War Fever by J.G. Ballard (1990)

This is Ballard’s last collection of short stories, some very short indeed.

  1. War Fever
  2. The Secret History of World War 3
  3. Dream Cargoes
  4. The Object of the Attack
  5. Love in a Colder Climate
  6. The Largest Theme Park in the World
  7. Answers to a Questionnaire
  8. The Air Disaster
  9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station
  10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  11. The Enormous Space
  12. Memories of the Space Age
  13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown
  14. The Index

************

1. War Fever (1989)

Through the eyes of young Ryan we learn about the endless war in Beirut between small numbers of warriors divided into four factions, the Nationalists, Christians, Fundamentalists and Royalists. Ryan lives with his Aunt Vera and sister in a tiny apartment in a ruined tower block overlooking the wartorn city.

He is helped out by the kindly Dr Edwards, a United Nations medical observer (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor). The story describes Ryan’s slow, faltering steps to bring about an end to the unending conflict, by asking everyone to adopt the blue hats of the UN peacekeepers, who man the main checkpoints but are forbidden from stepping in to stop the fighting for fear that outside powers will intervene.

Ryan’s scheme works surprisingly well and soon peace has broken out among a number of the factions. Ryan is just nervously approaching the formidable woman fighter Lieutenant Valentina when a series of colossal explosion occur across the ruined city. Ryan hares back to his apartment and discovers that Aunt Vera and his sister have been kidnapped!

Dr Edwards watches his face closely as he asks Ryan whether he’s going to rush back to his militia and resume the fighting. However, Ryan decides he is going to renew his determination to being about a truce. At which point Dr Edwards ties Ryan’s wrists together, pushes him into a jeep and drives him through umpteen checkpoints and right out of the ruined, smoke-filled city altogether.

Here, in a well-organised, clean depot and admin area packed with new guns and munitions, Dr Edwards explains to Ryan that Beirut is a huge scientific experiment. The whole of the rest of the world lives in complete peace: but they pay to support endless fighting in Beirut, supplying gun and ammo and orphans resulting from tragic accidents. Thus new generations of fighters are continually refreshing the depleted ranks of the four factions.

Why? In the same way that a handful of labs around the world keep supplies of smallpox which is otherwise eradicated: to study the war virus, to study what makes people fight, why they are motivated, how they organise and how far they will go.

It’s a version of The Truman Show with rocket grenades. Except that the exploding and the fighting gets perilously close. Dr Edwards rallies with the other UN behind the scenes staff and head back into the war zone. They drive to the wrecked sports stadium where Aunt Vera and his sister had been taken and should have been looked after. But Royalists managed to fight through the UN defences and kill everyone, the UN defenders, Aunt Vera and Ryan’s sister.

And it is then from the deep well of bitterness and anger at how and all of them have been played, that Ryan conceives his next Big Plan. He will unite the warring factions of Beirut. They will fight and overcome the UN forces. And then they will unleash the dormant virus of war and violence on an unsuspecting world!

2. The Secret History of World War 3 (1988)

A slight misnomer because this short squib is mostly a satire on American politics and the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The narrator is a physician (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) based in Washington DC, and this short story depicts a fictional future in which Reagan is replaced as president in 1989, but his successor is so lamentable that the American Constitution is amended so Ronnie can stand for president a third time and is, indeed, elected, at the ripe old age of 82. He’s so old that the media take to publishing regular updates on his health, the TV news starts having a President’s Health segment, and one day an ECG-type readout appears along the bottom of the screen. It’s Ronnie’s heartbeat. Soon half the TV screen is full of a panoply of readouts recording all aspects of the President’s health, and Ballard satirises the breathless commentary of TV hosts – the stereotypical craggy old guy and the glamourpuss blonde – and the way everyone in the country, including the narrator’s own wife, become more and more addicted to the second-by-second commentary which covers every burp and fart and bowel motion.

It is in the middle of this satirical vision of a celebrity president-addicted population, that mounting tensions between the superpowers (which have, satirically, only gotten the briefest of mentions on the news in between the analysis of what the President had for lunch) erupts into a sudden exchange of nuclear weapons which takes place on 27 January 1997 between 6.47 and 6.51pm. The Russians launch a handful of nukes which explode in Alaska, the Yanks launch a handful of nukes which explode in Siberia, then both sides come to their senses, end the war, and de-escalate the various tensions around the globe.

So the story isn’t really about World War Three in any way you might expect: it is a satire on the mediatisation of American politics, and the hopeless addiction to screens and an endless diet of celebrity news, bulletins and updates among the American public.

Thoughts

This story was published in 1988. Modern commentators think there is something new and unprecedented about twitter and so on, and of course smart phones and social media are new, in one sense: and yet here’s Ballard satirising a zombie president and the American public’s addiction to screens over thirty years ago. That’s why Trump and twitter just don’t seem that new to some of us: or are just the latest iteration of a very long-running issue.

3. Dream Cargoes (1990)

Johnson is thirty years old but comes across in this story as very simple minded. He’s the dogsbody on a decrepit cargo steamer named the Prospero. In the Far East its alcoholic captain, Galloway, lets himself be bribed into taking on board an extremely hazardous cargo of toxic chemicals and the steamer then chugs round South America and up the coast towards the Caribbean. But here a series of port authorities and customs officials forbid the Prospero from docking with a cargo which has slowly started leaking and discharging toxic fumes all over the ship as well as corroding its cargo hold and then the hull.

As the ship starts to list to one side and becomes wreathed in toxic fumes, Captain Galloway and the handful of crew decide to abandon the ship but Johnson stays on, deluded by dreams of being a ‘captain’. A day or so later he spots a small island somewhere off Puerto Rico and beaches the ship there.

Over the ensuing days the toxic waste spills everywhere and has a drastic effect on the local vegetation, which starts growing at a breakneck speed, while Johnson himself descends into the kind of malnourished-sick-fever-dream which is so familiar in Ballard’s fiction.

As new types of tropical plant burgeon all around him, Johnson realises the island is visited by a biologist, Dr Chambers (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). She becomes involved in his dreams of becoming one with the island, of becoming one of the hyper-evolved giant birds and flying towards the sun (as in so many other Ballard stories) and (as in so many other Ballard stories) the way time is slowing down for him, as he goes into more and more trance or fugue states, so that his perceptions superimpose multiple images of the same object, creating a fragmented or crystal effect.

He stared at Christine, aware that the colours were separating themselves from her skin and hair. Superimposed images of herself, each divided from the others by a fraction of a second, blurred the air around her, an exotic plumage that sprang from her arms and shoulders. The staid reality that had trapped them all was beginning to dissolve. Time had stopped and Christine was ready to rise into the air…. He would teach Christine and the child to fly.

On the final page an American ship arrives and the US Navy lieutenant who comes ashore finds them both in quite a state – finds also that the giant flora seems to have overgrown itself and is now dying off. As he helps them leave the island Johnson reflects that he has gotten Dr Chambers pregnant and that their child might well be the first of a new species of human, and how they would fight to protect it from ‘those who feared it might replace them.’

4. The Object of the Attack (1984)

Cast in the format of diary entries by Dr Richard Greville (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor), Chief Psychiatric Adviser to the Home Office.

His diary entries concern a young psychotic who built and flew a glider over Windsor Castle during a state visit by President Ronald Reagan. But he got tangled up in some aerials, fell to earth and the police found he had loads of gelignite strapped to his body, wired to a detonator. Thinking he planned to assassinate the president and his entourage, the Boy, as everyone refers to him, is locked up in a series of mental institutes, where Dr Griffiths visits him.

Griffiths gives us a profile of this boy, Matthew Young, a devoted psychopath, who’s suffered from epilepsy all his life. He’s been through a whole raft of careers including trainee pilot and video game designer. What is common to them all is a pathological obsession with space flight, with the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle.

This becomes entangled with the concept of an Ames Room. An Ames room is a space in which furniture and other elements have been carefully arranged so that, from one chosen perspective, likely a peephole, it creates a completely convincing optical illusion. The concept was invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1946.

Anyway, Young escapes from a mental institute in Daventry by insisting on going to the chapel and being left alone. being a psychotic genius, he creates an Ames Room optical illusion by arranging all the furniture in the room to look as if he’s kneeling at the altar praying, when in fact he had arranged the pews in a ladder up to the ceiling and was crouched forward undoing the screws of the ventilator.

So Young escapes and disappears, going underground. Here the content of this short story gets quite clotted. Because Griffiths has figured out, from meeting the Boy himself and reading his journals, that it was never Ronald Reagan he wanted to assassinate, it’s a figure called Colonel Stamford, one of the last Apollo astronauts, who went on to have a successful career in business, and has now turned into a major campaigner against the evils of Communism. That’s why he was accompanying Reagan on the state visit.

And now Colonel Stamford is due to return to the UK, to address big Billy Graham-style public meetings, hailed by Newsweek as ‘a space-age messiah’, the ‘founder of the first space-based religion’. So the story contains quite a lot of speculating about how the space programme has morphed into a popular religion!

Griffiths turns investigator and decides to revisit the locked-up garage in Highbury where Young had been living when he was arrested. There’s a policeman on guard who lets him through and Griffiths pokes through Young’s belongings, finding more evidence of the deranged young man’s obsession with space flight.

Then he remembers that behind the lockup is a disused Baptist chapel and goes through into this. Here he discovers a bizarre scene, for Young is not only here (just yards from the protecting policeman – how did he get past?) but has been hard at work creating another Ames room, using props and posters from Star Wars and Dr Who to create a bizarre illusionistic installation of an astronaut on the moon.

Except that it looks like the Boy had an epileptic fit while at the top of the ladder and has fallen to the ground, bruising his face, cracking some teeth. Around him are the disassembled parts of a stockless rifle which he had been oiling when the attack kicked in.

And here’s the thing: Griffiths leaves him be. He frees Young’s tongue and windpipe, then tiptoes out and strolls nonchalantly past the police guard. Cut to a few weeks later as Stamford arrives in the UK, addressing both Houses of Parliament calling for a crusade against the evil empire of the non-Christian world, for the creation of orbital nuclear bomb platforms, for the launching of laser weapons which can be targeted on Tehran, Moscow and Peking. the story ends with Griffiths quietly confident that Young will have recovered from his grand mal seizure, completed his preparations and will be attending that evening’s grand assembly at Earl’s Court where Colonel Stamford will be addressing a cheering audience and will, God willing, be shot down by his psychotic assassin.

Thoughts

As so often in a Ballard story, not just the subject but the construction, the shape of the narrative itself, seems slightly askew, off-kilter. What starts out as a fairly limited study of one epileptic psychopath morphs before our eyes into an increasingly garish fantasia about an ex-NASA astronaut who’s founded a New Age religion and is frothing at the mouth about destroying Communism and Islam. It’s quite an extreme trajectory in just ten or so pages and, as with so many Ballard stories, I couldn’t figure out whether it was brilliant or – as I was more inclined to think – ludicrous.

When he writes narratives about individuals – like the protagonists of Crash, Concrete Island or High Rise – Ballard well conveys a delirious sense of psychological dislocation or alienation, and attaches it very effectively indeed to the imagery of late-twentieth century life, mainly the brutalist architecture of concrete motorways, flyovers, multi-story car parks, airports and vertiginous high-rise blocks.

But as soon as he starts making generalisations about society at large, and going on about NATO and NASA and the Third World War and Ronald Reagan and the Queen… something ineluctably cartoonish enters the stories; they become silly and superficial.

5. Love in a Colder Climate (1988)

A sort of sci-fi spoof or satire.

It is 2010 and the spread of AIDS and related viruses has put everyone off sex or physical contact of any kind. Younger people have become celibate with the result that the population plummets. By the date of the story, 2010, the government introduces national service although, as Ballard would put it, of a very particular kind.

It is national procreation service. When they turn 21 young people are assigned partners by computer and have to report to the other person’s apartment – ideally dressed in one of the procreation-encouraging outfits – an Elvis Presley ‘Prince Valiant’ suit for men, a bunny girl, cheerleader or Miss America outfit for women – and are compelled to copulate. Satire. (Note how all these outfits are American. Born in 1930, America, American cars and movies and cigarettes and technology, represented The Future for Ballard from his boyhood on, as both volumes of his fictional autobiography – Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women – powerfully convey.)

Ballard lays on the satire with a trowel with the suggestion that each young person is monitored by a personal supervisor who is a priest – the religious thought to have the mentoring skills and moral subtlety required – while young women are mentored as to how to have sex, lots of sex, by nuns. Satire. Anyone who refuses to have sex goes through stages of rehabilitation, which starts with being forced to watch porn videos and progresses to chemotherapy.

Anyway, the protagonist, David Bradley, is himself super-reluctant and when he is sent round to the flat of a young woman, Lucille McCabe, discovers she doesn’t want to either. They fall in love on the spot, and during the following months Bradley makes elaborate precautions to become her protector, swapping shifts, hacking computers to remove appointments with other men, even faking her pregnancy with the help of a friendly lab technician.

All to no avail. Their ruse is discovered when another lover is sent round by the computer and Bradley can’t stand watching Lucille being bundled towards the bedroom, they fight, Bradley is arrested and brought before a tribunal.

Here he is convicted of believing ‘the Romantic fallacy’ and of having ‘an exalted and idealised view of women’ and sentenced to three years additional national service. The only way out of it is to refuse and force the authorities to implement the ultimate sanction, and castrate him. This he happily submits to if it means he can be with the woman he loves.

Thoughts

As a child of the 60s, well a widower who lived through the 60s and took full advantage of the Sexual Revolution, Ballard is clearly satirising the rightward and puritanical shift caused by Mrs Thatcher and AIDS. Is it a good story, or heavy-handed satire? It’s certainly not weird hard-core Ballard and can be categorised along with his other relatively ‘straight’ satirical stories.

6. The Largest Theme Park in the World (1989)

Another satire.

Set in the near future when Europe’s last remaining countries give in and join a United Federation of Europe. In that summer (of 1995) millions and millions of students, middle managers and workers go for their annual holidays on the 3,000-mile-long strip of beach which is the Mediterranean shore from the Costa Brava to Glyfada.

But this time they refuse to come back. They become full-time sun worshippers, they take to beach exercises and martial arts. They become trim and lean and fit. When the police of the Mediterranean nations come to turf them off the beach, there are pitched battles and the sun-worshippers win. The heady summer of 1996 rolls into the spring of 1997 and there is now an army of 30 million strong living on camps along this huge narrow territory, in effect a new nation.

So far, so like a vision of the social collapse envisioned in High Rise but applied to beach culture. Beaches have always fascinated Ballard. The Terminal Beach is one of his most famous stories, but the story in which the world’s population suddenly has some profound primal urge in our primitive minds activated by waves from outer space, and walks, as one man, into the sea, is the most haunting variation on the theme.

This story is much shallower story than that one and its satirical climax – which feels pretty forced – is that the armies of the beaches eventually arms up and marches back north into the so-called United Europe, determined to restore a Europe of nations, each jealous of its borders and customs and traditions.

So it turns into an oddly wonky satire on the EU.

7. Answers to a Questionnaire (1985)

A short and interesting format, this text consists of 100 answers to a questionnaire – in fact more like some kind of police interview – where we don’t see the questions, just the answers in a numbered list.

It’s surprising how much you can pack into a brief format like this. Without any of the questions, and just via the clipped answers, quite a complicated narrative emerges – in fragments and cryptic references – in which the narrator appears to have befriended a Middle-Eastern-looking down-and-out with severe injuries to his hands, who is obsessed with DNA and ice-skating, who is a whizz at hacking into cash machines and extracting large sums, which they seem to have spent on organising group sex sessions.

They spend some of the money setting up radio antennae on top of the Post Office Tower pointing towards the constellation Orion and the narrator appears to have heard the figure’s voice as transmitted from the star Betelgeuse some 2,000 years ago, and appears to know the secret of Eternal Life.

This leads to the figure becoming super-famous, selling out Wembley Stadium and attracting visits from all sorts of luminaries such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, with his claim to know the secret of Eternal Life by injecting new DNA into the human germplasm, extending life up to a million years!

The pound rises on exchange markets, a serum is created and millions of people queue up to be injected, in fact the injections became compulsory for everyone over the age of 11. The side effects were impotence and loss of libido, but this hardly mattered if everyone was going to live forever.

But the very intensive bond between the Christ figure and the ‘accused’, the man answering the questions, seems to have turned sour. The accused seems to have bought a handgun and shot him, from seven feet, with three shots.

It ends with a boom-boom punchline. Literally reading between the lines of the fragmented answers, it seems as if the injections which promised eternal life have not worked, that the ‘accused’, because he was in prison during the time of the mass vaccinations wasn’t given one – and so he is the only man in the UK, possibly the world, who still has functioning sex organs and so ‘the restoration of the birthrate is now his sole responsibility.’

A smart story and a snazzy format. My favourite answer was to question 71, where the accused reveals that the mystery figure ‘wanted me to become the warhead of a cruise missile’. Very Ballard.

8. The Air Disaster (1974)

One of the new 1,000-passenger jet airliners is reported as having crashed somewhere just off the coast of Mexico near Acapulco. The narrator is a not very successful journalist who’s covering a fashionable film festival. His editor, like everyone else’s editors, sends him off to cover the disaster, but there’s a chance encounter in the petrol station where he fills up with gas. Two other journalists are talking to the pump attendant and through the language barrier he appears to be telling them the plane didn’t crash out at sea at all but up in the nearby mountains. The other two hacks don’t believe him and head off for the coast, but the narrator is suddenly seized by an intuition that he’s right. It would only have taken a fractional difference of height and speed for it to have hit the mountains.

So he fills up with gas and heads in the opposite direction up into the hills. He passes through a series of peasant villages, each one more impoverished that the last, until the final one where he enters Ballard-land and becomes genuinely scared for his safety as he watches the dirt-poor illiterate peasants eyeing him, his car, his cameras and everything else about him which they could steal. Trying to impress the narrator addresses several of these toothless old men, waving a wad of cash about and asking if there’s been a crash BOOM in the mountains, and are there bodies, corpses, cadavers?

The primitive old men nod and smile and point up to the last peak, so the narrator clambers up to the final small canyon between the snowy mountain peaks and discovers… the thirty-year-old wreckage of some military jet which crashed up here a generation earlier and is thoroughly derelict and rusted, ‘a tattered deity over this barren mountain’.

The wrecked airplane is, of course, a central symbol in Ballard’s weird imaginarium, recalling the Cessna Sheppard crash lands Myths of the Near Future, the excavated Second World War planes in My Dream of Flying to Wake Island, the abandoned Japanese fighters Jim sits in in Empire of the Sun, or the still-going but decaying planes in Memories of the Space Age…

Anyway, we can imagine his disappointment and chagrin at having gone on this long wild goose chase. But the kicker is in the last page. As he returns down the hillside he goes through the last village he passed, the one where he had brandished wads of money and asked for cadavers. Only to realise that the villagers have dug up their dead relatives and lined their earth-covered, half-rotted corpses along the wall by the road, in the hope that they will pay them. Gruesome. Macabre.

9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station (1982)

A nice little brain teaser told in nine short snippets described as ‘surveys’.

A spaceship arrives at what its crew initially take to be a small space station, happy to find it as their ship needs repairs. They enter the station to find it contains concourses full of tables and chairs like a giant waiting space at an airport terminal. They walk along one of these concourses and slowly realise it goes on for some distance, giving out left and right onto further mezzanines and waiting spaces with tables and chairs. When they force open the doors of one of the lifts they can’t see a top or bottom to the shaft. They drop furniture down one of the lift shafts and hear no sound: there doesn’t appear to be a bottom.

Each of the reports updates us as they discover the larger and larger extent of the station. Then they notice the floor and ceiling has a slight curvature, lifting their hopes and making them think it might be circular and they might eventually circle round on themselves. But even this is an illusion. The station appears to curve very slowly, indefinitely, in all directions, as if it is expanding.

By the point of the final ‘survey’ the author has come to the conclusion that the space station is as big as the universe; in fact it might be bigger. The distance they travelled in their spaceship from the solar system might easily be incorporated within the confines of the space station. By the end of the text the author has gone reliably mad.

Our instruments confirm what we have long suspected, that the empty space across which we traveled from our own solar system in fact lies within the interior of the station, one of many vast lacunae set in its endlessly curving walls. Our solar system and its planets, the millions of other solar systems that constitute our galaxy, and the island universes themselves all lie within the boundaries of the station. The station is coeval with the cosmos, and constitutes the cosmos. Our duty is to travel across it on a journey whose departure point we have already begun to forget, and whose destination is the station itself, every floor and concourse within it. So we move on, sustained by our faith in the station, aware that every step we take thereby allows us to reach a small part of that destination. By its existence the station sustains us, and gives our lives their only meaning. We are so glad that in return we have begun to worship the station.

10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon (1985)

An eerie story. Part of what’s eerie is how totally Ballard thought the Space Age was over and done by the 1980s. There were six crewed U.S. Apollo landings on the moon between 1969 and 1972, and then that was it. I’m inclined to agree.

This story is set in Brazil. It’s a first person narrative. The narrator is a failed journalist, kicked off a succession of ever-smaller papers and forced into giving foreign language tuition. His wife and his mother, who lives with them, despise him, and virtually kick him out the house each morning to go and get a proper job.

Hanging round the cafes he get to learn about a sad, wasted figure, a certain Mr Scranton, who is introduced to tourists as ‘the astronaut’. He isn’t an astronaut and the waiters laugh at him, the American tourists have their photos taken by him in a jokey kind of way. Our narrator does some background research into him and discovers Scranton was a crop-dusting pilot in Miami during the moon landing era, but was never anywhere near NASA.

The story recounts the way our narrator is slowly slowly drawn into this impoverished, thin, wasted man’s weird delusory world. He jokily introduces himself and says he’s writing a piece about sci-fi movies and would like ‘the astronaut’s’ opinion. But slowly, over their next few encounters, he becomes haunted by Scranton’s faraway stare, his gaze through the people and buildings of this world, his other-planetary loneliness.

The narrator asks whether Scranton has proof of his experiences on the moon and Scranton nods slowly. He needs to be helped back to his squalid flat above a fleapit cinema, the Luxor. Here he shows the narrator his ‘photographs’, his ‘evidence’. It consists of pictures torn out of Life and Newsweek magazine (note, American magazines). He’s mad, delusional, and yet…

He has known the loneliness of utter separation from all other people. He has gazed at the empty perspectives of the planets. He sees through pedestrians and traffic as if they were fleeting tricks of the sun.

Sick and ill, Scranton, like so many Ballard figures, wastes away and dies. And hands on his mantle. The narrator takes his place at the seedy café. Without any effort he finds himself slowly erasing the memories of his family life, his wife and mother and failed carer in journalism slowly disappear, to be slowly replaced by an alternative past, one in which he trained hard as an astronaut, in which he remembers the coastline of Florida falling away beneath the giant rocket. A past in which he genuinely did walk on the moon.

11. The Enormous Space (1989)

The first-person narrator is a merchant banker named Geoffrey Ballantyne. His wife has divorced him and run off with her lover, he was recently in a car crash and is still recuperating. (This reminds us of another middle-class narrator who goes mental after recuperating from a car crash, Faulkner in The Overloaded Man).

The story begins as he takes the decision not to go out of his front door. Ever again. To use up all the resources within the house and then live on space and time. In the event, after reducing himself to the familiar Ballardian condition of hallucinating malnutrition, he takes to luring the neighbours’ dogs and cats into his garden, killing and cooking them. He becomes more and more detached from reality and the house appears to grow larger and larger, soon having as many rooms as the Palace of Versailles.

I have embarked on a long internal migration, following a route partly prescribed within my head and partly within this house, which is a far more complex structure than I had realised.

His wife, Margaret, pops in a couple of times, each time noticing the progressive degradation of both the house and the narrator, but each time he manages to bundle her out. His description of the house becoming steadily larger, until he can’t make it up the stairs any more, until he can’t eventually make it out of the kitchen and remains slumped against the powerless fridge, watching the horizons expand to infinity. Until his former secretary, Brenda, pops round worried about him. By this time we have accompanied Ballantyne so far on his trip into psychosis that it’s her who seems the odd one out, and we are utterly convinced of his psychotic point of view as he describes her stepping over him slumped in his kitchen.

She is walking towards me, but so slowly that the immense room seems to carry her away from me in its expanding dimensions. She approaches and recedes from me at the same time, and I am concerned that she will lose herself in the almost planetary vastness of this house. Catching her as she swerves past me, I protect her from the outward rush of time and space.

See, no exotic words or contrived sentences or purple prose. Fairly flat, functional prose which manages to convey a state of complete derangement.

Ballantyne kills her, chops up her body, eats some and puts her head in the freezer, reminding us of the genuinely horrific climax of High Rise. Christ, this is a terrifyingly delirious text.

12. Memories of the Space Age (1982)

To an extraordinary extent this is a rewrite of previous stories such as News From The Sun or an alternate version of the contemporaneous story Myths of the Near Future, from the premise of the story through to the narrative structure right down to the use of the name Anne for key figures in both stories.

Here again we meet a former NASA physician, Dr Edward Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who has travelled to the abandoned zone of Cape Kennedy from Canada where he specialised in treated Downs Syndrome and autistic children. He has come with his wife, Anne. They are both afflicted with the ‘space sickness’ which has been slowly spreading out from the old NASA launching centre. The space sickness is a disease of time; the victim experiences fugues or largos when their time completely stops and they’re stuck stationary.

So for the usual obscure reasons, Mallory has come to live amid the abandoned hotels and shopping precincts of the beach resorts opposite the old launch site, squatting in a derelict room on the firth floor of an abandoned hotel, and foraging for food in the dusty abandoned supermarkets.

And of course, as usual, there is an Antagonist – Hinton, a former astronaut and in fact, the first astronaut to commit a murder in space, when he locked his co-pilot Alan Shepley into the docking module and evacuated its air, live, in front of a global viewing audience of one billion viewers.

On landing, Hinton was sent to prison, to Alcatraz to be precise. Some twenty years later, as the space sickness slowly spread across America, Hinton escaped from Alcatraz using a home-made glider. Now Mallory discovers he is restoring and flying the vintage planes from a nearby airplane museum, very much as Olds restores defunct cars in The Ultimate City.

The same obsession with man-powered gliders, in this case a pedal-powered microlight with a huge wingspan is being flown by a woman, Gale (short for Nightingale) Shepley, who swoops over him one day on one of his forays from the hotel room while his wife sleeps.

She lands and introduces herself, a young blonde who is the daughter of the murdered astronaut, Shepley. She has come to the ruined zone because she is expecting her father’s space capsule to finally re-enter orbit and crash down here – just like all those other Ballard women who wait for their dead husbands or fathers to re-enter the atmosphere and crash land beside the ruined gantries e.g. Judith waiting for her dead lover’s capsule to crash back to earth in The Dead Astronaut.

Mallory has even brought a collection of ‘terminal documents’ like so many of these characters cart around, in his case:

  • a tape machine on which to record his steady decline
  • nude Polaroid photos of a woman doctor he had an affair with in Vancouver
  • his student copy of Gray’s Anatomy
  • a selection of Muybridge’s stop-frame photos
  • a psychoanalytic study of Simon Magus

Ballard’s gives a fuller, more explicit explanation of what exactly the space sickness is. It is the result of a crime against evolution. Human evolution has created a psychological aptitude to see Time as a stream with a past, present and future, a defence or coping mechanism which situates us within a dynamic timeframe.

The manned space flights cracked this continuum and now time is leaking away. Our perception of time is returning to its primeval one, an experience of all time in one continuous present, when Time – in the conventional sense – stops.

Mallory has a couple of encounters with Hinton who explains that the birds know about Time, they have never lost the primeval, reptile sense of Time. Which is why he’s trying to teach himself to fly by learning to fly each of the planes in the aviation museum in reverse chronological order, acclimatising his body to flight until, eventually, he can fly without machinery, and without wings.

In this context, Hinton’s ‘murder’ of Shepley was Hinton’s way of ‘freeing’ him from the tyranny of Time (exactly as the lunatic Sheppard in Myths of the Near Future appears to ‘free’ the birds by crushing them to death).

His wife is entering the end stage. Her fugues last nearly all day. In her few waking moments she begs to be taken up to the roof. She wants to see Hinton. She feels close to him because he is close to the secret. Eventually Hinton successfully kidnaps his wife. Mallory sees smoke coming from the old Space Shuttle gantry and takes a motorbike to ride there. He wakes up lying athwart it with his leg burning against the red hot engine. He had a fugue.

Gale arrives in her micro-glider to rescue Mallory and they travel on to the Space Shuttle gantry. Hinton has set fire to all the airplanes gathered at the bottom, and, as Mallory watches, Hinton and Mallory’s wife step off the platform and into thin air over the flames.

Maybe all shamans and primitive rituals, maybe all religions have been an attempt to escape from the prisonhouse of Time. Maybe the space sickness sheds light on why the Christian image of an afterlife isn’t an action-packed adventure holiday, but an eternal moment, an eternity of worship, stuck in stasis.

Gale keeps a menagerie by the swimming pool of the motel she’s camped in. Cheetahs, exotic birds and a tiger. As Mallory’s time winds down he hallucinates the tiger as a wall of flame. Gale is looking after him but, as always, there is a vast distance between Ballard characters and she is growing bored of him. She is only interested in the pending arrival of her father’s corpse as his space capsule finally re-enters earth’s orbit and comes streaming over their heads towards the space centre. One day soon Mallory will open the tiger’s cage and enter his wall of flame.

13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (1967)

This is a really interesting experiment which I think totally works. It is based on one sentence of eighteen words:

A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles ‘Notes towards a Mental Breakdown’, recalling his wife’s murder, his trial and exoneration

and then each one of these words has a numbered note next to it.

A1 discharged2 Broadmoor3 patient4 compiles‘Notes6 towards7 aMental9 Breakdown10, recalling11 his12 wife’s13 murder14, his15 trial16 and17 exoneration18

And each of the numbers refers to a numbered footnote. So the story is in eighteen short sections, each one of which unpacks, analyses, dissects the precise meaning of its word, in the context of psychiatric and criminal case.

Thus you get to discover the narrative, the plot, the series of events, but in a beguilingly chopped-up, fragmented manner. I found it extremely enjoyable. It concerns the psychopath Dr Robert Loughlin (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) who has murdered his wife.

Obsessed with man-powered flight, Loughlin drove round the Suffolk countryside with his lover Leonora Carrington (this name is a straight copy of the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, and the story references what appears to be one of Ballard’s favourite works of art, Garden Airplane Traps by Carrington’s lover Max Ernst; maybe at the time Ballard wrote the story she was so unknown he thought only a handful of cognoscenti would get the reference). Anyway he drives her round the Suffolk countryside from one abandoned USAF airbase to another, mesmerised by dreams of World War Three (exactly as Ballard describes his younger self doing in The Kindness of Women). As his psychosis intensifies, Loughlin rearranges furniture in his hotel rooms to create a notional flying machine and, only a few weeks before the muirder, makes a mad attempt to hire runway 2 at Heathrow.

His wife Judith was dying of pancreatic cancer and, tired of Loughlin’s erratic behaviour and alcoholism, absconded with her lover, Dr Douglas (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) to Gatwick airport. Loughlin tracked them down and somehow boarded a jet airliner which he ransacked for her, leading to a fight with a security guard who he shot. Then he made his way to Judith’s hotel room, broke into it, found the lovers out, ripped out the suitcase and proceeded to have a bath fully dressed and fuddled by alcohol and amphetamines.

When Judith returned she found the hotel room trashed and her psychotic husband passed out in the bath so she (presumably) decided to put him out of his misery and pushed his head under the water. But this revived him and psychotics are strong.

Louhglin murdered his wife, then dressed her in a flying suit with helmet and goggles, positioned her in front of him on the bed, as if they were in a plane and he was giving her flying lessons, and arranged all the furniture in the room to create the outline of a plane. Then he set the room on fire. (Just writing this out is making me feel like I’m losing touch with reality.)

14. The Index (1977)

This is a clever and, that rare thing for Ballard, very funny little text. It is what it says it is, the imaginary index to the imaginary biography of an imaginary figure, one Henry Rhodes Hamilton (presumably so named because his initials satirically spell HRH – His Royal Highness), supposedly a ‘physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion.

The first page – the only page of ordinary text – briefly explains who he was and, more teasingly, wonders aloud who compiled the index? Has the indexer included himself in the index? Did HRH ever in fact exist? Has the text of the biography, which the index is for, been suppressed because it revealed too many secrets? Or was it never written in the first place? Maybe the entire thing is the figment of some deranged lexicographer? Is the whole thing a hoax?

Reading this one page with its paragraph of teasing questions makes you realise that texts like this were purpose-written to go straight into academic English courses about metafiction and post-modernism and the Lacanian mirror phase and self-deconstructing texts, straight into the matrix of academic jargon without ever having to be read by non-academic readers.

Anyway the index itself is very funny, in  Zelig-type way HRH has known anyone who was anyone in the twentieth century and been present at pivotal moments. Karen Blixen proposes to him, Ernest Hemingway dedicates The Old Man and the Sea to him, T.S. Eliot dedicates Four Quartets to him, meets Gandhi, Freud et al, he is with Churchill at Yalta and suggests the famous Iron Curtain speech, he goes ashore on Juno Beach on D-Day (and wins a model), meets the Dalai Lama and Mao Tse-Tung…

And so it goes on, mingling HRH’s preposterous presence at key events and name-dropping key figures with the satirical narrative in which he founds a new religion and tries to set up an anti-papacy at Avignon. When Ballard addresses actual historical events and particularly when he starts making up religions etc, he quickly descends into childish cartoon mode (as described in the story about the American founder of a new religion in The Object of The Attack, but in this novel format it’s all very entertaining.

I laughed out loud when I read the index entry about Hitler:

Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgarten, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181.

Yes, as he rather did the entire German people. Hitler, Adolf, impresses German people 1939, disappoints German people 1945.

The last entry appears to refer to the indexer himself, and suggests his mysterious disappearance:

Zielinski, Bronislaw, suggests autobiography to HRH, 742; commissioned to prepare index, 748; warns of suppression threats, 752; disappears, 761

Thus, right at the end of the text, the indexer indexes himself out of existence. It was this which prompted the speculation in the one-page introduction that the whole thing might just be the products of ‘the over-wrought imagination of some deranged lexicographer’. Quite.

This may be the only really funny story in Ballard’s entire oeuvre, and it was a brainwave to close this final selection with it, helping to cleanse the reader’s mind, or at least control, many of the deeply disturbed, psychotic images which preceded it.

Thoughts

A little exhausted by Ballard-land and Ballardism, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to read this, his final collection of short stories, but I’m really glad I did. It contains good examples of several key types:

  • satire on contemporary society – The Secret History of World War 3, Love in a Colder Climate, The Largest Theme Park in the World
  • classic psychodrama about astronauts – The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  • portraits of psychotics – The Object of the Attack, Memories of the Space Age
  • descriptions of complete mental collapse – The Enormous Space
  • tales of the macabre – The Air Disaster
  • mind-bending science fiction – Report on an Unidentified Space Station

As stories go, the ones in this collection seemed to me as powerfully imagined as almost anything in his earlier career.

But what has obviously gone, long gone, is the extraordinary verbal lushness and purple prose of the earlier works. Somehow the almost Oscar Wilde, fin-de-siecle level of prose pyrotechnics which characterises the early novels and stories got thoroughly washed out of the system by the ‘urban disaster’ novels of the early and mid-70s and from that point onwards his prose becomes a lot more straightforward and serviceable. Instead of lush and exotic sentences, he comes increasingly to rely on the repetition of a handful of key words – overlit, to the sun, calm, over-excited, deranged, time and space.

In later Ballard, repetition takes the place of elaboration.

And arguably the distinctive thing about the collection is the three short stories with experimental formats – Answers to a Questionnaire, Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, and The Index, each one a clever, one-off idea which I think Ballard executes really well. They’re very short but very effective and, in some ways, the most successful pieces in the collection.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Richard Dawkins and Christianity

Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

Dawkins obviously has a psychological problem with Christian believers. He won’t stop or let up in his attacks on the ‘foolish’, ‘misguided’ Christians and creationists who persist in their religious faith – despite the theory of evolution having provided a comprehensive answer to how life on earth originated but, above all, on why it has proliferated, become so diverse, and is so intricately interlinked, giving such an appearance of wonderful ‘design’ that the badly-educated or wilfully ignorant persist in claiming there must be an Omnipotent designer of it all.

‘Wrong wrong wrong!’ as Dawkins puts it with typical subtlety puts it in River Out of Eden.

Dawkins has devoted most of his adult life to writing a series of books which effectively repeat the same arguments against this kind of Christian obscurantism over and over again:

  • The Blind Watchmaker
  • River Out of Eden
  • Climbing Mount Improbable
  • Unweaving the Rainbow
  • A Devil’s Chaplain
  • The God Delusion
  • The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
  • The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True
  • Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

All of which lead up to his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, published just last year as he entered his 78th year.

What motivates Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

What drives this unyielding commitment to attack, criticise, undermine and ridicule Christians and creationists at every available opportunity?

Well, consider this excerpt from Dawkins’s Wikipedia article:

From 1954 to 1959 Dawkins attended Oundle School in Northamptonshire, an English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour, where he was in Laundimer house… Dawkins describes his childhood as ‘a normal Anglican upbringing’. He embraced Christianity until halfway through his teenage years, at which point he concluded that the theory of evolution was a better explanation for life’s complexity, and ceased believing in a god…

‘An English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour’. Aha.

In a nutshell, I think Dawkins argues so fiercely and unrelentingly with Christians, and with all the Christian attempts to adapt the theory of evolution to Christian belief, because he is arguing with his own younger self.

This explains why the arguing is so ubiquitous – why he finds The Enemy everywhere he looks – because the Enemy is in his own mind.

And it explains why the war can never end – because the young Dawkins’s naive and earnest Christian belief will be with him, dogging his every thought, like an unwanted Mr Hyde, until he dies.

It explains why Dawkins never takes on anti-evolutionary believers from other faiths, such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus and so on, and entirely restricts his obsessive attacks to Christian anti-evolutionists.

And it explains why the cast of straw men he sets out to demolish consists almost exclusively of Church of England bishops and American fundamentalists – because these are Protestant Christians, Christians from his own Anglican tribe.

Richard Dawkins’s Christian turn of thought

It also explains something else about The Blind Watchmaker and River Out of Eden, which is unexpected, counter-intuitive and easy to overlook.

This is that, amid the endless analogies, metaphors, comparisons and parallels that Dawkins is constantly drawing in order to make his polemical anti-creationist points, he still automatically invokes Christian examples, stories and texts – and here’s the most telling point – sometimes in a very positive light.

At these moments in the books, you can envision the bright-eyed schoolboy Dawkins, proudly taking part in each Sunday’s Morning Service at his Anglican public school, peeping through the text.

His fundamental attachment to Christian tropes pops up all over the place. Take the title of the book, River Out of Eden – why bring Eden into it at all? Why Christianise the story of DNA?

Same with ‘African Eve’ and ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, terms applied to the hypothetical female ancestor from which all currently living humans are supposedly descended… Why introduce the misleading word ‘Eve’ into it at all? Why piggy-back on Christian myth?

Casually he says a person’s DNA may be compared to their ‘family Bible’ (p.44) and that the mitochondrial DNA within our cells can be compared to the ‘Apocrypha’ of the family Bible (p.55). I wonder how many modern readers know, unprompted, what the Apocrypha are.

Later he casually mentions that the famous Big Bang which brought the universe into being ‘baptised time and the universe’ (p.168). Baptised?

Why reinforce the framework of Christian ideology like this, with a continual drizzle of Christian references – why not create entirely new metaphors and concepts?

Take the passage which purports to explain how the process of sex mixes up the parents’ DNA as it passes into their progeny. Within a sentence of explaining that this is his subject, Dawkins veers off to compare the mixing up of DNA to the textual history of the Song of Songs from the Bible.

Why? Does he really imagine his secular, multi-cultural audience will be sufficiently familiar with the text of The Song of Songs to take his point about changes and mutations in it? For the Song, he tells us:

contains errors – mutations – especially in translation: ‘Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines’ is a mistranslation, even though a lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal of its own, which is unlikely to be matched by the more correct: ‘Catch for us the fruit bats, the little fruit bats…’ (p.45)

‘A lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal’? A lifetime’s repetition by who, exactly? Have you spent a lifetime repeating these words from The Song of Songs? I haven’t.

This is pure autobiography and gives us a window into Richard’s mind and – it is my contention – demonstrates that Dawkins is coming from a far more deeply rooted Christian worldview than any of his secular readers.

Take another, longer example – the extraordinary passage in The Blind Watchmaker where Dawkins devotes a chapter of the book to arguing against the newish theory of evolution by punctuated equilibrium which had been proposed by paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould in the early 1970s.

But here’s how he starts the chapter on this subject: he asks the reader to imagine themselves in the scholarly field of ancient history, and to imagine a new scholarly paper which has just been published and which takes a literal interpretation of the story of the 40 years the ancient Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt and before they reached the Promised Land.

Dawkins goes into loads of detail about what this hypothetical paper would contain: He explains that the paper takes the claim that the ancient Israelites took 40 years to travel from the borders of Egypt to what is modern-day Israel at literal face value and then works out that the travelling horde must have covered about 25 yards a day, in other words, one yard an hour.

This is so patently absurd that the hypothetical ancient historian in this hypothetical paper Dawkins has invented, dismisses the entire story of the Exodus as a ridiculous myth, and this is what has rattled the cages of the scholarly world of ancient historians and brought it to the attention of the world’s media – in Dawkins’s made-up analogy.

At the end of two pages devoted to elaborately working out all the details of this extended analogy, Dawkins finally announces that this literalistic ancient historian’s approach is precisely the approach Eldridge and Gould take towards evolution in their theory of punctuated equilibrium – taking the physical facts (of the patchy fossil record) literally, in order to ridicule the larger theory of neo-Darwinism (neo-Darwinism is the twentieth-century synthesis of Darwin’s original theory with the Mendelian genetics which provide the mechanism by which it works, later confirmed by the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953; it is, strictly speaking, this neo-Darwinism which Dawkins is at such pains to defend).

Anyway:

1. I couldn’t believe Dawkins wasted so much space on such a far-fetched, fantastical, long-winded and, in the end, completely useless analogy (Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated evolution is like a hypothetical scholar of Bible history coming up with a new interpretation of the Book of Exodus!)

2. But for my purposes in this review, what is really telling about the passage is the way that, when he’s not consciously attacking it, Dawkins’s religious education gave him such a deep familiarity with Christian stories and the prose of the King James Bible and the Book of Prayer – that he cannot escape them, that his mind automatically reaches to them as his first analogy for anything.

And 3. that Dawkins expects his readers to be so equally imbued with a comprehensive knowledge of Christian stories and texts that he just assumes the best analogy for almost anything he wants to explain will be a Christian analogy.

Other examples of Dawkins’s Christian turn of mind

In the last third of River Out of Eden Dawkins introduces the rather abstruse idea of a ‘utility function’ which is, apparently, a concept from engineering which means ‘that which must be maximised’.

When it comes to life and evolution Dawkins says it is often useful to apply this concept to various attributes of living organisms such as the peacock’s tail, the extraordinary life-cycles of queen bees and so on, in order to understand the function they perform.

But then he staggered me by going on to say:

A good way to dramatise our task is to imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer and try to work out, by reverse engineering, what the engineer was trying to maximise: What was God’s Utility Function? (p.122)

And in fact this entire 44-page-long chapter is titled God’s Utility Function.

This flabbergasted me. The whole point of his long, exhausting book The Blind Watchmaker was to explain again and again, in countless variations, how the complex life forms we see around us were emphatically NOT designed by a creator God, but are the result of countless small mutations and variations naturally produced in each new generation of organism, which are selected out by the environment and other organisms, so that only the ones which help an organism adapt to its environment survive.

So why is he now asking the reader to imagine a God which is a Divine Engineer and Grand Designer?!!!!

Similarly, in Unweaving The Rainbow, which I’ve just read, he starts the rambling chapter about DNA finger-printing with a quote about lawyers from the Gospel of Saint Luke. Why?

And compares the lineage of DNA down the billennia to God making his promise to Abraham that his seed will inhabit the land, going on to give the complete quotation.

When he wants to cite a date from ancient history, it’s none of the acts of the ancient Greeks or Romans which spring to mind but but, of course, the birth of Christ, a handy two thousand years ago.

Continually, throughout all his books, the Christian framework, Christian dates, Christian stories, Christian quotations and Christian turns of phrase recur again and again.

Conclusion

In conclusion, you could argue, a little cheekily, that although Dawkins’s conscious mind and intentions and numerous books and lectures and TV programmes are all directed (with monotonous obsessiveness) at countering and undermining Christian belief – his unconscious mind, his boyhood memories, his love of the rhythms and images of the Christian Bible – mean that the Christian mythos, its legends and stories and even particular phrases from its holy texts, continually recur to him as his first choice for comparisons and analogies, and that as a result – unwittingly – he is reinforcing and re-embedding the very thing he claims to want to overthrow.

You could argue that Richard Dawkins is a fundamentally Christian author.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Art

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Evolution

Genetics

Human evolution

Mass extinction

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins (1995)

Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. That is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn.
(River out of Eden, page 112)

Three things become clear early in this book:

1. Dawkins is very argumentative He can barely state a fact or idea without immediately imagining a scientific illiterate misunderstanding it, or a creationist arguing against it, or the tradition of thinkers who’ve adopted a contrary position, and then – whooosh! – he’s off on one of his long-winded digressions devising metaphors and analogies and thought experiments (‘imagine 20 million typists sitting in a row…’) devoted to demolishing these opponents and their silly beliefs.

The neutral reader sits back, puzzled as to why Dawkins feels such a continual necessity to find enemies and argue against them, constantly and endlessly, instead of just stating the facts about the natural world in a lucid, calm way and letting them speak for themselves.

2. Dawkins is not a mathematician as he points out quite a few times in The Blind Watchmaker. As I read him saying this for the third or fourth time, it dawned on me that this means Dawkins rarely if ever makes his points with numbers – through data or statistics, tables and graphs and diagrams, as a true scientist might. Instead, deprived of numbers (of course he does use numbers, but very sparingly), Dawkins makes his case through persuasion and rhetoric. He is a rhetorician – the dictionary definition being someone who:

exploits figures of speech and other compositional techniques to have a persuasive or impressive effect

Consider the titles of the clutch of mid-career books which I’m rereading: The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving The Rainbow. They are all named for metaphors or analogies for the big Darwinian idea he is so anxious to explicate and defend, and they are themselves made up of chapters which are made up of sections and passages which rely far more on metaphor and analogy and stories and anecdotes than they do on hard data and scientific facts.

3. Dawkins is good at it The four book titles quoted above are all vivid and powerful metaphors for evolution and its implications. The master metaphor which dominates River Out of Eden – that all life on earth amounts to a river of DNA flowing from simple beginnings and then splitting over a billion years or more into thousands and then millions of tributaries, one for each of the species now alive – is a powerful explanatory tool, and leads you on into a series of other analogies and metaphors.

Wrong!

I was amused by the number of times Dawkins mentions or quotes other people – creationists, fellow academics or other biologists – solely to show how their approach or interpretation of Darwinism, biology or anything else is wrong wrong wrong!

He doesn’t hold back. He isn’t subtle or circumspect. He often puts exclamation marks at the end to emphasise just how wrong wrong wrong they are! before proceeding to demolish them one by one! It’s like watching a confident man at a coconut shy throwing the wooden balls and knocking each coconut off, one… by… one. Here’s a selection of his targets:

– Lamarckism or the belief that characteristics organisms acquire during their lives are passed on to their children – ‘Wrong, utterly wrong! (p.3)

– It’s tempting to think of the original branches between what would later turn out to be distinct families or orders of animals as consisting at the time of the first breach ‘mighty Mississippis rivers’ – ‘But this image is deeply wrong‘ (p.10)

– Zoologists are tempted to think of the divide between what later became major groups as a momentous event. But they are ‘misled’ (p.11)

– One zoologist has suggested that the entire process of evolution during the Cambrian period, when so many new species came into existence, must have been a different process from what it is now. ‘The fallacy is glaring!‘ (p.12)

– The digital revolution at the core of the new biology has dealt ‘a killer blow to vitalism, the incorrect belief that living matter is deeply distinct from nonliving material’ (p.20).

– ‘There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds… that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth’. It is, of course, wrong, which he goes on to prove with the fact that tribal myth can’t build the airplanes which fly you to conferences where you can present papers about cultural relativism.

– He once asked a student how far back you’d have to go to find ancestors that Dawkins and the student shared. She replied back to the apes. ‘An excusable intuitive leap, but it is approximately 10,000 percent wrong.’

– Some creationists insist on misinterpreting the scientific concept of Mitochondrial Eve and claim, from the sound of it, that she’s identical with the Biblical Eve! ‘This is a complete misunderstanding.’ (p.62)

And so on…

The trouble with Dawkins’s arguments

There are several practical problems with Dawkins’s relentless argufying.

One is that, because Dawkin is arguing all the time with someone or other, if you put down the book then pick it up later, it’s often difficult to remember the precise Wrong Interpretation of evolution he was in the middle of raging against i.e. to recall the context of whatever scientific information he happens to be presenting.

Making it worse is the way Dawkins often breaks down the argument he’s tackling into sub-arguments, and especially the way he breaks his own counter-arguments down into sub-counter-arguments. And then he’ll say, ‘I’ve just got to explain a few basic concepts…’ or ‘Before I reply to the main thrust of that argument, let me make a small digression…’ leading you steadily away from whatever point you think he was trying to make.

And if the digression takes the form of an analogy, yjrm quite quickly you can be three of four ‘levels’ removed from the initial proposition he’s arguing against. You find yourself needing to follow an analogy he’s using to explain a concept you need to understand in order to grasp the thrust of a part of an argument he’s making against a specific aspect of one particular misinterpretation of evolution.

In other words – it’s easy to get lost.

At several points he asks the reader to be patent, but I wonder how many of his readers really do have the patience to put up with the digressions and analogies.

It’s an oddity of Dawkins’s approach that moments after venting a vivid attack on creationists and Christians for their ignorance, for being ‘wrong, utterly wrong!’ – he will ask them to bear with him, and have a little patience because what follows is only a rough analogy or a hypothetical example or a computer program he’s made up, or some other rather remote and tangential point.

It’s as if someone punched you in the face and then asked you to hold their coat for them. it shows an astonishing naivety and innocence.

And more to the point, the upshot of all these aspects of his approach is that – he never really presents the knock-down, drop-dead, unanswerable counter-arguments against creationist literature which he continually promises.

In fact on several occasions in The Blind Watchmaker he made so many apologies about the absence of current scientific knowledge on a particular point (especially about a) the patchiness of the fossil record and b) the sharply conflicting hypotheses among scientists about how life on earth got started) – or he went on at such length about the arguments and divisions among the scientists themselves – that I emerged with my belief in evolution shaken, not confirmed.

I couldn’t help feeling that, if I was a born-again Christian, a fundamentalist and creationist, Dawkins’s books, with their combination of in-your-face insults with mealy-mouthed, round-the-houses argufying, might well confirm me in my anti-evolutionary beliefs.

The importance of geological time

To summarise Dawkins’s arguments for him, the central foundation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is TIME. Lots and lots and lots of time. Geological time. More time than we can possibly imagine. To quote Wikipedia (in order to have the latest, up-to-date info):

The earliest time that life forms first appeared on Earth is at least 3.77 billion years ago, possibly as early as 4.28 billion years, or even 4.5 billion years; not long after the oceans formed 4.41 billion years ago, and after the formation of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago.

Around 4 billion years ago. No human being can understand that length of time.

The next element in Darwin’s theory is the advantage of small changes, minute changes, sometimes molecular changes, in organisms as they reproduce and create new generations. Even minuscule differences, which humans cannot detect, might be the vital determinants in whether an organism just about survives to reproduce, or just fails and is killed or eaten before it reproduces.

Dawkins’s core argument is that, if you set that process in train and let it run for four and a half billion years – then anything can happen, and we have the evidence in the fossil record that it has, that forms of life of surpassing weirdness and sizes and functions have been and gone, and their descendants live on all around us in a marvellous profusion.

It is:

  1. the enormous, impossible-to-conceive length of geological time
  2. and the big difference to its chances of survival which even tiny variants in an organism’s attributes can give it

which anti-evolutionists tend not to have grasped, or understood or have simply rejected. Which drives Dawkins crazy.

The evolution of ‘the eye’

The locus classicus (the classic example) where the two sides clash is THE EYE.

Anti-evolutionary writers of all stripes cite the human eye and assert that it is ridiculously unlikely that The Eye can have just popped into existence in complete perfection, with a fully functioning iris and lens and all the rods and cones which detect light and shade and colour, absurdly unlikely, only a caring Creator God could have made something so wonderful.

AND the related creationist argument, that what possible use would half an eye, or a tenth of an eye or a hundredth of an eye have been to any organism? It must have appeared fully functional or not all.

To which Dawkins and all the evolutionists reply that a) no-one is saying it came into being fully functional and b) you’d be surprised: half an eye is really useful. So is a hundredth of an eye, or a thousandth.

In fact, having a patch of skin which is merely light-sensitive can convey advantage on some organisms. Given enough generations this light-sensitive patch will become a confirmed part of all the members of a particular species, and will tend to form a dip or hollow in the skin to protect itself from damage. If the dip goes deep enough then sooner or later some chance mutation may code for another strand of skin to form across the opening of the dip, with a slight preference given to any variation which creates a membrane which is translucent i.e. lets at least some light through to the light-sensitive skin beneath.

And bingo! The eye!

The killer fact (for me, reading this well-trodden argument for the umpteenth time) is that not only is The Eye not an improbable device for evolution to create in the natural flow of endless variations created in each new generation and likely to be selected because its adds even a smidgeon of survival value to its owners..

But that the formation of The Eye turns out to be a highly probable result of evolution. We know this because we now know that The Eye has evolved at least forty separate times in widely separated orders and families and genera. over the past four and a half billion years. Conclusion:

Never say, and never take seriously anybody who says: ‘I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by natural selection.’ (p.81)

Dawkins dubs this position The Argument from Personal Incredulity, and this discussion of The Eye is one of the few places where Dawkins states an opponent’s argument clearly and then mounts a clearn and convincing counter-argument.

Analogies

Bored with a lot of the these tired old arguments, and of Dawkins’s combative yet strangely naive style, I took to noting the the analogies, reading them as a kind of buried or counter-narrative linking up the boring arguments.

– The river out of Eden is the river of DNA, a river of digital information, which makes up all living things. In fact the river has branched out over the aeons, with countless streams and tributaries running dry but there are, as of now, some thirty million separate rivers of DNA or species.

– Each generation is a sieve or filter: good genes get through, ‘bad’ genes don’t.

– The genetic code is like a dictionary of a language with 64 words.

– the DNA inside each of us is like a family Bible (p.44)

– Insofar as it is digital, the genetic code is like digital phones or computer codes.

– Every cell in your body contains the equivalent of 36 immense data tapes (i.e the chromosomes) (p.21).

– We humans – and all living things – are survival machines designed to propagate the digital database that did the programming.

– The membranes in a living cell are like the glassware in a laboratory.

– An enzyme is like a large machine tool, carefully jigged to turn out a production line of molecules of a particular shape (p.26)

– Cells’ ability to replicate is comparable to the process of ‘bootstrapping’ required in the early days of computing (p.27).

Reading River Out of Eden for the analogies was more fun that trying to follow many of Dawkins’s trains of thought which were often tortuous, long-winded and strangely forgettable.

Credit

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 1995. All references are to the 1996 Phoenix paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Evolution

Genetics

Human evolution

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson (1992)

It is a failing of our species that we ignore and even despise the creatures whose lives sustain our own. (p.294)

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in 1929 and pursued a long career in biology, specialising in myrmecology, the study of ants, about which he came to be considered the world’s leading expert, and about which he published a massive textbook as well as countless research papers.

As well as his specialist scientific writing, Wilson has also published a series of (sometimes controversial) books about human nature, on collaborative species of animal (which led him to conceive the controversial theory of sociobiology), and about ecology and the environment.

(They’re controversial because he considers humans as just another complex life form, whose behaviour is dictated almost entirely by genetics and environment, discounting our ability to learn or change: beliefs which are opposed by liberals and progressives who believe humans can be transformed by education and culture.)

The Diversity of Life was an attempt to give an encyclopedic overview of life on earth – the myriads of life forms which create the dazzlingly complicated webs of life at all levels and in all parts of our planet – and then to inform the reader about the doleful devastation mankind is wreaking everywhere – and ends with some positive suggestions about how to try & save the environment, and the staggering diversity of life forms, before it’s too late.

The book is almost 30 years old but still so packed with information that maybe giving a synopsis of each chapter would be useful.


Part one – Violent nature, resilient life

1. Storm over the Amazon An impressionistic memoir of Wilson camping in the rainforest amid a tropical storm, which leads to musings about the phenomenal diversity of life forms in such places, and beyond, in all parts of the earth, from the Antarctic Ocean to deep sea, thermal vents.

2. Krakatau A vivid description of the eruption of Krakatoa leads into an account of how the sterile smoking stump of island left after the explosion was swiftly repopulated with all kinds of life forms within weeks of the catastrophe and now, 130 years later, is a completely repopulated tropical rainforest. Life survives and endures.

3. The Great Extinctions If the biggest volcanic explosion in recorded history can’t eliminate life, what can? Wilson explains the five big extinction events which the fossil record tells us about, when vast numbers of species were exterminated:

  • Ordovician 440 million years ago
  • Devonian 365 million years ago
  • Permian 245 million years ago
  • Triassic 210 million years ago
  • Cretaceous 66 million years ago

The last of these being the one which – supposedly – wiped out the dinosaurs, although Wilson points out that current knowledge suggests that dinosaur numbers were actually dropping off for millions of years before the actual ‘event’, whatever that was (most scientists think a massive meteor hit earth, a theory originally proposed by Luis Alvarez in 1980).

Anyway, the key thing is that the fossil record suggests that it took between five and 20 million years after each of these catastrophic events for the diversity of life to return to something like its pre-disaster levels.


Part two – Biodiversity rising

4. The Fundamental Unit A journey into evolutionary theory which quickly shows that many of its core concepts are deeply problematic and debated. Wilson clings to the notion of the species as the fundamental unit, because it makes sense of all biology –

A species is a population whose members are able to interbreed freely under natural conditions (p.36)

but concedes that other biologists give precedence to other concepts or levels of evolution, for example the population, the deme, or focus on genetics.

Which one you pick depends on your focus and priorities. The ‘species’ is a tricky concept to define, with the result that many biologists reach for subspecies (pp.58-61).

And that’s before you examine the record chronologically i.e. consider lineages of animals which we know stretch back for millions of years: at what point did one species slip into another? It depends. It depends what aspects you choose to focus on – DNA, or mating rituals, or wing length or diet or location.

The message is that the concepts of biology are precise and well-defined, but the real world is far more messy and complicated than, maybe, any human concepts can really fully capture.

5. New Species Wilson details all the processes by which new species have come about, introducing the concept of ‘intrinsic isolating mechanisms’, but going on to explain that these are endless. Almost any element in an environment, an organisms’s design or DNA might be an ‘isolating mechanism’, in the right circumstances. In other words, life forms are proliferating, mutating and changing constantly, all around us.

The possibility for error has no limit, and so intrinsic isolating mechanisms are endless in their variety. (p.51)

6. The forces of evolution Introduces us to a range of processes, operating at levels from genetics to entire populations, which drive evolutionary change, including:

  • genetic mutation
  • haploidy and diploidy (with an explanation of the cause of sickle-cell anaemia)
  • dominant and recessive genes
  • genotype (an individual’s collection of genes) and phenotype (the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment)
  • allometry (rates of growth of different parts of an organism)
  • microevolution (at the genetic level) and macroevolution (at the level of environment and population)
  • the theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (that evolution happens in burst followed by long periods of no-change)
  • species selection

7. Adaptive radiation An explanation of the concepts of adaptive radiation and evolutionary convergence, taking in Hawaiian honeycreepers, Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, the cichlid fish of Lake Victoria, the astonishing diversity of shark species, and the Great American Interchange which followed when the rise of the Panama Isthmus joined previously separated North and South America 2.5 million years ago.

Ecological release = population increase that occurs when a species is freed from limiting factors in its environment.

Ecological constraint = constriction in the presence of a competitor.

8. The unexplored biosphere Describes our astonishing ignorance of how many species there are in the world. Wilson gives the total number of named species as 1.4 million, 751,000 of them insects, but the chapter goes on to explain our complete ignorance of the life forms in the ocean depths, or in the rainforest canopies, and the vast black hole of our ignorance of bacteria.

There could be anything between 10 million and 100 million species on earth – nobody knows.

He explains the hierarchy of toxonomy of living things: kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, genus, species.

Equitability = the distribution of diversity in a given location.

9. The creation of ecosystems Keystone species hold a system together e.g. sea otters on the California coast (which ate sea urchins thus preventing the sea urchins eating the kelp, so giving rise to forests of kelp which supported numerous life forms including whales who gave birth close to the forests of kelp) or elephants in the savannah (who, by pushing over trees, create diverse habitats).

Elasticity.

The predator paradox – in many systems it’s been shown that removing the top predator decreases diversity).

Character displacement. Symbiosis. The opposite of extinction is species packing.

The latitudinal diversity gradient i.e. there is more diversity in tropical rainforests – 30% of bird species, probably over half of all species, live in the rainforests – various theories why this should be (heat from the sun = energy + prolonged rain).

10. Biodiversity reaches the peak The reasons why biodiversity has steadily increased since the Cambrian explosion 550 million years ago, including the four main steps in life on earth:

  1. the origin of life from prebiotic organic molecules 3.9 billion years ago
  2. eukaryotic organisms 1.8 billion years ago
  3. the Cambrian explosion 540 to 500 million years ago
  4. the evolution of the human mind from 1 million to 100,000 years ago.

Why there is more diversity, the smaller the creatures/scale – because, at their scale, there are so many more niches to make a living in.


Part three – The human impact

It’s simple. We are destroying the world’s ecosystems, exterminating untold numbers of species before we can even identify them and any practical benefits they may have.

11. The life and death of species ‘Almost all the species that have ever lived are extinct, and yet more are alive today than at any time in the past (p.204)

How long do species survive? From 1 to 10 million years, depending on size and type. Then again, it’s likely that orchids which make up 8% of all known flowering plants, might speciate, thrive and die out far faster in the innumerable microsites which suit them in mountainous tropics.

The area effect = the rise of biodiversity according to island size (ten times the size, double the number of species). Large body size means smaller population and greater risk of extinction. The metapopulation concept of species existence.

12. Biodiversity threatened Extinctions by their very nature are rarely observed. Wilson devotes some pages to the thesis that wherever prehistoric man spread – in North America 8,000 years ago, in Australia 30,000 years ago, in the Pacific islands between 2,000 and 500 years ago – they exterminated all the large animals.

Obviously, since then Western settlers and colonists have been finishing off the job, and he gives depressing figures about numbers of bird, frog, tree and other species which have been exterminated in the past few hundred years by Western man, by colonists.

And now we are in a new era when exponentially growing populations of Third World countries are ravaging their own landscapes. He gives a list of 18 ‘hotspots’ (New Caledonia, Borneo, Ecuador) where half or more of the original rainforests has been heart-breakingly destroyed.

13. Unmined riches The idea that mankind should place a cash value on rainforests and other areas of diversity (coral reefs) in order to pay locals not to destroy them. Wilson gives the standard list of useful medicines and drugs we have discovered in remote and unexpected plants, wondering how many other useful, maybe life-saving substances are being trashed and destroyed before we ever have the chance to discover them.

But why  should this be? He explains that the millions of existing species have evolved through uncountable trillions of chemical interactions at all levels, in uncountably vast types of locations and settings – and so have been in effect a vast biochemical laboratory of life, infinitely huger, more complex, and going on for billions of years longer than our own feeble human laboratory efforts.

He gives practical examples of natural diversity and human narrowness:

  • the crops we grow are a handful – 20 or so – of the tens of thousands known, many of which are more productive, but just culturally alien
  • same with animals – we still farm the ten of so animals which Bronze Age man domesticated 10,000 years ago when there is a world of more productive animals e.g. the giant Amazon river turtle, the green iguana, which both produce far more meat per hectare and cost than beef cattle
  • why do we still fish wild in the seas, devastating entire ecosystems, when we could produce more fish more efficiently in controlled farms?
  • the absolutely vital importance of maintaining wild stocks and varieties of species we grow for food:
    • when in the 1970s the grassy-stunt virus devastated rice crops it was only the lucky chance that a remote Indian rice species contained genes which granted immunity to the virus and so could be cross-bred with commercial varieties which saved the world’s rice
    • it was only because wild varieties of coffee still grew in Ethiopia that genes could be isolated from them and cross-bred into commercial coffee crops in Latin America which saved them from devastation by ‘coffee rust’
  • wipe out the rainforests and other hotspots of diversity, and there go your fallback species

14. Resolution As ‘the human juggernaut’ staggers on, destroying all in its path, what is to be done? Wilson suggests a list:

  1. Survey the world’s flora and fauna – an epic task, particularly as there are maybe only 1,500 scientists in the whole world qualified to do it
  2. Create biological wealth – via ‘chemical prospecting’ i.e. looking for chemicals produced by organisms which might have practical applications (he gives a list of such discoveries)
  3. Promote sustainable development – for example strip logging to replace slash and burn, with numerous examples
  4. Wilson critiques the arguments for
    • cryogenically freezing species
    • seed banks
    • zoos
  5. They can only save a tiny fraction of species, and then only a handful of samples – but the key factor is that all organisms can only exist in fantastically complicated ecosystems, which no freezing or zoosor seed banks can preserve. There is no alternative to complete preservation of existing wilderness

15. The environmental ethic A final summing up. We are living through the sixth great extinction. Between a tenth and a quarter of all the world’s species will be wiped out in the next 50 years.

Having dispensed with the ad hoc and limited attempts at salvage outlined above, Wilson concludes that the only viable way to maintain even a fraction of the world’s biodiversity is to identify the world’s biodiversity ‘hot spots’ and preserve the entire ecosystems.

Each ecosystem has intrinsic value (p.148)

In the last few pages he makes the ‘deepest’ plea for conservation based on what he calls biophilia – this is that there is all kinds of evidence that humans need nature: we were produced over 2 million years of evolution and are descended from animals which themselves have encoded in the genes for their brains and nervous systems all kinds of interactions with the environment, with sun and moon, and rain and heat, and water and food, with rustling grasses and sheltering trees.

The most basic reason for making heroic efforts to preserve biodiversity is that at a really fundamental level, we need it to carry on feeling human.

On planet, one experiment (p.170)


Conclusion

Obviously, I know human beings are destroying the planet and exterminating other species at an unprecedented rate. Everyone who can read a newspaper or watch TV should know that by now, so the message of his book was over-familiar and sad.

But it was lovely to read again several passages whose imaginative brio had haunted me ever since I first read this book back in 1994:

  • the opening rich and impressionistic description of the rainforest
  • a gripping couple of pages at the start of chapter five where he describes what it would be like to set off at walking pace from the centre of the earth outwards, across the burning core, then into the cooler mantle and so on, suddenly emerging through topsoil into the air and walking through the extraordinary concentration of billions of life forms in a few minutes – we are that thin a layer on the surface of this spinning, hurtling planet
  • the couple of pages about sharks, whose weird diversity still astonishes
  • the brisk, no-nonsense account of how ‘native’ peoples or First Peoples were no tender-hearted environmentalists but hunted to death all the large megafauna wherever they spread
  • the dazzling description of all the organisms which are found in just one pinch of topsoil

As to the message, that we must try and preserve the diversity of life and respect the delicate ecosystems on which our existence ultimately depends – well, that seems to have been soundly ignored more or less everywhere, over the past thirty years since the book was published.

Credit

The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson was published by the Harvard University Press in 1992. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Genetics

Human evolution

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985)

The topic of the origin of life on the Earth is a branch of mineralogy. (p.99)

How did life begin? To be more precise, how did the inorganic chemicals formed in the early years of planet earth, on the molten rocks or in the salty sea or in the methane atmosphere, transform into ‘life’ – complex organisms which extract food from the environment and replicate, and from which all life forms today are ultimately descended? What, when and how was that first momentous step taken?

Thousands of biologists have devoted their careers to trying to answer this question, with the result that there are lots of speculative theories.

Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith (1931-2016) was an organic chemist and molecular biologist at the University of Glasgow, and this 120-page book was his attempt to answer the Big Question.

In a nutshell he suggested that life derived from self-replicating clay crystals. To use Wikipedia’s summary:

Clay minerals form naturally from silicates in solution. Clay crystals, like other crystals, preserve their external formal arrangement as they grow, snap, and grow further.

Clay crystal masses of a particular external form may happen to affect their environment in ways that affect their chances of further replication. For example, a ‘stickier’ clay crystal is more likely to silt up a stream bed, creating an environment conducive to further sedimentation.

It is conceivable that such effects could extend to the creation of flat areas likely to be exposed to air, dry, and turn to wind-borne dust, which could fall randomly in other streams.

Thus – by simple, inorganic, physical processes – a selection environment might exist for the reproduction of clay crystals of the ‘stickier’ shape.

Cairns-Smith’s book is densely argued, each chapter like a lecture or seminar packed with suggestive evidence about what we know about current life forms, a summary of the principles underlying Darwin’s theory of evolution, and about how we can slowly move backwards along the tree of life, speculating about how it developed.

But, as you can see from the summary above, in the end, it is just another educated guess.

Detective story

The blurb on the back and the introduction both claim the book is written in the style of a detective story. Oh no it isn’t. It is written in the style of a biology book – more precisely, a biology book which is looking at the underlying principles of life, the kind of abstract engineering principles underlying life – and all of these take quite some explaining, drawing in examples from molecular biology where required.

Sometimes (as in chapter 4 where he explains in detail how DNA and RNA and amino acids and proteins interact within a living cell) it becomes quite a demanding biology book.

What the author and publisher presumably mean is that, in attempt to sweeten the pill of a whole load of stuff about DNA and ribosomes, Cairns-Smith starts every chapter with a quote from a Sherlock Holmes story and from time to time claims to be pursuing his goal with Holmesian deduction.

You see Holmes, far from going for the easy bits first, would positively seek out those features in a case that were seemingly incomprehensible – ‘singular’ features he would call them… I think that the origin of life is a Holmesian problem. (p.ix)

Towards the very end, he remembers this metaphor and talks about ‘tracking down the suspect’ and ‘making an arrest’ (i.e. of the first gene machine, the origin of life). But this light dusting of Holmesiana doesn’t do much to conceal the sometimes quite demanding science, and the relentlessly pedagogical tone of the book.

Broad outline

1. Panspermia

First off, Cairns-Smith dismisses some of the other theories about the origin of life. He makes short work of the theories of Fred Hoyle and Francis Crick that organic life might have arrived on earth from outer space, carried in dust clouds or on meteors etc (Crick’s version of this was named ‘Panspermia’) . I agree with Cairns-Smith that all variations on this hypothesis just relocate the problem somewhere else, but don’t solve it.

Cairns-Smith states the problem in three really fundamental facts:

  1. There is life on earth
  2. All known living things are at root the same (using the same carbon-based energy-gathering and DAN-replicating biochemistry)
  3. All known living things are very complicated

2. The theory of chemical evolution

In his day (the 1970s and 80s) the theory of ‘chemical evolution’ was widely thought to address the origin of life problem. This stated that lot of the basic amino acids and sugars which we find in organisms are relatively simple and so might well have been created by accident in the great sloshing oceans and lakes of pre-life earth, and that they then – somehow – came together to make more complex molecules which – somehow – learned how to replicate.

But it’s precisely on the vagueness of that ‘somehow’ that Cairns-Smith jumps. The leap from a random soup of semi-amino acids washing round in a lake and the immensely detailed and complex machinery of life demonstrated by even a tiny living organism – he selects the bacterium Escherichia coli – is just too vast a cliff face to have been climbed at random, by accident. It’s like saying if you left a bunch of wires and bits of metal sloshing around in a lake long enough they would eventually make a MacBook Air.

Cairns-Smith zeroes in on four keys aspects of life on earth which help to disprove the ‘chemical evolution’ theory.

  1. Life forms are complex systems. It is the whole machine which makes sense of its components.
  2. The systems are highly interlocked: catalysts are needed to make proteins, but proteins are needed to make catalysts; nucleic acids are needed to make proteins, yet proteins are needed to make nucleic acids;
  3. Life forms are very complex.
  4. The system is governed by rules and conventions: the exact choice of the amino acid alphabet and the set of assignments of amino acid letters to nucleic acid words are examples.

3. The Miller-Urey experiments

Cairns-Smith then critiques the theory derived from the Miller-Urey experiments.

In 1953 a graduate student, Stanley Miller, and his professor, Harold Urey, performed an experiment that demonstrated how organic molecules could have spontaneously formed from inorganic precursors, under conditions like those posited by the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis. The now-famous ‘Miller–Urey experiment’ used a highly reduced mixture of gases – methane, ammonia and hydrogen – to form basic organic monomers, such as amino acids. (Wikipedia)

Cairns-Smith spends four pages comprehensively demolishing this approach by showing that:

  1. the ultraviolet light its exponents claim could have helped synthesise organic molecules is in fact known to break covalent bonds and so degrade more than construct complex molecules
  2. regardless of light, most organic molecules are in fact very fragile and degrade easily unless kept in optimum conditions (i.e. inside a living cell)
  3. even if some organic molecules were created, organic chemists know only too well that there are hundreds of thousands of ways in which carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen can combine, and most of them result in sticky sludges and tars in which nothing could ‘live’

So that:

  1. Only some of the molecules of life can be made this way
  2. Most of the molecules that would be made this way are emphatically not the ‘molecules of life’
  3. The ‘molecules of life’ are usually better made under conditions far most favourable than those obtaining back in the primordial soup era

He then does some back-of-a-matchbox calculations to speculate about how long it would take a random collection of organic molecules to ‘happen’ to all tumble together and create a life form: longer than the life of the universe, is his conclusion. No, this random approach won’t work.

Preliminary principles

Instead, he suggests a couple of principles of his own:

  1. That some and maybe all of the chemicals we now associate with ‘life’ were not present in the first replicating organisms; they came later; their exquisitely delicate interactivity suggests that they are the result not the cause of evolution
  2. Therefore, all lines of investigation which seek to account for the presence of the molecules of life are putting the cart before the horse: it isn’t the molecules which are important – it is the mechanism of replication with errors

Cairns-Smith thinks we should put the molecules of life question completely to one side, and instead seek for entirely inorganic systems which would replicate, with errors, so that the errors would be culled and more efficient ways of replicating tend to thrive on the available source material, beginning to create that dynamism and ‘sense of purpose’ which is one of life’s characteristics.

We keep coming to this idea that at some earlier phase of evolution, before life as we know it, there were other kinds of evolving system, other organisms that, in effect, invented our system. (p.61)

This seems, intuitively, like a more satisfying approach. Random forces will never make a MacBook Air and, as he has shown in chapter 4, even an entity like Escherichia coli is so staggeringly complex and amazingly finely-tuned as to be inconceivable as the product of chance.

Trying to show that complex molecules like ribosomes or RNA or amino acids – which rely on each other to be made and maintained, which cannot exist deprived of the intricately complicated interplay within each living cell – came about by chance is approaching the problem the wrong way. All these complex organic molecules must be the result of evolution. Evolution itself must have started with something much, much simpler – with the ‘invention’ of the basic engine, motor, the fundamental principle – and this is replication with errors. In other words:

Evolution started with ‘low-tech’ organisms that did not have to be, and probably were not made from, ‘the molecules of life’. (p.65)

Crystals

And it is at this point that Cairns-Smith introduces his Big Idea – the central role of clay crystals – in a chapter titled, unsurprisingly, ‘Crystals’ (pp.75-79).

He now explains in some detail the surprisingly complicated and varied world of clay crystals. These naturally form in various solutions and, if splashed up onto surfaces like rocks or stones, crystallise out into lattices, but the crystallisation process also commonly involves errors and mutations.

His description of the different types of crystals and their properties is fascinating – who knew there were so many types, shapes, patterns and processes, starting with an introduction to the processes of saturation and super-saturation. The point is that crystals naturally occur and naturally mutate. He lists the ways they can vary or diverge from their ‘pure’ forms: twinning, stacking errors, cation substitutions, growth in preferred directions, break-up along preferred planes (p.97).

There follows a chapter about the prevalence of crystals in mud and clay and, therefore, their widespread presence in the conditions of the early planet earth.

And then, finally, he explains the big leap whereby replicating crystals may have attracted to themselves other molecules.

There follows a process of natural selection for clay crystals that trap certain forms of molecules to their surfaces that may enhance their replication potential. Complex proto-organic molecules can be catalysed by the surface properties of silicates.

Genetic takeover of the crystals

It is at this point that he introduces the idea of a ‘genetic takeover’.

When complex molecules perform a ‘genetic takeover’ from their clay ‘vehicle’, they become an independent locus of replication – an evolutionary moment that might be understood as the first exaptation.

(Exaptation = ‘the process by which features acquire functions for which they were not originally adapted or selected’)

Cairns-Smith had already described this process – the ‘genetic takeover’ of an initial, non-organic process by more complex, potentially organic molecules – in his earlier, longer and far more technical book, Genetic Takeover: And the Mineral Origins of Life, published in 1982.

This book – the Seven Clues – is a much shorter, non-technical and more accessible popularisation of the earlier tome. Hence the frivolous references to Sherlock Holmes.

Proliferating crystals form the scaffold for molecules which learn to replicate without them

The final chapter explains how these very common and proliferating entities (clay crystals) might have formed into structures and arrangements which attracted – for purely chemical reasons – various elementary organic molecules to themselves.

Certain repeating structures might attract molecules which then build up into more complex molecules, into molecules which are more efficient at converting the energy of the sun into further molecular combinations. And thus the principle of replication with variation, and competition for resources among the various types of replicating molecule, would have been established.

Thoughts

At this point the book ends, his case presented. It has been a fascinating journey because a) it is interesting to learn about all the different shapes and types of clay crystal b) he forces the reader to think about the fundamental engineering and logistical aspects of life forms, to consider the underlying principles which must inform all life forms, which is challenging and rewarding.

But, even in his own terms, Cairns-Smith’s notion of more and more complex potentially organic molecules being haphazardly replicated on a framework of proliferating clay crystals is still a long, long, long way from even the most primitive life forms known to us, with their vastly complex structure of cell membrane, nucleus and internal sea awash with DNA-controlled biochemical processes.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

The short paper by James Watson and Francis Crick establishing the helical structure of the DNA molecule was published in the science journal, Nature, on April 25, 1953. The blurb of this book describes it as the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Quite probably, although it was a busy century – the discovery of antibiotics was quite important, too, not to mention the atom bomb.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their DNA model at the Cavendish Laboratories in 1953

Anyway, what makes this first-person account of the events leading up to the discovery such fun is Watson’s prose style and mentality. He is fearless. He takes no prisoners. He is brutally honest about his own shortcomings and everyone else’s and, in doing so, sheds extraordinarily candid light on how science is actually done. He tells us that foreign conferences where nobody speaks English are often pointless. Many scientists are just plain stupid. Some colleagues are useless, some make vital contributions at just the right moment.

Watson has no hesitation in telling us that, when he arrived in Cambridge in 1951, aged just 23, he was unqualified in almost every way – although he had a degree from the University of Chicago, he had done his best to avoid learning any physics or chemistry, and as a graduate student at Indiana he had also avoided learning any chemistry. In fact the book keeps referring to his astonishing ignorance of almost all the key aspects of the field he was meant to be studying.

The one thing he did have was a determination to solve the problem which had been becoming ever-more prominent in the world of biology, what is a gene? Watson says he was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s 1946 book, What Is Life? which pointed out that ‘genes’ were the key component of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must understand what genes are and how they work. The bacteriologist O.T. Avery had already shown that hereditary traits were passed from one bacterium to another by purified DNA molecules, so this much was common knowledge in the scientific community.

DNA was probably the agent of hereditary traits, but what did it look like and how did it work?

Our hero gets a U.S. government research grant to go to Copenhagen to study with biochemist Herman Kalckar, his PhD supervisor Salvador Luria hoping the Dane would teach him something but… no. Watson’s interest wasn’t sparked, partly because Kalckar was working on the structure of nucleotides, which young Jim didn’t think were immediately relevant to his quest, also because Herman was hard to understand –

At times I stood about nervously while Herman went through the motions of a biochemist, and on several days I even understood what he said. (p.34)

A situation compounded when Herman began to undergo a painful divorce and his mind wandered from his work altogether.

It was a chance encounter at a conference in Naples that motivated Watson to seek out the conducive-sounding environment of Cambridge (despite the reluctance of his funding authorities back in the States to let him go so easily). John Kendrew, the British biochemist and crystallographer, at that point studying the structure of myoglobin, helped smooth his passage to the fens.

Head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where Watson now found himself was Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography. The unit collecting X-ray diffraction photographs of haemoglobin was headed up by the Austrian Max Perutz, and included Francis Crick, at this stage (in 1951) 35-years-old and definitely an acquired taste. Indeed the famous opening sentence of the book is:

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.

followed by the observation that:

he talked louder and faster than anybody else, and when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious.

So he had found a home of sorts and, in Francis Crick, a motormouth accomplice who was also obsessed by DNA – but there were two problems.

  1. The powers that be didn’t like Crick, who was constantly getting into trouble and nearly got thrown out when he accused the head of the lab, Bragg, of stealing one of his ideas in a research paper.
  2. Most of the work on the crystallography of DNA was being done at King’s College, London, where Maurice Wilkins had patiently been acquiring X-rays of the molecule for nearly ten years.

There was a sub-problem here which was that Wilkins was being forced to work alongside Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, who was an independent-minded 31-year-old woman (b.1920) and under the impression that she had been invited in to lead the NA project. The very young Watson and the not-very-securely-based Crick both felt daunted at having to ask to borrow and interpret Wilkins’s material, not least because he himself would have to extract it from the sometimes obstreperous Franklin.

And in fact there was a third big problem, which was that Linus Pauling, probably the world’s leading chemist and based at Cal Tech in the States, was himself becoming interested in the structure of DNA and the possibility that it was the basis of the much-vaunted hereditary material.

Pauling’s twinkling eyes and dramatic flair when making presentations is vividly described (pp.37-8). Along the same lines, Watson later gives a deliberately comical account of how he is scoffed and ignored by the eminent biochemist Erwin Chargaff after making some (typically) elementary mistakes in basic chemical bonding.

It is fascinating to read the insights scattered throughout the book about the relative reputations of the different areas of science – physics, biology, biochemistry, crystallography and so on. Typical comments are:

  • ‘the witchcraft-like techniques of the biochemist’, p.63
  • ‘In England, if not everywhere, most botanists and zoologists were a muddled lot.’ p.63

In a typical anecdote, after attending a lecture in London given by Franklin about her work, Watson goes for a Chinese meal in Soho with Maurice Wilkins who is worried that he made a mistake moving into biology, compared to the exciting and well-funded world of physics.

The physics of the time was dominated by the aftershock of the massive wartime atom bomb project, and with ongoing work to develop both the H-bomb and peacetime projects for nuclear power.

During the war Wilkins had helped to develop improved radar screens at Birmingham, then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Now he was stuck in a dingy lab in King’s College arguing with Franklin almost every day about who should use the best samples of DNA and the X-ray equipment and so on. (Later on, Watson tells us Wilkins’ and Franklin’s relationship deteriorated so badly that he (Watson) was worried about lending the London team the Cambridge team’s wire models in case Franklin strangled Wilkins with them. At one point, when Watson walks in on Franklin conducting an experiment, she becomes so angry at him he is scared she’s going to attack him. Wilkins confirms there have been occasions when he has run away in fear of her assaulting him.)

It’s in this respect – the insights into the way the lives of scientists are as plagued by uncertainty, professional rivalry, and doubts about whether they’re in the right job, or researching the right subject, gnawing envy of more glamorous, better-funded labs and so on – that the book bursts with insight and human interest.

Deoxyribonucleic acid

By about page 50 Watson has painted vivid thumbnail portraits of all the players involved in the story, the state of contemporary scientific knowledge, and the way different groups or individuals (Wilkins, Franklin, Pauling, Crick and various crystallographer associates at the Cavendish) are all throwing around ideas and speculations about the structure of DNA, on bus trips, in their freezing cold digs, or over gooseberry pie at their local pub, the Eagle in Cambridge (p.75).

For the outsider, I think the real revelation is learning how very small the final achievement of Crick and Watson seems. Avery had shown that DNA was the molecule of heredity. Chergaff had shown it contained equal parts of the four bases. Wilkins and Franklin had produced X-ray photos which strongly hinted at the structure and the famous photo 51 from their lab put it almost beyond doubt that DNA had a helix structure. Pauling, in America, had worked out the helical structure of other long proteins and had now began to speculate about DNA (although Watson conveys his and Crick’s immense relief that Pauling’s paper on the subject, published in early 1953, betrayed some surprisingly elementary mistakes in its chemistry.) But the clock was definitely ticking very loudly, rivals were closing in on the answer, and the pages leading up to the breakthrough are genuinely gripping.

In other words, the final deduction of the double helix structure doesn’t come out of the blue; the precise opposite; from Watson’s account it seems like it would have only been a matter of time before one or other of these groups had stumbled across the correct structure.

But it is very exciting when Watson comes into work one day, clears all the clutter from his desk and starts playing around with pretty basic cardboard cutouts of the four molecules which, by now, had become strongly associated with DNA, adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine.

Suddenly, in a flash, he sees how they assemble the molecules naturally arrange themselves into pairs linked by hydrogen bonds – adenine with thymine and cytosine with guanine.

For a long time they’d been thinking the helix had one strand at the core and that the bases stuck out from it, like quills on a porcupine. Now, in a flash, Watson realises that the the base pairs, which join together so naturally, form a kind of zip, and the bands of sugar-phosphates holding the thing together run along the outside – creating a double helix shape.

The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structures of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. (Source: Wikipedia)

Conclusion

I am not qualified to summarise the impact of the discovery of DNA has had on the world. Maybe it would take books to do so adequately. I’ll quote the book’s blurb:

By elucidating the structure of DNA, the molecule underlying all life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionised biochemistry. At the time, Watson was only 24. His uncompromisingly honest account of those heady days lifts the lid on the real world of great scientists, with their very human faults and foibles, their petty rivalries and driving ambition. Above all, he captures the extraordinary excitement of their desperate efforts to beat their rivals at King’s College to the solution to one of the great enigmas of the life sciences.

The science is interesting, but has been overtaken and superseded generations ago. It’s the characters and the atmosphere of the time (the dingy English rooms with no heating, the appalling English food), the dramatic reality of scientific competition, and then the genuinely exciting pages leading up to the breakthrough which makes Watson’s book such a readable classic.

Rosalind Franklin

I marked all the places in the text where a feminist might explode with anger. Both Watson, but even more Crick, assume pretty young girls are made for their entertainment. They are referred to throughout as ‘popsies’ and Crick in particular, although married, betrays an endless interest in the pretty little secretaries and au pairs which adorn Cambridge parties.

It is through this patronising and sexist prism that the pair judged the efforts of Franklin who was, reasonably enough, a hard-working scientist not at all interested in her appearance or inclined to conform to gender stereotypes of the day. She felt marginalised and bullied at the King’s College lab, and irritated by the ignorance and superficiality of most of Watson and Crick’s ideas, untainted as they were by any genuine understanding of the difficult art of X-ray crystallography – an ignorance which Watson, to his credit, openly admits.

Eventually, Franklin found working with Wilkins so intolerable that she left to take up a position at Birkbeck College and then, tragically, discovered she had incurable cancer, although she worked right up to her death in April 1958.

Franklin has become a feminist heroine, a classic example of a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world, patronised by everyone around her. But if you forget her gender and just think of her as the scientist called Franklin, it is still a story of misunderstandings and poisonous professional relations such as I’ve encountered in numerous workplaces. Watson and Crick’s patronising tone must have exacerbated the situation, but the fundamental problem was that she was given clear written instructions that she would be in charge of the X-ray crystallography at King’s College but then discovered that Wilkins thought he had full control of the project. This was a management screw-up more than anything else.

It does seem unfair that she wasn’t cited in the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962, but then she had died in 1958, and the Swedish Academy had a simple rule of not awarding the prize to dead people.

Still, it’s not like her name has disappeared from the annals of history. Quite the reverse:

Impressive list, don’t you think?

And anyone who hasn’t read the book might be easily persuaded that she was an unjustly victimised, patronised and ignored figure. But just to set the record straight, Watson chooses to end the entire book not with swank about his and Crick’s later careers, but with a tribute to Franklin’s character and scientific achievement.

In 1958, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of thirty-seven. Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements. The X-ray work she did at King’s is increasingly regarded as superb. The sorting out of the A and B forms [of DNA], by itself, would have made her reputation; even better was her 1952 demonstration, using Patterson superposition methods, that the phosphate groups must be on the outside of the DNA molecule. Later, when she moved to Bernal’s lab, she took up work on tobacco mosaic virus and quickly extended our qualitative ideas about helical construction into a precise quantitative picture, definitely establishing the essential helical parameters and locating the ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis.

Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis, to whom she frequently came for advice or when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realising years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosalind’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death. (p.175)

That is a fine, generous and moving tribute, don’t you think? And as candid and honest as the rest of the book in admitting his and Crick’s complete misreading of her situation and character.

In a literal sense the entire book leads up to this final page [these are the last words of the book] and this book became a surprise bestseller and the standard source to begin understanding the events surrounding the discovery. So it’s hard to claim that her achievement was ‘suppressed’ or ‘ignored’ when this is the climax of the best-selling account of the story.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements by Peter Atkins (1995)

Chemistry is the science of changes in matter. (p.37)

At just under 150 pages long, A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements is intended as a novel and imaginative introduction to the 118 or so chemical elements which are the basic components of chemistry, and which, for the past 100 years or so, have been laid out in the grid arrangement known as the periodic table.

The periodic table explained

Just to refresh your memory, it’s called the periodic table because it is arranged into rows called ‘periods’. These are numbered 1 to 7 down the left-hand side.

What is a period? The ‘period number’ of an element signifies ‘the highest energy level an electron in that element occupies (in the unexcited state)’. To put it another way, the ‘period number’ of an element is its number of atomic orbitals. An orbital is the number of orbital positions an electron can take around the nucleus. Think of it like the orbit of the earth round the sun.

For each element there is a limited number of these ‘orbits’ which electrons can take up. Hydrogen, in row one, can only have one electron because it only has one possible orbital for an electron to take up around its nucleus. All the elements in row 2 have two orbitals for their electrons, and so on.

Sodium, for instance, sits in the third period, which means a sodium atom typically has electrons in the first three energy levels. Moving down the table, periods are longer because it takes more electrons to fill the larger and more complex outer levels.

The columns of the table are arranged into ‘groups’ from 1 to 18 along the top. Elements that occupy the same column or group have the same number of electrons in their outer orbital. These outer electrons are called ‘valence electrons’. The electrons in the outer orbital are the first ones to be involved in chemical bonds with other elements; they are relatively easy to dislodge, the ones in the lower orbitals progressively harder.

Elements with identical ‘valance electron configurations’ tend to behave in a similar fashion chemically. For example, all the elements in group or column 18 are gases which are slow to interact with other chemicals and so are known as the inert gases – helium, neon etc. Atkins describes the amazing achievement of the Scottish chemist William Ramsey in discovering almost all the inert gases in the 1890s.

Although there are 18 columns, the actual number of electrons in the outer orbital only goes up to 8. Take nitrogen in row 2 column 15. Nitrogen has the atomic number seven. The atomic number means there are seven electrons in a neutral atom of nitrogen. How many electrons are in its outer orbital? Although nitrogen is in the fifteenth column, that column is actually labelled ‘5A’. 5 represents the number of electrons in the outer orbital. So all this tells you that nitrogen has seven electrons in two orbitals around the nucleus, two in the first orbital and five in the second (2-5).

 

The Periodic Table. Karl Tate © LiveScience.com

Note that each element has two numbers in its cell. The one at the top is the atomic number. This is the number of protons in the nucleus of the element. Note how the atomic number increases in a regular, linear manner, from 1 for hydrogen at the top left, to 118 for Oganesson at the bottom right. After number 83, bismuth, all the elements are radioactive.

(N.B. When Atkins’s book was published in 1995 the table stopped at number 109, Meitnerium. As I write this, 24 years later, it has been extended to number 118, Oganesson. These later elements have been created in minute quantities in laboratories and some of them only exist for a few moments.)

Beneath the element name is the atomic weight. This is the mass of a given atom, measured on a scale in which the hydrogen atom has the weight of one. Because most of the mass in an atom is in the nucleus, and each proton and neutron has an atomic weight near one, the atomic weight is very nearly equal to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.

Note the freestanding pair of rows at the bottom, coloured in purple and orange. These are the lanthanides and actinides. We’ll come to them in a moment.

Not only are the elements arranged into periods and groups but they are also categorised into groupings according to their qualities. In this diagram (taken from LiveScience.com) the different groupings are colour-coded. The groupings are, moving from left to right:

Alkali metals The alkali metals make up most of Group 1, the table’s first column. Shiny and soft enough to cut with a knife, these metals start with lithium (Li) and end with francium (Fr), among the rarest elements on earth: Atkins tells us that at any one moment there are only seventeen atoms of francium on the entire planet. The alkali metals are extremely reactive and burst into flame or even explode on contact with water, so chemists store them in oils or inert gases. Hydrogen, with its single electron, also lives in Group 1, but is considered a non-metal.

Alkaline-earth metals The alkaline-earth metals make up Group 2 of the periodic table, from beryllium (Be) through radium (Ra). Each of these elements has two electrons in its outermost energy level, which makes the alkaline earths reactive enough that they’re rarely found in pure form in nature. But they’re not as reactive as the alkali metals. Their chemical reactions typically occur more slowly and produce less heat compared to the alkali metals.

Lanthanides The third group is much too long to fit into the third column, so it is broken out and flipped sideways to become the top row of what Atkins calls ‘the Southern Island’ that floats at the bottom of the table. This is the lanthanides, elements 57 through 71, lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The elements in this group have a silvery white color and tarnish on contact with air.

Actinides The actinides line forms the bottom row of the Southern Island and comprise elements 89, actinium (Ac) to 103, lawrencium (Lr). Of these elements, only thorium (Th) and uranium (U) occur naturally on earth in substantial amounts. All are radioactive. The actinides and the lanthanides together form a group called the inner transition metals.

Transition metals Returning to the main body of the table, the remainder of Groups 3 through 12 represent the rest of the transition metals. Hard but malleable, shiny, and possessing good conductivity, these elements are what you normally associate with the word metal. This is the location of many of the best known metals, including gold, silver, iron and platinum.

Post-transition metals Ahead of the jump into the non-metal world, shared characteristics aren’t neatly divided along vertical group lines. The post-transition metals are aluminum (Al), gallium (Ga), indium (In), thallium (Tl), tin (Sn), lead (Pb) and bismuth (Bi), and they span Group 13 to Group 17. These elements have some of the classic characteristics of the transition metals, but they tend to be softer and conduct more poorly than other transition metals. Many periodic tables will feature a highlighted ‘staircase’ line below the diagonal connecting boron with astatine. The post-transition metals cluster to the lower left of this line. Atkins points out that all the elements beyond bismuth (row 6, column 15) are radioactive. Here be skull-and-crossbones warning signs.

Metalloids The metalloids are boron (B), silicon (Si), germanium (Ge), arsenic (As), antimony (Sb), tellurium (Te) and polonium (Po). They form the staircase that represents the gradual transition from metals to non-metals. These elements sometimes behave as semiconductors (B, Si, Ge) rather than as conductors. Metalloids are also called ‘semi-metals’ or ‘poor metals’.

Non-metals Everything else to the upper right of the staircase (plus hydrogen (H), stranded way back in Group 1) is a non-metal. These include the crucial elements for life on earth, carbon (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), oxygen (O), sulfur (S) and selenium (Se).

Halogens The top four elements of Group 17, from fluorine (F) through astatine (At), represent one of two subsets of the non-metals. The halogens are quite chemically reactive and tend to pair up with alkali metals to produce various types of salt. Common salt is a marriage between the alkali metal sodium and the halogen chlorine.

Noble gases Colorless, odourless and almost completely non-reactive, the inert, or noble gases round out the table in Group 18. The low boiling point of helium makes it a useful refrigerant when exceptionally low temperatures are required; most of them give off a colourful display when electric current is passed through them, hence the generic name of neon lights, invented in 1910 by Georges Claude.

The metaphor of the Periodic Kingdom

In fact the summary I’ve given above isn’t at all how Atkins’s book sounds. It is the way I have had to make notes to myself to understand the table.

Atkins’ book is far from being so clear and straightforward. The Periodic Kingdom is dominated by the central conceit that Atkins treats the periodic table as if it were an actual country. His book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of biochemistry, mineralogy and industrial chemistry; it is a light-hearted ‘traveller’s guide’ (p.27) to the table which he never refers to as a table, but as a kingdom, complete with its own geography, layout, mountain peaks and ravines, and surrounded by a sea of nothingness.

Hence, from start to finish of the book, Atkins uses metaphors from landscape and exploration to describe the kingdom, talking about ‘the Western desert’, ‘the Southern Shore’ and so on. Here’s a characteristic sentence:

The general disposition of the land is one of metals in the west, giving way, as you travel eastward, to a varied landscape of nonmetals, which terminates in largely inert elements at the eastern shoreline. (p.9)

I guess the idea is to help us memorise the table by describing its characteristics and the changes in atomic weight, physical character, alkalinity, reactivity and so on of the various elements, in terms of geography. Presumably he thinks it’s easier to remember geography than raw information. His approach certainly gives rise to striking analogies:

North of the mainland, situated rather like Iceland off the northwestern edge of Europe, lies a single, isolated region – hydrogen. This simple but gifted element is an essential outpost of the kingdom, for despite its simplicity it is rich in chemical personality. It is also the most abundant element in the universe and the fuel of the stars. (p.9)

Above all the extended metaphor (the periodic table imagined as a country) frees Atkins not to have to lay out the subject in either a technical nor a chronological order but to take a pleasant stroll across the landscape, pointing out interesting features and making a wide variety of linkages, pointing out the secret patterns and subterranean connections between elements in the same ‘regions’ of the table.

There are quite a few of these, for example the way iron can easily form alliances with the metals close to it such as cobalt, nickel and manganese to produce steel. Or the way the march of civilisation progressed from ‘east’ to ‘west’ through the metals, i.e. moving from copper, to iron and steel, each representing a new level of culture and technology.

The kingdom metaphor also allows him to get straight to core facts about each element without getting tangled in pedantic introductions: thus we learn there would be no life without nitrogen which is a key building block of all proteins, not to mention the DNA molecule; or that sodium and potassium (both alkali metals) are vital in the functioning of brain and nervous system cells.

And hence the generally light-hearted, whimsical tone allows him to make fanciful connections: calcium is a key ingredient in the bones of endoskeletons and the shells of exoskeletons, compacted dead shells made chalk, but in another format made the limestone which the Romans and others ground up to make the mortar which held their houses together.

Then there is magnesium. I didn’t think magnesium was particularly special, but learned from Atkins that a single magnesium atom is at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule, and:

Without chlorophyll, the world would be a damp warm rock instead of the softly green haven of life that we know, for chlorophyll holds its magnesium eye to the sun and captures the energy of sunlight, in the first step of photosynthesis. (p.16)

You see how the writing is aspiring to an evocative, poetic quality- a deliberate antidote to the dry and factual way chemistry was taught to us at school. He means to convey the sense of wonder, the strange patterns and secret linkages underlying these wonderful entities. I liked it when he tells us that life is about capturing, storing and deploying energy.

Life is a controlled unwinding of energy.

Or about how phosphorus, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a perfect vector for the deployment of energy, common to all living cells. Hence the importance of phosphates as fertiliser to grow the plants we need to survive. Arsenic is such an effective poison because it is a neighbour of phosphorus, shares some of its qualities, and so inserts itself into chemical reactions usually carried out by phosphorus but blocking them, nulling them, killing the host organism.

All the facts I explained in the first half of this post (mostly cribbed from the LiveScience.com website) are not reached or explained until about page 100 of this 150-page-long book. Personally, I felt I needed them earlier. As soon as I looked at the big diagram of the table he gives right at the end of the book I became intrigued by the layout and the numbers and couldn’t wait for him to get round to explaining them, which is why I went on the internet to find out more, more quickly, and why Istarted my review with a factual summary.

And eventually, the very extended conceit of ‘the kingdom’ gets rather tiresome. Whether intentional or not, the continual references to ‘the kingdom’ begin to sound Biblical and pretentious.

Now the kingdom is virtually fully formed. It rises above the sea of nonbeing and will remain substantially the same almost forever. The kingdom was formed in and among the stars.. (p.75)

The chapter on the scientists who first isolated the elements and began sketching out the table continues the metaphor by referring to them as ‘cartographers’, and the kingdom as made of islands and archipelagos.

As an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Jena, [Johann Döbereiner] noticed that reports of some of the kingdom’s islands – reports brought back by their chemical explorers – suggested a brotherhood of sorts between the regions. (p.79)

For me, the obsessive use of the geographical metaphor teeters on the border between being useful, and becoming irritating. He introduces me to the names of the great pioneers – I was particularly interested in Dalton, Michael Faraday, Humphrey Davy (who isolated a bunch of elements in the early 1800s) and then William Ramsey – but I had to go to Wikipedia to really understand their achievements.

Atkins speculates that some day we might find another bunch or set of elements, which might even form an entire new ‘continent’, though it is unlikely. This use of a metaphor is sort of useful for spatially imagining how this might happen, but I quickly got bored of him calling this possible set of new discoveries ‘Atlantis’, and of the poetic language as a whole.

Is the kingdom eternal, or will it slip beneath the waves? There is a good chance that one day – in a few years, or a few hundred years at most – Atlantis will be found, which will be an intellectual achievement but probably not one of great practical significance…

A likely (but not certain) scenario is that in that distant time, perhaps 10100 years into the future, all matter will have decayed into radiation, it is even possible to imagine the process. Gradually the peaks and dales of the kingdom will slip away and Mount Iron will rise higher, as elements collapse into its lazy, low-energy form. Provided that matter does not decay into radiation first (which is one possibility), the kingdom will become a lonely pinnacle, with iron the only protuberance from the sea of nonbeing… (p.77)

And I felt the tone sometimes bordered on the patronising.

The second chemical squabble is in the far North, and concerns the location of the offshore Northern Island of hydrogen. To those who do not like offshore islands, there is the problem of where to put it on the mainland. This is the war of the Big-Endians versus the Little-Endians. Big-Endians want to tow the island ashore to form a new Northwestern Cape, immediately north of lithium and beryllium and across from the Northeastern Cape of helium… (p.90)

Hard core chemistry

Unfortunately, none of these imaginative metaphors can help when you come to chapter 9, an unexpectedly brutal bombardment of uncompromising hard core information about the quantum mechanics underlying the structure of the elements.

In quick succession this introduces us to a blizzard of ideas: orbitals, energy levels, Pauli’s law of exclusion, and then the three imaginary lobes of orbitals.

As I understood it, the Pauli exclusion principle states that no two electrons can inhabit a particular orbital or ‘layer’ or shell. But what complicates the picture is that these orbitals come in three lobes conceived as lying along imaginary x, y and z axes. This overlapped with the information that there are four types of orbitals – s, p, d and f orbitals. In addition, there are three p-orbitals, five d-orbitals, seven f-orbitals. And the two lobes of a p-orbital are on either side of an imaginary plane cutting through the nucleus, there are two such planes in a d-orbital and three in an f-orbital.

After pages of amiable waffle about kingdoms and Atlantis, this was like being smacked in the face with a wet towel. Even rereading the chapter three times, I still found it impossible to process and understand this information.

I understand Atkins when he says it is the nature of the orbitals, and which lobes they lie along, which dictates an element’s place in the table, but he lost me when he said a number of electrons lie inside the nucleus – which is the opposite of everything I was ever taught – and then when described the way electrons fly across or through the nucleus, something to do with the processes of ‘shielding’ and ‘penetration’.

The conspiracy of shielding and penetration ensure that the 2s-orbital is somewhat lower in energy than the p-orbitals of the same rank. By extension, where other types of orbitals are possible, ns- and np-orbitals both lie lower in energy than nd-orbitals, and nd-orbitals in turn have lower energy than nf-orbitals. An s-orbital has no nodal plane, and electrons can be found at the nucleus. A p-orbital has one plane, and the electron is excluded from the nucleus. A d-orbital has two intersecting planes, and the exclusion of the electron is greater. An f-orbital has three planes, and the exclusion is correspondingly greater still. (p.118)

Note how all the chummy metaphors of kingdoms and deserts and mountains have disappeared. This is the hard-core quantum mechanical basis of the elements, and at least part of the reason it is so difficult to understand is because he has made the weird decision to throw half a dozen complex ideas at the reader at the same time. I read the chapter three times, still didn’t get it, and eventually wanted to cry with frustration.

This online lecture gives you a flavour of the subject, although it doesn’t mention ‘lobes’ or penetration or shielding.

In the next chapter, Atkins, briskly assuming  his readers have processed and understood all of this information, goes on to combine the stuff about lobes and orbitals with a passage from earlier in the book, where he had introduced the concept of ions, cations, and anions:

  • ion an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons
  • cation a positively charged ion
  • anion a negatively charged ion

He had also explained the concept of electron affinity

The electron affinity (Eea) of an atom or molecule is defined as the amount of energy released or spent when an electron is added to a neutral atom or molecule in the gaseous state to form a negative ion.

Isn’t ‘affinity’ a really bad word to describe this? ‘Affinity’ usually means ‘a natural liking for and understanding of someone or something’. If it is the amount of energy released, why don’t they call it something useful like the ‘energy release’? I felt the same about the terms ‘cation’ and ‘anion’ – that they had been deliberately coined to mystify and confuse. I kept having to stop and look up what they meant since the name is absolutely no use whatsoever.

And the electronvolt – ‘An electronvolt (eV) is the amount of kinetic energy gained or lost by a single electron accelerating from rest through an electric potential difference of one volt in vacuum.’

Combining the not-very-easily understandable material about electron volts with the incomprehensible stuff about orbitals means that the final 30 pages or so of The Periodic Kingdom is thirty pages of this sort of thing:

Take sodium: it has a single electron outside a compact, noble-gaslike core (its structure is [Ne]3s¹). The first electron is quite easy to remove (its removal requires an investment of 5.1 eV), but removal of the second, which has come from the core that lies close to the nucleus, requires an enormous energy – nearly ten times as much, in fact (47.3 eV). (p.130)

This reminds me of the comparable moment in John Allen Paulos’s book Innumeracy where I ceased to follow the argument. After rereading the passage where I stumbled and fell I eventually realised it was because Paulos had introduced three or so important facts about probability theory very, very quickly, without fully explaining them or letting them bed in – and then had spun a fancy variation on them…. leaving me standing gaping on the shore.

Same thing happens here. I almost but don’t quite understand what [Ne]3s¹ means, and almost but don’t quite grasp the scale of electronvolts, so when he goes on to say that releasing the second electron requires ten times as much energy, of course I understand the words, but I cannot quite grasp why it should be so because I have not understood the first two premises.

As with Paulos, the author has gone too fast. These are not simple ideas you can whistle through and expect your readers to lap up. These are very, very difficult ideas most readers will be completely unused to.

I felt the sub-atomic structure chapter should almost have been written twice, approached from entirely different points of view. Even the diagrams were no use because I didn’t understand what they were illustrating because I didn’t understand his swift introduction of half a dozen impenetrable concepts in half a page.

Once through, briskly, is simply not enough. The more I tried to reread the chapter, the more the words started to float in front of my eyes and my brain began to hurt. It is packed with sentences like these:

Now imagine a 2 p-electron… (an electron that occupies a 2 p-orbital). Such an electron is banished from the nucleus on account of the existence of the nodal plane. This electron is more completely shielded from the pull of the nucleus, and so it is not gripped as tightly.In other words, because of the interplay of shielding and penetration, a 2 s-orbital has a lower energy (an electron in it is gripped more tightly) than a 2 p-orbital… Thus the third and final electron of lithium enters the 2 s-orbital, and its overall structure is 1s²2s¹. (p.118)

I very nearly understand what some of these words meant, but the cumulative impact of sentences like these was like being punched to the ground and then given a good kicking. And when the last thirty pages went on to add the subtleties of electronvoltages and micro-electric charges into the mix, to produce ever-more complex explanations for the sub-atomic interactivity of different elements, I gave up.

Summary

The first 90 or so pages of The Periodic Kingdom do manage to give you a feel for the size and shape and underlying patterns of the periodic table. Although it eventually becomes irritating, the ruling metaphor of seeing the whole place as a country with different regions and terrains works – up to a point – to explain or suggest the patterns of size, weight, reactivity and so on underlying the elements.

When he introduced ions was when he first lost me, but I stumbled on through the entertaining trivia and titbits surrounding the chemistry pioneers who first isolated and named many of the elements and the first tentative attempts to create a table for another thirty pages or so.

But the chapter about the sub-atomic structure of chemical elements comprehensively lost me. I was already staggering, and this finished me off.

If Atkins’s aim was to explain the basics of chemistry to an educated layman, then the book was, for me, a complete failure. I sort of quarter understood the orbitals, lobes, nodes section but anything less than 100% understanding means you won’t be able to follow him to the next level of complexity.

As with the Paulos book, I don’t think I failed because I am stupid – I think that, on both occasions, the author failed to understand how challenging his subject matter is, and introduced a flurry of concepts far too quickly, at far too advanced a level.

Looking really closely I realise it is on the same page (page 111) that Atkins introduces the concepts of energy levels, orbitals, the fact that there are three two-lobed orbitals, and the vital existence of nodal planes. On the same page! Why the rush?

An interesting and seemingly trivial feature of a p-orbital, but a feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge, is that the electron will never be found on the imaginary plane passing through the nucleus and dividing the two lobes of the orbital. This plane is called a nodal plane. An s-orbital does not have such a nodal plane, and the electron it describes may be found at the nucleus. Every p-orbital has a nodal plane of this kind, and therefore an electron that occupies a p-orbital will never be found at the nucleus. (p.111)

Do you understand that? Because if you don’t, you won’t understand the last 40 or so pages of the book, because this is the ‘feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge’.

I struggled through the final 40 pages weeping tears of frustration, and flushed with anger at having the thing explained to me so badly. Exactly how I felt during my chemistry lessons at school forty years ago.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Nature’s Numbers by Ian Stewart (1995)

Ian Stewart is a mathematician and prolific author, having written over 40 books on all aspects of maths, as well as publishing several guides to the maths used in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, writing half a dozen textbooks for students, and co-authoring a couple of science fiction novels.

Stewart writes in a marvellously clear style but, more importantly, he is interesting: he sees the world in an interesting way, in a mathematical way, and manages to convey the wonder and strangeness and powerful insights which seeing the world in terms of patterns and shapes, numbers and maths, gives you.

He wants to help us see the world as a mathematician sees it, full of clues and information which can lead us to deeper and deeper appreciation of the patterns and harmonies all around us. It makes for a wonderfully illuminating read.

1. The Natural Order

Thus Stewart begins the book by describing just some of nature’s multitude of patterns: the regular movements of the stars in the night sky; the sixfold symmetry of snowflakes; the stripes of tigers and zebras; the recurring patterns of sand dunes; rainbows; the spiral of a snail’s shell; why nearly all flowers have petals arranged in one of the following numbers 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89; the regular patterns or ‘rhythms’ made by animals scuttling, walking, flying and swimming.

2. What Mathematics is For

Mathematics is brilliant at helping us to solve puzzles. It is a more or less systematic way of digging out the rules and structures that lie behind some observed pattern or regularity, and then using those rules and structures to explain what’s going on. (p.16)

Having gotten our attention, Stewart trots through the history of major mathematical discoveries including Kepler discovering that the planets move not in circles but in ellipses; the discovery that the nature of acceleration is ‘not a fundamental quality, but a rate of change’, then Newton and Leibniz inventing calculus to help us work outcomplex rates of change, and so on.

Two of the main things that maths are for are 1. providing the tools which let scientists understand what nature is doing 2. providing new theoretical questions for mathematicians to explore further. These are handy rules of thumb for distinguishing between, respectively, applied and pure mathematics.

Stewart mentions one of the oddities, paradoxes or thought-provoking things that crops up in many science books, which is the eerie way that good mathematics, mathematics well done, whatever its source and no matter how abstract its origin, eventually turns out to be useful, to be applicable to the real world, to explain some aspect of nature.

Many philosophers have wondered why. Is there a deep congruence between the human mind and the structure of the universe? Did God make the universe mathematically and implant an understanding of maths in us? Is the universe made of maths?

Stewart’s answer is simple and elegant: he thinks that nature exploits every pattern that there is, which is why we keep discovering patterns everywhere. We humans express these patterns in numbers, but nature doesn’t use numbers as such – she uses the patterns and shapes and possibilities which the numbers express or define.

Mendel noticing the numerical relationships with which characteristics of peas are expressed when they are crossbred. The double helix structure of DNA. Computer simulations of the evolution of the eye from an initial mutation creating a patch of skin cells sensitive to light, published by Daniel Nilsson and Susanne Pelger in 1994. Pattern appears wherever we look.

Resonance = the relationship between periodically moving bodies in which their cycles lock together so that they take up the same relative positions at regular intervals. The cycle time is the period of the system. The individual bodies have different periods. The moon’s rotational period is the same as its revolution around the earth, so there is a 1:1 resonance of its orbital and rotational periods.

Mathematics doesn’t just analyse, it can predict, predict how all kinds of systems will work, from the aerodynamics which keep planes flying, to the amount of fertiliser required to increase crop yield, to the complicated calculations which keep communications satellites in orbit round the earth and therefore sustain our internet and mobile phone networks.

Time lags The gap between a new mathematical idea being developed and its practical implementation can be a century or more: it was 17th century interest in the mathematics of vibrating violin strings which led, three hundred years later, to the invention of radio, radar and TV.

3. What Mathematics is About

The word ‘number’ does not have any immutable, God-given meaning. (p.42)

Numbers are the most prominent part of mathematics and everyone is taught arithmetic at school, but numbers are just one type of object that mathematics is interested in.

Stewart outlines the invention of whole numbers, and then of fractions. Some time in the Dark Ages the invention of 0. The invention of negative numbers, then of square roots. Irrational numbers. ‘Real’ numbers.

Whole numbers 1, 2, 3… are known as the natural numbers. If you include negative whole numbers, the series is known as integers. Positive and negative numbers taken together are known as rational numbers. Then there are real numbers and complex numbers. Five systems in total.

But maths is also about operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And functions, also known as transformations, rules for transforming one mathematical object into another. Many of these processes can be thought of as things which help to create data structures.

Maths is like a landscape in which similar proofs and theories cluster together to create peaks and troughs.

4. The Constants of Change

Newton’s basic insight was that changes in nature can be described by mathematical processes. Stewart explains how detailed consideration of what happens to a cannonball fired out of a cannon helps us towards Newton’s fundamental law, that force = mass x acceleration.

Newton invented calculus to help work out solutions to moving bodies. Its two basic operations – integration and differentiation – mean that, given one element – force, mass or acceleration – you can work out the other two. Differentiation is the technique for finding rates of change; integration is the technique for ‘undoing’ the effect of differentiation in order to isolate out the initial variables.

Calculating rates of change is a crucial aspect of maths, engineering, cosmology and many other areas of science.

5. From Violins to Videos

He gives a fascinating historical recap of how initial investigations into the way a violin string vibrates gave rise to formulae and equations which turned out to be useful in mapping electricity and magnetism, which turned out to be aspects of the same fundamental force, electromagnetism. It was understanding this which underpinned the invention of radio, radar, TV etc and Stewart’s account describes the contributions made by Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz and Guglielmo Marconi.

Stewart makes the point that mathematical theory tends to start with the simple and immediate and grow ever-more complicated. This is because of a basic approach common in lots of mathematics which is that, you have to start somewhere.

6. Broken Symmetry

A symmetry of an object or system is any transformation that leaves it invariant. (p.87)

There are many types of symmetry. The most important ones are reflections, rotations and translations.

7. The Rhythm of Life

The nature of oscillation and Hopf bifurcation (if a simplified system wobbles, then so must the complex system it is derived from) leads into a discussion of how animals – specifically animals with legs – move, which turns out to be by staggered or syncopated oscillations, oscillations of muscles triggered by neural circuits in the brain.

This is a subject Stewart has written about elsewhere and is something of an expert on. Thus he tells us that the seven types of quadrupedal gait are: the trot, pace, bound, walk, rotary gallop, transverse gallop, and canter.

8. Do Dice Play God?

This chapter covers Stewart’s take on chaos theory.

Chaotic behaviour obeys deterministic laws, but is so irregular that to the untrained eye it looks pretty much random. Chaos is not complicated, patternless behaviour; it is much more subtle. Chaos is apparently complicated, apparently patternless behaviour that actually has a simple, deterministic explanation. (p.130)

19th century scientists thought that, if you knew the starting conditions, and then the rules governing any system, you could completely predict the outcomes. In the 1970s and 80s it became increasingly clear that this was wrong. It is impossible because you can never define the starting conditions with complete certainty.

Thus all real world behaviours are subject to ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’. From minuscule divergences at the starting point, cataclysmic differences may eventually emerge in mature systems.

Stewart goes on to explain the concept of ‘phase space’ developed by Henri Poincaré: this is an imaginary mathematical space that represents all possible motions in a given dynamic system. The phase space is the 3-D place in which you plot the behaviour in order to create the phase portrait. Instead of having to define a formula and worrying about identifying every number of the behaviour, the general shape can be determined.

Much use of phase portraits has shown that dynamic systems tend to have set shapes which emerge and which systems move towards. These are called attractors.

9. Drops, Dynamics and Daisies

The book ends by drawing some philosophical conclusions.

Chaos theory has all sorts of implications but the one Stewart closes on is this: the world is not chaotic; if anything, it is boringly predictable. And at the level of basic physics and maths, the laws which seem to underpin it are also schematic and simple. And yet, what we are only really beginning to appreciate is how complicated things are in the middle.

It is as if nature can only get from simple laws (like Newton’s incredibly simple law of thermodynamics) to fairly simple outcomes (the orbit of the planets) via almost incomprehensibly complex processes.

To end, Stewart gives us three examples of the way apparently ‘simple’ phenomena in nature derive from stupefying complexity:

  • what exactly happens when a drop of water falls off a tap
  • computer modelling of the growth of fox and rabbit populations
  • why petals on flowers are arranged in numbers derived from the Fibonacci sequence

In all three cases the underlying principles seem to be resolvable into easily stated laws and functions – and in our everyday lives we see water dropping off taps or flowerheads all the time – and yet the intermediate steps between simple mathematical principles and real world embodiment turn out to be mind-bogglingly complex.

Coda: Morphomatics

Stewart ends the book with an epilogue speculating, hoping and wishing for a new kind of mathematics which incorporates chaos theory and the other elements he’s discussed – a theory and study of form, which takes everything we already know about mathematics and seeks to work out how the almost incomprehensible complexity we are discovering in nature gives rise to all the ‘simple’ patterns which we see around us. He calls it morphomatics.

Request

If you have enjoyed reading this blog post, can you leave a comment and let me know why.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

%d bloggers like this: