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What I Read In May

UntitledKen Liu (ed.) Invisible Planets Hungry as I am for more SF from China, and with birthday requests on the table, Mrs Gee ordered me this collection of contemporary Chinese SF, edited and translated by Ken Liu. Thirteen stories, all by authors of whom news had yet to reach mes oreilles. All except, of course, Cixin Liu, author of the extraordinarily successful Three-Body Problem trilogy (reviewed here and here). Liu (sensu Cixin) is an author of two of the stories here, and one of the three essays on Chinese SF, its genesis and current reach, that end the book. The question one wishes to ask — indeed, it is asked in this book — is just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? what is it that makes Chinese SF so distinctive, so Chinese? It’s a rather hard question to answer. For a start, the selection of stories here ranges from the gritty, grubby cyberpunk of Chen Qiufan to the fantasy of Xia Jia and Cheng Jingbo and the 1984-style dystopia of Ma Boyong. My favourite was Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, reminiscent in its tone and subject of Golden-Age stories by the likes of Heinlein or Asimov, but with its own distinctive flavour. From this, the only answer seems trite: Chinese SF is like any other SF, except that it is written from a perspective that’s, well, Chinese. I suspect, though, that such differences as there are might not be readily appreciable to western audiences. The stories are, after all, presented in translation, and selected by an editor who is quite candid, in his introduction, that some stories didn’t make the cut because their concerns were so rooted in Chinese cultural and political preoccupations that they couldn’t be presented without many burdensome footnotes. So it could be that what we see here as distinctively Chinese SF is as authentically Chinese as the food served in most so-called Chinese restaurants in England. That is, selected for its appeal to western palates rather than being truly representative. To appreciate Chinese SF, then — to truly appreciate it — one has, I suspect, to be not only a fluent reader of Chinese, but conversant with every tic and nuance of a culture thousands of years old which, in the past century or so, has undergone a series of truly seismic changes. Like Borges’ character Pierre Menard, who wished to read Don Quixote as it was meant to be read, one would. have to become, effectively, Cervantes. These stories brought home to me, rather starkly, that writing is more than print on a page, but only comes alive in the mind of the reader. And each reader, each one lonely in their lighthouse steeple, will take different things away from the same stories. Not to be discouraged, though, I shall be moving on to the companion birthday present — Broken Stars, a follow-up anthology of more Chinese SF stories, also edited by Ken Liu. I am looking forward to that.

Screenshot 2024-05-06 at 20.32.29Adrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Ruin BEWARE There are spiders spoilers spiders octopods octopuses cephalopods. This is the sequel to Children of Time, reviewed last month. In that novel, human arkship Gilgamesh comes into contact with a planet, Kern’s World, which, due to sabotage (and an honest mistake) during the terraforming process, became home to a species of sentient spider. Here, a different terraforming team, on the spaceship Aegean, meets a  system with two planets. The first, Damascus, a barren water world, is terraformed and successfully colonised by sentient octopuses bred by the crew. The second, Nod, contains the first truly alien life ever encountered by humans, though at first it seems of a very lowly kind. The human expedition, though, becomes host to a kind of sentient plague that has brooded on the planet for aeons, waiting for just this moment. Centuries later, a combined human-spider expedition from Kern’s world that reaches the Nod-Damascus system has to grapple with not only the plague but the enraged cephalopods fearful that the new humans have come to unleash the plague upon them. But just as humans and spiders have achieved some level of mutual understanding, they both have to learn an unfathomable new language, the protean and emotive communications of the octopuses. This novel is a lot of fun, though with the added octopuses adds a layer of complexity that can sometimes drag on an already complex plot. It doesn’t have the wonderful sense of development that the first book has — perhaps because Tchaikovsky has already demonstrated his fluency, his ability to get inside the minds of other species, riffing entertainingly on philosopher Nagel’s question of what it must like to be a bat.

UntitledAdrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Memory Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. But I digress. This is the third volume in the trilogy that began with Children of Time (reviewed last month) and Children of Ruin (above). By this time in the time-stream, the humans, the spiders from Kern’s world and the octopuses from Damascus have formed a single, post-scarcity civilisation, glued together by the (now tamed) sentient plague from Nod. Consciousness can be uploaded into multiple lab-grown bodies, and people of one species can present themselves as individuals of another. Death has been abolished. An expedition from this multipartite civilisation reaches Imir, one of the worlds targeted for terraforming by the ‘ancients’ before the Old Earth was ravaged by war. Imir hosts a colony of post-war humans who had arrived on the arkship Enkidu. Unfortunately, the terraformers had left Imir before the job had hardly started, so the colonists are forced to live an increasingly desperate, hardscrabble existence. The expedition of protean squidspiderpeople decides not to confront the colonists directly, but infiltrate their way into their society. When they do, it becomes apparent that All Is Not Right. People keep popping up in unexpected places and times, in particular Heorest Holt — erstwhile captain of the Enkidu and First Founder — and his grand-daughter Liff. Something very strange is going on. This wouldn’t be a Children of Earth novel without another intelligent species, and in Children of Memory it is a kind of raven. The ravens come from another hardly-terraformed planet and have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. The ravens tend to come in male-female pairs, and the ones we meet here are Gothi and Gethli, who, when they work together, are expert problem-solvers. At first, Gothi and Gethli seem to be comic relief, but as the book goes on you realise that they are central to the plot, and their commentary on the action, insightful, and often funny (there are references to the Dead Parrot Sketch), holds the key to the major theme of the book. Where Children of Ruin was all about communication, Children of Memory is all  about the shifting nature of sentience, one’s sense of self, and how this is tied in with memory (the clue is in the title). Gothi and Gethli conclude that they themselves are not sentient, and, therefore, nothing else can be. What a burden it would be, one of them says, if you had to think all the time. I smiled at this, as the evanescence of sentience was the punchline in a book of mine, The Accidental Species. In my view, most people go happily throughout life without being sentient. And that’s okay, because too much sentience is pathological, seen only in young people whose prefrontal cortices are wiring up, or those with some forms of mental illness. There are more clues in the names — Tchaikovsky has so much fun with names. His spiders generally have Shakespearean names — Portia, Bianca, Viola — and there is always an octopus called Paul. Some might remember an octopus of that name renowned for seemingly being able to predict the result of international football matches. The ravens were originally nurtured by a human called Renee Pepper, a name that seems to me suspiciously close to Irene Pepperberg, a pioneer researcher into bird cognition. There is a strong Nordic element in the names of the colonists of Imir. The name for the planet itself comes from Norse mythology, and Gothi and Gethli are obvious re-castings of Odin’s ravens Huginn (‘Thought’) and Muninn (‘Memory’). The arkships have names that come from one of the earliest known myths, the Gilgamesh story, and there are parallels between events in that story and the fates of the arkships Gilgamesh and Enkidu, if one cares to look. Children of Memory is a deep, thoughtful book, and does occasionally tie itself in knots (I haven’t even mentioned the sub-plots that discuss whether our Universe might be a simulation) but carried (at least for me) a powerful emotional impact. The trilogy as a whole is one of those reading experiences  that inspires thought, and will remain long in the memory.

UntitledTom Chivers: Everything is Predictable Two backpackers are lost. Wandering along a country lane, they meet a farmer idly leaning on a gate, chewing a grass stalk. ‘Please Sir’, asks one of the hapless pair, ‘How do we get to Cromer?’ ‘Well’, says the farmer, thoughtfully, ‘I wouldn’t start from here’. But I digress. Many years ago when the world was young I penned a polemic that attracted many fruitbrickbats. Among the many things that attracted the ire of the hip and fashionable was the assertion that, in science, no matter how many fancy schmancy statistics you use, you’ll always end up with an estimate of probability that something or another is true, and after that you’re on your own. I was accused of being something called a ‘frequentist’, and that was among the more polite epithets. I have since learned that there is a better way of doing statistics, and that relies on something called Bayes’ Theorem, and the people who do statistics that way are called Bayesians. To this day I have never really understood Bayes’ Theorem, and have, frankly, been deterred from learning by the fanatical adherence to their creed of its devotees (fanaticism of any kind being something of a turn-off). Imagine my delight when my good friend Mr. B. C. of Swindon reviewed the book currently under discussion — a guide to Bayes’ theorem and an explanation of what the fuss was all about. Buoyed up by his stellar review I bought the book, imagining that the skies would clear, the scales would fall from my eyes, I would experience a Damascene Conversion, and then run naked through the streets of Cromer shouting ‘Eureka’. (Nobody would mind. They are used to such things in Cromer). Well, it wasn’t quite like that. I did learn a lot, but I am still rather confused. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected this to be a how-to book, with problems and worked examples (such books do exist). It’s more of a history of a concept. However, as Chivers helpfully repeats throughout the book, frequentist statistics (I do hate these ‘-ists’ and ‘-isms’, I prefer to think of it as ‘the statistics I was taught’) says that you set up a hypothesis, gather some data, and ask ‘how likely are we to see these data, given the hypothesis I’ve set up?’ Bayesian statistics starts with the data, and ask which hypothesis it best supports. The crucial difference between the two is that Bayesian statistics starts with what’s called a ‘prior’ — that is, an idea based on what you already know,  against which you test your data, and if the mismatch is unacceptably large, you add the new data into the pot and stir it round again, converging on a solution. If, for example, you are trying to work out the probability that a hypothesis might be true, there is no need to go in blindly. Instead, you can arm yourself with already established knowledge. So my hapless pair trying to get to Cromer mightn’t have to ask the farmer at all if they have a map, a GPS, or have just seen a sign saying ‘CROMER 2 MILES’. In a way, Bayesian statistics is the application of common sense. It is essential in things like drug trials, as Chivers explains. It has revolutionised work in evolutionary biology, my main concern in my day job (by day I’m with the Submerged Log Company), particularly the computation of evolutionary trees. Rather than put the genomes or observed traits of a whole load of fish and fowl into a computer and have to decide between the zillions of possible solutions that emerge, you can start by saying that you know from copious previous evidence that fish aren’t fowl and whales are not insects that live on bananas, therefore discarding a lot of no-hoper solutions and can home in more quickly on the most plausible evolutionary tree. Chivers doesn’t say anything about evolutionary trees, though he does discuss the history of Bayes and of statistics as a whole (very interesting) and bangs on at some length about how the brain is a Bayesian machine and that Bayes, like Love, is All Around (rather tedious). Although he discusses the enormous controversies that Bayesian statistics stokes, he doesn’t really explain (to my satisfaction, but then I have a large posterior) why the fury is so, well, furious. So I am not sure I really learned a great deal more about Bayesian statistics than I knew before, and I certainly can’t carry in my head (yet) a succinct explanation of why it’s better than good old-fashioned statistics, for all that he repeats the mantra throughout. It’s a diverting book, but perhaps I’ll have to get one of those how-to guides with problems to work through and answers at the back of the book. This book is fun, for certain definitions of ‘fun’, but as the farmer said, I wouldn’t start from here.

UntitledAdrian Tchaikovsky: The Doors of Eden BEWARE there are spoilers monsters spoilers gigantic sentient space-faring trilobites! WHEEE!!! Mal and Lee are a couple of misfits whose shared passions are cryptozoology and each other. Hiking on Bodmin Moor in search of monsters, they encounter a ring of standing stones and find themselves in another world. So far, so Outlander. There follows an overstuffed sofa farrago adventure that involves speculative palaeontology, dimension-hopping Neanderthals, dinosaur bird-people, M.I.5, sentient ice minds, the inner workings of the City of London, warlike rat-weasels (in airships — gotta have airships), a very sweary transsexual super-genius, and even a James-Bond-style supervillain. This is a rich mixture that’s rather too intense for my fevered brain to cope with. There are too many times when some character asks where they are, or what’s going on, only for their interlocutor to respond with something gnomic. And far, far more F-bombs than necessary. Enjoyable — but exhausting.

UntitledBilly Connolly: Rambling Man Only two comedians have made me laugh to a state of helplessness. One was Jo Brand, and it was after she said this: ‘The underwear you want people to see is black. And the size of an atom. The underwear you don’t want people to see is grey … and the size of Buckinghamshire’. Okay, I guess it’s the way you tell it. I can’t remember precisely what it was that Billy Connolly said to make me laugh so hard I almost krupled my blutzon, but after the high-octane SF of Adrian Tchaikovsky I needed something a bit lighter for my daily walks. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which I enjoyed reading consuming listening to this memoir through my ear holes, narrated by the man himself. The Big Yin is now in his eighties and not quite as furiously frenetic as he once was, but his memoirs of his travels from the tropics to the arctic are, if not eye-wateringly hilarious, then never less than amusing, and sometimes moving. After that I downloaded one of his live shows to listen to, and it was great fun, but I now realise that a lot of Connolly’s humour was visual as much as verbal. He really did throw himself around, back in the day.

UntitledPhilip Ball: How Life Works ITEM:When Sir Dudley Marjoribanks, later Second Baron Tweedmouth, set out to develop the perfect dog for retrieving the carcasses of ducks shot over water and bringing them undamaged to the hunter, he crossed a throw-rug with a garbage disposal unit water spaniel with a flat-coated retriever and the golden retriever was born. I grew up with a golden retriever, and have kept three myself. All golden retrievers love water, and nothing better than to present people, at moments of occasion or arousal, with a plush toy or item of soft furnishing held gently in the mouth. And yet none of these dogs was trained to the gun, with ducks. The dogs just do it spontaneously. But nowhere, I suspect, in the genome of the golden retriever is a gene that encodes this behaviour. It must be somewhere, in the neural wiring of the brain,  but that’s not encoded in the genome either. At some level, the tendency of retrievers to retrieve is an emergent property of all the genes, cells, tissues and organs that make up the dog, when they are all put together and sent off into the field, tails wagging.

ITEM: The Gees have been enjoying a reality TV show called Race Across The World in which teams of couples have to get from a point A to a point B, thousands of kilometres and several countries apart, entirely by surface transport, with a budget equivalent to the air fare, and without smartphones or credit or debit cards. In the latest series, twenty-something brother-and-sister Betty and James Mukherjee got most of the way through when Betty admitted to her brother (and therefore the public) that she had been diagnosed with a condition called Mayer Rokitansky Küster Hauser syndrome (MRKH), in which she was born without a uterus, and also one of her kidneys. MRKH is a congenital defect that results from the imperfect formation of the the tubular, embryonic structure from which forms parts of the urogenital system. This structure forms when two sheets of mesoderm (another embryonic tissue) meet and fuse in two parallel strands on either side of the developing body. There is no known cause for MRKH. Searches for mutant genes connected with the condition that are found in common in all MRKH cases have been in vain. And that’s to be expected: MRKH is the result of tissue movements — actions of whole sheets of cells — that might be contingent on mechanical and environmental factors as much as genes. What doesn’t excite comment, as perhaps it should, is that Betty and other MRKH patients are otherwise perfectly normal, intelligent and fully functional human beings, able to communicate their state and their emotional response to it, despite the absence of key internal organs. If development were under total genetic control, with each step in the process dependent on the successful completion of the one before, people with MRKH, or any other developmental quirk, would not be born. But because development is rather loose, and tolerates a degree of variation as it goes on, people are nonetheless born and live their lives with a variety of syndromes. As I have argued in a book called Jacob’s Ladder: The History of the Human Genome, such variation is the price we pay so any of us can be born at all.

ITEM: When Offspring#1 had aspirations to study medicine, and, ultimately, surgery [SPOILER: he got better] he wondered how it was that people could wander around full of thoughts and dreams and hopes and motivations and aspirations but inside they looked like wet lasagne. Where did all those thoughts, dreams, hopes and so on and so forth come from? Where, in that mass of goo and squish, is the person who prefers (say) cats to dogs; is rather good at maths despite their own expectations; is a passionate player of Dungeons and Dragons; will eat a whole packet of liquorice allsorts at one sitting; and supports Norwich City FC?  As with the tendency of retrievers to retrieve, all are emergent properties, There are no genes that encode a tendency to support Norwich City FC as opposed to, say Ipswich Town FC Accrington Stanley. But this raises another issue. Retrieving in dogs, however it is determined, is inherent. Supporting one football team or another, in contrast, demands a degree of choice. It requires something called agency.

Enter science writer Philip Ball with this magisterial account of the workings of genes, cells and bodies. It is, first of all, an antidote to the gene-centric view of evolution, in which genes are ‘libraries’ or ‘blueprints’ or ‘programs’ for creating a body out of nothing, and all else is commentary. It turns out that genes are rather less, or more, or. well, something or other, it’s actually really hard to explain, and that’s because it’s almost impossible to describe what goes on at the scale of atoms and molecules without recourse to metaphor. It’s often been a cause of some wonder to me how molecules in cells can do what they do when they are packed in so tightly, and all surrounded by water that cannot possibly behave as a bulk fluid. How can molecules meet and interact in the way they seem to do in all those neat diagrams seen in textbooks and (I have to say) scientific papers, when the viscosity regime must be rather like treacle? Such misgivings have similarly long preoccupied Ball, who is trained in physics and chemistry rather than biology, and can appreciate problems that biologists might miss. He  puts it very well when he says that the insides of cells are less like factory floors than dance floors, crowded with excited dancers packed in together and jiggling about and unable to communicate with one another because of all the noise. In such conditions, how can JAK kinase possibly get to JIL kinase across such a crowded room, in order to — well, let’s just think of something, oh, I don’t know, Release Calcium from Intracellular Stores? The intracellular environment is noisy, and very far from favouring the kind of neat networks and diagrams in which abbreviations cleanly interact with other abbreviations. Rather, says Ball, cells make a virtue of the noise and disorder. Molecular interactions are much less precise, much more fleeting, than one might imagine, and tolerate a degree of slop that no engineer would possibly countenance. Because of that disorder, the interactions between the various levels in the rough hierarchy of scales from genes to proteins to cells to tissues to organs to organisms are not always clear. But order emerges from the melee, nonetheless.

If that’s all there was to How Life Works, it would be a good book. What makes it a great book is that Ball unflinchingly tackles the really big question — what is the nature of life? What makes a living thing alive? What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? What is the nature of that vis essentialis,  pneuma, je ne sais quoi, that animates a bag full of wet lasagne? It’s here that Ball gets into challenging and exciting territory. Remember, some few paragraphs ago, I talked about agency? Ball suggests that organisms are living because they make active choices. We can choose whether or not to eat a third bagel (you’ve had four, actually, but who’s counting?). A golden retriever can choose, and often does, whether or not to chase that thrown ball.  A living bacterium can sense the presence of nutrients, and actively move towards them. A dead one cannot. At the most basic level, a cell membrane can admit the passage of some ions, but not others, even against a concentration gradient — Maxwell’s Demon, made (in some sense) real. In the deepest philosophical sense, life is that which gives an assembly of atoms meaning. Given the difficulties of describing the biochemical and cellular processes of life without recourse to metaphor, some will find this hard to take. There is also the issue (which Ball deftly navigates) in which biologists are afraid to use terms such as ‘agency’ and ‘purpose’ for fear of invoking teleological or panglossian explanations, or, worse, welcoming a role for divine intervention. No such things are necessary — yet living things are definitely alive, and conventional prescriptions for the properties of life that we are taught in school (that it reproduces, grows, excretes, blah blah blah) fail to satisfy, and, being that this is biology, are plagued with viruses exceptions.

As I was reading How Life Works, I was reminded of Erwin Schrödinger’s 1944 book What Is Life? subtitled The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, in which the famous physicist attempted to tackle the essential problem of biology. What Is Life? was part of a movement in which physicists became enamoured of biology and, having done so, boosted it into the molecular age (Francis Crick was one such). Not long after I had that thought, Ball obligingly discussed What Is Life?, its deficiencies, successes and influence. Ball, like Schrödinger, is also a physicist, and can therefore take a more dispassionate view of biology than those who labour in the trenches. How Life Works is What Is Life? for the 21st century, and, because we know so much more than people did in Schrödinger’s time, is more successful (that the title doesn’t end in a question mark is an Important Clue). How Life Works should be required reading for anyone thinking of taking a degree in biology, and if it doesn’t get at least shortlisted for the next Royal Society Science Book Prize, I shall have been a giraffe on a unicycle [DISCLAIMER: Ball is a personal friend and former colleague — we worked together, back in the day, at the Submerged Log Company — though my copy was given to me as a birthday present by Mrs Gee, who paid really money].

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Three Little Birds

I’ve said elsewhere that our garden is a wildlife paradise. Turns out that the house is, too.

I often see our family of robins just outside the kitchen door, by the hen house. I’ve taken to shaking the hen feeder when I take it out in the morning, to get rid of the bits of wood chip and other crap that the ladies kick up into it, and when I do, some bits of feed fall out, and the robins don’t object at all. In fact, I think they’ve come to expect it.

It does mean that we often have to duck as we go out the kitchen door as a flash of brown and red does the Red Arrows thing very close to our heads. I apologize to them, but they don’t seem to mind and I certainly don’t.

The robins and the sparrows take turns in keeping watch from a random buddleia bush that is growing on top of a high wall next to the road. Sometimes they’re there together. Recently I’ve noticed a wren join them. We often hear wrens around the garden but have rarely otherwise seen them. They are very small, after all.

Last winter I realized that the jasmine that I keep trying to get control of has pulled away part of the soffit (the board under the eaves) above the garage. I didn’t get round to nailing it back up, and the other day we noticed significant cheeping coming from that direction. Then we saw a couple of wrens flying in and out of the gap in the soffit.

So we have a family of wrens making their home in our house. The babies are quiet most of the time, but when mum or dad appear they start up with the cheeping.

Again, I don’t mind, but at some point when they’ve fledged I’m going to have to get my ladder out and see if I need to fix the roof. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.

Posted in bees, birds, hens, nature, robin, wren | Leave a comment

Paperback Writer

I made a list.

I’m doing quite well with it—ticked off more than half, and others are ‘in progress’. I’m not going to finish it before I start work again, but I’ve given myself permission not to get through everything, and I’m okay with that.

One of the things I don’t think I’ll finish before the summer is the novel that I started writing back in… 2009 I think, or possibly earlier. It’s not A Momentary Lapse of Reason, although it is set (mostly) in Cambridge, and it’s very definitely lab lit. (AMLoR is finished, by the way—we just haven’t finished serializing it yet.)

It’s been a project that has been on and off. Real life (jobs, children) got in the way. My main characters spent 6 years in the pub as I tried to figure out how to get them out and back to work. I last made significant progress (getting said characters out of said pub) before Covid.

But over the last couple of weeks I’ve written about 20,000 words and pulled together all the disparate bits of ideas and plots and devices, making sense of notes such as “The Gavin sting” and “don’t forget the mascarpone”, and I finally know how to finish it.

This year, I promise. I hope you’ll like it when I’m done.

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Build It And They Will Come

I love ponds. I love digging ponds. I love furnishing ponds with plants. I love watching as the wildlife spontaneously arrives. I have had a number of ponds in various places in my garden — and previously on an allotment —  as well as large containers full of water. I have become fond of those old galvanised tanks people used to have in their attics, found on Facebook marketplace and reclamation yards.

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But recently I had the urge to dig the biggest pond I could. Partly because I love ponds. But also because a pond, once established, is almost labour-free gardening, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do with that part of the garden. So I started to dig. Here is the resulting hole. It’s about three metres in diameter and a metre deep in the middle. The scale bar at the bottom (we’re scientists, after all, we have to have a scale bar) is an old-fashioned imperial yard. So just short of a metre.

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I sculpted a rim round the edge for planting. After taking some time to make sure it was more or less the same elevation all the way round the rim, smooth it out and remove roots and sharp stones, I lined it with a thick layer of pond-maker’s fleece. This is woven by hand by artisans in Peru from the nose-hairs of specially bred alpacas, probably synthetic, and helps protect the overlying pond liner from any potential point sauces tzores sources of stress, such as any stones I hadn’t removed. Remember — water is very heavy.

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Then I wrestled the pond liner itself into place, a sheet of super-thick polythene six metres square. I got the fleece and liner from a specialist online shop. Thirty-six square metres of thick pond-grade polythene weighs a lot and was delivered on a palette by a lorry that got stuck trying to negotiate a right-angle bend at the bottom of our street. I had to rescue it with the family car. It was a squeeze even getting all that paletted polythene into the back of a large Volvo. This is some serious pondage. Very nearly a small lake.

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Only after all that fuss and flapdoodle could I fill the pond with water.

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After leaving it all to settle down, I introduced some gunge from the bottom of the large container where the frogs like to congregate in spring. Said gunge is probably full of all kinds of biology just waiting to burst out and stretch itself in all that water. Then I put in some plants — reeds and irises and water lilies that were getting out of hand in containers elsewhere. I added a few more plants from the garden centre.

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This is what it looks like today. It already looks great, though I still have to tidy up the excess polythene round the edges.

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While I was doing this, and other gardening, this afternoon, a neighbour put their head over the fence for a chat. It was then I noticed a damselfly on a stinging nettle near the pond. I hope it’ll be the first of many new visitors to the pond.

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Ah, weeds. I think I have the national collection of stinging nettles. Stingers love nitrogen-rich soil, and our soil is especially fertile after having had hens run all over it at various times. However, at this time of year the garden is also overrun with garlic mustard, red campion and speedwell. A few years back Mrs Gee scattered some wildflower seeds from a packet she got off the front of a magazine, I think, and now they’re rampant. I like weeds, because I am lazy gardener I like to encourage biodiversity in my small plot. I do get out the strimmer to keep paths clear, but that’s pretty much it. And I don’t have a lawn. Minimal gardening — and a pond.

Build it, and they will come.

Something else happened, too. After cleaning out the chickens, planting tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse, and doing other odd jobs in the sunshine, I felt the corners of my mouth and my cheeks crease up. It was a smile. Can’t remember the last time I smiled, spontaneously. Truly, getting out of doors and doing things in the sunshine is effective therapy.

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Not Knowing Where You Are Going

One of the initiatives I started when I became Master of Churchill College was a series of public conversations with eminent women, many – but by no means all – academics. To start with I was quite nervous: would I run out of questions? Would my interviewee just answer in monosyllables (none of them ever did)? Would I put my foot in it accidentally by asking a question that felt too intrusive? Would I just fall over all my words and mumble? You can imagine the sorts of things that troubled me, but by and large none of them came to pass and I have enjoyed the interactions enormously. You can find the series of interviews on the Churchill website here. It may not have fulfilled my original objective of reaching out to students – sadly few of them ever found the time to come – but it has certainly been immensely satisfying for me!

Sharon PeacockMy last conversation, rather a bittersweet one given it was the last one now I am stepping down, was with my successor at the College, Sharon Peacock (pictured). Whereas many of the women I’ve talked to have had what one might call ‘typical’ careers, in that they went to university straight after school and then followed a fairly logical path, this cannot be said of Sharon. Here was a woman (the recording will be up on the Churchill website soon) who left school at 16 with no qualifications. Although, like her, both Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Sally Davies of my previous interviewees had failed that largely historic hurdle, the 11-plus, Sharon did not have the family know-how and backing to find ways round the setback so straightforwardedly as they did. Sharon went to a school that had low expectations and did not offer a route to the exam successes she would have needed to go on to A Levels and university in a straight path.

As a result, Sharon had to study both O-Levels (GCSE’s predecessor) and A-Levels in her evenings, while working in full time employment, starting with work in a dental surgery, and only finally got to university much later in her 20’s. It is interesting to note that my very first interviewee, Carol Robinson, had also not gone straight to university from school, but worked as a technician at a company that encouraged her to take qualifications and progress so in due course she could study for a PhD at Cambridge. Carol went on to become the first female professor in Chemistry at Cambridge and then at Oxford, where she still is, and will be receiving an Honorary Degree from Cambridge this summer. Sharon, meanwhile, has had a successful career in infectious diseases, before coming into the public limelight as the leader of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, something that was fantastically important as the world tried to combat the disease.

The point I want to make is that not all careers go in straight lines, including the highly successful ones. Luck – good or bad – plays a part in progression. Cultural capital arising from one’s family background is incredibly helpful to have, but neither Sharon nor Carol had the background to start off with it. This week, two activities I’m involved in will be confronting the issues of what happens if you didn’t have the best start in life.

Firstly, I am off to a school in the Fens, as part of the Speakers in Schools Programme, to talk to some Y12 students. I have been asked to give a ‘motivational and aspirational’ talk to a group who perhaps are coming from backgrounds thin on cultural capital, with little awareness of what a university education can and cannot do for them, but who have already made their post-16 exam choices.  These may be A-Levels or BTECs and they certainly won’t necessarily be in the sciences, so a fairly generic talk is required. I will certainly be ending up with a potted history of Sharon, to demonstrate that ‘not all those who wander are lost’ as Tolkien put it in a different context, a subject I have written about before, but as applied to postdocs.

Secondly, as part of the Royal Society’s Science 2040 project looking at what an ideal system for science should look like in 2040, I am leading a working group exploring ‘Future Careers’. We cannot and should not assume things ought to go on in the same way as now. What needs to change? We also importantly need to consider the overall needs of the entire science ecosystem and not just for those who may be the FRS’s of tomorrow. In this vein, I wrote recently about Ottoline Leyser’s comments regarding just how many different people contribute to an overall outcome to make a fully functioning science and innovation system. Our organisations – whether universities or not – need to recognize this in their incentives and progression systems. I suspect industry, for instance, is already much better at rewarding team work than our universities currently are.

At the end of the day, our education system and our society need to realise that A-Levels may not be the gold standard that everyone needs to work their way through if they are going to contribute to a fully functioning science system, although I doubt that T-Levels are the answer either. (In the Fens, for instance, how are schools going to find sufficient local businesses to provide 45 days useful and relevant work experience?) Equally, students setting out on their educational and career journeys need to understand that a beginning that does not fit the norm does not mean all doors are closed to them for ever more. It takes determination – as Sharon clearly demonstrated – luck and supporters within the family and far beyond, but nevertheless a great deal can be accomplished even with a shaky start.

 

Posted in A levels, careers, Churchill College, education, Fens, Science 2040, Science Culture, Sharon Peacock | Leave a comment

We need medicine

I caught up with Wanda on Friday.

She’d managed to inspect the captured swarm the day before, and all seemed hunky-dory. No eggs yet, but you can expect to wait a couple of weeks before a newly mated queen will start laying.

Bee on lavender

We opened up the main hive, and similarly couldn’t see any eggs. More concerning though was the complete absence of a queen. Our hypothesis is that we hadn’t destroyed all the queen cells before the new monarch had worked her way out, which probably means she’d been deposed by the existing workers, and any new queens had swarmed. There might still be a queen somewhere, but it’s not looking good for that hive.

Before I started working, she asked me not to stand on the large plantain that was standing by the hive. That led to a conversation about tea (which you can make from plantain), and the surprising properties of goosegrass—or cleavers, as Wanda knows it.

Afterwards, we inspected the grapevine that she’d bought for her husband a couple of years back. I asked her how she pruned it, and we talked about replacement vs cut-back methods. Then she asked me what I sprayed my vines with, and I said “Nothing,” as they spread over a large area and I’m concerned about the effect on beed.

So she told me about neem oil and its seemingly magical properties. She gave me her recipe for fungicidal/insecticidal use, adding that it worked a charm on broad beans (what is it about broad beans and blackfly?!). She even gave me a sample to try, which I will probably do at the weekend.

We talked about the tinctures she’s made with neem (including one for psoriasis), and other potions she’s cooked up and used to beneficial effect, and I asked if she could write them down and share with me so I could put them on my recipe site. She agreed, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to try some, or at least convince you to test a few, and we can do some experiments.

Because you can still do science, even if you haven’t been in a lab for 15 years.

Posted in bees, nature, neem, science, witchdoctor | Leave a comment

In which I make the best of things

BluebellsGreetings from the tail end of a typical British bank holiday, where the big highlight was gardening in the rain.

In all seriousness, it was rather lovely to be out tidying up the flower beds in the fresh air, among the blooming lilac and the first roses, hacking order from chaos through water-splattered specs. (When I was a kid I always longed for windscreen wipers for glasses, and even though the year 2024 sounds like science fiction, I’m still waiting.)

It made a nice break from grant writing, at least. I’m on the home stretch, finishing up the last of four I’ve been wrangling this spring, probably the one I’m most excited about. It’s due next week, and I’m confident everything is under control. The competition will be tough, but I’ve got a great foundation, building on our published work in a way that seems logical but also timely and exciting.

It bothers me that I seem to spend most of my research time writing grants – singing for my supper instead of eating, let alone enjoying the meal. I’m painfully aware that there are a few manuscripts that would go more quickly if I only had more time to spend helping their lead authors out. But the way I’m funded at the university, I have to prioritise writing the bids that will bring in small fractions of salary, cobbling together my two days a week buyout from teaching. It’s not easy to mastermind a continuous 40% salary, but just when I think I’m going to default, something always comes through for me. I could honestly do without the stress, but having lived with it for nearly a decade, I’ve learned how to keep the anxiety largely at bay.

I always feel guilty working evenings, weekends and holidays, though, which I’ve been doing a lot recently. At least my family are understanding, for which I’m grateful. When I have to work through my down time, I sometimes try to make it seem more bearable by surrounding myself with a special environment, to make the labour feel more like a holiday. Normally this time of year I’d park my laptop on the bistro table under the grape arbour by the little cascade and pond that R. built me. But this spring has been more or less a cold wash-out, so I’ve spent a lot more time in our summerhouse cabin with a fire in the wood stove to keep away the chill.

a cabin with wood stove

The cabin is my sanctuary. It’s quiet, bright, smells of seasoned pine, is carefully decorated and offers a lovely view over the lush back garden terraces. When the sun shines, a fountain splashes in a stone trough on the porch; when it rains, the drops tap comfortingly on the roof. Birdsong filters through: robin, wren, blackbird, dunnock, tit. The wood stove is a marvel of efficiency, burning slowly through kiln-dried logs which I spice up with fragrant dried bark from our eucalyptus tree, making the interior toasty-warm. A small glass of wine does not impair my intellect.

In this space, I can pretend that the overtime is pleasure, is voluntary, is what I would have chosen to spend my holiday on if I’d truly had a choice.

Posted in academia, careers, Domestic bliss, Gardening, Research, staring into the abyss, The profession of science, work-life balance | 1 Comment

Ambivalence, reluctance and the Jesus scale

About eight months or so ago, I started talking about the concept of a scale of faith in Christ. I christened it the Jesus scale. Here is a diagram:

The Jesus scale.
Created with PGF/TikZ, the tool I used to create the figures in this post.

On the far left, you have antitheism, hard determinism, militant atheism, and frankly a lot of rage. Moving along the scale, you come to spiritual but not religious, vague belief in some sort of higher power but no deity, and moralistic therapeutic deism. Somewhere along the line there is baptism, cultural Christianity, regular churchgoing. Heartfelt profession of faith. Further up the scale are people more churchy than you and that is where it gets unsettling. The scale goes further still: the religious life, say. Anchoresses. At some point we move out of my comfort zone entirely: young-earth creationism, Biblical literalism. Damaging fundamentalism. Again: rage.

Political extremes are not a scale but a cycle. Communism becomes fascism if you follow it far enough. So it is for religion. Both antitheism and fundamentalist Christianity use their doctrines as justification for oppression. A pair of inflexible positions rooted in fear and in hatred.

One weakness of this model is that it fails to account for other faiths. I would be interested in exploring how this concept plays out there. Anyhow, my coming to faith meant moving up the Jesus scale so fast I ended up with spiritual whiplash. Just about now, as that seems to be resolving, I have hit a new problem.

All possible means

I was prompted to come up with the Jesus scale after noticing that when I have conversations about faith, and sometimes other topics, I carefully figure out where other people might be on the Jesus scale, and pitch my words and behaviour so that my range on the scale presents as overlapping with theirs. If I do not do this, in either direction, I alienate them fast. When I dare to think about what type of priest I can see myself being, I want to be the guy who can hit all the bases, with the exception of the extremes. This is not a new desire. As the apostle Paul puts it:

20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

Middle-class, middle-England Brits feel comfortable with the weak-tea-and-unthreatening edit of Christianity beloved of western Anglicans and expressed well by David Cameron (right). When I am around people who fall in this camp, we talk about how church is “just like any other organisation really” (yes and no), how Christians are mostly just kind people (hah!), and lean heavily on jokes about the CofE being, well, mostly tea.

Fear not.

I reassure them,

You’ve not lost me to those people.

gesturing at the terrifying other. I keep quiet about my relationship with Jesus and how my prayer life is going, and am careful never to describe how by the time the weekend rolls around I ache for the absolution and Eucharist. That would not go down well and might make them afraid or hostile.

At the other end of the scale are prayer warrior friends who think nothing of grabbing our hands and praying openly during teas and coffees after the service (yes, really) and describing their lives in terms of the work of the spirit. During that prayer bit, I felt a prat. But we were planning a New Year’s Party at the time and had hit a roadblock. We prayed that the Lord would guide us to the right venue, that a lot of people would join us, and for hot men. Reader, we got all three. But if this kind of shenanigans makes me feel awkward, no wonder when I try to talk about my sense of vocation with James, I clam up, feel horribly vulnerable, and become all thumbs.

My Lord I beg you to send someone else, not me.

13But Moses said, “My Lord, I beg you to send someone else, not me.”

At our most recent meeting, James explained the expectation that I would be able and willing to articulate my sense of calling. Not keen on this prospect, I closed out the meeting by saying

Right, I’m off to cry to my therapist

He seemed not to understand. James is at a different place on the Jesus scale.

I sought solace in a video call with a supportive friend. I explained the Jesus scale to him.

What I’ve gotta do

I continued

is get more comfortable talking a bit further up the scale. I have to be able to articulate it.

You,

I indicated, gesturing some sort of mid-range of values

your range is here, but once I start talking about my relationship with Jesus…

and my friend visibly winced. The cringe is real, right? Zealotry is alienating. But the opposite is also true. Priests who joke about not believing in God provoke a related sense of disquiet for the nascent Christian.

When I am with a different cohort of people, such as my friend who led us in prayer for the New Year’s Party, others in discernment, and God-fearing clergy, I flinch less, because our conversation is pitched different on the Jesus scale. For myself, I am now tasked with pulling what I am confident conversing about up in line with my inner experience. The outer and the inner are in different places. I am not worried about being not Jesus enough, but I do tend to frame my experiences with God in terms of defensive jokes.

My flinching friend digested what I am up against, sat back, and reflected:

I don’t envy you.

This made me feel validated, but hardly reassured. I am determined to get past this, but at this point in time I do not know exactly how. It matters not because I need to successfully navigate the Church of England discernment process, nor because I need to somehow convince James. Those things are in God’s hands. I could not fake them and nor would I want to. It matters for the sake of possible future ministry to others. If I am going to be a religious leader, I need a faith that other people can lean on – I like Matt Redman’s description of an unswerving faith – and it needs to be visible. Being able to articulate it, without shame, without flinching, without wanting to hide behind a cushion, is part of that.

15…Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, …

Posted in career, careers, challenge, Clams, discernment, doubt, Faith, Life, PGF/TikZ, Prayer, the Jesus scale | Leave a comment

Learning to fly

Hive

Hive and seek

I’ve written at length about our hens. What I may not have mentioned is that last year we got a hive, and some bees to go in it.  The bees did what bees do, and we had a few jars of honey.

Honey

Honey

Tragically,  the colony died in November, following that bizarre autumn we had with temperatures of 20ºC followed by a chill. I harvested what I could (including the ivy honey they’d made, which is an ‘acquired taste’), cleaned the frames up, and stored everything away.

We started again in mid-April, with a fresh 5-frame nucleus, and although they struggled a bit with the wet weather we’ve been having, they are doing the bee thing now. We’re a little wiser, and hopefully this colony will fare better.

Part of the ‘wiser’ thing involves talking to people who have been doing this a while.

I answered a call for help on the local beekeepers’ association WhatsApp last week. Someone was worried about the behaviour of their bees. The consensus was that they were swarming, but as she had just had a knee replacement (her own, not a bee’s knee), she was unable to do the lifting of heavy hive parts needed to inspect the colony.

Bee thyme

Bee having the thyme of her life

As I had some time on my hands, I offered to help. I’d also noticed from her video that she had the same sort of hive as me—a clever set-up that allows you to drain the honey from the frames rather than needing to faff around with centrifuges and whatnot. I thought I might be able to get some tips.

Inspection

Inspecting the flow

I got there, we talked a little, then we suited up and starting looking at the frames.

What we discovered was that the queen had not been laying eggs, and had probably departed with the swarm (or had died or otherwise vamoosed). We also found an empty queen cup—the special cell that queens grow in when the not-so-loyal subjects of the old queen decide it’s time for a new one. We had no idea where either queen was, and weren’t minded to check every single frame looking for her.

We put the hive back together, and I was about to de-suit when Wanda’s husband came home, suited up in motorcycle gear. Turns out Chris is allergic to bees, although very keen on the art, and build all the equipment.

Chris, having no clue about what we’d seen in the hive, said,

“There’s a swarm in the lane.”

So I put my suit back on, grabbed a polystyrene bait hive that Chris dug out from behind the shed, and went to collect my first swarm.

I snipped away a few branches and brushed as many bees as I could into the bait hive, and then strapped it to the fence.

Bait hive

Looking for a new pad

When I went back a few days later to help Wanda instal a new queen to the original hive (yes, you can mail-order royalty), she told me that she’d gone out later and found the new queen in the swarm, and captured her in the bait hive. So we split the old hive (finding another queen cup as we did so), so that the queen Wanda had found would have some stores and brood in her new pad, and installed the new queen in the old hive.

I will go back at the end of the week and check that both colonies are doing OK.

It turns out that Wanda and Chris have been keeping bees for about 25 years. They had an operation with 100s of hives in Zimbabwe, and I am hopeful to hear lots more tales of their adventures there, where beekeeping is more akin to guerrilla warfare than the (mostly) gentile pastime it is here.

What fun.

Posted in bees, Gardening, hens, nature, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

Stupid Chemists (perhaps)

I’ve recently returned from my annual visit to the High Polymer Research Group Conference, held at the picturesquely named village of Pott Shrigley at the Western edge of the Peak District. This is a conference about which I have written before, following its evolution from the scarey place full of established and unwelcoming male chemists I encountered as a young researcher back in the mid-1980’s, to a much more diverse and inclusive group of people working across the polymer domain. If you want to know about the science discussed under the theme of Polymers in the Age of Data, I refer you to Richard Jones’ excellent summary on his own blog. My take on the conference will be more focussed on the human aspects.

Over the years I’ve been going, my own years have clearly advanced. Now, I have reached the heady heights of chairing the committee that oversees this annual event. One consequence of this is that I am expected to produce an after-dinner speech on the final evening. For any international readers, this idea may be somewhat alien, but it is a standard activity at more formal dinners in the UK. I have, in my capacity as Master of a Cambridge college, had plenty of experience of exhorting students in the college to better things, and reminiscing about the College’s activities (and why donations are so important to support our students) at alumni dinners. Neither of those sorts of speeches would fit the bill very well at this conference, as I discussed in my speech last year. (I may say my predecessor as chair was Andy Cooper. He gave an excellent talk this year about his robot-based synthetic chemistry lab, on which more later, but as chair for three years he managed to get away with only giving one after-dinner speech, due to two years of cancellation because of the pandemic.)

The challenge is, at least in part, because this is not a speech that can be written in advance, as it needs to take into account what the different presentations covered. So, the afternoon before the conference dinner may need to be set aside for dreaming up amusing anecdotes to include. The strategy I have taken, both last year and this, is to make notes, at the time, of the particular bon mots I want to include and then weave them together. It works for me, but probably wouldn’t for everyone. This year, speakers seemed to cover much about the skills needed, and the skills that perhaps robots lack. As Andy put it in his own talk, his ‘robots are the world’s stupidest chemists. We need humans in the loop.’ However, it is also the case, as Tanja Junckers said, that ‘robots are much more consistent than graduate students.’ Hence, using them (the robots that is) for repetitive grunt work absolutely makes sense, with the added advantage that they can work 24/7 without complaint.

Given that the whole theme of the conference was what can and can’t be automated, what data we do or don’t have, and how we’re going to tackle the gaps in knowhow and robust data, it isn’t surprising that much was said about how the average researcher fits into this evolving landscape. Michael Meier, who was obviously pushing the limits both of the chemistry and of his students, remarked that he had ‘some students very frustrated with the Chemistry he was requiring of them’ and that often there were various routes to some end point, but ‘all of them were crap’. However, whatever his students might have felt, he himself remained excited about his research, including one project that he called his James Bond project; you can imagine the sort of flavour that had.

One of the major problems in this area is that there are data on only a subset of all the possibilities – be it in molecular structure, or a particular property over a specific if narrow range of parameters. How do you construct a database under these circumstances? Jacqui Cole has been working hard at scraping the literature to build a huge dataset, but up till now she has concentrated on small molecules, often inorganic. To move into the polymer world is hard, as she admitted, saying not only that ‘polymers are messy and difficult’ but that overall ‘polymer science is really hard.’ I suspect those words will have resonated with everyone in the room, even if not applying all of the time. Polymer science is, of course, endlessly fascinating as well, or we wouldn’t all be doing it.

But careers do not go in a straight line – something I frequently tell the Churchill students (particularly at the Freshers’ and Graduates’ Dinners) as well as writing about here over many years – and that sentiment turned up too in the presentations, when Adam Gormley said flatly ‘I didn’t design my career to get here.’ Who does ‘design’ a career, even if synthetic chemists may try to design a macromolecule? Our final speaker, Filip du Prez, was perhaps being flippant, or cynical, when he praised those students who ‘boost their supervisors career’ – he was after all the only thing standing between the delegates and the conference dinner, so perhaps a little lightheartedness was in order.

It was an incredibly stimulating conference. I have picked out the comments I have, because I noted how many people addressed some quasi-social aspects of the area. I’m not sure that this is so common in conference presentations, but perhaps this field particularly lends itself to rueful remarks about human/machine-learning/robot/data interactions in ways that other parts of the discipline do not. I’ll be watching out next year to see if the theme continues.

 

 

Posted in careers, data, Pott Shrigley, Research, robots, Science Culture | Leave a comment