Interconnectedness isn’t just for hippies

Species as a concept is a lie. The taxonomic division between species and the precise definition of speciesation is mutable and contended; check EO Wilson. “But that’s biology. It’s a blurry, ill-defined kind of science.”

Listen; everything we understand is couched in terms we – or at least a certain number of us – can understand, which involves inventing concepts that break down and make manageable the whole vast and ever-changing universe of space and time, breaking it into chunks that our evolved-on-a-specific-star-orbiting-rock-in-response-to-specific-geographic-and-meteorological-and-environmental-pressures-then-developed-a-culture-and-society-and-culturally-dependent-language-and-thinking-patterns water-based sodium-electricity carbon-driven teeny weeny grey lump brains can digest, with a suitable run-up. We can only perceive directly the most incredibly narrow frequency band of “light” and “sound”; we’re staring at the universe through a slit that makes a letterbox (or the windscreen of a Citroën Dyane if you’re so inclined) look like the Pacific Ocean. Our limitations begin with but are not limited to the fact that our brains evolved for something else entirely and frequently hijack our attempts at objectivity with unconscious bias generated by cultural history or even more stupid things like “the need for sustenance” or “evolutionary focus on reproduction”.

At the end of last year I went to a talk about the archaeology of the Arab Revolt at the British Museum, because I am an adult and can do whatever the hell I want with my free time. There was no free coffee, but during the talk the author of the forthcoming book about the excavations talked about the groundbreaking (I think this is a pun that archaeologists are required by law to make) interdisciplinary approach to finding the right sites for these digs, combining local histories, archive materials, ethnography, a whole lot of disciplines my uneducated Creative Writing BA self thought were the same discipline anyway, and some other stuff, in order to confirm that among other things, a man whose job had been to write detailed and precise reports back to his superiors hadn’t been lying or exaggerating in them about the locations and breadth of various raids during said Revolt.

Further back, Failed Rock Star, walking hair product advert, subject of nationwide sexual fantasies and occasional particle physicist Dr Brian Cox presented a lavish BBC documentary, Wonders of Life, which observant readers blessed with a functioning memory will recall I wanked on about at length here, when I was evidently fairly high on oxytocin:

As soon as you start learning across different disciplines it becomes evident in a way it never was before that everything is in some way relevant to something else: the process of galaxy collisions millions of years ago and millions of light-years away helps to pinpoint the precise point in history in which a terrible plague was presaged by the coming of a new star in the heavens; evolution driven by chemistry and the test of the environment on gene expression helps to explain human behaviour and the propensity for war-making; understanding the chemical nature of love in the brain may one day lead to debates over whether it is ethical to induce empathy in psychopaths and a wave  of alternate history fiction about famous tyrants infected with great affection instead, for Literature students to analyse and reframe.

Divisions between chemistry and biology, geography and geology and ecology, meteorology and so on elide part of the picture in order to make it possible to focus on others; but getting down to the human nitty-gritty requires that, at some point, all of universal history is taken into account.

Why does the Apollo Belvedere look like that? Aesthetic choices, culturally-driven (evolution/biology, migration patterns of early humans driven by environmental necessicites relating to ecology and meteorology and evolved needs prior to the mass migration of mankind; cultural interactions between societies growing up due to isolation between different groups); material requirements dictated by physics (geology, crystallogy, material science…); costs (economics, history, the entire network of historical logistics which takes in geography and the limits of the human body and technological development plus information science and historical politics); religion…

Every node of explanation throws up more to be looked at, which connects with other concerns, and other concerns, and no doubt even when everything is explained to a thoroughly subatomic and pre-Big Bang level further complications will continue to arise (I know full well I am not the equal to this, it took my Long-Suffering Boyfriend and I an entire day to even get vaguely to grips with what the concept of a light cone is). There is no limit to the things that can and should be taken into consideration, no end to the distortions to every event or item (or if you want to think of it this way; consider that a leaf is also a time object, and go and have a lie-down) created by other events and items and their interactions with each other; no apparent end-point at which everything becomes simple.

Anyway if any of the staff from Foyles on Charing Cross Road are reading, this is why I was standing in the middle of the history of science section of your book shop looking hunted and chewing my fingernail.

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It’s Here. It’s too late to run. The Next Big One is upon us.

It’s here.

By which I mean you can buy the book.

You can buy it as a paperback from Lulu.com.

You can buy it straight to your Kindle from Amazon US | UK.

You can buy it in a number of ebook formats from a number of epublishing sites, by searching “The Next Big One Derek Des Anges”.

And you should buy it, because god knows where you’re going to find another epidemic thriller with an anxious bisexual hero and the world’s least flappable trans woman scientist in a major starring role. You’re certainly not going to see much in the way of critique of media reporting of disease, and you won’t get much debate. This book is not The Hot Zone. I promise you that much.

With the number of UK cases hitting a hundred, it’s clear that KBV is a problem which isn’t going away. Downing Street have released the following statement: “The total number of KBV cases in the UK is still comparatively small, and we are confident that the disease can be contained. NHS leaflets advising on lifestyle and behaviour changes which can help protect against infection will be available soon. We ask the public to remain calm and to continue to behave responsibly about their health in all areas.

Vocational journalism student Ben Martin is the last person who ought to be investigating a major viral outbreak. He doesn’t know a single damn thing about biology; he pays his rent by DJing for hipsters. He’s nervous, easily-discouraged, and not over his ex.

But it’s him who ends up with the assignment, and it’s him who ends up facing down the truth: there is more to this than meets the eye.

I Love Living In The Future: New Shit Exists!

While I am usually too suspicious of purported developments (and too broke) to actually buy them until they’re old hat, I do love to waste my time on new inventions websites fantasising about what could be achieved if I were only a) rich b) rich, and c) really, really rich (if you’d like to help me become slightly less poor: products are available to assist).

I’ve collected together some of the best, most lunatic, or most avarice-inspiring things I’ve seen.

The Compute Plug.

Computer Plug

An entire computer in a plug. Perfect for the space-deprived being of tomorrow or, given rent prices in London, New York, and Tokyo, the space-deprived being of today.

Everblock.

Everblock

Addressing some of the housing issues and the time taken to build both furniture and shelter, these are literally construction-sized Lego blocks, something I have been dreaming of since I was a wee ‘un. Brilliant. Website here.

Motorized Unicycle Thing.

I’m not going to lie, I see people on these in the street occasionally and I think they look like prize wankers, but I’m sure when it’s more normalised and they’re cheaper this will become a perfectly acceptable means of transport in London, especially if they are given their own lane and don’t get in the way of pedestrians and cyclists.

Leather Bag Scarf.

No exciting new technology here, but I’m sure that in the permanent hellish Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic wasteland that we’re going to endure in, oh, about thirty years or so, this will be a stylish and multipurpose alternative to the bum-bag.

The Drumi.

Drumi

A washing machine that is operated entirely by pedal power.

Bartesian.

bartesian-1

For the cocktail bar in, I dunno, your space Limo. Listen, my space Limo is going to have a cocktail bar, okay. You can have a coffee machine in yours. I don’t drink coffee.

Shelfpack.

shelfpack-1

A suitcase that turns into a set of shelves, because if you’re going to be itinerant for your job, you may as well accept that fact with good grace. Pairs nicely with the workstation suitcase, which means that with only two pieces of checked luggage you are ready to accept that you no longer own your existence! Corporate dystopia is Now.

GlocalMe.

More for the dark dystopian post-apocalyptic future where for some reason there are no Wifi hotspots but still internet, or more realistically for uploading safari photos if you are too impatient to wait until you get back to the very nice hotel in Nairobi with the perfectly good Wifi, you spoiled dick. Caution: It is a Kickstarter project which to me usually reads as either a scam or “a lot of money to wait a very long time for potentially nothing”, so there you go.

Sony All-in-One MP3-player/headphones.

Another slow step towards just streaming music directly into your brain, but this one cuts out the continual advertising.

Tumeta Frozen Smoothie Maker.

It’s a tiny cutesy egg that that shits out ice-cream-esque “healthy” desserts that probably still aren’t as healthy as just eating frozen grapes from the freezer, which I am this minute about to do, and it’s totally pointless and every time the temperature goes over 22C I go back and look at the product page like I’ve been hypnotised by the God of Bad Decisions. Why do I want this?

Thank Slim Hand Scanner

In the Future, this is what you’ll be using to digitise the relentless paperwork that continues to happen to your office at the cost of the lunar forests because some fucking backward asswipe refuses to learn how to put their signature on a PDF. You know that.

August Links Post

Things I have done

Things friends have done

  • Almost immediately crowd-funded an illustrated version of the Ars Goetia, well done Lucian!

Things strangers have done

  • Come up with Oystercard wristbands, which I want like I want chocolate gin and world peace, because it would be satisfying and useful and it displays your balance! You don’t have to be at an Oyster machine to know how much is on there! These things need to become a reality immediately. I will pay the price. (Edit: Friend who works In Trains says this is not feasible, and I am upset).
  • The Royal Society have launched a Print On Demand service for their archive prints, so any other nerds who love old scientific illustrations like everyone Chez Des Anges does is in for a treat.
  • Wrote a brilliant defence of the Narnia books from the boring, oft-wielded “Susan Argument”. I’ve had so many arguments with people that have ended in taking down The Last Battle and making them read the actual words themselves, rather than regurgitating a misremembering by another writer, while muttering “words mean things” in their ear, it’s quite nice to see someone taking another approach.
  • Made a website where you can design your own shoes.
  • Made a very popular website which responds to a list of the ingredients you have to hand with recipes you can make with them. Although as the front page included the words “American Cheese” I’m guessing it’s focus is not necessarily as useful if you’re accessing it from a kitchen in Lagos.

Book Planning: Ominous Parallels

Tentatively, this autumn’s writing project (which I am beginning research on now because I dislike being caught on the hop) revolves around an extremely unpleasant fictional virus known as KBV (short for Konebogetvirus, following the tradition of viruses being named after where they are found or thought to have first broken out).

Designing a virus from scratch has involved a certain amount of probing to find out just what level of viral design is actually feasible, and whether or not anyone would really go about making something more dangerous than it already was.

“No” was the general conclusion.

Then Dr Kawaoka’s team at Wisconsin-Madison built an Avian flu strain out of other avian flus and mutated it deliberately to make it airborne, in a move that was apparently designed to make my novel more plausible, as well as make most of the public health and virology communities close ranks to unanimously shout “why the fuck would you do that are you nuts?”.

This is the H5N1 avian influenza virus particles, coloured transmission electron micrograph (TEM). Each virus particle consists of ribonucleic acid (RNA), surrounded by a nucleocapsid and a lipid envelope (green). Click on image for source of both image and information.

Having confirmed that it is both possible and apparently that there are people in the world mental enough to both do this thing and fund other people doing this incredibly dangerous and stupid thing, I shrugged and moved on to reading some science faction, or non-fiction sensation, or whatever you want to call The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. It’s a very famous book, and in addition to getting my bearings with regards to what Ebola is really like, I thought it might be a good idea to see what other books in the genre of “epidemic thriller” are like*.

It’s a fascinating and speedy read, with about the right level of dumbed-down for my poor arts grad brain to handle, and the right amount of extraneous character detail to make you even more tense that whoever is about to die at any minute. Ebola: gross and terrifying. An unusual and unpleasant family of viruses, but a distant worry given that there haven’t really been any serious outbreaks that I can remember in a whi–

And then I came home and had this Tweet shown to me.
And then I came home and had this Tweet shown to me.

Okay, I’ll just… hope that these parallels don’t continue, then, given that I’m currently reading The Demon In The Freezer (also by Richard Preston), which is in the process of making me as shit-scared of Variola (smallpox) as I am now of Ebola. If anyone hears about some instances of that getting out, don’t tell me, or I’m going to start feeling guilty…


* Which probably means I’m going to have to read The Andromedia Strain and I really don’t want to. I had my Michael Crichton phase for a few years after I saw Jurassic Park at the right age for it, and the thought of returning to it does not appeal.

Poetry: here’s your Sunday sermon.

Memento Mori: The Cosmic Edition

Okay, listen. We don’t have much time.
You’re dying.
So am I.
Soon the rot will devour us both.
The sun will explode and swallow
Everything you ever said
That was slightly stupid:
Galaxies will rise and fall
The civilisation that remembers
If you passed that exam
Is already on the wane.

We’re dying.
There is no time to be furious
Or pensive, or alone.
It is important that you listen
Please
Before time turns out
On this flicker of light within,
This tiny shout against universal entropy,
Your momentary stand in the dark.

Please, before we are ashes,
Then a sea of lukewarm atoms
Paralysed a few degrees above the absolute –
While you still can:
Dance.

The end is coming
And it has one hell of a beat.

–Delilah Des Anges (2013)

(I wrote this in bed this morning after catching up on Professor Jim Al-Khalili’s Light & Dark: Light on iPlayer last night, and contemplating this morning the feasibility of a tattoo reading “existential horror you can dance to”; the latter I think should be given further consideration, as I already have an enormous list of tattoos I wish to get and it does nothing but grow).

Book Release: Science Poems

In the wake of the very talented Chrissy Williams releasing Flying Into the Bear, a manageable volume of poetry which now sits eagerly on my Amazon wishlist thanks to the magic of the Universal Wishlist button and  Chrome, it occurred to me that a small and simple collection of poetry at an affordable price might be what people need to get them enthused. The other option is that I’d have to be as good as Chrissy Williams, and we know that’s not going to happen overnight!

To this end I’ve collected up four little books of diminutive length and negligible cost and arranged them around different themes based on their content, and the first of them, a compendium of poems about [science], is now available from Lulu.com – and only from Lulu.com – as a taster or introduction to my work. You can, of course, also go through the content: poetry category on this blog both for my poems and for my inepty attempts to analyse other people’s, if you are so minded, but buying this little thing will allow you to turn off the internet and have a moment’s peace with some poetry, and I find that’s the best way to enjoy poems.

Available from Lulu.com

 

If anyone is at all curious, the cover of this modest collection of verse is a photograph of a fence near Highgate, taken in the depths of autumn back when I was working on a project called Postcards from an Explosion. There are also explosions contained within this book, which is to do with the miracle of poetry: one can put a great deal into a very small space, because words are actually magic.

(I’ve also recently bought the eBook version of I Will Kill You With My Bare Hands by Jessica Hayworth, which was one of the most sensible investments I’ve made in a while. 219 pages of being berated with sometimes frightening and sometimes passionate intensity by a disembodied voice in a hole was apparently just what I needed).

The Science of Ignorance

Having finished the first quarter of my 100 posts about the arts, I’m taking a brief break to return to the glorious and wide-reaching bosom of science. There are a couple of catalysts working in step here: the first is that I, like a number of people, have been enjoying and occasionally yelling at current BBC series Wonders of Life (with Brian Cox doing outrageous things like “basic science on a mountain”, travelling to places I’m never going to get to visit, getting octopuses to punch him in the face, and cuddling impossibly cute lion cubs). The next is that in addition to enjoying the prime-time pop-science show I also have an oft-joked-of propensity for draining the programming on BBC4 of “everything that isn’t steam trains”, and an embarrassingly large pile of pop-neuroscience/linguistics books which have taken up residence in my bathroom along with some stuff on epidemiology because I have run out of bookshelves again and there are exposed pipes in the bathroom which work as bookshelves and how many books do you have to buy before you acknowledge that you have a problem?

I had planned to burble in my tirelessly charming fashion about the fascinating tendency of areas of study to bleed into each other anyway, but then I came across some delightful person claiming that learning about neurochemicals and the source of emotions and the evolutionary function of romantic love was somehow degrading to the concept of love and had to go and head butt a wall for a while. Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan have already dealt with the accusation of science being unromantic with more eloquence and poetry than I could hope to, but the idea of this ostrich-solution to the world still distresses me: you cannot use deliberate ignorance to maintain a state of supposedly preferable untrue happiness and claim that this is somehow makes the truth stop existing.

It has been one of the things which always appealed the most to me about the harder sciences: that regardless of the political applications of knowledge or the dead ends that we encounter on the way to knowledge, there is a singular truth, a set of universal laws which can be determined from rigorous and rigorously adapted methods of observation. Humans are deeply inconsistent: our ideals of morality have changed profoundly over the short time we have had morals at all. Our stories fluctuate in order to encompass the values of the society telling them and the problems of the time period.

Our notions of love and the expression of love alter not only through the passage of societal time but through the phases of an individual’s life: the neurochemicals and pathways which engineer this holy state of being do not. Energy tends towards entropy, organisms best adapted to survive their conditions are selected for over those which cannot adapt, the process of nuclear fusion attends to the same rules as always, the universe like a vast and impossibly complex four-dimensional machine jitters through its motions regardless of whether you or I are kind or cruel, clever or stupid, obstinately ignorant or fevered seekers of truths. Eppur si muove – or to give it a more prosaic iteration, the damn thing moves anyway. The laws of the universe continue, and it is up to us to understand them or not understand them: ignoring them will not make them go away.

And certainly angrily not only refusing to learn but declaring that anyone who wants to share the joy of their knowledge is deliberately trying to spoil your happiness is arrogant in the extreme, and fearful for no reason. Knowing how love occurs still doesn’t tell us why we fall in love with this person and not that person, at this time and not that one. That will take centuries to discover, and even when we understand it, it won’t stop that emotion from having the same effect on your receptors as it always did. What an amazing thing the human brain is, that it can generate pleasure and terror within itself over absent things and abstract concepts. What an incredible engine.

and here is a slightly distorted picture of Professor Brian Cox looking at an Aye-aye

And now back to something I love: documentaries, particularly ones involving wildlife.

That Nice Professor Cox is back on the telly, talking now about how the chemical process known as “life” works, and how it evolves, and what makes it kind of bloody amazing: following on from such televisual treats as Whoa Space Is Pretty Awesome Hey and its sequel No There’s Even More To Space Than That Seriously Look At This. There have been complaints about the presence of the ubiquitous and effervescent professor, even more so after Sir David Attenborough suggested that he might make a nice replacement for himself. Some of these complaints have more credibility than others: the disappointment that the BBC has not decided to employ more female scientists as presenters, for example, to follow on from a slightly better record with history programs (cf. Dr Janina Ramirez on the Hundred Years War, Dr Lucy Worsley on a number of subjects including the Regency, and the inexplicably-maligned Professor Mary Beard on Rome), or a general problem with academic/documentary programming tending to feature an almost unbroken sea of white faces. The less credible arguments include “but he’s not a biologist” (he’s a broadcaster with a good understanding of the GCSE-level science the program is disseminating, and more importantly has the charm and enthusiasm to pull off what he does): with a degree in geology and zoology Attenborough might not have been the obvious choice to usher in colour programming at the BBC, but he oversaw at BBC2 a time of considerable progress and quality.

There are stylistic matters within the program’s presentation that will appeal to some and not to others: I’m fond of the conceit of overlaying basic information on top of some of the footage but then I’m the kind of pervert who likes footnotes. The basic experiments conducted may draw contempt from people like my boyfriend, who scoffed “oh yeah, we did this in school”, but as one of no doubt many people whose school felt it wasn’t necessary to do any practical science or indeed to teach anything in lessons whatsoever a lot of the time, I didn’t, and I find practical demonstrations delightful and informative and above all accessible.

Brian Cox and a coconut/robber crab

One of the features of this series – which brings us back to the opening of this post – that has endeared it to me besides Brian’s infectious enthusiasm and pleasant voice is the angle of approach on biology. It is fascinating to hear and see the processes of nature and various ecosystems as well as individual parts of different animals factored into the wider universal laws and given a place within explanations which encompass stellar furnaces and molecular structure: it conveys a sense of joined-up learning which is absent from a very discipline/subject-oriented education, where each lesson is an island.

As soon as you start learning across different disciplines it becomes evident in a way it never was before that everything is in some way relevant to something else: the process of galaxy collisions millions of years ago and millions of light-years away helps to pinpoint the precise point in history in which a terrible plague was presaged by the coming of a new star in the heavens; evolution driven by chemistry and the test of the environment on gene expression helps to explain human behaviour and the propensity for war-making; understanding the chemical nature of love in the brain may one day lead to debates over whether it is ethical to induce empathy in psychopaths and a wave  of alternate history fiction about famous tyrants infected with great affection instead, for Literature students to analyse and reframe.

Everything we know and everything we invent, everything we imagine and predict, every lie we tell and every deity we envision has its roots in the real and observable universe, which quite frequently turns out to be weirder than we could have guessed. To shut yourself off from the incredible source of inspiration and excitement that is the inkling of an understanding of this vast and infinitely complex universe (both the one we are part of and the one that is part of us) is to do yourself an injury and limit your abilities for no reward.

January Links Post

Things I’ve done

Things my friends have done

Things strangers have done

  • Posted a marvellous Victorian experiment in cross-dressing, where for scientific reasons gentlemen discovered that corsets are a right bastard to bend in. As someone who spent New Year’s Eve having to rely on their friend for all shoe-tying and bag-raising needs I can wholeheartedly concur, although despite the belief of the male participant in this experiment, it is possible to both eat and drink in one. Kind of.
  • Wrote a very accessible post about temperature and negative temperatures, using Warren Buffett, Scrooge McDuck, and the Dalai Lama as examples in an analogy. I’m not the brightest when it comes to understanding physics (it wasn’t really taught in my school) but this makes rational sense to me so I’d say it’s a pretty good piece of science journalism.
  • Worked out how Vestal Virgins must have done their hair. In case you felt the need to recreate it.