat puppet to be augmented with metal and absolutely launch it into the sun.” Coming clean at last, she admits she is much more interested in the basic research going on into the communications within and between individual cells — a field where the more we know, the more we realise just how much we don’t understand.

Adee’s enthusiasm is infectious, and she conveys well the jaw-dropping scale and complexity of this newly discovered “electrome”. This is more than medicine. “The real excitement of the field,” she writes, “hews closer to the excitement around cosmology.”

We’ve learned a valuable lesson today

Watching M3gan, directed by Gerard Johnstone, for New Scientist, 25 January 2023

Having done something unspeakable to a school bully’s ear, chased him through the forest like a wolf, and driven him under the wheels of a passing car, M3gan, the world’s first “Model 3 Generative Android”, returns to comfort Cady, its inventor’s niece. “We’ve learned a valuable lesson today,” she whispers.

So has the audience, between all their squealing and cheering. Before you ask a learning machine to do something for you, it helps if you know what that thing actually is.

M3gan has been tasked by its inventor Gemma (Allison Williams, in her second Blumfield-produced movie since the company’s 2017 smash Get Out) with looking after her niece Cady (Violet McGraw), recently orphaned when her parents — arguing over who should police her screen time — drove them all under a snow truck.

M3gan is told to protect Cady from physical and emotional harm. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Gemma works for toy company Funki, whose CEO David (comedian Ronny Chieng) is looking for a way — any way — to “kick Hasbro right in the d—.” In a rush to succeed, Gemma ends up creating a care robot that (to paraphrase Terminator) absolutely will not stop caring. M3gan takes very personally indeed the ordinary knocks that life dishes out to a kid.

The robot — a low-budget concoction of masks and CGI, performed by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis — is an uncanny glory. But the signature quality of Blumfield’s films is not so much their skill with low budgets, as the company’s willingness to invest time and money on scripts. In developing M3gan, James Wan (who directed the 2004 horror film Saw) and Akela Cooper (whose first-draft screenplay was, by her own admission, “way gorier”) discovered in the end that there was more currency in mischief than in mayhem. This is the most sheerly gleeful horror movie since The Lost Boys.

Caring for a child involves more than distracting them. Alas M3gan, evolving from Funki’s “Purrfect Petz” (fuzzballs that quote Wikipedia while evacuating plastic pellets from their bowels) cannot possibly understand this distinction.

The point of parenting is to manage your own failure, leaving behind a child capable of handling the world on their own. M3gan, on the contrary, has absolutely no intention of letting Cady grow up. As far as M3gan is concerned, experience is the enemy.

In this war against the world M3gan transforms, naturally enough, into a hyperarticulated killing machine (and the audience cheers: this is a film built on anticipation, not surprise).

M3gan’s charge, poor orphaned Cady, is a far more frightening creation: a bundle of hurt and horror afforded no real guidance, adrift without explanations in a world where (let’s face it) everything will eventually die and everything will eventually go wrong. The sight of a screaming nine-year-old Cady slapping her well-intentioned but workaholic aunt across the face is infinitely more disturbing than any scene involving M3gan.

“Robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal,” wrote the social scientist Sherry Turkle back in 2011, “but it consigns us to a closed world — the loveable as safe and made to measure.”

Cady, born into a world of fatuous care robots, eventually learns that the only way to get through life is to grow up.

But the real lesson here is for parents. The robot exists to do what we can imagine doing, but would rather not do. And that’s fine, except that it assumes that we always know what’s in our own best interests.

I remember in 2014, at a conference on human-machine interaction, I watched a a video starring Nao, a charming “educational robot”. It took a while before someone in the audience (not me, to my shame) spotted the film’s obvious flaw: how come it shows a mother sweating away in the kitchen while a robot is enjoying quality time with her child?

Rogues and heroes

Reading Sam Miller’s Migrants: The Story of Us All for the Telegraph, 23 January 2023

The cultural opprobrium attached to immigration has been building at least since Aristotle’s day, according to Sam Miller’s flawed, fascinating stab at a global history of migration.

Today, “having a permanent home and a lifelong nationality are considered normal, as if they were part of the human condition.” On the contrary, says Miller: humankind is the migratory species par excellence, settling every continent bar Antarctica, not once, but many times over.

Mixed feelings about this process have a deep anthropological foundation. Forget national and regional rivalries; those came later, and are largely explanations after the fact. What really upsets settled people is the reminder that, long ago, their kind chose to live an urban life and became less as a consequence: less wily, less tough, less resilient. The emergence of the first cities coincided with the first poems in uneasy praise of wild men: think of Mesopotamian Enkidu, or Greek Heracles. Aristotle, writing in 330 BC, declares that “he who is without a city-state by nature, and not by circumstance, is either a rogue or greater than a human being” — a wonderfully uneasy and double-edge observation that acknowledges a pre-urban past populated by formidable feral heroes.

Athenians suppressed this awareness; they were the first Western people to take pride in being, in Herodotus’s words, “the only Greeks who never migrated.” Ming Dynasty China performed the same flim-flam, a 15th-century administrator declaring: “There exists a paramount boundary within Heaven and Earth: Chinese on this side, foreigners on the other. The only way to set the world in order is to respect this boundary”.

“History books have, on the whole, been written by the sedentary for the sedentary,” says Miller, and naturally reflect a settled people’s chauvinism. The migration stories we learned at school are often wrong. The Vandals who “sacked” Rome in 455, did not, as a general rule, kill or rape or burn.

Alas, neither did they write; nor did the Roma, until the nineteenth century; nor did the (handsomely literate) Chinese of Victorian London. Migrants rarely find time to write, and where first-person accounts are missing, fantasy is bred. Some of it (Asterix) is charming, some of it (Fu Manchu) is anything but.

Miller thinks that humans naturally emigrate, and our unease about this is the result of pastoralism, cities, and other historical accidents.

The trouble with this line of argument is that there are umpteen “natural” reasons why people move about the earth. Humans naturally consume and lay waste to their immediate environment. Humans naturally overbreed. Humans naturally go to war. Why invoke some innate “outward urge”?

Different distances on the human story allow one to tell wildly different stories. If you follow humanity through deep time, our settlement of the almost the entire planet looks very much like manifest destiny and we’ll all surely end up on Mars tomorrow. If on the other hand you trace the movements of people over a few dozen generations, you’ll discover that, absent force majeure, people are homebodies, moving barely a few weeks’ walking distance from their birthplaces.

What is migration, anyway? Not much more than a hundred years ago, women regularly “migrated” (as Miller says, “it might take as long to cross a large English county as it would to fly halfway around the world today”) to marry or to work as governesses, domestic servants and shop workers. And yet they would never have called themselves “migrants”.

Miller, in a praiseworthy bid to tell a global story, adopts the broadest possible definition of migration: one that embraces “slaves and spouses, refugees and retirees, nomads and expats, conquerors and job-seekers.”

Alas, the broader one’s argument, the less one ends up saying. While they’re handsomely researched and stirringly written, I’m not sure our concepts of migration are much enriched by Miller’s brief tilts at historical behemoths like slavery and the maritime spice route.

What emerges from this onion of a book (fascinating digressions around no detectable centre), is, however, more than sufficent compensation. We have here the seed of much more enticing and potentially more influential project: a modern history that treats the modern nation state — pretending to self-reliance behind ever-more-futile barriers — as but a passing political arrangement, and not always a very useful one.

In view of the geopolitical crises being triggered by climate change, we may very soon need (or else be forced by circumstances) to come up with forms of government outside the rickety and brittle nation state. And in that case, peripatetic perspectives like Miller’s may be just what we need.

 

A Gigeresque melange

Reading Cold People by Tom Robb-Smith for the Times, 14 January 2023

Harvard medical student Liza is on holiday in Lisbon with her parents and younger sister when gigantic alien fish-shapes descend from the sky and order all humans to vacate the habitable bits of their planet for Antarctica, the only continent humans have never been able to settle.

Twenty years on, in a ramshackle, endlessly retrofitted settlement on the Antarctic Peninsula called Hope Town, Liza — one of very few survivors — gives birth to Echo, a genetically engineered daughter whose modifications allow her to withstand the bitter cold. Echo is an early prototype of future human being designed in McMurdo City (the ramshackle, ice-bound, over-serious new capital of humanity) by the heroically unprincipled geneticist Song Fu, aided and abetted by her assistant Yotam Penzak, the book’s splendidly drawn antagonist. (The author of Child 44 knows how to tell a story; you know you’re in safe hands when your villain is motivated by love.)

Yotam, who attended her birth, thinks Echo and her posthuman kind are a worthy end in themselves: powerful and humane, capable of nurturing unengineered humanity in their impossible new environment, even as they succeed them over evolutionary time.

His boss disagrees. The remains of humanity will die out in not much more than a century, says Song Fu. A more radical succession is required if humans are to survive in any form.

Yotam’s unlucky love life leaves him vulnerable to browbeating by his boss, and then to seduction by Song Fu’s posthumous final creation, a Giger-esque melange of human, alligator and shark.

In this wasteland, “Eitan” and his kind are by far the dominant species — or will be, if Yotam lets them out of their cave.
Much as Roald Amundsen and his party consumed the husky dogs that had got him to the Pole in 1911, they will consume their human creators, not out of hate or revenge, but simply because they have no other use for them.

Can Yotam’s convictions be shaken? Can Eitan be stopped?

Cold People does not explore ideas; it animates them. Plot is king. Smith’s characters aren’t so much pretend people as they are admirable, animated types. The result is a page-turner that, without offering much by way of ordinary human feeling, reveals Tom Rob Smith’s view of the human condition: what he thinks about the plight of thinking, would-be ethical beings who still need to consume and burn and exploit in order to survive. In Smith’s vision, humanity’s reach so far exceeds its grasp that its downfall at its own hand seems more or less assured.

These are chewy and worthwhile themes, and Cold People cleverly distils them to the point where they play out, and reach a satisfying climax, at ordinary human scale. If Echo can protect her human family, there’s hope for humanity at large. If not, we’re all for the chum bucket.

Cold People will entertain and impress readers who enjoy novels that are containers for ideas. The rest of us may regret that Smith did not linger longer among the Polynesian navigators, seal hunters and stir-crazy researchers populating his largely irrelevant but wonderfully evocative prologue. Slow down, Smith! You were so set on your destination, you missed the scenery.

Never say die

Reading Remnants of Ancient Life by Dale Greenwalt for New Scientist, 11 January 2023

What is a fossil made of? Mineralised rocky fossils are what spring to mind at a first mention of the word, but the preserved fauna of the burgess shale are pure carbon, a kind of proto-coal. Then there are those tantalising cretaceous insects preserved in amber.

Whatever they are made of, fossils contain treasures. The first really good microscopic study of (mineralised) dinosaur bone, revealing its internal structure, was written up in 1850 by the British palaeontologist Gideon Mantell.

Still, classifying fossil organisms on the basis of their shape and their location seemed to be virtually the only weapon in the paleobiologist’s arsenal — until 1993. That was the year Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park famously captured the excitement of a field in turmoil, as ancient pigments, proteins, and DNA were being detected (not too reliably at first) in all manner of fossil substrates, including rock.

Jurassic Park’s blood-sucking insects fossilised in amber were a bust. Though seemingly perfectly preserved on the outside, they turned out to be hollow.

Mind you, the author of Remnants (a dull title for this vivid and gripping book) has himself has managed to get traces of ancient haemoglobin out of the bloated stomach of a fossilised mosquito — so never say die.

Greenwalt, who spends eleven months of every year “buried deep in the bowels of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC,” has brought to the surface a riveting account of a field achieving insights quite as revolutionary as any conjectured by Crichton. The finds are extraordinary enough: a cholesterol-like molecule in a 380-million-year-old crustacean; chitin from the exoskeleton of a fossil from the 505-million-year-old burgess shale. Even more extraordinary are the inferences we can then draw about the physiology, behaviour, and evolution of these extinct organisms. Even from traces that are smeared, fragmented, degraded, and condensed, even from cyclized and polymerized materials, valuable insights can be drawn. It is even possible to calculate and construct putative “ancestral proteins” and from their study, conclude that Earth’s life had its origins at the mouths of deep ocean vents!

The story of biomolecules in palaeontology has its salutary side. A generation of brilliant innovators have had to calm down, learn the limitations of their new techniques, and return, as often as not, to the insights of comparative anatomy to confirm and calibrate their work. Polymerase-chain-reaction sequencing (PCR) is the engine powering our ever older and ever more complete ancient DNA sequences, but early teething problems included publication of a DNA sequence thought to be from a 120-million-year-old weevil that actually belonged to a fungus. Technologies prove their worth over time.

More problematic are the cul-de-sacs. In 2007 Greenwalt’s colleague, the palaeontologist Mary Schweitzer reported her lab had recovered short sequences of collagen from the femur of a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex. As Matthew Collins at the University of Copenhagen complains, “It’s great work. I just can’t replicate it.” Schweitzer’s methodology has survived 15 years’ hard interrogation, it may simply be that animal proteins cannot survive more than about 4 million years. That still makes them much hardier than plant proteins, which only last for about 30,000 years.

Against these fascinating controversies and surprising dead-ends Greenwalt sets many wonders, not least “the seemingly unlimited potential of ancient DNA to shed light on the ancestry of our species, Homo sapiens”. And for short-changed botanists, there’s an extraordinary twist in Greenwalt’s tale whereby it may become possible to classify plants based, not on their morphology or even their DNA, but on the repertoire of small biomolecules they leave behind. “The biomolecular components of plants have been found as biomarkers in rocks that are two and a half billion — with a ‘b’!—years old,” Greenwalt exclaims (p204). The 3.7-billion-year-old cyano-bacteria that produced stromatolites in Greenland are the same age as the rocks at Mars’s Gale Crater: “Are authentic ancient biomolecules on Mars so implausible?” Greenwalt asks.

His day job may keep him for months at a time in the Smithsonian’s basement, but Greenwalt’s gaze is set firmly on the stars.

Pulling a Steerpike

Reading Michael Moorcock’s The Citadel of Forgotten Myths for the Times (who spiked it)

Leaving his defeated rival Yyrkoon on the throne as regent, Elric, titular emperor of decayed, decadent, dragon-blooded Melniboné “pulls a Steerpike” (as Mervyn Peake, Elric’s chief influence, might say) and goes wandering off the edge of the Earth (literally) in search of Answers (no time: don’t ask).

Sword and sorcery began, not with sui generis Tolkein, but with the the Elric canon. This sort-of-prequel tucks itself neatly away between the very first Elric tales. It’s a delight.

There are three stories. Two of them were published in the late 2000s. In the first, Elric gets caught up in a family dispute. (“You are my sister’s son. Your sentient acid blood demands you help me!” exclaims Elric’s dragon-scaled aunt.) In the second, he battles the noibuluscus, a bone-chomping, gut-sucking succulent tended by dwarfish cannibals. The call-backs in the last, longest story (an original, and a worthy addition to the evergreen “man-into-bee” subgenre) binds with its companions to create what the genre calls a “fix-up”. Who needs proper novels when you can have this much fun?

Moorcock began the saga of Elric of Melniboné in 1961, largely to support New Worlds, the science fiction magazine that, over a single cash-strapped four-year span, introduced us to J G Ballard, Pamela Zoline, John Sladek, M John Harrison — oh, too many to mention.

The first thing to say about Elric — pale loiterer, kin-slayer, absentee emperor of Melniboné — is that he makes no physical or psychological sense whatsoever. One moment he’s chewing the furniture, the next he’s sprawled across a chaise longue. If a scene demands that he be vulpine, hear him howl! If an emotional outpouring is required, feel the floodgates tremble! Decency? No problem. Indecency? Have at it. Elric is his saga, as surely as Gilgamesh and Ulysses are theirs, not because these people are meticulously rendered but because they aren’t. Elric is not heroic or anti-heroic. He is simply whatever his story needs them to be in that moment.

Considered as beings that occupy a span of time, such protean protagonists are impossibly shallow. But that’s to misread them. Like pre-school children, they each occupy their eternal present, radically committed to an ever-shifting now. Elric, a curse to his friends and a bane to his lovers (supposedly), vampirically dependent upon his ravenous soul-hungry sword Stormbringer (when convenient) and constitutionally unable to bring happiness to the world (really?), is never properly melancholic. He can be as solemn as an owl, but his adventures are a hoot. But when he weeps (which is often, and never for long) it’s with a rare and captivating intensity.

To write quickly — and Moorcock has always been a fast worker — the language has to get under the reader’s skin (and the heightened diction on display here is uncut cocaine). Repetition is your friend (so long as it’s the right repetition; Stormbringer’s muffled grumblings are as welcome as that cowbell riff in “Don’t Fear the Reaper”). Stock characters add the illusion of texture (and Elric’s sidekick Moonglum, surprisingly accomplished for a Sancho Panza stand-in, is one of the genre’s best). Above all, turn everyone’s appetite up to eleven (for food, for wine, for cheer, for sex).

That some if not all human appetites have become culturally “problematic” is hardly Elric’s fault. He is like one of those incorrigible elder relatives whose arrival has the politically correct neighbours clutching their pearls. He needs to be given things to do that are slightly beneath him, just so he doesn’t let slip anything untoward. Quick, somebody: give him a giant plant to battle (in Book Two), or a big blue bee (in Book Three)!

Moorcock is too canny an operator to have let the years tarnish his most lucrative creation, and these days he keeps poor Elric locked out of the ladies’ bedrooms. The effect is not so much to make Elric grow up as to infantilise him. This is a very minor matter, but it’s what you get for creating so long-lived a character. The world will grind them down.

Perhaps Moorcock still writes Elric at speed. It’s just as likely that he’s learned, from long practice, how to simulate the effect. This increasingly rare technique is not one that garners much critical approval, let alone appreciation. Our current ability to revise texts electronically ad nauseam places a premium on an author’s nuance and erudition, insight and (God help us) wisdom. Even a friendly critic finds little to say about a book’s grip and speed and visceral impact, though these will always be the biggest drivers of sales.

Now that even James Bond has succumbed to nuance and insight, Elric may, by my reckoning, be the last towering 1960s kaiju left alive.

Delight and devilry

Reading Douglas Futuyma’s How Birds Evolve for new Scientist, 7 December 2022

In Douglas Futuyma’s evolutionary history of birds, the delight is in the detail, and some of the devilry too — this is not a light read. Futuyma tells a double tale: he explains how the study of birds advanced our understanding of evolution, and he shows how advances in evolutionary science solve some long-standing ornithological mysteries, even as they throw up others.

He has written How Birds Evolve for birders, and being a birder himself (he began bird-spotting around the age of eleven in New York’s public parks), he knows just how fiercely the birding bug can bite. Many are half-way to being field scientists already, and many celebrated field scientists — from Ernst Mayr to Konrad Lorenz to Niko Tinbergen — have been birders.

“I suspect few of my teachers in the 1960s imagined that we would be studying birds by combining information from geology and molecular biology — disciplines that are miles apart,” says Futuyma, giving the reader an early hint of the complexities to come.

Birds are a curious, and curiously productive field of study for evolutionary biologists: less useful in understanding the mechanisms of evolution than insects, plants, and bacteria because they don’t reproduce as quickly, but, being various and everywhere, vital to the study of behaviour, longevity, ecology, speciation, cultural evolution and a host of other specialisms.

The ability to study populations and how they interact gave evolutionary biologists a foretaste of what their science would become. “The models of how variation might persist” Futuyma remarks, “were developed by evolutionary biologists who might not have known a hawk from a handsaw but were adept in mathematics.” Applying lessons from birds to ourselves, though risky, has also proved both irresistible and, at least in the science’s early stages, highly productive. In pondering human evolution, Darwin developed the idea of sexual selection, which takes up more than half his The Descent of Man of 1871. “Darwin devotes four full chapters to birds and cites at least 170 species,” Futuyman points out. “Birds provided more evidence for his ideas about sexual selection than any other group of animals”.

To grapple with bird diversity, one pretty much has to conjure up an idea of evolution. Peculiar and apparently inutile features abound in the bird world, a sure sign of unceasing adaptation. There are also, to complicate matters, many instances of convergent evolution. Feathers may have evolved only once, and through a bizarre genetic accident at that. (They don’t arise easily, as we once assumed, from reptilian scales.) Feather and wing shapes, however, recur again and again in even distantly related species. Darwin once predicted: “Our classifications will come to be, as far as they can be so made, genealogies,” but even his credulity would have been stretched by the news that flamingoes are related genetically to grebes.

“I don’t know how similar to birds a creature would have to be for us to call it an “avioid” or an “ornithoid,” Futuyman speculates, but for it “to be bipedal with feathers, toothless kinetic jaws, highly developed vision, a gizzard, and a high constant body temperature… I think… is very unlikely indeed.”

Futuyma unpacks the story of evolutionary science alongside the story of how birds evolved, acquiring bipedal locomotion and simple filamentous feathers as Dinosauria, then clavicles fused into a wishbone in Theropoda, on and on, until we arrive at what we might as well call the modern bird, with its large, keeled breastbone, rapid growth, and unfeasibly lightweight construction.

How Birds Evolve is not meant to be an introduction to birds (though one imagines readers of this magazine would lap it up). It is personable, entertaining and deeply passionate about its subject.

Futuyma, the author of two successful textbooks about evolution, is out to inspire, and his comprehensive book more than makes up in wonder what it might lack in an easy and seductive narrative.

So that was me told

Visiting Voyage to the Edge of Imagination at London’s Science Museum, 9 November 2022

London’s Science Museum has come up with a solution to the age-old problem of how to keep visitors from bunching up while they tour an exhibition. At an awkward corner of Science Fiction: Voyage to the edge of imagination, ALANN (for Algorithmic Artificial Neural Network) announces that all the air is about to leave the room (sorry: “deck”). To avoid the hard vacuum of outer space, please move along.

Little fillips of jeopardy enliven this whistle-stop tour of science, technology and imagination — not a show about science fiction (and in fact London’s had one of those quite recently: the Barbican’s superb 2017 Into the Unknown) so much as a show that does science fiction. The gallery is arranged as a story, which begins once a Pan Galactic Starlines shuttle drops us aboard a friendly if bemused alien craft, the Azimuth. The Azimuth’s resident AI is orbiting the Earth and pondering the curious nature of human progress, that puts imagination and storytelling ahead of practical action. It seems to ALANN — who jumps from screen to screen, keeping us company throughout — that using stories to imagine the future is a weirdly double-edged way of going about things. Humans could just as easily be steering towards nightmares, as toward happy outcomes. What will their future hold?

ALANN bottles it in the end, of course — our destiny turns out to be “uncomputable”. Oh for a show that had punters running screaming for the exits! Isn’t that what sf is for?

Assembled on a conspicuously low budget, and featuring mainly film props and costumes (which at the best of times never look that good in real life) and replicas (some of them jolly cheap), this “voyage to the edge of imagination” stands or falls by its wits. Next to a cheery video about trying to communicate with humpback whales as a rehearsal for alien “first contact”, some bright spark has placed a life-size xenomorph from the film Alien. Iron Man’s helmet is there to promote our eventual cyborgisation, melding metal and flesh to better handle the technological future — but so, mind you, is Darth Vader’s. The sheer lack of stuff here is disconcerting, but at the end of it all we have explored space, bent spacetime, communicated with aliens, and become posthuman, so clearly something is working. Imagine an excellent nest constructed from three sticks.

What this show might have achieved with a bigger budget is revealed in Glyn Morgan’s excellent accompanying book (Thames and Hudson, £30) featuring interviews with the likes of Charlie Jane Anders and Chen Qiufan.

This being the Science Museum, it’s hardly surprising that the exhibition’s final spaces are given over to pondering science fiction’s utility. Futurologist Brian David Johnson is on screen to explain how fiction can be used to prototype ideas in the real world. (Actual science fiction writers have a word for this: they call it “plagiarism”.) Whether you give credence to Johnson’s belief that sf is there to make the world a better place is a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty sort of question. “Applied science fiction” can be jolly crass. In a cabinet near Mr Johnson are a couple of copies of Marvel’s Captain Planet. In the 1990s, we are told, Captain Planet “empowered a new generation to be environmentally aware.” As someone who was there, I can promise you he jolly well didn’t.

But as I turned the next corner, the sneer still on my lips, I confronted as fine an example of imagination in action as you could wish for: Tilly Lockey, a couple of days off her seventeenth birthday, had been invited along to the press launch, and was skipping about like a dervish, taking photographs of her friend. In the gloom, I couldn’t quite see which bionic arms she was wearing — the ones based on the Deus Ex video game series, or the ones she’d received in 2019, designed by the team creating Alita: Battle Angel.

So that was me told.

Unoaku lives alone

Watching Mika Rottenberg and Mahyad Tousi’s Remote for New Scientist, 26 October 2022

From her high-rise in a future Kuala Lumpur, where goods flow freely, drone-propelled, while people stay trapped in their apartments, Unoaku (in a brilliant, almost voiceless performance by Okwui Okpokwasili) ekes out her little life. There are herbs on her windowsill, and vegetables growing in hydroponic cabinets built into her wall. If she’s feeling lazy, a drone will deliver her a meal that she can simply drop, box and all, into boiling water. Unoaku’s is a world of edible packaging and smart architecture, living rugs (she spritzes them each day) and profound loneliness. Unoaku lives alone — and so does everybody else.

Though Remote was filmed during the Covid-19 lockdowns, it would be a mistake to consider this just another “lockdown movie”. Unoaku’s world is by no stretch a world in crisis, still less a dystopia. Her vibrantly decorated apartment (I want her wallpaper and so will you) is more refuge than prison, its walls moving to accommodate their occupant, giving Unoaku at least the illusion of space. Had it not been for Covid, we would probably be viewing this woman’s life as a relatively positive metaphor for what it would be like to embark on a long space journey. One imagines Lunar or Martian settlers of the future settling for much less.

Hers is, however, a little life: reduced to self-care, to hours spent gesturing at a blank wall (she’s an architect, working in VR), and to evenings sprawled in front of Eun-ji and Soju, a Korean dog-grooming show (Soju is the terrier, Eun-ji (Joony Kim) its ebullient owner).

Then things start to go very slightly wrong. Unoaku’s pan is returned dirty from the cleaning service. Eun-ji turns up drunk to her live show. Unoaku notices that the goofy clock on Eun-ji’s wall has started to run backwards. When she points this out on the chat platform running beside the programme, she triggers a stream of contempt from other viewers.

Unoaku is far more fragile that we thought. Now, when she leans out her window, bashing her cooking pan with a wooden spoon, celebrating — well, something; maybe just the fact of being alive and being able to hear other human beings — she is left shaking, her face wet with tears.

Soon other women are contacting her. They too have been watching Eun-ji and Soju. They too can see the clock going backwards on the dog-groomer’s wall. Bit by bit, a kind of community emerges.

Commissioned by the arts non-profit ArtAngel in the UK and a consortium of international galleries, Remote is that rare thing, an “art movie”. It belongs to a genre that became economically unviable with the advent of streaming and has been largely forgotten. (“Where are today’s Peter Greenaways and Derek Jarmans?” is a question that may not even compute for some readers, though these figures towered over the “arts & ents” pages of decades past.)

Director Mika Rottenberg, an artist working in upstate New York, is best known for her short, cryptic, funny video works like Sneeze (2012), in which well-dressed men with throbbing noses sneeze out live rabbits, steaks and lightbulbs. Her co-director Mahyad Tousi has a more mainstream screen background: he was the executive producer of CBS primetime comedy United States of Al and is currently writing a sci-fi adaptation of The Tales from a Thousand and One Nights.

One can’t expect this pair to revive the art movie overnight, of course, but Remote offers up an excellent argument for making the attempt. Like a modern Japanese or Korean short story, Remote explores the tiny bounds of an ordinary-seeming urban life, hemmed in by technology and consumption, and it surprises a world of deep feeling bubbling just beneath the surface.

A sack of tech cats

Reading Long Shot by Kate Bingham and Tim Hames for the Telegraph, 15 October 2022

“Not only were we building the plane as we were flying it,” writes Kate Bingham, appointed by Boris Johnson in May 2020 to chair the UK Vaccine Task Force, “we were flying in the dark and simultaneously writing the instruction manual, and fielding endless petty questions from air traffic control asking about the strength of the orange juice we were serving to passengers.”

The tale of Britain’s vaccination effort against Covid-19 ends happily, of course: the task force arranges for clinical trials, secures 350 million doses of six vaccines, oversees any amount of novel infrastructure for their manufacture and distribution, and delivers Covid-19 as close to a knock-out blow as one could reasonably dream of.

At the time of Bingham’s first phone call, in January 2020, things looked rather different: it seemed to this British venture capitalist, who had no specialist knowledge of vaccine development, that she was being asked to take responsibility for a huge amount of government expenditure “that would, most likely, prove completely wasted.”

Vaccines normally take decades to develop, while viruses can mutate in a matter of weeks. There was, Bingham insists, very little chance of success.

Britain’s internationally celebrated vaccine development and production regime was set in motion, from something like a standing start, by a team, that included a bomb disposal expert, an Indian rowing star, an Italian consultant, a former ambassador, a football pundit, and the redoubtable Ruth Todd, whose day job was to see that submarines were delivered on time. This is a book about the skills and experiences necessary to build extraordinary ventures under pressure. Although the science is sketched ably enough here and there, this is not a science book.

Bingham’s background is in drug discovery — a notoriously unpredictable business where some of the brightest minds in biochemistry stake their future careers on one roll of the clinical-trial dice. VCs, if they’re wealthy enough, can spread their risks over a few dozen companies, but even they barely survived the dot-com crash of 2001. Bingham’s one of the new breed that emerged from the wreckage, an investor altogether more interested in managing the companies she helps create than in driving start-ups into premature IPOs. She still carries in her DNA an instinct for spreading risk, though: the VTF spent 4.6 billion on six vaccines in the hope that one might work, one day, maybe.

Coming up to speed with the science was no easy task, even for a major biotech player. There was no shortage of brilliant work to choose from, but little way of telling what innovations would pay off on time. Bingham salutes the work of Robin Shattock at Imperial College, London, graciously acknowledging that his “amplified mRNA” technology, which triggers large immune responses from very small amounts of vaccine, will surely be mature enough to help combat the next pandemic (and be in no doubt, there will be one). [Iona, “amplified mRNA” is a separate (though related) technology to the mRNA tech harnessed by Pfizer]

On the other hand, those teams who were fully ready were anxious to make an impact. Bingham only found out about Oxford University’s non-profit vaccine partnership with AstraZeneca over the radio, and Pfizer, partnering with BioNTech, much preferred to throw its own money at things than rely on any taskforce handholding.

Choreographing this sack of tech cats was not, says Bingham, her hardest task, and with the help of Tim Hames (a former chief leader writer for the Times) she patiently anatomises how she weathered the formless paranoia of politicians, the hampering good intentions of civil servants, and (most distressing of all, by some measure) the random mischief-making of government communications demons.

The ears of the National Audit Office may burn (she dubs their “help” a foolish and expensive joke); most everyone else emerges from this tale with due credit and generous thanks. Indeed, Bingham’s candid account will be uncomfortable reading for those who nurse a dogmatic hostility to “insiders”. Bingham’s husband is Jesse Norman MP, then the financial secretary to the Treasury. Bingham has no difficulty demonstrating that this has nothing to do with anything, but that didn’t stop the Guardian’s jibes, its “chumocracy” tables and the rest.

The trouble is, given a problem as complex and fluid as democratic government, expertise is only authoritative in relation to some particular subject. Without insiders — those with firsthand knowledge in a particular affair or circumstance (like, yes, the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings, who insisted the VTF should be handled as a business) — experts are merely preaching in the wilderness. On the other hand, without experts to inform them (people like Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser) insiders have nothing to offer but windbaggery.

Knowledge and power must meet. Bingham and Hames’s accessible, edge-of-the-seat account of how British innovators vaccinated the UK and much of the rest of the world is also a quiet, compelling, non partisan argument for dialogue between business and politics.