Saltbushed, rabbitbrushed and tumbleweeded

Reading Dust by Jay Owens for the Telegraph, 17 July 2023

Here’s a lesson from optics that historians of science seem to have taken in with their mother’s milk: the narrower the aperture, the more focused the image. Pick a narrow something, research its story till it squeaks, and you might just end up with a twisted-but-true vision of the world as a whole. To Jared Diamond’s Guns and Germs and Steel, to Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, and Laura Martin’s Tea, can we now add geographer Jay Owens’ Dust?

Owens’ pursuit of dust (defined very broadly as particles of a certain size, however generated) sends her tripping through many fascinating and rewarding realms, but this can sometimes be at the expense of her main subject. (For instance, an awful lot of this book is less about dust than about the absence of water.) “Dust,” Owens writes, “is matter at the very limit-point of formlessness, the closest ‘stuff’ gets to nothing.” This is nicely put, but what it boils down is: Dust is slippery stuff to hang a book upon.

Owens’ view of dust is minatory, Some dust is vital to natural ecological processes (rainfall being not the least of them). Approximately 140 million tonnes of dust fall every year across the tropical Atlantic Ocean, providing nutrients to marine ecosystems. Still, dust also brings disease: “In the Caribbean,” Owens tells us, “the Saharan winds carry spores of the fungus Aspergillus, making corals and sea fans sicken and die.”

Increasing the amount of dust in the atmosphere has led and still leads to sickness and death. In Ford County, Kansas, at the very bottom of the Dust Bowl, one-third of all deaths in 1935 were from pneumonia. Today, lead and arsenic hitchhike on soot particles formed by combustion, driving some into hay-feverish discomfort, others into acute respiratory failure.

The direct health effects of dust are arresting, but Owens’ abiding interest in dust developed when she began tracing its ubiquity and systemic pervasiveness: how, for instance, electric cars, being heavier, generate extra road dust, which is rich in microplastic particles, and how these transport other environmental contaminants including 6PPD-quinone, “an antioxidant added to tyre rubber that researchers have found is producing mass die-offs of coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest.”

Set aside the temptation to run screaming into the hills, we have two ways to confront a world revealed to be this intagliated and insoluble. The first is to embrace ever vaguer suitcase language to contain its wicked problems. When Owens started talking about the “anthropocene”, — a putative new geological era triggered by [insert arbitrary technological advance here], my heart sank. Attempts to conciliate between the social sciences and geology are at best silly and at worst pompous.

The second tactic is to hold your nerve, get out of your chair and go look at stuff; observe the world as keenly as you can, and write as honestly as possible about what you see. And Owens’ success here is such as to nudge aside all earlier quibbles.

Owens is a superb travel writer, delivering with aplomb on her own idea of what geographers should be doing: “Paying attention to tangible, material realities to ground our theoretical models in the world.” (Owens, p. 326)

With Owens, we travel from saltbushed, rabbitbrushed and tumbleweeded Lake Owens in California to Aralka in Kazakhstan, and the toxic remains of what was once the fourth largest lake in the world. We visit ice core researchers in Greenland, and catch a glimpse of their “cold, arduous, multi-year detective work”. We discover through vicarious experience, and not just through rhetoric, why we can’t just admire the fruits of modernity, “the iPhones, the Teslas, the staggering abundance of consumer entertainment – but should follow that tree down to its roots.”

Dust’s journeys, interviews, and historical insights serve Owens’ purpose better than the terms of art she has brought across from social anthropology. I admit I was quite taken with the idea of “Discard Studies”, that interrogates the world through its trash; but a glimpse of Lake Owens’s current condition — a sort of cyborg woodland in place of the old lake, and a place more altered than restored — says more about our ever-more dust-choked world, than a thousand modish gestures ever could.

“I want you to laugh openly at it”

Watching Sebastien Blanc’s Cerebrum for New Scientist, 12 July 2023

A year after the car he was driving span off the road and into a tree, William is shown into an all but empty room. There’s a camp bed. A TV. It’s not his old bedroom — it might not even be his house, it’s so anonymous — but it’ll have to do. William’s still learning to walk again, and the stairs will be too much for him. This is a shame, because he wants to see his mother, who never comes downstairs, never visits him, and is, it seems, constantly “under the weather”.

William scribbles a message to Richard, the man who brought him here: “Is she angry?” and Richard protests just that little bit too much. Already we feel we shouldn’t be watching, not because there’s anything bad going on, but because the script, by first-time feature director Sebastien Blanc, absolutely refuses to acknowledge our presence.

The camera work is no guide, either. Shot in the flat, pseudo-factual style of a British soap opera, Cerebrum views everything that happens with same dispassion. No jump scares. No plangent chords. We’re going to have to figure all this out for ourselves.

And so we do. Richard is William’s adoptive father. The house, for all that it is virtually empty, is indeed — or was — their family home. Dad is killing and burying women in the garden. And Mum is — or jolly well ought to be — dead, killed in the accident for which William (rightly, as it turns out) blames himself.

“You have no idea what I am doing to fix what you have done,” says Richard, in a rare moment of lost temper, and hands the astute viewer pretty much the entire plot.

It’s a gutsy, deliberate move, placing suspense over surprise. We know our Frankenstein. We know what happens to the mad professor in the attic. For one hour and 37 minutes we watch, with growing excitement and gathering horror, as the expected denouement approaches, and Ramona Von Pusch, playing William’s mother, gets the briefest of brief moments in the limelight.

Tobi King Bakare’s more or less mute turn as William, damaged in both body and mind, is visceral to a fault. Best of all, he never plays for sympathy: William hates himself so much, we rather hate him too, at least at first.

Steve Oram, who plays Richard, is a ubiquitous presence on British TV, but nothing prepared us for this. It’s impossible to keep in mind that the man is acting. Richard is a terrifying creation: a quiet, unimaginative man building his very own road to Hell.

When the floodgates finally crack, and Richard sits William down for a spot of family therapy, things take a very dark emotional turn. “I want you to visualise what is troubling you,” says Richard, “and then I want you to laugh openly at it” — at which point half of me wanted to cheer at the scriptwriter’s chutzpah, the half to run screaming from the living room.

Cerebrum is not an important movie. It’s a no-budget labour of love that gives writer-director Blanc something to talk about in pitch meetings. Structured entirely around suspense, the film can’t help but leave us feel disappointed in the final reel, though I can’t help but feel that any extra twists would have felt tacked-on. The script, which gives a black twentysomething white adoptive parents, and then hands everyone plenty of conversational rope with which to hang themselves, suggests Jordan Peele’s superbly queasy 2017 debut Get Out — but the threads here aren’t gathered nearly so tightly or so cleverly.

Watch Cerebrum for its performances, for its chillingly spare script, and for the trust it puts in its audience. Don’t expect miracles. Richard did, and look what happens to him…

“Crude to the point of vulgarity, judgmental in the extreme, and bitterly punitive”

Reading The Age of Guilt by Mark Edmundson for New Scientist, 5 July 2023

In his Freudian analysis of what we might loosely term “cancel culture”, Mark Edmundson wisely chooses not to get into facile debates about which of the pioneering psychoanalyst’s ideas have or have not been “proved right”. What would that even mean? Psychology is not so much science as it is engineering, applying ideas and evidence to a purpose. Edmundson, an author and literary scholar, simply wants to suggest that Freud’s ideas might help us better understand our current cultural moment.

In the centre of Freud’s model of the personality sits the ego, the conscious bit of ourselves, the bit that thinks, and therefore is. Bracketing the ego are two components of the personality that are inaccessible to conscious awareness: the id, and the super-ego. The id is the name Freud gives to all those drives that promote immediate individual well-being. Fancy a sandwich? A roll in the hay? A chance to clout your rival? That’s your id talking.

Much later, in an attempt to understand why so many of his clients gave themselves such a hard time (beating themselves up over trivia, calling themselves names, self-harming) Freud conceived the super-ego. This is the bit of us that warns us against misbehaviour, and promotes conformity to social norms. Anyone who’s spent time watching chimpanzees will understand why such machinery might evolve in an animal as ultra-social as Homo sapiens.

Casual descriptions of Freud’s personality model often characterise the super-ego as a sort of wise uncle, paternalistically ushering the cadet ego out of trouble.

But this, Edmundson says, is a big mistake. A power that, in each of us, watches, discovers and criticizes all our intentions, is not a power to be taken lightly.

Edmundson argues that key cultural institutions evolved not just to regulate our appetites; they also provide direction and structure for the super-ego. A priest might raise an eyebrow at your gluttony; but that same priest will relieve you of your self-hatred by offering you a simple atonement: performing it wipes your slate clean. Edmundson wonders what, in the absence of faith, can corral and direct the fulminations of our super-ego — which in this account is not so much a fount of idealism, and more a petulant, unrelenting and potentially life-threatening martinet, “crude to the point of vulgarity, judgmental in the extreme, and bitterly punitive.”

The result of unmet super-ego demands is sickness. “The super-ego punishes the ego and turns it into an anxious, frightened creature, a debilitatingly depressed creature, or both by turns,” Edmundson explains, and quotes a Pew Research study showing that, from 2007 to 2017, the percentage of 12-to-17 year olds who have experienced a major depressive episode in the past year rose from 8 percent to 13 percent. Are these severely depressed teenagers “in some measure victims of the wholesale cultural repudiation of Freud”?

Arguments from intuition need a fairly hefty health warning slapped on them, but I defy you not to find yourself nodding along to more than a few of Edmundson’s philippics: for instance, how the internet became our culture’s chief manifestation of the super-ego, its loudest users bearing all the signs of possession, “immune to irony, void of humour, unforgiving, prone to demand harsh punishments.”

Half a century ago, the anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote a book, The Denial of Death, that hypothesised all manner of connections between society, behaviour and consciousness. Its informed and closely argued speculations inspired a handful of young researchers to test his ideas, and thereby revolutionise the field of experimental psychology. (An excellent book from 2015, The Worm at the Core, tells their story.)

In a culture that’s growing so pathologically judgmental, condemnatory, and punitive, I wonder if The Age of Guilt can perform the same very valuable trick? I do hope so.

Ideas are like boomerangs

Reading In a Flight of Starlings: The Wonder of Complex Systems by Giorgio Parisi for The Telegraph, 1 July 2023

“Researchers,” writes Giorgio Parisi, recipient of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics, “often pass by great discoveries without being able to grasp them.” A friend’s grandfather identified and then ignored a mould that killed bacteria, and so missed out on the discovery of penicillin. This story was told to Parisi in an attempt to comfort him for the morning in 1970 he’d spent with another hot-shot physicist, Gerard ‘t Hooft, dancing around what in hindsight was a perfectly obvious application of some particle accelerator findings. Having teetered on the edges of quantum chromodynamics, they walked on by; decades would pass before either man got another stab at the Nobel. “Ideas are often like boomerangs,” Parisi explains, and you can hear the sigh in his voice; “they start out moving in one direction but end up going in another.”

In a Flight of Starlings is the latest addition to an evergreen genre: the scientific confessional. Read this, and you will get at least a frisson of what a top-flight career in physics might feel like.

There’s much here that is charming and comfortable: an eminent man sharing tales of a bygone era. Parisi began his first year of undergraduate physics in November 1966 at Sapienza University in Rome, when computer analysis involved lugging about (and sometimes dropping) metre-long drawers of punched cards.

The book’s title refers to Parisi’s efforts to compute the murmurations of starlings. Recently he’s been trying to work out how many solid spheres of different sizes will fit into a box. There’s a goofiness to these pet projects that belies their significance. The techniques developed to follow thousands of starlings through three dimensions of space and one of time bear a close resemblance to those used to solve statistical physics problems. And fitting marbles in a box? That’s a classic problem in information theory.

The implications of Parisi’s work emerge slowly. The reader, who might, in all honesty, be touched now and again by boredom, sits up straighter once the threads begin to braid.

Physics for the longest time could not handle complexity. Galileo’s model of the physical world did not include friction, not because friction was any sort of mystery, but because the mathematics of his day couldn’t handle it.

Armed with better mathematics and computational tools physics can now study phenomena that Galileo could never have imagined would be part of physics. For instance, friction. For instance, the melting of ice, and the boiling of water: phenomena that, from the point of view of physics, are very strange indeed. Coming up with models that explain the phase transitions of more complex and disordered materials, such as glass and pitch, is something Parisi has been working on, on and off, since the middle of the 1990s.

Efforts to model more and more of the world are nothing new, but once rare successes now tumble in upon the field at a dizzying rate; almost as though physics has undergone its own phase transition. This, Parisi says, is because once two systems in different fields of physics can be described by the same mathematical structure, “a rapid advancement of knowledge takes place in which the two fields cross-fertilize.”

This has clearly happened in Parisi’s own specialism. The mathematics of disorder apply whether you’re describing why some particles try to spin in opposite directions, or why certain people sell shares that others are buying, or what happens when some dinner guests want to sit as far away from other guests as possible.

Phase transitions eloquently connect the visible and quantum worlds. Not that such connections are particularly hard to make. Once you know the physics, quantum phenomena are easy to spot. Ever wondered at a rainbow?

“Much becomes obvious in hindsight,” Parisi writes. “Yet it is striking how in both physics and mathematics there is a lack of proportion between the effort needed to understand something for the first time and the simplicity and naturalness of the solution once all the required stages have been completed.”

The striking “murmurations” of airborne starlings are created when each bird in the flock pays attention to the movements of its nearest neighbour. Obvious, no?

But as Parisi in his charming way makes clear, whenever something in this world seems obvious to us, it is likely because we are perched, knowingly or not, on the shoulders of giants.

Cute but not beautiful

Reading Silk: A history in three metamorphoses by Aarathi Prasad for the Financial Times, 27 June 2023

In 1766, two years after his arrival in Buenos Aires, Father Ramon Maria Termeyer, Society of Jesuits, wandered on horseback through a carob forest and into a maze of spiders’ webs so strong, “they got in the way of me and my horse and made my hat fall from my head, unless I took care to break them with a rod.” Glancing around, he realised with a thrill that he was surrounded by cocoons quite as large as the spiders watching him from every branch; and it was a thrill, one might add, not of horror, but of mercantile possibility: what if these spiders could be forcibly silked?

Indeed they could: one of the stranger pictures in this strangest of histories is a contemporary diagram of a 1900 machine made to “milk” related Golden Orb spiders in Madagascar.

Readers coming to this globe-trotting and species-leaping volume expecting vignette after genteel vignette of 5000-odd years of Chinese silk manufacture are in for a very nasty shock indeed. Here be spiders, and not just spiders, but metre-long Mediterranean clams, never mind countless moth species spinning their silks everywhere from Singapore to Suriname. As the entomologist Rene-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur observed in 1711, “nature does not limit itself to a few examples, even of its most singular productions.”

This sets Aarathi Prasad quite a challenge: billed as “a cultural and biological history”, Silk must flit from China, Indonesia and India to South America and Madagascar, and from there to the Mediterranean to examine Procopius of Caesarea’s “cloak made of wool, not such as produced by sheep, but gathered from the sea”.

The Chinese silkworm, Bombyx mori, necessarily holds centre stage, since it has played a leading role in our understanding of the natural world. The 17th-century naturalist and globetrotter Maria Sybilla Merian traced its lifecycle to scotch the idea that small organisms arose spontaneously out of decomposing matter. In 1807 the Italian Agostino Bassi showed how infection was transmitted from a sick caterpillar to a healthy one, in a paper that Louis Pasteur read 60 years later, as he formulated the germ theory of disease.

Then there’s the author’s own experience of these strange creatures, “cute but not beautiful”, and unable, in their adult form, to eat or defecate — “nor do they do much at all as moths, except to mate and die.” As a child Prasad used to feed her larvae with mulberry leaf paste, then watched as they span “cradles of their own making, swaddled in kilometres of pure white silk.”

Chinese silk domestication, which began around the Yellow River, sometime in the Neolithic period, between 7500 and 5,000 years ago, bequeathed us helpless, flightless grubs that require human intervention just to survive. Other domestication strategies were followed in India, where Antheraea paphia, still winged, still brightly coloured, spins extravagant cocoons of rough, rugged, golden tasar silk and hangs them on a “stalk” from its favourite trees. Roman writers, seeing their branches so thickly festooned, thought these silk farmers were harvesting fruit.

Weaving between these natural wonders are the human stories; of Marcello Malpighi, whose dissection of Bombyx mori for the Royal Society in the 1660s took an entire year; of Georg Eberhardt Rumpf, whose survey of cocoon-producing moths in Indonesia triggered a quite surreal string of personal disasters; of Thomas Wardle, whose Midlands factory hands finally worked out out how to bleach and print on tasar silk, triggering a boom in India’s silk exports.

The effort to personalise and dramatise such a wealth of unfamiliar and often downright peculiar information sometimes empurples Prasad’s prose, as when, “with her luggage ready, her younger child and a magnifying glass close at hand, Merian departed over the slick, white-capped waves of Amsterdam’s harbour on that busy seaway out of the Dutch Republic: first to the wind-bound sea channels of the island of Texel, past the Isle of Wight, the storm-worn point of Portland from whose glowing stones London’s St Paul’s Cathedral was still being built, and out of the English Channel into the treacherous, sloping swells of the Bay of Biscay.”

But flourishes like these have their charm, and did after all gift us Termeyer’s spooky, unforgettable ride among the webs of Aranea latro.

Those readers less enamoured of Prasad’s bravura scene-setting will discover more sardonic pleasures. The Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, it seems, owned quite the latest in personal body protection: a bullet-proof vest made of silk. On 28 June 1914 he forgot to put it on.

Scientific accounts of silk traditionally end in Arthur C Clarke territory, rather breathlessly describing how Earth-tethered space elevators made of synthetic silk will propel future astronauts into orbit. Prasad’s not holding her breath over that one, though she does treat us to a futuristic vision of “flexible and biodegradable implantable electronics that record our brain signals” and “edible sensors we could safely consume to track our fitness or the nutritional quality of our food”.

Mostly though Prasad is happy to admit that “more often, scientific progress is just tiresomely incremental.” Technological wonders will follow our continuing investigations, but they will do so in their own good time. One especially gratifying lesson to be drawn from this charming and absorbing book, is that silks will sustain their mystery and surprise and glamour for a while yet.

The opposite of jolly

Reading Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging by Michael Bond for The Spectator, 24 June 2023

Have you ever loved someone and got nothing back?

Next question: was it really so bad?

We all feel things for people who don’t even know we exist. For most of us the experience is enriching. For me (and you, probably) David Bowie’s life held personal meaning. And if the thin white duke did not rate as your personal companion, then Queen Elizabeth almost certainly did. And if not the Queen, then what about Walter White, from TV drama Breaking Bad? We love fictional characters too. Walt saw me through my divorce.

We enjoy these relationships in private. Sometimes, we meet fellow “fans” and then, as the cheery Michael Bond points out, “One of the incentives for being part of a fandom is that you get to do things with others.”

In Fans, Bond sketches the psychology of belonging very lightly. Why is it, he asks, that sports fans seem to get a free pass, when it comes to chanting, dancing and face-painting? (I’d like to see Trekkies trying to get away with being so ebullient in public.)

Next, he notes that sport is a zero-sum game: “if I win, you lose”, and that this leads to unreasonable love for one’s own team, and unreasonable prejudice towards one’s opponent.

But having begun with such promise Bond, incredibly, fails to connect these two observations, and in doing so, he fails to convey why his subject is so important.

So let’s do his job for him: fans are a species of tribe, and — this is the important bit — tribes win our respect the more tribal they are, which is why sports fans are rarely shamed for being excessively zealous: “their commitment to the cause is expected,” says Bond, “even applauded”.

Tribal behaviour is exciting. It’s had us building civilisations and spilling each other’s blood for over five millennia. Fan groups are simply defanged tribes. (This is why we can, if we want, describe most achievements of world civilisation in the bathetic terminology of fandom. What else is sincere religious faith but a “non-reciprocal fan relationship”?)

Scratch a fan, and you will find a zealot. The more serious they are, the more dangerous they are. Bond’s most engaging passages deal with fans who think their chosen celebrity owes them love and attention. The experiences of songwriter and social media star “Lizzyspit” are illuminating: driven off social media and real-world hiding by an outpouring of hate, all because she didn’t post in the weeks immediately following her father’s death.

The more pathological fandom becomes, the more interesting it gets, and this is bad news for Bond, who would much prefer to champion fandom’s emollient and jolly side.

Bond’s favourite fans (but not — I’d stake money on it — the reader’s) are painfully pro-social, which is why the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society has, since December 2020, “been engaging in an ongoing conversation on its social media feeds about the use of the pineapple and the origins of white wealth in the early 19th century.” (In the midst of a sixth extinction and a second cold war, this, yes, is the hill they have chosen to die on.)

Bond’s detours into the dark are few, and conducted in a spirit of apology and understanding. Therianthropes believe they are born into the wrong species (and, yes, Bond’s definition of “fandom” does slither about to subsume every glistening oddity). But theirs is “not an obsession or a mental disorder,” only “a conviction, one therians spend their entire lives trying to accommodate.” The sophistry at work here is miasmic.

What’s missing from Bond’s account — and perhaps we can understand this, given our current political moment — is not more horror stories (Bond’s right; he hear enough of them through the media) but simple bread-and-butter scorn. As in the sinking feeling you get (before your inner policeman kicks the door in) when you hear that social psychologist Courtney Plante at Bishop’s University in Quebec, Canada is a furry; that his “fursona” is a neon blue cat named Nuka; and that he’s also a fan of the animated TV show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which makes him a Brony.

There’s something off here, something that’s the very opposite of joyful. Therians spend their lives on line criticising the inaccuracies in each other’s accounts of life as a wolf, ocelot, or wot-not. Jolly? I think not.

And yes, scorn is a crude response, but it’s better than sticking both thumbs in your ears and going la-la-la.

Dig here! scorn says. There’s something worth truffling for here!

Bond turned up without a spade.

Life’s shuddering advances

Reading Be Mine by Richard Ford for the Times, 22 June 2023

Move up there: Richard Ford is back again, and once again he’s got Frank with him, his wayward alter-ego.

Since this is Ford’s fifth exploration of the consciousness of sportswriter-turned-realtor Frank Bascombe, here’s a summary. (You don’t strictly need it; it’s not that sort of a series. But there’s no harm in being orientated.) As a young man in the late 1970s, Frank nursed big dreams. In time he learned to pack them away. He got married, had children, and watched one of them die — an event that, not too surprisingly, spelled the end of his relationship. He married again, not very successfully. He’s retired now and wedged comfortably, if bemusedly, in America’s post-retail uncanny, where nothing has any obvious relation to anything else — “The gravestone company that sells septics, the pet supply that offers burials at sea, the shoe store that sells baseball tickets”.

Frank Bascombe is an ordinary man, and this is the fifth instalment of his ordinary life.

Ford’s keenly observing, wise-cracking alter ego, seems on the face of it to be an unlikely focus for over three decades of dedicated effort. Frank has spent most of his life selling real estate. Before that he was a sports writer. He wanted to be the next Raymond Carver, once upon a time, but in his late thirties he decided to get a real job.

This is where Ford and Bascombe parted ways. Ford, too, once tried to get a real job — but wasn’t nearly as savvy as his alter-ego, and couldn’t make a dime outside of becoming a literary giant and our pre-eminent proponent of American realism.

Frank remembers reading that in good novels, “anything can follow anything, and nothing ever necessarily follows anything else.”

This is simply Ford removing the safety-net before embarking on his latest high-wire act. Of course there’s a plot. I’d go so far as to say that there’s a hero’s journey here, as Frank arranges one last trip for himself and his surviving son Paul, a long, flat, boring drive across South Dakota to Wyoming, and Rapid City, and — of all places — Mount Rushmore, “most notional of national monuments, and thus most American”.

Paul has been diagnosed with ALS, a neuro-degenerative condition that is uncoupling his muscles from his brain in something like real time as we read.

Our privileged access to the cockpit of Frank’s head comes at significant emotional cost. There’s no fire exit for us here — no chill-out space scattered with comfy abstractions, opinions or Fine Writing. We’re in for the long haul — Hartford, South Dakota — Mitchell, South Dakota —

Ford being Ford, of course, it all goes like the clappers, leaving us teary and exhilarated (reading Ford is really like getting laid).

For four volumes now, Frank has been learning to navigate the downpour of disconnected stuff that makes up his ordinary life (much of it in New Jersey), stringing eventoids together in ways that will carry meaning. This necessity, to turn one’s own life into a story and remain halfway sane thereby, hit 38-year-old Frank with the power of revelation back when he first appeared, in The Sportswriter, back in 1986.

Now he’s in his seventies, and knows what he’s about, dogged in his pursuit of meaning in a life that (as is usual) happens to him while he is making other plans. (“Why do we not do things?” Frank wonders. “It is a far richer question than why we do.”) Here is a master at work. And I don’t mean Ford (who needs no whoop-hooooorahs from me); I mean Frank.

This is the adventure of a man desperately trying to make life as least like an adventure as possible for his balding, warty, forty-seven year-old son, an oddball for whom “connections between the heartfelt and the preposterous are his yin and yang”, and dying, as we watch, from a disease people regularly kill themselves to avoid. “Short of joining the Zion Lutherans, setting out nasturtiums and registering to vote,” Frank explains, “I’ve done all I can to solidify an idea of normal life for us, so we’re not constantly peeking around the sides of things to confront life’s shuddering advances.”

But is Frank’s everything enough? Frank knows he’s weak, and distractible and, who’s to say? a little bit empty inside. His son certainly says so — but then, his son only ever talks in one-liners (absurd, barbed, both); they’re his strategy for eluding experience. His daughter Clarissa knows so — but that’s her trouble: she thinks that people are knowable, and opinions suffice. She’s the sort of reader who would give up on Be Mine, complaining that there’s no plot.

So what happens? What gives?

Frank and his son spend chapters preparing to visit the Mayo Clinic in Rochester where Paul, a volunteer and “medical pioneer”, is being “celebrated” at the conclusion of a research study. At the last minute, half-way down “death’s bright companionway” and twenty feet from the door, father and son peel away and go instead to pick up their camper van.

Half way through the book, they’re ready to leave Rochester.

There’s a chapter in a Hilton Garden.

There’s a chapter in The World’s Only Corn Palace (I’ve been there; Ford nails it).

There’s a chapter about choosing a near-derelict motel over the Fawning Buffalo Casino, Golf and Deluxe Convention Hotel near Wall, South Dakota.

And it’s here, just a few pages before Rushmore, that Ford tips his hand.

“‘I know we have to do what we have to do,’” says Patti, the motel owner; like most strangers met along this road, she’s sympathetic enough. “‘But we don’t always have to do the precise right thing for the precise right reasons all the time. Okay, Frank?’ She pyramids her dark eyebrows as if she’s imparting sacred truths anybody’d be crazy to ignore.”

And Frank, his shoulder screaming from the effort of lifting his crippled son into their van, takes one look down that primrose path and decides he’s sure as hell not going there: “And of course she’s wrong! Dead wrong! Should I not care that I’m doing what I’m doing and why? Or how I’m doing it? With my only son? Is that ever true?”

Good stories have cracking plots about heroes who must face impossible odds and make great sacrifices. Frank does this each time he orders breakfast. Frank holds himself together the way you and I hold ourselves together (or try to) — by snatching at straws in the maelstrom of everyday life (whatever the hell that is).

And Be Mine is Frank — a 20-foot model of the Titanic assembled from matchsticks.

Or picture this (since that matchstick Titanic might inspire admiration, but never love): picture a novel that feels truer to experience than your own experience.

Or this (since we’re none of us getting any younger, and this is likely Frank’s swan-song): the chance to spend a last few hours with a friend.

Don’t be fooled by that Grateful Dead concert

Watching Wild Life by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi for New Scientist, 14 June 2023

Don’t be fooled by that Grateful Dead concert near the beginning. Wild Life is not about happy-go-lucky hippies who fell backwards into money.

It’s about three major outdoor apparel companies, and the minds that founded and controlled them. And it’s the story of how two of those minds, Doug and Kristine Tompkins, spent their middle years engineering the largest ever private land donation in history, all to save diverse and rapidly degrading ecosystems.

Kristine (then McDivitt) met rock-climber Yvon Chouinart in 1965 and went on to help him turn his blacksmithing business (turning out pitons and other climbing gear) into a world-leading outdoor brand, Patagonia. Chouinart conceived Patagonia as an “anti-corporation”, campaigning to preserve the environments its products let you explore.

by the early 1990s Chouinart, despairing of the garment industry’s environmental footprint, had started promoting advertising copy that all but urged customers not to buy his clothing.

That was the moment Kristine decided there had to be more to life. She quit her role as Patagonia’s first CEO. She wanted something “wild”. Something “outrageous”. And by marrying Doug Tompkins, she got it.

Doug and his wife Susie were long-time friends and rivals. They were the ones who got Grateful Dead to play at the opening of their first store, called North Face. Later, they founded Esprit. Now Doug was divorced and out of the business, living in Chile, haemorrhaging money on experiments in sustainable agriculture and trying to buy his way into the conversation game, one acre at a time.

He had set up home in Chile, was widely mistrusted, and didn’t seem to care. Once, when word went round that he had set a bounty on a man hired by salmon farmers to shoot sea lions, he had to hide out in the US embassy.

Chile was emerging from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The last thing ithe country needed was to see its land bought up and (many suspected) parcelled off by an American tycoon. Chile is narrow — a strip of land between the Andes and the coast, just 90 km wide at its thinnest point. Doug’s plans for a public nature reserve not only looked unfamiliar; they also split the country in two.

Doug died in 2015 from hypothermia following a sea kayaking accident. His death, Kristine says, nearly finished her. Instead she dedicated herself to expanding on what he had started.

She has triumphed. For every acre Kristine has donated up to 2018, Chile’s federal government has set aside nine acres of unused land. 17 wildlife parks have been created, covering 14.7m acres. That’s more than three times the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone combined. About the size of Switzerland. And the work continues, in Chile and in neighbouring Venezuela.

Wild Life is billed as a love story. Kristine’s presence on camera, her passion, and her continuing grief, are visceral.

The directors are out to capture breathtaking shots of unfamiliar coastal and mountain ecosystems. They’re out to assemble an intimate portrait of a remarkable couple through interviews and archive. They are not in the business of asking difficult questions about the role of capital in conservation. But Kristine proves more than capable of asking a good number of those questions of herself. She’d be the first to tell you that the adventures of Tompkins Conservation over the last quarter-century have been anything but plain sailing.

Ultimately, Wild Life succeeds because it treats the Tompkins’s success as a laudable highlight of the conversation movement — not some sort of blanket solution to all the world’s problems.

We’re not going to save the world by buying it. But someone saved a corner, and filled it with giant anteaters, jaguars, red-and-green macaws, and giant river otters, and that is worth remembering, and should be, for all of us, both a provocation and a challenge.

Conduits of disease and death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An explosion in a radioactive cotton candy factory


Reading Under Alien Skies by Phil Plait for New Scientist, 7 June 2023 

You may know him better as “the Bad Astronomer”, whose blog demolishes misconceptions and frauds about the cosmos. Now the tireless Phil Plait is taking us on a journey, to our satellite moon and beyond, past Mars and the Belt, past Saturn and Pluto, to other stars, to binaries and clusters, to nebulae and to the end of all things, as he sends us spiraling past the Schwartzchild radius of a black hole. Throughout (and with a few tiny exceptions), he and we see only what poor, bare forked humanity is equipped by nature to see. This is the cosmos as we would feel, hear and see it. Some measure of security and comfort is provided by spaceships and starships of ever-increasing unlikelihood but, deep down, we’re on our own out here, and trembling at the magnificence of it all.

This artful premise gives Plait licence to discuss what our real future in the solar system might look like, while at the same time exploring some startling stellar exotica. (Finally, I understand the Orion Nebula!)

In the final chapters, on star clusters, nebulae and black holes, our suspension of disbelief starts to come unstuck. This is partly to do with the fact that there’s nothing for us to smell, hear, walk on or trip over. (By contrast, Plait’s evocations of our own solar system are superbly sensual.)

Sooner or later we will be overwhelmed by a universe a lot bigger than we are. Here Plait describes our likely response as we witness the birth of stars:

“Your mind tries to comprehend what you’re seeing, churning out analogies rapid-fire — it’s like an explosion in a radioactive cotton candy factory, like being suspended in a frozen fireworks display, like flying through a million auroras — but in the end you fail. Humans never evolved to comprehend magnificence on a scale like this.”

Some of the grandest wonders in his arsenal are simply invisible to the naked eye. Just now and again, then, the valiant captain of our imaginary starship tweaks the viewscreens, showing us things we wouldn’t have seen by just leaning out the window; and on those rare occasions we may reasonably begin to wonder: what on eartyh are we doing out here? Why did we come all this way, just to watch a video? Couldn’t the same veritée have been achieved, sitting in front of a 5K screen in our pyjamas?

You could argue that Plait should have stuck to his guns, and even in the chapter on black holes, described only what human beings would see with their own eyes. But this is a game we abandoned centuries ago. Our machines have better access to the world than we do, and this has been true at least since Dutch lens grinders invented the telescope.

Much more telling, I think: virtually every wonder in this book is to do with scale. Bigger, brighter, heavier things dominate this account. But where are the stranger things? Is there anything in this account as abidingly weird as — oh, I don’t know — a tree? A house cat? A plate of fish and chips?

Earth beats the rest of the known cosmos hands down for complexity and change. And, yes, there may well be other biomes out there — but Plait can’t just invent them out of whole cloth. That would be fantasy, and this is a book rooted, however speculatively, in the known.

Plait is an able, resourceful and, on occasion, downright visionary guide to the far reaches of outer space. If this book leaves a few readers feeling very slightly disappointed, it’s not Plait who fell short; it’s the cosmos.

For 300 exhilarating pages, short-lived, fragile and under-equipped reader have relied upon imaginary technology to get them places they don’t belong. It is no bad thing if a few of them close this exhilarating book with a renewed feeling of reverence for their own world.