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This song has no title

Jenny has mentioned the non-existent summer.

It’s certainly been ‘variable’, with autumnal mornings and more than an inch of rain in 12 hours one day last week. I haven’t quite kept to my commitment to blog ‘about once a week or so’, although I’m quite pleased with my record this year.

Other variables have included Rhea, our ‘best hen’ who was so insistent we chose her when we collected her and Iris three years ago next month. She’s not laid one of her gorgeous blue-green eggs since May, and was off her feed and we really thought we were going to lose her. She’s perked up a bit, and although she still likes to sit with her eyes closed during the day, she does come running when she thinks there might be chance of  corn or mealworms.

Rhea

Joshua was keen to try cricket, so I signed him up to the local under 11s squad and he’s been going along after school on Monday evenings. I keep promising to give him some batting and bowling coaching but something always gets in the way.

Striding

Striding confidently to the wicket

The two of us went down to the woods this morning, but I’d forgotten my chainsaw trousers so we couldn’t coppice the stand of birch that’s been on my mind for some time now. On the upside, his air rifle skills are getting better and better,

So here I am, as the day rolls inexorably towards evening, thinking of our upcoming trip to Tuscany and trying to get in the mood with a rather fine red, while hoping the weather holds over there for the next month or so.

Grosseto

There’s some kind of sporting event on this evening and we’re going to a friend’s so the kids can watch TV while we drink beer.

On the whole, it could be worse.

Writing

And that reminds me–‘A momentary lapse of reason’ is approaching its denouement. Check it out at Lablit.

 

Posted in hens, Italy, Joshua, Me, offspring, weather, wibbling, wine | Leave a comment

In which I dream of escape

Garden scene with flowers

Alternative reality?

Sometimes everything just seems too much. As the non-existent summer rolls on – 14C mornings of rain or overcast, wool sweaters taken back out from storage – I find my stress level to be the only thing heating up. As I prepare the course I lead for its next academic year, there are also manuscripts to edit, review articles to write, grants and papers to peer-review, interim reports to file for current grants, collaborations to tend, talks to compose, PhD upgrade reports and final dissertations to examine.

And above all the relentless admin: pushing research agreements and material transfer requests through a reluctant quagmire of legal bureaucracy, wrangling finances, applying for ethical approval, seeking reimbursement for business expenses – the thousand natural shocks that academic flesh is heir to, culminating inevitably in spiritual death by tedium. Physically, I am finding the commute increasingly difficult: my joints ache from the amount of miles I need to walk, and when I get home, I want nothing more than to lie down, without the energy for all the creative things I used to do.

I turned down a family outing to the woods to stay at home this morning, seeking some inner peace in the rare sunshine. Here on the back patio, solar fountains trickle, flowers bob in their containers – cosmos, zinnias, mallows, marigolds. Wind shushes in the tall trees, and the metallic tapping of beaks on feeders lets me know without having to look up that the sparrows and tits have forgotten I’m here, not a few yards away and only partially screened by the apricot tree sagging under its weight of rose-gold fruit.

Although the growing season has been severely retarded this year, all around me the crops are steadily progressing: tomatoes and tomatillos, strawberries and blueberries, chokeberries and blackberries, courgettes and pumpkins, runner beans and beets, carrots and lettuces, sweetcorn and kale, spinach and chard, potatoes and garlic. The greenhouses are home to cucumbers, chilli and celery, pots of fragrant herbs. The cherries, gooseberries and raspberries are past, but apples, pears, figs, plums, hops and cobnuts swell in the wings; grapes clusters hang heavy amid groping tendrils that seem to grow meters overnight. It is the time of year when you can breeze round the garden foraging for your breakfast or dinner, returning with handfuls of produce whose “food distance” is measured in feet and inches, not miles. Our girls are working hard, too: bees filling their clever waxy combs with nectar, hens laying their daily eggs.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to end all this stress. Just to walk away from the job and do something else, something where the amount of effort you put in is reflected equally by what you get out, where the crushing uncertainty of whether you will get enough grants to carry on to the next phase is no longer relevant. Or even more extreme: taking early retirement, and being in the garden whenever I like.

I was chatting with some colleagues earlier in the week at a scientific conference, so I know that the idle fantasy of just stopping is almost universal, on and off, amongst academics of a certain age. What keeps me going is how long I have worked to be where I am, and how important the scientific cause is. I may be only a tiny cog turning on the fringes, and it may be a constant struggle for existence, but this wretched infection afflicting 400 million people a year is not going to just go away on its own. Grants-wise, I’m sorted for the next few years at least, with a good probability of new ones slotting in to take their places. I want to do what I can, for as long as I can, even if some weeks it feels like I’m going to break.

Posted in careers, Gardening, Research, Science Funding, staring into the abyss, The profession of science, work-life balance | Leave a comment

What I Read In June

UntitledBaoshu The Redemption of Time I generally don’t have time for fan fiction, but there’s fan fiction and fan fiction, and this one is of a superior sort. Baoshu (a pen name) is a fan, specifically of the cosmically successful Three-Body Problem trilogy by Cixian Liu (reviewed elsewhere in these pages). So much of a fan that he wrote an entire novel in the same universe, and received Cixian Liu’s blessing. The Redemption of Time will make no sense at all to anyone who hasn’t read the Three-Body trilogy, and not much more sense than that to anyone who’s seen the derivative televisual emission from Netflix but not read the books. To cut a very (very) long story short, The Redemption of Time starts with the experiences of Yun Tianming with the Trisolarans, after which he gets embroiled into an eternal cosmos-spanning war between two godlike powers — the Master and the Lurker — who fight one another by altering the dimensionality of spacetime. The Redemption of Time is (almost) as full of grand ideas as the Three-Body Problem although, given its scope, there is a lot more talk than action. Although the author cleverly ties up a few loose ends in the original, I was in the end more stupefied than edified. For diehard Three-Body fans only. Baoshu has since become an author of his own fiction, some of which features in …

UntitledKen Liu (ed.) Broken Stars After reading Invisible Planets, Ken Liu’s selection of contemporary Chinese science fiction (reviewed last month), I discovered a second anthology, containing one or two of the same authors, with a few more, and more stories overall. This time Liu is slightly more adventurous, featuring stories that contain more specifically Chinese themes that western readers will need either extra-SFnal knowledge (and footnotes) to unpack. In culinary terms, we’re getting away from chow mein and crispy duck into those parts of the menu that are only usually written in Chinese. And it’s all the more enjoyable for all that. The highlight for me was ‘The Snow of Jinyang’, by Zhang Ran, which is an example of a trope called  chuanyue, which is a distinctively Chinese take on the anachronisms that happen when people from different times are thrown together, in this case a modern-day person in tenth-century China. There are two stories from Han Song, which can be read as political satire. Names familiar to SinoSFphiles such as Baoshu (see above) and Xia Jia can be found, as well as authors with new and different voices. I enjoyed this very much. With Invisible Planets, this book is a great introduction to the vibrant world of SF from China.

UntitledWilliam Boyd: Restless I loved the LabLit of Brazzaville Beach. The faux-biography of Any Human Heart made my list of Best Reads last year. So notified, the younger Gees found me a few more from William Boyd for Christmas and my Birthday and this is one of those (I’m easy to buy for — books and liquorice allsorts will keep me happy). This one starts in the scorching summer of 1976 with Ruth Gilmartin, a twentysomething teacher of English as a Foreign Language living in Oxford, with a precocious five-year-old son from a disastrous relationship on the early seventies anarchist fringes of German academia. Ruth’s widowed mother Sal lives in a remote cottage in the Oxfordshire countryside and has been behaving very oddly of late. By way of explanation Sal gives Ruth a dossier — in easy-digest instalments — of a half-Russian woman called Eva Delectorskaya, born in Moscow, who was recruited to the British Secret Intelligence Services just before World War II, relating her escapades between 1938 and 1942. Eva is ‘run’ by the mysterious Lucas Romer. Ruth can hardly believe that Eva and her mother are the same person. Her mother has been living a lie all her life, and Ruth becomes part of it. But they have one final mission to accomplish. Hugely enjoyable.

UntitledPeter F. Hamilton: Pandora’s Star + Judas Unchained I was only a short way in to this audiobook when I realised I’d once read the dead-tree version. But perhaps that was all to the good — I remembered some arresting scenes from this immense SF blockbuster and was keen to revisit them. That, and the fact that I didn’t have to lift the thing, for Peter F. Hamilton tends to write at great length, and this book (with it’s sequel, Judas Unchained, basically the story’s continuation and conclusion) offered more than 70 hours of interstellar romps as I walked the dogs and did the daily round. That doesn’t mean he can’t write short stories when he wants to. I once commissioned a very short story from him, and the result, The Forever Kitten, is a delight. Reading it again now, I can see that it’s a kind of prequel to Pandora’s Star. This is a picture of humanity a few centuries hence when humans are kept forever young, and potentially immortal, by rejuvenation therapy. Those humans who can afford it, though, because society is dominated by a few ‘Grand Families’ and ‘Intersolar Dynasties’ that control what appears to be a stable plutocracy. As the story opens, humans have colonised hundreds of worlds, each linked — by railways! — through stable wormholes invented in the 21st century by two Californian techno-geeks. That’s when an astronomer on a backwater human planet spots a Dyson Sphere enclosing a faraway star. An expedition is sent to investigate, the Dyson Sphere mysteriously dematerialises, and all hell is let loose (the enclosed star is the Pandora’s box to which the title alludes). But there is a lot more to this story than that. Sure, there are enough space battles to sate the appetite of any space-opera fan, but there are also scads of sex, often taking place between impossibly beautiful people in luxurious and meticulously described interiors (Peter F. Hamilton must be the Jackie Collins of SF); lots of violent action; fabulously realised adventure sequences; suitably weird aliens; tortuous political intrigue; and a detective element that’s almost noir, featuring the genetically modified super-sleuth Paula Myo, who always gets her man, except in the one case that’s eluded her for nearly two centuries. Immersive SF fun for everyone.

UntitledKate Atkinson: Behind The Scenes at the Museum Even if you’d never heard of Kate Atkinson (I hadn’t, until recently) you’ll have definitely come across Life after Life, her terrific and fantastical novel that featured in my best-of selection of 2021, and adapted recently as a televisual emission. Behind The Scenes at the Museum was her debut. It concerns the life of Ruby Lennox (b. 1952), born to her uncaring mother Bunty while her father George was up the pub chatting up another woman. It features flashbacks to events in Ruby’s maternal ancestry from the end of the nineteenth century when Ruby’s great-grandmother Alice runs off with a travelling French photographer, and charts the family’s ups and downs through the turbulent twentieth century. The straitened, conventional life of an ordinary Yorkshire family is presented in stark detail, especially how stifling social conventions completely drain any hope of a fulfilling life from women. Don’t think it’s dour and preachy, because it isn’t — it’s a roaring great tragicomedy, with some wonderful set-pieces, such as the family holiday in which everything that can possibly go wrong, goes wrong; and the bit-of-a-do Yorkshire wedding that happens to be held during the World Cup Final of 1966, well, goes the same way. Ruby’s narration of her mother’s life while she, Ruby, is still in the womb, reminded me of a sentence in Peter Ustinov’s autobiography Dear Me that has a similarly in utero perspective. ‘I went to visit my mother’s gynaecologist’, he wrote. ‘My mother came with me as I was too young to go on my own’. Behind The Scenes has the same humour, sparkling wit, deft phrasing, and  rewarding richness.

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Sunny Afternoon

What do you do with 6 lbs cherries?

Actually, that’s quite an easy problem, compared with the years we’ve had nearly 30 lbs from the tree at the back of the garden. It’s an old tree, and I’ve put the apiary by it—partly because despite the size of the garden there’s not actually much room for beehives, and partly because the tree is covered in ivy that is mature enough to flower and give the bees an autumn feast—and most years it produced far more than we can use, or even harvest. It keeps the blackbirds fed, though.

Anyway, I went out this evening and collected a bowlful of cherries to add to the mound we’ve had in the fridge since the weekend, as well as some strawberries and raspberries and blueberries. And then I made jam from the bowl of cherries that was already in the fridge.

Fruit

I sometimes wonder if I miss lab work. In a way, the kitchen is my new lab, with tried and tested protocols but also new experiments and things to try. I guess formally I am testing new hypotheses all the time, although really they all boil down to the one null hypothesis ‘this is not jaw-droppingly delicious’, that, in all modesty, I disprove all the time. Apart from that, and the mindset of changing one variable at a time (um, maybe) and writing things down (sorry, Jenny), there’s not much in the kitchen that resembles the labs I’ve worked in.

Except for cellophane.

Cellophane was, and still is, the bane of my existence.

In the lab (particularly in Cambridge) we used to preserve protein gels between sheets of cellophane. We’d get everything nice and moist (ooer), sandwich the polyacrylamide gel between two layers of cellophane, then stretch the whole thing in a wooden clamp and leave to air dry.

The first few times you did this (and randomly thereafter) something would go dreadfully wrong and you’d be left with a shattered mess of blue stripes and sadly crinkled gel. But when it did work, it was a fantastic way of preserving experimental data, and perhaps even better than drying gels down on filter paper (and probably less environmentally unfriendly, too)—especially as drying gels was no guarantee not to end up with exploded blue acrylamide messes.

Which brings me back to jam.

Sealing jam under cellophane covers is an ancient tradition that keeps nasty germs out and I hate it. When it works, it’s great. But getting it to work—stopping it curling and getting the tiny elastic band over so that there’s a skirt all the way round so that you can tighten it nicely and the whole thing doesn’t poing into a sad tangled mess—reminds me of the lab more than anything else.

Jam

But the jam is jaw-droppingly delicious, even if I do say so myself.

Posted in cherries, Don't try this at home, jam, magirism, protein gels, War stories, wibbling | Leave a comment

Our House

It’s not just the wrens.

This is Shorty.

Bobbin

Photo by Jenny

Shorty is a year-old robin, one of the expanding family that lives in the shaggy old laurel tree out the front, and together with his (or her—difficult to tell with robins) parents/sibs, hops around hoping for us to dig up some tasty worms or bugs, or failing that, accidentally on-purpose spill some chicken feed as I bring it out in the morning.

Shorty appears to be missing what I thought was an essential part of being a bird, viz. a tail. Actually there’s no ‘appears’ about it. We’ve no idea if this was through some accident, or a close encounter with a crow or cat or other embodiment of evil, but Shorty doesn’t have one.

This absence doesn’t appear to bother him, although he does wobble a bit when alighting on a handy plant pot or other perch (canonically it should be a spade handle of course, but I’m very good about putting them away after use. He seems to prefer the woodshed by the kitchen door).

And like the rest of the family, Shorty is quite bold. Perhaps the boldest of them all. He’ll sit atop the woodshed as I do chicken business in the morning, quite content to wait until I’ve finished (and dropped the usual accidentally on-purpose pellets, naturally). On occasion, apparently wiser of his kin have sat up in the buddleia, tic-tic-ticking at him to come away, be more careful, while he and I have a little chat down by the hen house.

Yesterday, Shorty flew into the conservatory. We had both doors open, and all the greenery must have looked quite inviting. I grabbed a handful of chicken feed and gently walked around behind him until he got the hint and flew out the door. I distributed the feed around his usual perches, and he seemed to accept the apology.

In other news, I started a new job a dozen days ago. So that’s nice, too.

Posted in bird, birds, Gardening, Me, robin, Shorty | Leave a comment

Role Models for Girls?

Recently I received an email from a young girl (aged 8 and a half, as she signed herself off, with overtones of Adrian Mole) complaining about the lack of representation of women in STEM. As she says ‘If you want to be in science you need to see yourself represented.’ – a view heard often, but it is interesting that a pre-teen has already worked this out and sees it as a problem. It is always a pleasure to receive a note of thanks for the work I do and have done around the whole question of women in STEM, and particularly so when it becomes apparent it is reaching readers of essentially all ages.

For someone of that age, there are increasing numbers of books describing women from the past who made significant contributions in science aimed at young children. Very often these are about Marie Curie and, as I discuss at some length in my book, I am not sure she is the best role model since her life was so extreme. Is it likely to be attractive to a young girl to hear of someone who was consigned to a cold outhouse for her research, simply because she was a woman? The trouble is, most women from the past who ‘made’ it had so many challenges to overcome that I wonder if any of them make good role models. There are those who weren’t able to get to university till they were relatively mature because their fathers forbade it; those who never got past being an assistant or unpaid because, well that’s just how it was for women in their day. Even for Nobel Prize winners like Barbara McClintock, who did her main research for love not (any) money.

These really aren’t the images I’d like an eight-year-old to take away about how science is done. Rosalind Franklin – another woman whose life story can readily be found in children’s books – had a rubbish time with her colleagues and died tragically young. Also a bit of a downer of a life story. For Jocelyn Bell Burnell, people seemed to think her engagement was worth more of a celebration than her discovery of pulsars. That discovery was anyhow not rewarded with a Nobel Prize for her personally: it went to her supervisor Anthony Hewish and his colleague Martin Ryle. When Dorothy Hodgkin did win the Nobel Prize (still the only British woman to do so), in 1964, the Daily Mail celebrated this triumph with the headline “Oxford housewife wins Nobel“. Again, not a very positive message to give a young girl.

It is not irrelevant that, as late as 2018, laser scientist and Nobel Prize winner Donna Strickland remarked that she wanted the story to be about her science not her sex. Surely in the 21st century we have reached a point where it ought to be possible for the science to come first, rather than ‘oh look, here’s a woman who is quite successful’. Yet we still do not seem to have got there. Young girls may not be inspired by the typical emphasis on gender, not success, for women in the world of science.

As we look to a possible change of Government, it would be nice to think that we might see some better (female) role models appearing in the national curriculum, coupled with a national curriculum that actually needs to be followed by all state schools; currently academies can opt out. The former was a recommendation that Greg Clark’s Commons enquiry into Diversity in STEM made, but to no effect (at least as yet). It would be interesting to draw up a list of potential role models to include. Using Nobel Prize winners might be one option, a clear label of ‘success’ that would distinguish the Donna Strickland’s of this world in a way an eight (or indeed eighteen) year old could understand.

On the other hand, the fundamental flaw in the way these awards are made, so that team science is not rewarded, just that illustrious but generally illusory lone genius, does not reflect the primary way of doing science in the 21st century. Recognizing that collaboration is an important part of progress in science, that it’s OK to enjoy interactions and often that’s not only the best but the only way of making progress, is a fact that the Nobel’s continue to ignore by their way of doing things. Given that the Peace Prize is often given to groups (think of the IPCC in 2077), it’s not immediately obvious that the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will actually forbid awarding one of the science prizes to a group, although that is the argument typically advanced. I believe that the ongoing failure to recognize the importance of collaboration in science by the Nobel committee is detrimental to science itself. We know in our universities, promotion is often likewise based simply on an individual’s contribution rather than the part they play in collaborative science, and this too is a major problem. Although everyone is happy to believe that excellence in science should be rewarded, why should team science not be ‘excellent’ (of course it is!) and hence get the accolades?

To return to the eight-year-old girl I mentioned at the start, as she grows up what will attract or deter her from following her current dreams? Our schools should think much harder about this, as should the committees that make decisions about promotions and prizes for later years. Only when this happens will she be able to see ‘people like her’ represented across the board, encouraging her that she does belong in whichever field she chooses.

Posted in Barbara McClintock, Donna Strickland, education, Marie Curie, national curriculum, Women in science | Comments Off on Role Models for Girls?

It Has Not Escaped Our Notice

Thanks to our correspondent Mr K. Z. of High Barnet for this one seen in a shop window in Abergavenny.
PXL_20240602_132952273

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Croeso i Gymru

Untitled

Camelot! Camelot! Camelot! (It’s only a model). On Second Thoughts, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a Silly Place.

Earlier this week several Gees drove 300+ miles across Britain to spend a few days in an entirely different country: Wales. Specifically, Carmarthenshire, where Mrs Gee has relations. We rented a cottage on the edge of the Brecon Beacons with perhaps the most spectacular view I have ever seen from any AirBnB, or hotel, or other accommodation, anywhere in the world, including Hawaii. From the garden, or kitchen — or loo — one could look all the way up the hill to a Romantic Ruin. The view was entrancing in all weathers (and you do get a lot of that in Wales —  weather) and seemed to sum up the nature of Wales in a single shot. We do have friends elsewhere in Wales, in the altogether more rugged landscape of Powys, and are aware that we are yet to visit our correspondent Professor Trellis of North Wales, in Aberystwyth. One day…
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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.

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