“One cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance”

Reading David Flusfeder’s Luck for New Scientist, 6 April 2022 

The Russian novelist Fyodor Doystoyevsky was a gambling addict. He believed, if he could only maintain his composure, the various strategies and “systems” he dreamt up to beat the roulette wheel would one day pay off. But no strategy can game pure chance.

David Flusfeder’s book is not about randomness, or statistics, or the behaviour of numbers. It is, quite specifically, about luck, defined as “the operations of chance taken personally.” Flusfeder is a semi-professional poker player, and knows whereof he speaks.

His eccentric, insightful meditations focus on Fortune’s favourites and its gulls — from the Marquis de Dangeau, 18th-century Versailles’ wiliest card shark, to Thomas Bastard, Oxford University’s most comprehensively shunned epigrammatist. Weaving backwards and forwards through western history, Flusfeder encounters more familiar figures too, from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Niels Bohr to four-times lottery winner Joan Ginther, “the luckiest woman on Earth”.

In an effort to stop his project sprawling, Flusfeder has given its structure over to chance. The 14 essays here are largely self-contained, and they have to be, since they’re presented in an order determined by an on-line randomiser.

Doystoyevsky’s experience predominates. Even after he managed to cure himself of his addiction, the novelist retained the conviction “that in games of chance, if one has perfect control of one’s will, so that the subtlety of one’s intelligence and one’s power of calculation are preserved, one cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance and to win.”

Flusfeder reckons poor Fyodor was born in the wrong place; he should have been playing poker with French settlers in New Orleans, for the card game they invented in 1829 really does reward composure, and nerve, as well as luck.

Not that poker is an altogether rational pursuit. If it were, then Flusfeder would not be wearing green underpants to every important game. Superstition abounds on the poker circuit, as it does wherever people wield little or no control over their lives. Professional tennis, where “there is so much time to think, and doubt, and lose the learned rhythms of technique, and to be afraid”, is awash with fetishes, tics, and absurd pre-match “routines”.

Superstition, according to Flusfeder, is not some primitive psychic excrescence that can be discarded. It’s merely the florid expression of heuristic thinking, without which we wouldn’t be able to function at all. We don’t constantly re-evaluate the world. We make reasonable assumptions about how it works, and we rely on those assumptions. We develop habits. We conjure up a deterministic world in which what happened yesterday reliably guides our actions tomorrow.

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood.

This attitude, caught so superbly by the poet Alexander Pope, works well enough for day-to-day life, but trouble attends our efforts to institutionalise such thinking. Swathes of economic practice, and not a little theory, are predicated on this nonsense — the idea that past results are a guide to future performance.

Statistician David Spiegelhalter, who studies the public perception of risk, is blunt about this: probability does not exist outside the mind, he says: “It is not an objective aspect of the world. It’s a way to operationalise a belief.” At best it’s the map for a territory that, being unbounded, is immeasurable and unknowable.

Vulnerable to the vagaries of chance, how should we conduct ourselves?

Rather than cower timidly, avoiding all randomness, we might develop prudence, seizing opportunities while sidestepping unnecessary risks. Still, against the vicissitudes of fortune, prudence is a thin shield indeed.

Virtue may be our better armour. A life lived with honesty and integrity will at least feel consistent, whether we are suffering adversity or enjoying good fortune.

Or as the early renaissance poet Petrarch put it, “Many times whom fortune has made bond, virtue has made free.”

A normal process

Reading What Is Regeneration by Jane Maienschein and Kate MacCord for New Scientist, 30 March 2022

Some animals are able to regrow lost or damaged parts. Crabs and lobsters regenerate whole tentacles and claws. Many more animals have lifecycles that involve the wholesale shedding and regrowth of certain tissues. (Unlike hydras and some worms, we humans cannot regrow our heads; but we can regrow our fingernails.)

Regeneration is such a peculiar property, it is surprisingly often ignored or discounted. The 18th-century French naturalist René-Antoine Réaumur spoke to people who made their living by fishing and was surprised when they dismissed stories of limb regeneration as mere “fables”. (His own somewhat bloodthirsty experiments on the local crayfish showed otherwise.)

So is regeneration a mere oddity? Is there any underlying logic to it? And what does it have to do with the grander mysteries of birth, death and development?

Jane Maienschein directs the History and Philosophy of Science Project at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Kate MacCord administers the centre’s effort to study how regeneration works across the scales of complex living systems. This book is their collaborative effort to understand why regeneration occurs when it does, and whether the regeneration of communities (the gut flora in your intestines after a course of antibiotics, say, or the regeneration of woodland after a forest fire) bears anything more than a semantic relationship with the kind of regeneration those crayfish enjoyed in the weeks following their unlucky encounter with M. Réaumur.

Regeneration turns out to be one of those simple, discrete, observable phenomena that, the closer we look at them, seem to vanish into thin air. For instance, when we think about regeneration, are we thinking about regeneration of structure, or regeneration of function, or both? How we think about regeneration impacts whether and where we think it occurs.

The authors’ history of regeneration begins with Aristotle and ends with Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz’s current work on cellular signalling. Their account pivots on Thomas Hunt Morgan (better known as a pioneer of chromosomal genetics) and in particular on his book Regeneration of 1901. Morgan, more than anyone before or since, attempted to establish clear boundaries around the phenomenon of regeneration. The terminology he invented remains useful. Restorative regeneration occurs in response to injury. Physiological regeneration describes replacement, as when a bird moults its feathers or an elk its antlers and a new structures grow in their place. Morphallaxis refers to cases of reshaping, as when a hydra, cut to pieces, reorganises itself into a new hydra without going through the normal processes of cell division.

Morgan’s observations and analysis established that the mechanisms of regeneration are not (as our authors put it) “a special response to changing environmental conditions but, rather, an internal normal process of growth and development. Nor is regeneration an evolutionary adaptation to external conditions, even though the process may be useful.”

So here’s the problem: if the mechanisms of regeneration cannot be distinguished from the mechanisms of growth and development, what’s to stop everything regenerating all the time? What dictates lawful regrowth, and why does it happen only in some tissues, only in some species, and only some of the time?

Far from being an interesting curio, regeneration turns out to be a window through which we glimpse the tightly imbricated (if not impossibly entangled) feedback loops from which the living world, at every scale, is composed. The words of geneticist François Jacob, writing in 1974 and quoted here, barely conveys the scale of the challenge the authors reveal: “every object that biology studies is a system of systems.”

No wonder that regeneration remains largely a mystery; that hopeful regenerative therapies using stem cells usually fail (and usually for unfathomable reasons); and that even the simplest ecosystems elude our control.

Maienschein and MacCord take fewer than 150 pages to anatomise the complexities and ambiguities that their simple question throws up. It is to their further credit that they do not make the biology any more complex or ambiguous than it has to be.

Strife, crime, depravity and recycled urine

Watching Rudolph Herzog’s Last Exit: Space for New Scientist, 16 March 2022

Documentary-maker Rudolph Herzog uses the likelihood (or otherwise) of humans colonising other worlds to structure this peculiar dash through the besetting space concerns of our day; for instance, how will we copulate in space? How much antimatter do we need for a journey to Proxima Centauri B? And how much extra skin do each of us need before it’s worth us bio-engineering human photosynthesis?

Closer to home — and here’s where Last Exit: Space begins — how will the first Martian colonists survive their cosmic ray-doused journey to the Red Planet? How will they stand a planetary surface ten times more radioactive than the surface of the Earth? And how will they survive each other’s company, hunkered down in sub-surface bunkers, “enjoying drinks of recycled urine”?

A traditional documentary might look for answers through the press offices of ESA or NASA. Not so Rudolph Herzog, whose father Werner, narrated and executive-produced this film. In signature Herzog style, Rudolph side-steps the pundits, and goes instead after people whose real lives are already shaped by the conundrums of space travel.

In the Negev desert, the Austrian Space Forum puts a not-too-sophisticated-looking Mars EVA suit through its paces. In Denmark, volunteers at Copenhagen Suborbitals build their first full-size rocket to propel one of their number past the Karman line and into the record books as the world’s first amateur astronaut.

Among the naysayers, space anthropologist Taylor Genovese compares the likely living conditions on Mars to working in an Amazon fulfilment centre, while Judith Lapierre, sole female crewmember of the Moscow Isolation Experiment in the late 1990s, explains how this study in close-proximity living ended with her alleging sexual harrassment against a Russian crewmember — which in turn seems to have led to her ostracism from the space community. If we can’t get along with each other on Earth, what chance do we have in space? Short of any number of technological miracles, a visit to another star will require a starship capable of supporting entire generations of human beings, such are the distances and journey times involved: Lapierre’s testimony suggests to the Herzogs that our spacefaring future will be one of “strife, crime and depravity”.

In that case, we might be better off staying put. This, surprisingly, is the advice of a cleric of the mystical Dawn Valley community in Planaltina, Brazil. The followers of former truck driver Tia Neiva believe they receive energies from visiting extraterrestrials from Capella. These same extraterrestrials advise against bodily journeys between the stars. As the cleric explains, since we evolved on this planet, we are hardly likely to thrive elsewhere.

Last Exit: Space pays a high price for its wide-eyed, catch-all approach to the subject; the lack of analysis on show here is frustrating. On the one hand we are regaled, yet again, with tales of “the human pioneering spirit” — as though humans were destined to explore and become somewhat less than human when not exploring. There’s really no anthropological evidence for this. Many is the culture that has stayed put and literally tended its own garden.

Set in false opposition to this straw man are an astonishing assortment of dystopian fantasies. Space corporations will control our water! Space corporations will control our air!

More likely, space corporations wielding mining robots will want as few people in space as possible. (While one isn’t obliged to mention robots in a movie of this sort, I’d contend that without them, it’s very hard indeed to say anything sensible about the economics of outer space.)

Astronaut Mike Foale and astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz provide the documentary with small but penetrating voices of calm. Space is an additional field of human endeavour, not an escape route lest the endeavour go wrong — say, by laying waste to the planet.

I’m as much of a space nut as anyone I know. But, to answer the question Werner Herzog poses at the beginning of his son’s charming, if somewhat unfocused documentary — “Do we need to seek our destiny among the stars?” — I do hope not.

Not quite a coincidence

Reading Antone Martinho-Truswell’s The Parrot in the Mirror for New Scientist, 9 March 2022

Organisms adapt over evolutionary time to their changing surroundings. This creates, over time, a living world of quite jaw-dropping diversity. It also generates some astonishing coincidences — if “coincidence” is quite the right word to describe how two quite unlike species, adapting to identical environments, end up looking and behaving the same. For instance, the pangolins of Africa and the armadilloes of South America look like close cousins; in fact they’re more closely related to humans than they are to each other.

Convergent evolution doesn’t have to be so visually obvious. Take humans and birds: few readers will take on trust Sydney-based zoologist Martinho-Truswell’s assertion that we “look like a strangely featherless bird”.

By the time I finished The Parrot in the Mirror, though, I found that image both compelling and reasonable. Martinho-Truswell explores the traits shared by humans and birds, from our unusual longevity to our advanced social skills, from our parenting styles to our intelligence and even our use of language. These, the author argues, are all extraordinary examples of convergent evolution at work.

Crudely, Martinho-Truswell’s argument goes like this:

Once birds could fly, they could elude almost all predators. And since they were unlikely to be eaten in any given year, it made sense for birds to go on living, producing more eggs and offspring. Increased longevity followed. With longevity came increased intelligence. Long-living animals need to be smart because they get to be the parents of young who develop over a longer period. And because longer development requires a bigger egg and a bigger yolk sac, and because an egg can only get so big, most birds hatch out very immature, helpless young, that require enormous amounts of care. This care is provided by pair bonded parents, sometimes supplemented by a larger community, hence the evolution of complex social behaviour and language (or song, at any rate).

The human story is a twisted mirror-image of the avian one. Communal behaviour among primates promoted the evolution of intelligence, and this reduced the likelihood of predation. Longevity followed, boosting intelligence further, to the point where big-brained human young have to be born immature and helpless so as not to kill their mothers in childbirth.

For different reasons, then, humans and birds evolved measurable intelligence. But how do we compare our abilities? Can we even talk about bird smarts and human smarts in the same sentence?

Martinho-Truswell’s handling of this subject is very well done. A balance has to be stuck between precision and imagination. On the one hand, a duckling’s ability to imprint upon its mother shortly after the moment of its birth puts it well ahead of chimpanzees, parrots, pigeons, crows and even human children, but this one hardwired ability doesn’t necessarily make the duckling more intelligent. On the other hand, it would be a dull observer indeed that did not see in Irene Pepperberg’s thirty-year study of language use in Alex, an African Grey parrot, quite staggering evidence of advanced cognition. (Alex not only asked questions; it asked them, and got annoyed if people offered dumb responses.)

Containing the niceties of convergent evolution in a straightforward narrative is not easy. Evolutionary causes and effects do not follow each other in neat, storybook fashion, and there’s always the temptation, reading this book, to take Martinho-Truswell’s acts of narrative shorthand at face value and suppose that humans, 50 million years behind parrots in the evolution of intelligence, somehow became more human by actually mimicking their distant avian cousins. (Distant cousins indeed, by the way: the last common ancestor of birds and mammals died out 320 million years ago.)

But it is surely better to be very slightly misled by a gripping story than to be bludgeoned by a dull one. Martinho-Truswell has written a superb introduction to a surprisingly complex and fraught field of study. Having read it, you will not look at yourself in the mirror in quite the same way.

 

Free the sea

Reading Chris Armstrong’s A Blue New Deal for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Chris Armstrong, a political theorist at the University of Southampton, believes that the institutions and laws that govern our oceans are too fragmented, too weak and too amenable to vested interests to address the inequalities that exist between developed and developing nations.

Nor, he says, do they protect the marine environment from destruction, and this at a time when there’s been a 30 per cent increase in ocean acidity (since 1900), when the global fishing effort has grown ninefold (between 1970 and 2008), and the globe’s pursuit of oil, gas and minerals is increasingly being directed off-shore.

Ocean governance has been shaped by two contrary impulses: the idea of the freedom of the high seas, given shape in Hugo Grotius’s The Free Sea of 1609; and the idea — rather more familiar to landlubbers — of enclosure, by which a coastal state is entitled to exclusive control and enjoyment of its immediate marine environment.

Grotius’s vision of oceanic free-for-all allows anyone with the wherewithal to exploit an ocean resource as much and as often as they desire. Armstrong allows that this was not entirely unreasonable, given the limited technology available at the time to even the wealthiest nations. Clearly, though, it needs reform for the 21st century, given only a handful of rich nations have access to the expensive technologies involved in sea-bed mining and mineral extraction.

Enclosure is perhaps the more recalcitrant tradition. The idea behind “territorial waters” is ancient, but Armstrong sensibly explains it by reference to the 1968 article by the ecologist Garrett Hardin, in which he claimed that “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.

The trouble is, this isn’t true. The historical record is full of examples of resources held in common, and governed equitably for hundreds of years. The much vaunted “tragedy of the commons” is a piece of rhetoric, not a proven truth. And as Armstrong rightly points out, “the real tragedy for individual ‘commoners’ was enclosure itself, which saw them being evicted from the land by wealthy landowners.”

In 1994, a new Convention on the Law of the Sea established Exclusive Economic Zones extending for 200 nautical miles from nearly every shore. Within these zones, resources are subject to the jurisdiction of the coastal state. By this myopic reasoning, landlocked countries were excluded from a share of the spoils of the sea. (This matters, as access to the sea is essential for economic health. Armstrong points out that 9 of the world’s 12 poorest countries are landlocked). It did nothing to prevent richer nations from licensing, on predatory terms, rights over the EEZs of countries too poor to exploit their own territory. And it gave every state-owned atoll, rock, and island an exclusive patch of sea to exploit, extending 200 miles in every direction. And which states own these rocks? Former colonial powers, of course. Thanks to the 1994 convention, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Australia now command the resources of more than 45 million square kilometres of ocean.

What can be done?

In 1959 a treaty established Antarctica as a place of peace and international cooperation — a commons in other words. Eight years later, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 did the same for the worlds beyond our own. So it is not beyond our legal capacities, Armstrong argues, to govern our oceans along principles of common management, benefit sharing, and even technology transfer between rich and poor nations.

Where Armstrong comes unstuck is in his ideas for enforcement. It’s all very well to dream up a “World Ocean Authority” whose deliberations no state would have the power to veto or depart from. But what omnipotent and omniscient power will drive all this selfless sharing, I wonder? Not, I would bet, the destitute seamen of the Gulf of Thailand; nor the blue whales and other non-human stakeholders of our increasingly stressed oceans.

Plastic astronauts

Watching Petrov’s Flu, directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Petrov (Semyon Serzin) is riding a trolleybus home across a snowbound Yekaterinburg when a fellow passenger mutters to a neighbour that the rich in this town deserve to be shot.

Seconds later the bus stops, Petrov is pulled off the bus and into the street, and a rifle is pressed into his hands. Street executions follow, shocking him out of his febrile doze—

And Petrov’s back on the trolley bus again.

Ambitious, mischievous, rich in allusions to Russian history, literature and cinema, Petrov’s Flu is also (lest we forget the obvious) a painfully precise, gut-wrenching depiction of what it’s like to run a high fever. Seeing the world through Petrov’s sick and disjointed point-of-view, we find the real world sliding away again and again, into often violent absurdity.

The worst is over. Petrov is on the mend. But it takes us the longest time before we can be confident that his friend, the drunken mischief-maker Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), is real, while Sergey (Ivan Dorn), the struggling writer pal who browbeats poor Petrov on every point (and is determined to achieve literary immortality through suicide), is a figment of Petrov’s own fever-wracked consciousness.

As Petrov’s fever breaks over the course of the film, fantasy and reality begin to separate, and what we might have feared was just a bag of bits (some tender, some shocking, all horribly entertaining) turns out to be a puzzle that, once complete, leaves us exhausted but eminently satisfied. Petrov turns out to be a comic-book writer, separated from his wife but still dedicated, as she is, to their son, who for his part is determined not to let his own fever stop him attending a kids’ New Year party.

Petrov’s Flu begins as a sci-fi movie. The whole city languishes under an epidemic that arrived accompanied by lights in the sky; Petrov’s wife (Chulpan Khamatova) is possessed by a demonic alien force during a library poetry reading; here and there, UFO-themed street graffiti come to life and wiggle across the screen.

As reality and hallucination part company, however, it becomes something different: a film about parents and children; about creative work, pretension and ambition; also, strongly, about Russia’s love of science fiction.

At its birth, western science fiction, and especially American science fiction, celebrated adventure and exploration. Russian sf has always been more about finding and building homes in a hostile environment. (The film’s location here is apposite: wintry Yeketerinburg, just east of the Urals, may as well be on the moon.) Russian sf is also strongly religious in spirit — and was indeed for many years one of Russia’s very few outlets for spiritual feeling, under a regime devoted (often brutally) to the suppression of religion.

The aliens in Russian sf invariably offer some form of redemption to a struggling humanity, and Petrov’s Flu, for all its iconoclasm and mischief, is no different. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Petrov, mad with fear, in dashing with his son to a local hospital, when the pair are intercepted by a kindly UFO.

Such are Petrov’s fever dreams, coloured by his space-crazy childhood and his adult career drawing comic books. At one point he remembers his mum and dad decorating a Christmas tree with festive plastic astronauts; Petrov’s possessed wife, meanwhile, pursues her latest hapless victim among the climbing-frame rockets and spaceships of a delipidated playground.

Fans of Andrei Tarkovsky (director of sf classics Solaris and Stalker) will enjoy director Kirill Serebrennikov’s knowing nods to key moments in those films. But it would be a mistake, I think, to watch this film purely for the in-jokes. True, Petrov’s Flu is shocking and funny contribution to Russia’s centuries-old tradition of absurdist literature. But it’s also a film about people, not to mention an extraordinary evocation of febrile delirium, and its assault on the mind.

Salmon or seals?

Reading Rebecca Nesbit’s Tickets for the Ark for New Scientist, 9 February 2022

Imagine: you are the last person alive. On your dying day, you cut down the last remaining oak tree, just because you can. Are you morally wrong?

Rebecca Nesbit, a science writer who trained as an ecologist, reports from fields where scientific knowledge and moral intuition trip over each other in disconcerting, sometimes headline-generating ways. Her first book, published in 2017, was Is that Fish in your Tomato? exploring the benefits and risks of genetically modified foods.

In Tickets for the Ark, Nesbit explores the moral complexities of conservation. If push came to shove, and their extinction were imminent, would you choose to preserve bison or the Siberian larch; yellowhammers or Scottish crossbills; salmon or seals? Are native species more important than invasive species? Do animals matter for their charisma, or their edibility? Are we entitled to kill some animals to make room for others?

Working through these and other issues, Nesbit shows how complex and problematic conservation can be. In particular, she draws attention to the way we focus our efforts on the preservation of species. This, she points out, is really just a grand way of saying that we preserve what we can easily see. For the sake of preserving the planet’s biodiversity, we might as easily focus on genes, or on individual strings of DNA, or the general shape of whole ecosystems.

Tickets for the Ark could be read as a catalogue of understandable blunders. We have attempted to limit the spread of invasive species, only to discover that many indigenous species are long-established immigrants. We have attempted to reverse human interference in nature, only to find that life has been shaping the Earth’s geology for about 2.5 billion years.

Far from being a counsel of despair, though, Tickets for the Ark reveals the intellectual vistas those blunders have opened up.

Even supposing it ever existed, we know now that we cannot return to some prelapsarian Eden. All we can do is learn how natural systems change (sometimes under human influence, sometimes not) and use this information to shape our present world according to our values.

In a sense, of course, we have always been doing this. What is agriculture, if not a way of shaping of the land to our demands? At least now, having learned to feed ourselves, we might move on to realise some higher ideals.

Once we accept that “nature” is a human and social idea, and that conservation is about the future, not the past, then most of conservation’s most troubling conundrums and contradictions fall away. The death of the last oak, at the hands of the last human, becomes merely the loss of a category (oak tree) that was defined and valued by humans; a loss that was at some point inevitable anyway. And though this conclusion is counterintuitive and uncomfortable, Nesbit argues that it should be liberating because it leaves us “free to discuss logically what we should save and why, and not just fight an anti-extinction battle that is doomed to failure.”

Above all, we can now consider what conservation efforts will achieve for whole ecosystems, and for biodiversity as a whole, without wasting our time agonising over whether, say, British white-clawed crayfish are natives, or dingoes are a separate species, or whether we are morally entitled to introduce bison to clear the steppe of Siberian larch (a native species, but responsible for covering, and warming, ancient carbon-sequestering permafrost).

Nesbit’s ambitious and entertaining account foresees a dynamic and creative role for conservation, especially in an era of potentially catastrophic climate change. Having freed ourselves of the idea that species belong only in their past ranges, and armed with better information about how ecosystems actually work, it may be time for us to govern the spread of bison and countless other species into new ranges. A brave proposal; but as Nesbit points out, translocation may be the only option for some species.

How wheat is grown, how steel is made

Reading Vaclav Smil’s How the World Really Works for New Scientist, 2 February 2022

By the late Renaissance, Europe’s knowledge of the world had grown beyond the compass of any single intellect. In 1772, more or less the whole of human knowledge could be encompassed within a set of handsome encyclopaedias. A century later, even the grandest encyclopaedias, to fulfil their reality-wrapping remit, had to resort to brief sketches and cursory citations. Today the global infosphere has expanded to the point where misinformation and disinformation hide in plain sight.

No one expects everyone to understand everything. But there are limits. Energy expert Vaclav Smil finds it downright inexcusable, that most people misunderstand the fundamental workings of the modern world. “After all,” he says, “appreciating how wheat is grown or steel is made… are not the same as asking that somebody comprehend femtochemistry.”

Smil believes that public discourse has begun to abandon its hold on reality entirely, and he deplores a culture which rewards disproportionately work that is removed from the material realities of life on earth.

This book is Smil’s effort to rebalance public discourse, reminding readers how food is grown, and the built environment is made and maintained — truths that should be obvious, but which are all to easily forgotten in our current, apocalypse- and utopia-minded times.

The fundamentals of our lives will not change drastically in the coming 20–30 years. Most of our electricity is gener­ated by steam turbines, invented by Charles Parsons in 1884, or by gas turbines, first commercially deployed in 1938. So never mind AI, electric cars, the internet, 5G, or space entrepreneurism (all of which depend for their energy on those antediluvian turbines). The health or otherwise of modern civilization rests, as it has rested for decades, on the continued production of ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics.

All these currently require fossil fuels for their production, and alternative production methods, where they are available, will take many decades to establish. (It was much easier to displace wood by coal than it is now to displace fossil fuels with renewables, because global energy demand was an order of magnitude lower in 1920 than it was in 2020.)

Given the ungainsayable evidence of climate change, does this mean that our civilisation, so hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels, is doomed?

The simple answer is that we don’t know, and Smil would rather we take our present environmental and economic challenges seriously than fritter away our energy and anxiety on complex socio-economic forecasts that are not worth the femtobytes used to calculate them. After all, such forecasts are likely to be getting worse, not better, because, as Smil says, “more complex models combining the interactions of economic, social, technical, and environmental factors require more assumptions and open the way for greater errors.”

How the World Really Works neither laments the imminent end of the world, nor bloviates enthusiastically over the astonishingly transformative powers of the AI Singularity. Indeed, it gives no quarter to such thinking, be it apocalyptic or techno-utopian.

Smil would rather explain the workings of the actual world. He writes about energy, food, materials, the biosphere, about the perception of risk, and about globalisation. He writes about those sizeable parts of ground reality that the doomsayers and boosterists ignore. It’s grumpy, pugnacious account and, I would argue, intellectually indispensable, as we rattle our way towards this year’s COP conference in Egypt.

In an era of runaway specialization, Smil is an exemplary generalist. “Drilling the deepest possible hole and being an unsurpassed master of a tiny sliver of the sky visible from its bottom has never appealed to me,” he writes. “I have always preferred to scan as far and as wide as my limited capabilities have allowed me to do.”

How the World Really Works delivers fully on the promise of its title. It is hard to formulate any higher praise.

“The working conditions one has to put up with here!”

Watching Peter Fleischmann’s Hard to be a God (1989) for New Scientist, 19 January 2022

The scrabble for dominance in streaming video continues to heat up. As I write this, Paramount has decided to pull season 4 of Star Trek Discovery from Netflix and screen it instead on its own platform, forcing die-hard fans to shell out for yet another streaming subscription. Amazon has canceled one Game of Thrones spin-off to concentrate on another, House of the Dragon, writing off $30,000,000 in the process. And Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel, set millennia before the events of The Hobbit, is reputed to be costing $450,000,000 per series — that’s five times as much to produce as Game of Thrones.

All this febrile activity has one unsung benefit for viewers; while the wheels of production slowly turn, channel programmers are being tasked with finding historical material to feed our insatiable demand for epic sci-fi and fantasy. David Lynch’s curious and compelling 1984-vintage Dune is streaming on every major service. And on Amazon Prime, you can (and absolutely should) find Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 Hard to Be A God, a West German-Soviet-French-Swiss co-production based on the best known of the “Noon Universe” novels by Soviet sf writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

In the Noon future (named after the brothers’ sci fi novel Noon: 22nd Century) humankind has evolved beyond money, crime and warfare to achieve an anarchist techno-utopia. Self-appointed “Progressors” cross interstellar space with ease to guide the fate of other, less sophisticated humanoid civilisations.

It’s when earnest, dashing progessors land on these benighted and backward worlds that their troubles begin and the ethical dilemmas start to pile up.

In Hard to be a God Anton, an agent of Earth’s Institute of Experimental History, is sent to spy on the city of Arkanar which is even now falling under the sway of Reba, the kingdom’s reactionary first minister. Palace coups, mass executions and a peasant war drive Anton from his position of professional indifference, first to depression, drunkenness and despair, and finally to a fiery and controversial commitment to Arkanar’s weakling revolution.

So far, so schematic: but the novel has a fairly sizeable sting in its tale, and this is admirably brought to the fore in Fleischmann’s screenplay (co-written with Jean-Claude Carriere, best known for his work with Luis Bunuel).

Yes, progressors like Anton have evolved past their propensity for violence; but in consequence, they have lost the knack of ordinary human sympathy. “The working conditions one has to put up with here!” complains Anton’s handler, fighting with a collapsible chair while, on the surveillance screen behind him, Reba’s inquisition beats a street entertainer nearly to death.

Anton — in an appalled and impassioned performance by the dashing Polish actor Edward Zentara — comes at last to understand his advanced civilisation’s dilemma: “We were able to see everything that was happening in the world,” he tells an Ankaran companion, breaking his own cover as he does so. “We saw all the misery, but couldn’t feel sympathy any more. We had our meals while seeing pictures of starving people in front of us.”

Anton’s terrible experiences in strife-torn Ankara (where every street boasts a dangling corpse) do not go unremarked. Earth’s other progressors, watching Anton from orbit, do their best to overcome their limitations. But the message here is a serious one: virtue is something we have to strive for in our lives, not a state we can attain as some sort of birthright.

Comparable to Lynch’s Dune in its ambition, and far more articulate than that cruelly cut-about effort, Fleischmann’s upbeat but moving Hard to be a God reminds us that cinema in the 1980s set later sci-fi movie makers a very high bar indeed. We can only hope that this year’s TV epics and cinema sequels take as much serious effort over their stories as they are taking over their production design.

Citizen of nowhere

Watching Son of Monarchs for New Scientist, 3 November 2021

“This is you!” says Bob, Mendel’s boss at a genetics laboratory in New York City. He holds the journal out for his young colleague to see: on its cover there’s a close-up of the wing of a monarch butterfly. The cover-line announces the lab’s achievement: they have shown how the evolution and development of butterfly color and iridescence are controlled by a single master regulatory gene.

Bob (William Mapother) sees something is wrong. Softer now: “This is you. Own it.”
But Mendel, Bob’s talented Mexican post-doc (played by Tenoch Huerta, familiar from the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico), is near to tears.

Something has gone badly wrong in Mendel’s life. And he’s no more comfortable back home, in the butterfly forests of Michoacán, than he was in Manhattan. In some ways things are worse. Even at their grandmother’s funeral, his brother Simon (Noé Hernández) won’t give him an inch. At least the lab was friendly.

Bit by bit, through touching flashbacks, some disposable dream sequences and one rather overwrought row, we learn the story: how, when Mendel and Simon were children, a mining accident drowned their parents; how their grandmother took them in, but things were never the same; how Simon went to work for the predatory company responsible for the accident, and has ever since felt judged by his high-flying, science-whizz, citizen-of-nowhere brother.

When Son of Monarchs premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics picked up on its themes of borders and belonging, the harm walls do and all the ways nature undermines them. Mendel grew up in a forest alive with clouds of Monarch butterflies. (In the film the area, a national reserve, is threatened by mining; these days, tourism is arguably the bigger threat.) Sarah, Mendel’s New York girlfriend (Alexia Rasmussen; note-perfect but somewhat under-used) is an amateur trapeze artist. The point — that airborn creatures know no frontiers — is clear enough; just in case you missed it, a flashback shows young Mendel and young Simon in happier days, discussing humanity’s airborne future.

In a strongly scripted film, such gestures would have been painfully heavy-handed. Here, though, they’re pretty much all the viewer has to go on in this sometimes painfully indirect film.
The plot does come together, though, through the character of Mendel’s old friend Vicente (a stand-out performance by the relative unknown Gabino Rodríguez). While muddling along like everyone else in the village of Angangueo (the real-life site, in 2010, of some horrific mine-related mudslides), Vicente has been developing peculiar animistic rituals. His unique brand of masked howling seems jolly silly at first glance — just a backwoodsman’s high spirits — but as the film advances, we realise that these rituals are just what Mendel needs.

For a man trapped between worlds, Vicente’s rituals offer a genuine way out: a way to re-engage imaginatively with the living world.

So, yes, Son of Monarchs is, on one level, about identity, about how a cosmopolitan high-flier learns to be a good son of Angangeo. But more than that, it’s about personality: about how Mendel learns to live both as a scientist, and as a man lost among butterflies.

French-Venezuelan filmmaker Alexis Gambis is himself a biologist and founded the Imagine Science Film Festival. While Son of Monarchs is steeped in colour, and full of cinematographer Alejandro Mejía’s mouth-watering (occasionally stomach-churning) macro-photography of butterflies and their pupae, ultimately this is a film, not about the findings of science, but about science as a vocation.

Gambis’s previous feature, The Fly Room (2014) was about the inspiration a 10-year-old girl draws from visits to T H Morgan’s famous (and famously cramped) “Fly Room” drosophila laboratory. Son of Monarchs asks what can be done if inspiration dries up. It is a hopeful film and, on more than the visual level, a beautiful one.