Saturday, December 26, 2009

On the Five-Pointed Snowflake

There’s a fun letter in the latest issue of Nature from Thomas Koop at the University of Bielefeld pointing out how often snowflakes in festive decorations, greetings and wrapping paper are misdrawn with fewer or more than six points. Above is a particularly fine example that I discovered this year, in which some of my presents were (ironically) wrapped (available at Sainsbury’s, no doubt now at a reduced price). It never ceases to amaze me that designers have failed to assimilate this very basic fact about the six-pointed snowflake, though it’s been generally known for centuries. Indeed, the knowledge goes much further back than Kepler’s seventeenth-century treatise, as I pointed out here and in the ‘Branches’ volume of my recent trilogy Nature’s Patterns.

(I’m amused too to see that Nature’s marketing folk are still managing to embarrass the scientific staff. I could tell other tales, but it would be cruel.)

Yet these pentagonal snowflakes set me thinking. As is widely known, the only way ‘crystals’ can display growth habits with fivefold (or indeed eightfold) symmetry is if they are in fact quasicrystals. But could water form quasicrystals? Certainly, in the liquid state it is much more congenial for water molecules to form fivefold rings than the sixfold ones present in ice, because the bond angles are then much closer to that preferred in the tetrahedral coordination geometry. And these pentagonal rings are a general feature of the crystal structures of clathrate hydrates, in which water is frozen around nonpolar solutes such as methane. Now, I’m no crystallographer but I have the impression that it would be naïve to imagine that a local pentagonal packing symmetry is all it takes to make quasicrystallinity feasible. But on the other hand, it’s a good start; our current understanding of quasicrystals grew partly out of Charles Frank’s early work on icosahedral clustering in simple liquids. And large icosahedral structures for water have certainly been postulated. In fact, I’m very puzzled that I can seem to find no discussion in the literature of the possibility of quasicrystallinity in water – either I’m failing badly to understand something (quite possible) or I’m somehow looking in the wrong places (also possible). But I will ask my water structure gurus about this, and if anything comes of that, watch this space.

Incidentally, strict twelvefold symmetry is also forbidden in true crystals but known in quasicrystals. Yet a sort of pseudo-twelvefold symmetry has been seen in snowflakes, due to the coalescence of two snowflakes.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The transformation of Chartres

 I was interviewed recently by a chap from Die Welt for an article (in German) about the restoration of Chartres Cathedral. This is, for Chartres fans, a very big deal – not only is everything being cleaned up, but the walls are being painted in the original colour scheme of the 13th century, shown above from my book Universe of Stone. The church interior was painted ochre, with while highlights for some of the piers and arches, and a web of white lines picking out false masonry joints. We know this because some of the original paintwork still remains in remote corners of the building.

The result, it’s said, is going to transform the way the interior looks: no longer will it have the purple gloom for which Chartres is famous – one might even say revered. Instead, it will be flooded with light, looking – the claim goes – much closer to the way it did when it was built.

Now, I feel that I should probably be taking an outspoken stance on this – either denouncing the plans as a travesty and desecration, or praising it as a long overdue and wondrous thing. But the truth is that I can too readily see the arguments on both sides.

It is easiest to enumerate those against. It is not lightly that conservators of paintings have reached a consensus that one should not retouch damaged the works of the Old Masters, but should instead aim to prevent or limit further damage while leaving existing blemishes evident. It’s OK, the current view goes, to stick back on flakes of paint that are falling off, but not OK to apply fresh paint. Better to have an honest record of what we have left of these works than to leave us mistaken or confused about what is new and what is original.

What’s more, as I say in the article, it is tempting to imagine that a paint job will enable us to see the cathedral ‘as medieval peasants saw it’. But we need to acknowledge the fact that we can never do that. It’s not just that we will still lack the opulent wall hangings and other accoutrements of ecclesiastical splendour, nor the precise rituals or the social hubbub that conditioned the experience in the thirteenth century. Most crucially, we don’t have thirteenth-century minds. Our entire aesthetic is different, and so is the experience of religious life even for believers today. We enter the Royal Portal from a very different world, already accustomed to light and colour and monumental architecture, even if that is in the form of an office tower. To us – again, even to many Christians – Chartres is basically a tourist destination, and we don’t really have the perception any longer that it is a kind of heaven on earth. Besides, there is no ‘medieval mind’ (despite, I admit, the subtitle of my book) – what nobles, clerics and peasants experienced and believed was considerably different.

This much is true for any kind of antiquated art, of course. The same considerations are rightly said to somewhat undermine a purist attitude towards ‘authentic’ early music: we can do all we like to play it on the ‘original’ instruments, and with the ‘original’ intonation, but we don’t have, and can’t give ourselves, Renaissance ears. The way we hear has been irrevocably ‘contaminated’ – or better to say, altered. Arguably, it is best simply to recognize that and to get on with the business of responding to art from a contemporary standpoint, rather than fooling ourselves that we can experience it ‘as it was originally intended’.

And yet… One could surely argue that, just because we can’t reproduce exactly the experience of people at the time the art was made, that needn’t prevent us from doing what we can to get close to it. It could seem rather condescending to take the attitude that, because the audience is ‘ignorant’, it doesn’t really matter what we place before them. Besides, there is surely a difference between pretending we can paint a hand just like Titian and slapping on some wall paint that, in all probability, was applied in the thirteenth century with not too dissimilar a sensibility to that of builders and interior decorators today (i.e. it’s just another job). And might many visitors already think anyway that what they are seeing at Chartres is what the medieval worshippers saw?

What’s more, conservation of a building like this, exposed to the elements – unlike a painting that can be kept in a protective environment – has to involve a constructive element. Otherwise it wouldn’t last another hundred years. That was very apparent to me when I visited the masons’ yard at York Minster, where stones were constantly being shaped to replace those that were on the point of crumbling away. There is a kind of enforced honesty in this process, as one can very easily distinguish the new, golden blocks from the old soot-stained ones.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we need to get rid of the idea that there was some ‘pristine’ version of the cathedral that, now lost, should forever remain so. A cathedral was almost always a work in progress, and almost always a mutated, even botched or ruined, version of what one or other of the master builders envisaged. As often as not, no sooner had a piece of work been completed than the next bishop would decide he wanted this or that altered. Throughout the centuries, changes were made with no sense of reverence for what had gone before. So what is so bad about another revision today?

On balance, I am somewhat in favour of the restoration work. Not least, I am simply curious, even excited, to see what effect the colour and brightened windows will have, quite aside from arguments about the supposed rights and wrongs of it all. I love Chartres, but I think we’re in trouble if we start to regard the place as untouchable. That was never how a cathedral was meant to be. I think that a restoration like this can be welcomed if it is done in good faith (so to speak), making it clear to visitors that this is indeed new paintwork that represents our best guess at what this particular aspect of the cathedral interior was like at the time of its consecration. Of course, my best recommendation for making sure visitors are well prepared to interpret what they see would be to read Universe of Stone first. But modesty forbids. 

Friday, November 27, 2009

Quantum Objects

[I have a piece in Nature on an art exhibition in the US by Julian Voss-Andreae, who has been working for some time now on representations of ideas, concepts and objects in physics and chemistry. This latest show is called ‘Quantum Objects’, and there are images of it here. I have written previously about Julian’s chemistry-related sculptures. I think Julian’s work is some of the best there is on the sci-art interface, creating a genuine point of confluence rather than, as all too often happens, a kind of awkward shotgun marriage.

In the course of preparing the piece, I had an exchange with Julian about the thinking behind his work, during which he said far more than I could accommodate in the article. This was all good stuff, so I’ve appended his comments below.]

When once asked what his Third ('Eroica') Symphony meant, Beethoven is said to have sat down at the piano and started to play it. Physicists might seek analogous recourse when asked to explain quantum theory – by writing down Schrödinger’s wave equation. And even this was Schrödinger’s attempt to provide a concrete embodiment of the still more abstract ‘description’ in Heisenberg’s austere matrix mechanics. Some of the field’s pioneers concluded that perhaps all we can ever meaningfully hope for by way of representation are the equations.

This implies that any attempt to show quantum concepts using images, whether for experts or non-specialists, is doomed to be misleadingly reductive. But maybe another alternative is to subvert our preconceptions through art. That is the view of Oregon-based sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae. Art, he says, ‘freed nowadays from the presupposition that it needs to visually accurately represent reality, has a unique potential for indicating aspects of reality that science cannot.’

Voss-Andreae is better placed to judge than most artists, for he was previously a physicist working at the forefront of experimental quantum physics at the University of Vienna, where he came face to face with the counter-intuitive aspects of the theory. In 1999 he participated in a ground-breaking experiment showing that even objects as ‘big’ as C60 molecules may display the wavelike property of interference (M. Arndt et al., Nature 401, 680-682; 1999). Voss-Andreae’s portrayals of ‘quantum objects’ are now on display in an exhibition called Worlds Within Worlds, running until April at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland.

‘There simply are no consistent mental images we can create to understand the world as it is portrayed in quantum physics, because our brains are exquisitely adapted to making sense of the world on our scale’, says Voss-Andreae.  ‘I want to increase the audience’s capacity to intuit the unfathomable deeper nature of reality by sensually experiencing the works.’

This attempt to leap beyond the logical is an impulse with an obvious appeal to artists, but Voss-Andreae is not the first to find inspiration in the way that modern physics requires it of us. In the early twentieth century, Surrealist artists such as André Breton and Salvador Dalí were excited by what they saw as the challenge posed by quantum theory and relativity to conventional notions of causality, time, geometry and objectivity (see Gavin Parkinson’s Surrealism, Art and Modern Science; Yale University Press, 2008). Yet their enthusiasm was due as much to the new physics’ perceived radicalism and assault on convention as it was to any genuine interest in the theories, and they didn’t understand the science terribly well.

But who does? Perhaps the biggest problem for any artist seeking to mine quantum theory is that some of the fundamental issues are still not agreed by its practitioners. The disputes about interpretation among the early pioneers such as Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger are now legendary (see Manjit Kumar’s Quantum; Icon, 2008), but this by no means implies that they are behind us. The Copenhagen interpretation favoured by Bohr and Heisenberg, with its wave-particle duality, probabilistic picture and observer-induced collapse of the wavefunction is still not universally accepted, and the nature of the transition from quantum to classical behaviour continues to be debated. Meanwhile, the failure to unify quantum theory with gravitation remains one of the most well advertised lacunae in physics, seeming to leave open the possibility that quantum theory is a stop-gap, a mere mathematical convenience.

It’s therefore arguably either brave or foolhardy to try to represent quantum phenomena visually. Perhaps Voss-Andreae’s greatest asset as a former physicist is that he knows how much we don’t know, and how much is contingent. In some of his works, the inverted commas of analogy are explicit to the knowing eye. Quantum Corral materializes something that could hardly be less material: the wavelike properties of electrons (first reported in Nature in 1927). Here they are represented in a block of wood milled to the contours of electron density seen in 1993 around a ring of iron atoms on the surface of copper using a scanning tunnelling microscope. The gilded surface reminds physicists that it is the mobility of surface electrons in the metal which accounts for its reflectivity (and the coloration of gold is itself a relativistic effect of the metal’s massive nuclei). But for art historians, this gilding not only invokes the crown-like haloes of medieval altarpieces but could also allude to the way gold was reserved in the Renaissance for the intangible: the other-worldly light of heaven.

Night Path and Spin Family (Bosons and Fermions), with their webs of metal wire or silk thread in solid steel frames, hark back to the sculptures of Naum Gabo, themselves inspired by the appearance of new mathematical geometries and models. Yet Night Path shows a quantum idea: the path-integral approach to the trajectories of light, in which the passage of a photon is considered to be the integral over all possible paths, calculated by slicing up time. Here, however, Voss-Andreae is not trying to produce a ‘textbook’ representation. ‘I do not show a fixed end point as Feynman’s method demands’, he says. ‘Instead in my piece the paths emerge from one point and then keep opening up. The artwork is not meant to accurately illustrate the technique of path integration; I made it to illustrate the ‘feel’ of it.’ In the Spin Family series, inspired by the quantized spin states of the two classes of fundamental particles, the diaphanous thread allows us to visualize superpositions of states while cautioning against too literal a picture of what ‘spin’ itself represents.

A feeling of intangibility and the subjectivity of points of view pervades Quantum Man, a walking figure created from parallel slices of steel in which the particle-like concreteness seen from the front shifts to wave-like near-invisibility viewed from the side. This sense of an object on the point of disintegrating is a common trope of recent artistic efforts to capture ideas in physics, from Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud series to Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter. Put the pieces together yourself, they seem to say – because that’s how the world works anyway.

Q&A with Julian Voss-Andreae

PB: Do you actually want to give viewers a flavour of the ideas behind the quantum works, or are you simply using the science as a launching point for something more abstract?

J V-A: I do want to give a flavor of the underlying ideas, at least while the sculptures are on display at the American Center for Physics. I am displaying them with explanatory text to alert the audience to the fact that there is a real concept behind each piece. For this show I wanted to make works that physicists can relate to. But I didn’t want to stop there. I am always seeing the physics (or other sciences) as a starting point for creating something that develops its own life as an art object. I want people who don’t have a background in science to enjoy the work as well. I want to increase the audience’s capacity to intuit the unfathomable deeper nature of reality by sensually experiencing the works.
PB: Do you feel that quantum theory is really something that can be, or ought to be, visualized at all? - I guess the answer to that must clearly be 'yes'

J V-A: Well, the way my own mind functions I cannot really grasp anything without images. I have to make images for myself, real ones or in my mind, if they don’t exist. And I believe that this is so for many if not most people. So if you look at any quantum mechanics textbook there are lots of images - especially in books from your culture. In Germany people have often tried to get rid of images [even though they have the word ‘anschaulich’]; there was for example a movement in mathematics, I believe in the 1960s, which banned images altogether from their books because the authors felt it is a flawed practice since every image can always portray only one special case. That is of course true, but most of us still need images. Many of the more complicated things visualized in quantum physics textbooks are clearly illustrations of a single facet of something more complex and more abstract, something that the mathematical description might be able to express in one coherent concept but that we sometimes cannot grasp within one coherent (mental) picture. You are probably familiar with Bernd Thaller’s work: He creates movies of quantum systems, typically of the time evolution of wave functions. Using color value and hue to encode different variables he is able to portray complete wave functions including their phase. It looks beautiful how they move and it is very instructive. So, I definitely think quantum theory can and should be visualized.
PB: But what would you say to the view that any such representation is bound to create an artificially concrete representation of something that is beyond our capacity to intuit?

It has been recognized that quantum theory does not admit of a realistic interpretation. For example, we have no accurate space-time representation of a particle, say an electron:  it is neither a wave nor a particle nor any other “thing”. So there is certainly a danger in presenting artificially concrete representations without making sure they are correctly understood as only a facet of something more complex or altogether different. A well-known example of such a misunderstanding is the ubiquitous hydrogen atom model. There are the earlier models that show electrons as particles orbiting the nucleus in discrete orbits. Then there are the representations of electrons as wave-functions: countless textbooks show the images of s, p, d,… orbitals. [These models often contain an additional imprecision in that they illustrate only the angular dependence of the wave function, and not also the radial one. I am sure there are quite a few scientists who would draw those spherical harmonics if asked ‘what a hydrogen atom looks like’.] But even if the observable electron density is pictured, there still remains a problem, namely the very notion that a hydrogen atom (or any quantum “object”, for that matter), is an object, and has a particular appearance independent of the means used to observe it, or for that matter any objective existence at all. So in the case of the H atom, even if the correct three dimensional shape of the probability density is pictured it is still a potentially misleading abstraction because you need to keep in mind that this shape merely represents tendencies for results of possible electron position measurements, whereas the phenomenal reality it refers to are the discrete and apparently random positions at which the electron is actually measured when an experiment is carried out in which that wave-form represents the prepared state. In fact, there is always a danger of taking any image or model too literally (Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”). Using images in science or philosophy to illustrate states of affair is therefore quite generally a two-edged sword, and one needs to know the limits of a picture, and use it with discrimination and intelligence.  So with that caution, I would say that art, freed as it is nowadays from the presupposition that it needs to visually accurately represent reality, has a rather unique potential for indicating aspects of reality that science cannot.

In a related vein, I don’t think that a specific piece of art has a single correct “interpretation” (as is true for a textbook image). To me, good art is something that has (by virtue of its sensual and conceptual properties) the potential to give rise to a web of meaningfully interlocking interpretations. So my experimentation ultimately aims at finding (in that sense) ‘good’ art objects. [Btw, it is interesting to relate this to the quantum mechanical measurement process: Art is like an unmeasured wave function with tendencies, a superposition of possibilities (the different interpretations). Then comes the individual’s interpretation of the art work in a specific instance, analogous to the physical measurement that reduces it to one classical answer and forces the system into that state.] 

To further comment on the relationship between my art and the science it relates to:  a piece like “Night Path” (the Feynman paths one) if shown in a textbook, might lead to the misunderstanding that there are a finite number of actual paths to be added. Of course, the number really needs to be infinite to yield the correct result. Moreover, I do not show a fixed end point as Feynman’s method demands; but instead in my piece the paths emerge from one point and then keep opening up. But the art work here is not meant to accurately illustrate the technique of path integration. I made it to illustrate the ‘feel’ of it. I like the idea of having these myriad paths that wiggle around in a completely ‘non-physical’ fashion (i.e. being everywhere at every time) and that they get more and more important in the classical trajectory’s vicinity because there the phase oscillates slower. So I took a Gaussian distribution around a parabola and used the pseudo random generator in the computer to calculate where to make holes into the slices. I followed the output of the algorithm quite strictly because I didn’t want to bias the result with ‘human pseudo randomness’. Before I built the piece I visualized it in the computer to fine-tune the parameters involved (the shape of the trajectory, the sigma of the Gaussian etc.) and that gave me the idea of evoking an image of a meteor falling through the night, which then informed the choice of colors. That is where I allow myself the ‘poetic departure’ from physics. For a textbook, I would not have used a parabola and I would have collected the paths back into a single endpoint. So my hope is to convey this bizarre feeling of the path integral approach (even if it is not recognized as such) by merging it with an image (the meteor) that is known to everyone. I always feel I am experimenting here. Not only with the materials and algorithms etc. but also with having an idea and turning it into a real object to see what it does to me and others. This is where my experimental art work departs from experimental physics: I am ultimately interested in creating an art object, something that strikes a chord in the viewer.

[I think it is key to display the works in an art setting. Even though it is the American Center for Physics in this case, the place where the sculptures are displayed is designated to displaying art and the audience knows that. The same is true for the display on my website.]

[Concerning the wording in your question: Do you mean capacity to intuit or capacity to understand? There are obviously things that are beyond our capacity to understand in the sense that we cannot find a single coherent mental image that provides a complete description of that thing. But maybe we can intuit a solution to a paradox even though we cannot understand it.][PB: I agree, and that’s indeed what I meant: intuition does not necessary imply rigorous understanding, but is perhaps all we can hope for here, especially if one isn’t a specialist.]
PB: I'm also interested in whether there are any artists who provide particular inspiration for you, either from a purely visual point of view or because they have similarly tried to articulate and present rather abstract ideas and phenomena.
J V-A: I am influenced visually by a lot of things in art and architecture. I frequently get ideas from other artists about how to solve problems technically or they give me an idea what could work visually. I don’t have a particular artist that I draw inspiration from when it comes to taking images from science to create art. But on a more abstract level there are artists I greatly admire for the intensity of their work and because they lead the way with their visions and their ability to realize them. There is one artist in particular I feel I have an odd connection with and that is Antony Gormley. It happened several times already that I had an idea and found out later that he had gone in that direction. We are interested in very similar things and he is very systematic and efficient in exploring them. I would love to meet him one day.

PB: Can you also tell me a little about how the exhibition came about?

J V-A: The curator, Sarah Tanguy, had asked me a few years ago if I was interested in showing my work at the American Center for Physics because she thought my work would fit well there. Last year, after she was able to secure the funding, I was supposed to have the show. But after I had thought about it and decided to make all works which had to do with quantum physics, I realized that I needed another year to finish them.

Statement on the website, also displayed at the exhibition (J V-A)
The term “Quantum Object”, although regularly used in physics, is really an oxymoron. An ‘object’ is something that lives completely in the paradigm of classical physics: It has an independent reality in itself, it behaves deterministically, and it has definite physical properties, such as occupying a well-defined spot in time and space. For the ‘quantum’ all those seemingly self-evident truths become false: Its reality is one that is relative to the observer, the principle of causality is violated, and other features of materiality such as clear boundaries in space and time, objective locatedness or even identity, do not pertain.
After struggling with quantum physics for the last hundred years we cannot escape the fact that there simply are no consistent mental images we can create to understand the world as it is portrayed in quantum physics, because our brains are exquisitely adapted to making sense of the world on our scale, as perceived through our unaided senses. My hope is that the unique ability of art to transcend the confines of logic and literal representation and to offer glimpses of something beyond can help us open up to a deeper understanding of the world and to wean ourselves from the powerful grip classical physics has had over the last centuries on our every perception of reality.
General Artist Statement (J V-A)

My diverse interests, investigations and works as both scientist and artist are ultimately derived from my lifelong fascination with Nature. As an observational painter in my youth I was so intrigued by the natural sciences and its philosophical implications, that I subsequently spent the next eight years studying physics at European universities. I earned my degree in physics participating in a seminal experiment at the boundary between quantum physics and philosophy. I then moved to the United States to study art and began developing a body of sculptural work often inspired by scientific themes, such as quantum physics or the structure of protein molecules, the building blocks of life.

I create art by taking something I see or know and translating it into an object. This translation starts out being guided by clearly expressible ideas and tends to develop into something successively complex and less accessible through logic and words. The act of creation contains an extraordinary and most fulfilling aspect I find impossible to understand intellectually: The creative moments are not governed by my conscious thought. On the contrary, it is typically the unconsciously contributed aspects, executed in a certain meditative state of mind that brings the work to life, adding new and often surprising layers of meaning.

It is important for me to create works in a spectrum ranging from mostly intellectual to mostly intuitive in order to generate a cross-inspiration between both approaches. Achieving the right balance of intellect and intuition, of science and art, is central to both my work and my life. In fact, I feel unable to clearly distinguish between the concepts of intellect and intuition, which are commonly perceived as polar opposites, and I strive to unify these opposites into a single more fundamental idea. I am motivated by the desire to create a broader understanding of Nature than the one provided by science alone: My work allows intuiting our world by offering a sensual experience of what is usually accessible only through our intellect.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Books of the Decade

Blackwell’s have, in their wisdom, apparently selected Critical Mass as one of their top 100 ‘paperbacks of the decade’ (don’t ask me why they specify paperbacks). Nice. As a result, they asked me to come up with my own selection of three from the past decade – which is not as easy as it sounds (it makes me realise that most of the books I read are older than this). So this is what I offered them:

James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love (Canongate, 2005), while beautifully written and plotted, might not seem an obvious candidate for an outstanding novel of the decade. But it has stayed with me as an exquisite piece of storytelling of the kind that one associates with the best pre-modernist fiction, and makes a compelling imaginative leap into a wholly unfamiliar milieu. Comparisons with Conrad and Dostoevsky were not amiss. It’s not clear whether W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (Penguin, 2002) is fiction or not, but it was my introduction to Sebald and to an entirely original and totally hypnotic style of writing. Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder (HarperCollins, 2008) is perhaps the only history of science I have read that has been genuinely exciting and inspiring to read, with something to enthral the reader on every page. All of these books have left their mark on my own writing.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sceptical of the sceptics

I have a review of Christopher Booker’s book The Real Global Warming Disaster in the Observer today. Here it is below in its original form. I’d be surprised if Booker, or other sceptics, don’t respond in some way, so here too is some of the further comment at which I hinted in the review. And not that it is likely in any way to prevent Booker from dismissing me as a minion of the great conspiracy that is the ‘global warming consensus’, but I’ll just mention too that I have also taken some flak in the past from James Hansen, Booker’s prime villain as the man who (he says, absurdly) almost single-handedly got the global-warming juggernaut on the road. I didn’t endorse Hansen’s call for a more forcefully worded message from the scientific community to supplement what he considered to be the reticence of the IPCC. My view was that, while I understand and sympathize with Hansen’s motivation, the IPCC’s caution has been to its great credit, and has helped maintain its credibility. Needless to say, to Booker the IPCC is simply a cabal of alarmists.


Considerable effort has gone into Christopher Booker's definitive manual for sceptics. Shame he's talking bunk, says Philip Ball.

Christopher Booker, Sunday Telegraph columnist and bête noir of climate campaigners, has here produced the definitive climate sceptics’ manual. That’s to say, he has rounded up just about every criticism ever made of the majority scientific view that global warming, most probably caused by human activity, is underway, and presented them unchallenged. If you share his convictions, you’ll love it (although I’m not sure you’ll actually wade through the dense arguments), and will dismiss the rest of this review as part of the cover-up.

Me, I was moved to a queer kind of admiration for the skill and energy with which Booker has assembled his polemic. Unlike other climate-sceptic diatribes like the Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle or the writings of Nigel Lawson, this one cannot be dismissed with off-the-shelf knowledge. And some of it is true. But much, including the central claim, is bunk.

Some of Booker’s stratagems are transparent enough. One is to introduce all climate sceptics with a little eulogy to their credentials, while their opponents receive only a perfunctory, if not disparaging, preamble. This reaches its apotheosis on the back cover with a quote from  ‘the world’s leading atmospheric physicist and ‘climate scientist’’, MIT professor Richard Lindzen. Unusually for sceptics, Lindzen does have significant academic status, but probably only his mother would endorse this description. Besides, it seems odd that someone so intent on raising platforms of authority should also ask us to believe that the credibility of the entire Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been undermined by an Australian computer consultant.

Another of Booker’s techniques is to latch on to genuine flaws in the science or its dissemination with the tenacity of a bulldog. Predictably, he attacks the infamous ‘hockey stick’ graph, a plot of global mean temperatures over the past 1000 years produced by two scientists in 1998 which shows little change for the entire period until suddenly soaring in the twentieth century. It is now mostly accepted that the analysis that produced these data was wrong. The question, still unresolved, is ‘how wrong?’ – have we experienced comparable warming in the historical past, in which case the argument that it is a natural fluctuation seems plausible, or is the current trend truly unusual? But Booker’s implication that the entire edifice of the global-warming consensus rested on the shaky hockey stick is absurd: it was one strand among many. For a balanced critique of this episode, look instead to Richard Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents (Norton).

In the end, however, the devil is in the details. And therein lies the problem, for to persuasively dismantle Booker’s case would require an equally long and citation-encrusted tome. You are going to get nothing more (here at least) than my word for it that, say, the first of Booker’s accusations about faulty science and procedural misdemeanour that I chose at random to investigate further – the resignation of hurricane specialist Chris Landsea from the IPCC in 2004 – proved to have a rather different complexion from the one presented here.

Yet some of the cracks become evident just from paying attention. When Booker commits the cardinal sin, for which climate scientists have often castigated alarmists, of making a swallow into a summer (or here, winter) by using the cold snap of 2008 as a reason to doubt the warming trend, it’s game over. And by claiming that the slight cooling trend since around 2003 undermines the IPCC’s climate models, he fails to understand that different timescales demand different models: the projections for 2100 are hardly meant to predict whether next summer will be a scorcher. Don’t even get me started about the graph on page 328 that shows this cooling; just take a look at and then tell me what you feel about it (what do you mean, where is it? It’s that bit at the end). Besides, Booker admits briefly that a climate model in which medium-term ocean circulation was included was able in 2009 to rationalize the current cooling (which may last until 2015). We are supposed to regard this result as suspiciously convenient, but even Booker can come up with no scientific reasons to discard it. Indeed, he later criticizes the IPCC models for failing to simulate shifts in ocean currents. His aim is simply to sling enough mud, and to hell with consistency.

Suppose you are genuinely undecided on climate change, and determined not to be guided simply by what you’d like to believe. If unpicking the real story demands so much effort and insider knowledge, how can you possibly make up your mind? Here’s an unscientific suggestion. Booker’s position would require that you accept something like the following options: (1) Most of the world’s climate scientists, for reasons unspecified, decided to create a myth about human-induced global warming, and have managed to twist endless measurements and computer models to fit their case, without the rest of the scientific community noticing. George W. Bush and certain oil companies have, however, seen through the deception. (2) Most of the world’s climate scientists are incompetent and have grossly misinterpreted their data and models – yet their faulty conclusions are not, as you might imagine, a random chaos of assertions, but all point in the same direction.

There’s a third option, however: (3) The world’s climate system is hugely complex, hard to predict, and constantly surprising; yet in the long term the world is getting warmer, for reasons we basically understand, and there is good reason to believe that humans are mostly responsible for it.

You decide.


Oh, there is much, much more to be said. As I say in the review, taking on Booker’s arguments means wading through a morass of technical detail and having to get hold of the scientists involved to get the real story. I have done so in just a few cases. If they are representative, then it seems clear what to expect of the rest. Here we go:

Boy, does Booker have it in for David King, former chief governmental science adviser. Quite aside from the specifics, his position here is utterly inconsistent – for example, he says at one point that it’s terrible we set so much store by someone’s credentials as a ‘qualified scientist’ (and thus dismiss Bjorn Lomborg), but it’s apparently equally terrible that we listen to King, a mere ‘surface chemist’. (Bizarrely, ‘surface chemistry’ never appears without its quotes, as though it’s some kind of made-up discipline.) King, says Booker, has little more specialist authority than ‘a man holding forth in a pub’ – or dare we say, in a newspaper column?

The main accusations against King, however, appear in Booker’s account of King’s trip to Moscow in 2004. This was indeed an extraordinary affair, but in the manner Booker asserts. The meeting, instigated by Putin, was supposed to bring together international experts to debate climate change. But as Booker indicates, some of the key Russians were sceptics, and as a result they derailed the whole affair. King was asked to arrange a programme, which he did, including 12 leading British scientists. However, then Putin brought in his economic adviser and head sceptic Alexander Illarionov, who hijacked the meeting and altered the programme, excluding the UK team and inviting several of the key sceptics, such as Nils-Axel Mörner at Stockholm. King and his team were actually en route to Moscow when they were given the revised programme, which immediately shows you the tactics Illarionov was using.

Naturally, King was furious. But he continued to the meeting when it was agreed that the British scientists would be allowed to speak. However, Illarionov insisted on chairing the entire meeting, and King’s team was persistently harangued throughout. The matter was so bad that King had to contact Tony Blair while in Moscow to explain that an international incident was developing; Jack Straw’s chance presence in Moscow at that time helped to prevent it from deteriorating any more than it did, but King was asked simply to try to make the best of it.

Booker alleges that King and his colleagues walked out when challenged with questions they couldn’t answer. In fact, King had announced already that he’d have to leave for another meeting at a certain point, and that’s what he did. As he did so, Illarionov was literally screaming at him that he was not permitted to go. One has the sense that, in former times in the Soviet Union, comrades who disagreed with Illarionov would have lost their jobs and silently disappeared, in the manner of Lysenkoism.

The extensive quotes that Booker provides from Illarionov’s three-hour subsequent press conference pretty much undermine his case in themselves, since they show him to be a borderline hysteric. Indeed, he claimed that Britain had ‘declared war’ on Russia, a claim that was repeated in a headline in the Moscow Times. What Booker doesn’t say is that Putin subsequently sacked Illarionov, who is now a bitter man. The whole episode, far from showing King to be intolerant and scientifically naïve, instead shows how crazy the climate sceptics can become, and how underhand their tactics are.


I mention the resignation of Chris Landsea in my review. The villain here is Kevin Trenberth, the hurricane modelling expert at UCAR (the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in the US). Naturally, we hear nothing from Booker about Trenberth’s side of the story. So here is what Trenberth says of the matter:



Chris Landsea was not a Coordinating Lead Author (CLA) or a Lead author of the report.  He was asked by the CLAs to be a contributing author (there are 66 in Chapter 3) who write a half page or so on a particular topics that are assembled into the report by the Lead Authors.  He could easily refuse to do so, but to publicly resign the way he did was a very political approach that had nothing to do with any scientific dispute. 
Trenberth’s response was to publish the scientific basis for the news conference criticized by Landsea in the June 2005 Science, and Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology independently published direct observational evidence in Nature only two months later. He showed that significant increases in cyclone intensity and duration around the world since 1970 have been strongly related to rising SSTs. Challenges from Landsea and other experts have led to modest revisions  in the specific correlations, Emanuel 2005b, but do not alter the overall conclusion. In September 2005 Peter Webster and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology published an article in Science that explicitly showed a substantial rise in the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes since 1970 and in the percent of total hurricanes that fit that description. They concluded that the rise was to be expected, given the observed increase in SSTs.

Landsea’s letter was written late in 2004, and subsequently, in addition to the many new published papers, the record breaking 2005 hurricane season occurred, including hurricane Katrina and 3 other category 5 hurricanes.

There is no doubt that there is large natural variability in hurricanes, and also disputes about how reliable the record is, points made by Landsea (for example Landsea, Nature 2005 and Chan, Science 2006) ; but other articles have demonstrated that the changes in the hurricane environment have a human component, such as Santer et al., PNAS 2006.  

There is a wide range of scientific opinion on the issue, reflecting the genuine scientific uncertainties and developing nature of the science.  Subsequently, the IPCC has also weighed in and the attribution of changes to a human role are clearly stated in chapters that were not authored by Trenberth.  
Trenberth summarizes his views on hurricanes as follows:

1) There is large natural variability of hurricanes.  We can not say anything about increases in numbers or frequency from the record or how these may change in the future.

2) However, the environment in which the hurricanes are occurring is clearly changing, and those changes are part of global warming. 

3) For the past 10 years the SSTs have been higher from 10-20∞N in the Atlantic, where the hurricanes form and track, than at any other time in the record through the 20th C.

4) During this period 8 out of the 10 years had above normal numbers of hurricanes and the 2 exceptions were El Niño years when the main activity shifts to the Pacific.

       1995-2004  1970-1994    2004
TCs    13.6               8.6            14   
Hurr    7.8                5.0             9

1) Water vapor amounts are rising
2) Precipitation has been becoming more intense in the US as a result.
3) Hurricane Catarina off Brazil in March 2004 was unprecedented

5) Hence there is every reason to think that these changes should increase the intensity of hurricanes and rainfalls associated with hurricanes.

6) We can not say anything much about the 4 hurricanes that hit Florida, except that the rainfalls and flooding were likely enhanced by global warming. 

7) The IPCC in 2001 also states that hurricanes are likely to become more intense with stronger winds and heavier rainfalls.

8) While the influence of climate change on hurricanes may not be detectable because of large natural variability, this does not mean that there is no influence.

Landsea writes “It is beyond me why my colleagues would utilize the media to push an unsupported agenda that recent hurricane activity has been due to global warming.”  Yet no such claims were made.  On the contrary, it was clearly stated that natural variability was dominant in observed the climate record.  Many other mis-statements have been made by Landsea about what was said, and the fact that all statements were carefully caveated.

There are always differences of opinion among scientists on issues of science. NCAR encourages responsible dialog and discussion. But we do not condone name-calling and deliberate attempts to mislead.   The IPCC process is robust, open, and subject to extensive reviews, checks and balances.  We have confidence that it will be balanced and represent the consensus.  However, the process is helped if people contribute rather than withdraw from it.

There was a tremendous amount of publicity, often ill-informed, following all of this.  Trenberth remained quiet and did not respond in person to the often personal attacks on his integrity.  Instead he documented the state of the science and the views he espoused at the press conference in this article:

Trenberth, K., 2005: Uncertainty in hurricanes and  global warming. Science, 308, 1753–1754.

Shortly thereafter, two other publications came out which also provided strong support:

Webster, P. J., G. J. Holland, J. A. Curry, and H.-R. Chang, 2005: Changes in tropical cyclone number, duration, and intensity in a warming environment. Science, 309, 1844–1846.

Emanuel, K. , 2005a: Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years. Nature, 436, 686–688.
—, 2005b: Emanuel replies. Nature, 438, E13, doi:10.1038/nature04427.

And these in turn produced the following article in November 2005

Pielke, R.A., C. Landsea, M. Mayfield, J. Laver, and R. Pasch, 2005: Hurricanes and Global Warming. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc. 86, 1571–1575.

The following was a rebuttal by the news conference participants:
Pielke et al (2005) provide their assessment of the situation with regard to hurricanes and global warming.  They state there is "lack of a theory for future changes in storm frequencies" and "the state of understanding of tropical cyclogenesis provides too poor a foundation to base any projections about the future".  Given the lack of any physical understanding of how hurricanes work it follows then that " ...until a relationship between actual storm intensity and tropical climate change is clearly demonstrated,  it would be premature to conclude that such a link exists or is significant ..." .  It is unfortunate that they overlook the considerable understanding and modeling capabilities that do exist in tropical storms, even while recognizing that the theory is incomplete. Indeed, there is plenty of research indicating that hurricanes do respond to the environment in which they are embedded, as summarized by Trenberth (2005).

Observed changes in hurricanes are masked by poor data, especially prior to the 1960s when the satellite era began.  Moreover changes in atmospheric temperature throughout the atmosphere are distorted by changes in radiosondes and instruments. Rising sea surface temperatures and increased atmospheric water vapor provide the primary fuel for tropical convection through latent heat release, and both are increasing.  Atmospheric dynamics play a key role in determining where storms occur and their tracks, and changes are less certain in association with global warming.  But the evidence suggests increases in intensity of storms, once they are formed, and increases in heavy rains and risk of flooding.   The Pielke et al. essay never does discuss the most widespread impact of such storms which is already flooding.

However, the essay also attacks the “misguided” participants in a telecon news conference held to discuss the changes and impacts of the record breaking 2004 hurricane season in Florida.  The transcript  of the news conference has been made available by UCAR (to correct the many misquotes of the statements made at that news conference.  In fact the comments by Trenberth are fully consistent with those in Trenberth (2005).  Pielke et al. further misquote the IPCC (2001).   There is no doubt that social changes of people placing themselves in harm’s way contributes substantially to hurricane damage, but they seriously underestimate the changes in nature that also contribute. But then what should one expect from a bunch of guys who have no expertise in climate change? The article is exceedingly political, and can not even get the strong link between burning fossil fuels and energy and changes in carbon dioxide and atmospheric composition changes right.

Misguided news conference participants (Jim McCarthy, Paul Epstein, Kevin Trenberth).

It was also followed up by this article and response:

Anthes, R. A., R. W. Corell, G. Holland, J. W. Hurrell, M. C. McCracken, and K. E. Trenberth, 2006: Hurricanes and global warming—Potential linkages and consequences. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 87, 623–628.

Pielke, R., C. Landsea, M. Mayfield, J. Laver, and R. Pasch, 2006: Reply to “Hurricanes and Global Warming Potential Linkages and Consequences”. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc. 87, 628–631.

Of course the 2005 season broke so many records that it further demonstrated that global warming was playing a role. 

In January 2007, the AR4 IPCC report was approved in Paris with the following statement in the Policy Maker’s summary (approved unanimously):

There is observational evidence for an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since about 1970, correlated with increases of tropical sea surface temperatures. There are also suggestions of increased intense tropical cyclone activity in some other regions where concerns over data quality are greater. Multi-decadal variability and the quality of the tropical cyclone records prior to routine satellite observations in about 1970 complicate the detection of long-term trends in tropical cyclone activity. There is no clear trend in the annual numbers of tropical cyclones.

And from the Summary of chapter 3 of IPCC:

Intense tropical cyclone activity has increased since about 1970. Variations in tropical cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons are dominated by ENSO and decadal variability, which result in a redistribution of tropical storm numbers and their tracks, so that increases in one basin are often compensated by decreases over other oceans. Trends are apparent in SSTs and other critical variables that influence tropical thunderstorm and tropical storm development. Globally, estimates of the potential destructiveness of hurricanes show a significant upward trend since the mid-1970s, with a trend towards longer lifetimes and greater storm intensity, and such trends are strongly correlated with tropical SST. These relationships have been reinforced by findings of a large increase in numbers and proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 and 5 globally since 1970 even as total number of cyclones and cyclone days decreased slightly in most basins. The largest increase was in the North Pacific, Indian and southwest Pacific Oceans. However, numbers of hurricanes in the North Atlantic have also been above normal (based on 1981–2000 averages) in 9 of the last 11 years, culminating in the record-breaking 2005 season. Moreover, the first recorded tropical cyclone in the South Atlantic occurred in March 2004 off the coast of Brazil.


Well, that may be more than you wanted. But it suggests, at the very least, that this is a complicated matter, no? Would you conclude on the basis of all this, that there was skulduggery against Landsea, who was making valid criticisms of bad science? Oh, of course you might, if that’s the conclusion you want to reach. But I think you’d be hard put (to say the least) to make that case objectively.


Booker makes a big deal of how glacier retreat on Kilimanjaro has been cited as evidence of global warming. Now, the reasons for the retreat of the ‘snows of Kilimanjaro’ are complex and controversial, and it is ill-advised to use this as evidence of global warming. In this respect, Booker is right to criticize those who do so. But he is wrong and disingenuous to imply that this matter is settled. It’s true that one can pick from the literature to support the contention that the glacier retreat has nothing to do with global warming (and with a handful of incompletely cited works, Booker does just that). But an honest appraisal would force one to conclude that we just don’t know. For example, Lonnie Thompson has just published a paper (PNAS 10.1073/pnas.0906029106 - here) pointing out that, contrary to what Booker claims, the ice retreat on Kilimanjaro had not ‘mostly taken place before 1950’ – on the contrary, the areal extent of summit ice has been decreasing between 1989 and 2007 at more than twice the rate of the decline between 1912 and 1953. Thompson and colleagues present evidence that “the combination of processes driving the current shrinking and thinning of Kilimanjaro’s ice fields is unique within an 11,700-year perspective” (i.e. since the end of the last ice age).

Booker has now commented on this work, as follows:

“In their desperation to keep the panic going before next month's Copenhagen climate conference, the media warmist groupies last week wheeled out, yet again, one of their favourite but long-discredited scare stories, the one about the melting snows of Kilimanjaro. Their excuse was a new study by Al Gore's friend Dr Lonnie Thompson, claiming to show that the ice on Africa's highest mountain is vanishing due to soaring temperatures.

Indeed Kilimanjaro's snow and ice is receding, as I saw for myself when I climbed it a few years back. But, as a small army of international experts have shown, this has nothing to do with global warming (temperatures on the summit, at 19,346ft, never rise above freezing). It has been going on since 1880, due to the decline in precipitation caused by widespread clearance of forests around the volcano's base.

The rate of the ice shrinkage (as I note in my new book on the climate change scare, The Real Global Warming Disaster) was in fact at its greatest in the years before 1950, long before those rising 20th-century temperatures set off the panic over global warming.”

So he dismisses Thompson’s findings without having the slightest argument for why they are wrong – he simply repeats his assertion that the rate of ice loss was greatest before 1950. This puts me in mind of the debate with a creationist that Richard Dawkins records in his new book The Greatest Show on Earth, in which his arguments about the existence of plenty of transitional fossils in museums around the world is met with a mantra-like repetition of dogma.

Indeed, the main reason we are supposed to dismiss Thompson’s findings is that he is ‘Al Gore’s friend’ – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Booker refer to him as anything else, whereas in reality Thompson is internationally regarded as one of the world’s foremost palaeoglaciolgists. And Booker doesn’t acknowledge that Thompson resolutely avoids firmly ascribing the retreat of Kilimanjaro’s ice to anthropogenic global warming. The paper says that it is difficult to identify the reason for the continued retreat, and acknowledges that precipitation changes  have been implicated (Thompson offers reasons why they are unlikely to be sufficient on their own to account for the trend, however). Thompson also points out that the observed trends are consistent with what has been observed on mountain glaciers elsewhere which are not complicated by such factors. In other words, Thompson lays out his arguments clearly, and stops short of making unjustified extrapolations or interpretations. This is how science is done. Booker just clings to his old story as if to a pole in the wind.

Booker says in his concluding ‘personal note’ that “It is inevitable that such a book will contain errors for which I am solely to blame. But I look forward to the zeal with which they will be picked out and fastened on by hostile reviewers and commentators, claiming that, if I have got this or that fact wrong, then this proves that the whole book can be dismissed as worthless.”  Well no, Christopher, I won’t do that – that is your technique, not mine. However, one has occasionally to raise eyebrows. For example, he claims that “global temperatures in 2007 began that sharp drop which for the first time revealed a distinct gap between the predictions of the computer models that they would continue to rise by 0.3 C per decade, and what was happening in the real world.” And we are now [in the writing of the book] in… mid-2009? So already we know where we’ll end up in 2017? Extraordinary. And then on page 233, Booker claims that “global temperatures’ had experienced a ‘total drop since January 2007” of 7.7 degrees – “a tenth of a degree more than the entire net warming of the 20th century.” Can he be serious? I think he means 0.7 degrees. Bit unfortunate, the way this error seems so alarmingly to support his case. (Actually it wouldn’t, to anyone knowledgeable, who’d recognize that a cooling of this magnitude in so short a time would be unlike anything we’ve ever seen in any climate record ever, and so would have to indicate a process of Armageddon-like proportions.)

Finally, I have just seen Geoffrey Normington’s post on the Prospect site about taking on the climate sceptics. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Born to believe?

There’s an interesting article in Science (326, 784-787) about what one might call the natural history of religion, reviewing current thought on how it might have arisen for evolutionary and cognitive reasons. Now, this is of course potentially dodgy territory, because it is a trivial matter to construct nice evolutionary-psychological Just So stories for why a propensity for religious belief might have had survival benefits. But Elizabeth Culotta’s article shows that the basic question is a serious one, and is being given some well-considered attention.

And this set me thinking what my friends the New Atheists make of it all. For the peculiar fact is that it seems more or less essential to their position, dare one say even an article of faith, that religion is not a product of evolution at all. They seem determined to believe (contra Darwin himself) that religion, perhaps almost uniquely among major behavioural traits of human populations, has no genetic component.

That would seem to be the view, for example, of P. Z. Myers. Apropos of my exchange with Sam Harris on science and religion, he said ‘It's a weird thing to argue with an atheist who claims religion is unavoidable (Oh? So what's so special about you?)’ – which, when you think about it, has the same absurd logic as the suggestion (I trust believers to humour this metaphor) that the existence of people without criminal records means that criminality is obviously avoidable in society. And besides, as I have mentioned before, this was a particularly lazy reading of my comments, since I pointed out only that we have notably failed to ‘avoid’ religion throughout history so far (I don’t think we need to debate that, do we?). I have no idea if it is ‘avoidable’ in any abstract sense, or even what that might mean.

Yet the odd thing is that I somewhat share Myers’ scepticism. To conclude from the near-ubiquity of religion in human culture that it must therefore be a genetic endowment seems rather akin to concluding that, say, schools or financial systems must be the products of our genes. Yet of course the argument is not quite as simple as that. For example, David Comings in California has found that the gene encoding DRD4, a protein that modulates the neurotransmission of dopamine, is present in a more active form in people who show a greater propensity to believe in miracles, mysticism and a spiritual supreme force, and less active in people with rationalist tendencies. I’m not about to answer Myers’ question ‘what’s so special about me?’ by saying that I must have a less active variety of DRD4; but neither am I (nor he) in any position to deny that such factors might play a role. Nonetheless, religiosity is hardly distributed throughout society in the patchy, pseudo-random manner of many genetically based diseases, and I’m inclined to attribute much more to culture than to genes. Certainly, it doesn’t seem likely to be very profitable to search in our genes for reasons why one might believe that (say) the Earth is 10,000 years old.

But genes and culture are not so easily disentangled if a genetic tendency towards religion were very widespread. Some believe that it is. Lee Silver points out in his 2006 book Challenging Nature that ‘in no country of the world ever surveyed do reported levels of spirituality dip below 60 percent’ and that ‘all the evolutionary, genetic, and cultural studies and analyses… make it clear that our own biology, rather than divine spirits or society at large, is the primary source of human spirituality.’ (Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t believe Myers has taken the heavyweight Silver to task over this.) He adds that that ‘this conclusion is anathema to both dogmatic theists and postmodern atheists’ – for, if religion is an innate tendency rather than a foolish belief system foisted upon us by indoctrination, can we really hope to persuade the general population to discard it, whatever one-off conversions Sam Harris and his friends might celebrate? And yet – this is the truly bizarre thing – Sam utterly refused to engage with the milder and perhaps more ‘optimistic’ possibility (from that perspective) that I suggested, which is that religion might instead be one of those cultural phenomena, like monarchy, that commonly emerges from the nature of our social interactions and structures.

Specifically, what I said to Sam was this:
“I simply observe that since time immemorial human societies have organized themselves into hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets, of which religions are a prominent example. That’s what we’re dealing with. I think this is probably a more productive way to regard the situation than to think that humans are ritualistically inculcated into stupidity for which a dose of cold reason is the cure.”

He responded thus:
“It is amazing that you can advance this as a serious position. First off, it is undeniable that most humans are “ritualistically inculcated into stupidity” from birth onwards by their religious parents. Second, it is a perverse (and highly condescending) article of faith among secular academics that people can never be reasoned out of their religious convictions… For the purposes of this discussion, the only “social construct” that I am worried about is the one which convinces a journal like Nature that its paramount duty is to be polite in the face of Iron Age delusions.”

Religions, says Sam, are a "dangerous, deplorable, and unnecessary eruption of primeval stupidity". I guess that rules out genes, then.

So I look forward to Sam’s letter to Science pointing out that it is amazing they let Culotta present her article as a ‘serious position’. Of course, if indeed we have ‘religion in our genes’ (which is by no means clear, but which is what Silver and several of the people Culotta quotes seem to suspect), this doesn’t imply that we are predestined all to be believers, or that people can’t be persuaded to abandon religious irrationality. But it would suggest that at the level of cultures, the problem is not exactly what Sam thinks it is. He and Paul Myers seem determined to reject anything like a Darwinian view (and moreover anything like a sociological view) in favour of the notion that this universal phenomenon is just the product of blinkered ignorance. In fact I sense that they actually don’t give a fig about understanding religion – which, I have to suspect, means they are unlikely to have much effect in tempering its destructive and oppressive excesses. They seem to prefer the John Major position: that we need to understand less and condemn more. Well, it works for the Tories.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A view from the roof at Chartres

This post is strictly for ultra-nerds of Gothic architecture. I recently got this photo of the ‘transitional flying buttress’ between the nave and choir of Chartres Cathedral – something that is not at all easy to do, as the buttress is not visible from the ground but requires access to the cathedral roof. I’d gone up there for other purposes (a Nova documentary on Gothic churches), and so sadly hadn’t come properly prepared to take photos – this one is from my mobile phone, and so is not of high resolution. But I want to put it up here in case anyone else should ever want to use it without the hassle of getting permission to go up on the roof. The structure is significant because it challenges the idea that the nave is older than the choir. The arches of the nave flyers are in a more squat and massive style, with rounded arches, which could be taken as a sign that they were built first, perhaps by a different master, with the slender pointed arches of the choir flyers (more ‘Gothic’, one might say) being added by a later hand. That was the case argued by Louis Grodecki in the 1950s. But this sole ‘transitional’ flying buttress on the east of the transepts seems to be an attempt to merge the different styles of the nave and choir, as though this was part of the plan all along – perhaps, as Jan van der Meulen suggests, the crossing and transepts were built first, and both the nave and choir built out from them at much the same time. All this is discussed in my book Universe of Stone.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Can you ken?

I’ve just heard a lovely programme on BBC Radio 4 about the late, great Ken Campbell. Catch it while you can. I saw Ken perform several times, and it always left me giggling throughout – as did this programme. The phrase ‘true original’ gets overused, but there was no one for whom it is more apt. Ken had a consistent fascination with science, which is understandable in someone whose constant demand was ‘astound me’. He developed some wonderful routines around such exploits as his conversations with David Deutsch about the multiverse, and there’s a great moment in the radio show where Ken’s precision with words collides with the glibness of scientists’ habitual speech patterns: he was delighted, on asking someone at CERN if they were worrried that they might generate an entire new universe in their particle collisions, to be told that it was ‘unlikely’. Ken captured the essence of the speculative extremes of physical theory when he would talk of how it required one not exactly to believe in such things as parallel universes, but simply to suppose them. ‘Can I suppose it?’, I remember him saying, immense eyebrows gesticulating. ‘Well yes, I can suppose it.’

I was thrilled to get Ken involved in the series of talks I arranged with Harriet Coles at Nature at the V&A Museum as part of the ‘Creating Sparks’ BA Festival in 2000. He was doing his Newton/Fatio routine at the time, and it became quickly clear that we were never going to achieve much in the way of tailoring to the themes of the series – he was going to do just what he was going to do. We didn’t much care, knowing that whatever he did would supply a great night – which it did (despite a few grumbles from people who’d been expecting a ‘science’ talk). When we chatted to Ken over tea afterwards, my wife and I figured that he would be exhausting to live with – and from the accounts of his daughter Daisy, that seems to have been the case, although it is nice (and a little surprising) to hear that it was mostly fun too. Ken was interested in the Paracelsus theatre project I was putting together at the time, and I always had the suspicion that he would have made a great Paracelsus. Even then I saw it as the ideal role for either him or the clown performer Gerry Flanagan, and I’m still filled with glee that I got Gerry to do it nearly a decade later. And while working with Gerry was a joy, I suspect working with Ken could be a kind of inspirational nightmare. But it was wonderful to have briefly come into his erratic orbit.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fear of music?

My piece on the cognition of atonal music has appeared in Prospect. I’m happy to say that it’s part of the site’s free content, but here it is below in extended, pre-edited form. I’m glad to see that it is drawing some comments. Not everyone is going to like what it says, for sure. But Tali Makell gets the wrong end of the stick – I’m not attacking the music of Schoenberg and his school. I’m a fan of most of this music, and think Berg’s Lyric Suite is a masterpiece. And of course I never said that Schoenberg et al. used total serialism. It’s absolutely right that they used some of tonality’s organizing principles, and to great effect. But there are problems with that in itself, as Roger Scruton has pointed out, since some of these structural principles are a direct consequence of tonality itself, and lose their meaning when taken out of that context. Besides, my view is that Schoenberg’s serialism was here acting as a convenient compositional tool that made it a little easier for the composers to use atonality – basically it was a scheme that reduced the effort needed to avoid tonality, and not one that actually brought any profundity or musicality in itself. These composers put that back in in other ways – with dynamics and so forth. There was nothing inevitable about Schoenberg’s method, and the justifications for it given by Adorno, and indeed by Schoenberg himself, are largely bogus. But that doesn’t make serialism intrinsically ‘bad’ as a way of composing. It’s when serialism becomes total that the problems really start (both musically and ideologically).

I hope all of this will be made clearer in my forthcoming book The Music Instinct. I am aware, however, that I have not addressed either here or there the defence of serialism made by Morag Josephine Grant in her book Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics (CUP). Here she attacks Fred Lerdahl’s critique of serialism (and other modern compositional methods), which is based on his linguistic approach to music cognition. Lerdahl believes that music needs to have an audible ‘grammar’: as he says, ‘The musical surface must be available for hierarchical structuring by the listening grammar’. In short, if we can’t construct hierarchies of pitch, rhythm and so forth, then the ‘musical surface’ is shallow: everything just sounds like everything else. This is the thrust of my Prospect piece, and I think it is true: for music to be more than a collection of mere sounds, there needs to be some audible way of organizing it. Grant complains that Lerdahl is forcing music into a straitjacket: she says his ‘argument ‘ that musical language, like spoken language, is generative in structure excludes the possibility of other, non-hierarchical methods of achieving musical coherence.’

But Grant is not, as it might seem, rejecting the need for music to acknowledge cognition. Rather, she asserts that this was precisely the concern of the serialists. They, however (she says), felt that our perception was culturally conditioned, and that we have ‘the ability to develop or uncover previously suppressed abilities’. One of those is the recognition of the tone row itself: ‘the use of the row is itself a constraint, not just on the composer, but in the aid of comprehensibility as well.’ Lerdahl is unaware of this, Grant says, while serialism imposes a system precisely to aid cognition.

And this is where Grant’s thesis utterly falls apart. For it has been shown quite clearly now that serialism’s ‘system’ is not one that can be cognized. It exists only on paper; listeners simply don’t hear it. And the reason for this is that it is simply not the kind of system that the mind intuits: we don’t listen to music by remembering arbitrary sequences of notes, but rather – as Lerdahl says – we organize those notes into hierarchical patterns: hierarchies of pitch, rhythm, melodic contour and so forth.

Can musical coherence be achieved by non-hierarchical methods? I’m not sure anyone knows, but certainly Grant provides no evidence of this – it is an act of faith. And what, precisely, are those methods, if we must exclude the tone row itself as one of them? She doesn’t say. She does, however, say that ‘the intense concentration on the tiniest of fluctuations’ is ‘central to the hearing of serial music’. I’m not sure what this means: fluctuations in what? The fluctuations in rhythm are either rather traditional, as in Berg, or are so extreme (as in Boulez) that rhythm has no meaning. Fluctuations in pitch, as in deviations from the tone row, would not be heard even if they were permitted. Grant also says that serialism ‘has the ability to create structures specific to each of its utterances’. Again, make of that what you will. If it means that each composition, each tone row, creates its own private language, then we know what Wittgenstein had to say about private languages. Why can’t Grant just explain how we are meant to find coherence in serial music, other than by its utilization of traditional techniques in parameters other than pitch?

I suppose one might interpret her remarks as saying that serialism encourages us to focus on each event as an entity in itself, not as something embedded in a hierarchical grammar. That’s possible. It might be interesting. And it is what I refer to below as sound art. If that’s the intention, it seems to me to be an explicit admission that ‘coherence’ isn’t the aim at all. And to my mind, coherence is the one characteristic that music should possess – I don’t care if you ditch tonality, or rhythm, or melody, or harmony, so long as what remains is in some manner coherent.

Incidentally, and in the hope of not sounding horribly patronizing, I have a lot of time for what Grant is up to more broadly. Defending Stockhausen is a noble cause in itself, even if I don’t buy it, and anyone who does so while listening to Scottish folk music and rap wins my vote.

Anyway, here’s the piece:

Writer Joe Queenan recently caused a minor rumpus in the austere world of contemporary classical music by complaining about how painful much of it is. He called Luciano Berio’s 1968 Sinfonia “35 minutes of non-stop torture”, Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte (1953) like “a cat running up and down the piano”, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) “belligerent bees buzzing in the basement”, and Harrison Birtwistle’s latest opera The Minotaur “funereal caterwauling”. A hundred years after Schoenberg, he said, “the public still doesn't like anything after Transfigured Night, and even that is a stretch.”

Inevitably, Queenan was lambasted as a reactionary philistine. Performances of ‘modern’ works like this well attended, his critics said. And while Queenan took pains to distance himself from the conservative concert-goers who demand a steady diet of Mozart and Brahms, his comments were denounced as the same old clichés. The problem is that, like most clichés, they become such by frequent use. Sure, these works will find audiences in London’s highbrow venues, but the fact remains that Stockhausen and Penderecki, whose works now are as old as ‘Rock Around the Clock’, have not been assimilated into the classical canon in the way that Ravel and Stravinsky have. When someone like Queenan has earnestly tried and failed to appreciate this ‘new’ music, it’s fair to ask what the problem is.

David Stubbs considers this important question in his new book Fear of Music (Zero, 2009) but doesn’t come close to answering it. His speculative suggestion – that music lacks an ‘original object’ that, in visual art, can become the subject of veneration or trade – clearly has little force, given that it must surely apply equally to Beethoven and Berio. Indeed, Stubbs’ analysis is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Like economists trying to understand market crashes, he wants to place all the motive forces outside the system: his gaze never fixes on the music itself. To Stubbs, your responses to music are a function of your context and perspective, not of the music. His comparisons of visual and musical art assumes an equivalence that allows no possibility of their being cognitively distinct processes.

He is in good company. Social theorist Theodore Adorno’s advocacy of Schoenberg’s atonal modernism was politically motivated: tonality was the bastion of bourgeois complacency. To the hardline modernists of the 1950s and 60s, any hint of tonality was a form of recidivism to be denounced with Maoist vigour; Pierre Boulez refused for a time even to speak to tonal composers. American composer Milton Babbitt’s provocative 1958 essay ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ argued that it was time for ‘serious’ composers to withdraw from public engagement altogether, while offering nothing in the way of explanation for the public’s antipathy to ‘difficult’ music (his included) except a belief that they were too ill-informed to understand it. After giving a lecture on the music of Boulez and Elliott Carter, the eminent pianist and critic Charles Rosen responded thus to a question from the audience about whether composers have a responsibility to write music that the public can understand: “On such occasions I normally reply politely to all questions, no matter how foolish, but this time I answered that the question did not seem to me interesting but that the obvious resentment that inspired it was very significant indeed.”

No one can deny that audiences are conservative, whether they be Parisians rioting at the première of the Rite of Spring in 1913 or punks lobbing bottles at art-rockers Suicide on tour with the Clash. And since questions like this one are often a coded demand that composers start writing ‘real music’ like Mozart did, Rosen can be forgiven some impatience. Stubbs is justifiable indignant that even fans of conceptual art will parrot trite witticisms about the ‘cacophony’ of much experimental music.

But the understanding of the cognitive mechanisms of music that has emerged in the past several decades implies that it is not enough to tell ingrates bemused by Stockhausen to knuckle down and try harder. Many musicologists accept a definition of music as ‘organized sound’ (ironically, since this was the description used by avant-garde electronic pioneer Edgar Varèse for his own musique concrète, a paradigm of all that is seen as distressing about ‘modern’ music). Yet sound does not become organized merely because the composer has used a system to arrange it. Sound is structured into music not on paper, nor even in the mind of the composer, but in the mind of the listener. So music is sound in which the organization is audibly perceptible, not just that in which it is theoretically present.

Our brains use rules of thumb, both learnt and innate, to arrange an acoustic signal into a coherent entity: to pick out key, melody and harmony, to identify rhythm and metre, and to create a sense of structure and logic. The traditional music of just about every culture on earth builds in elements that assist this decoding process. When we encounter unfamiliar music, we may need to adjust our decoding rules, or learn new ones, before we can truly hear it at all.

Chief among these rules are the ‘Gestalt principles’ identified by a group of German-based psychologists in the early twentieth century. Initially identified in visual processing, these principles help us make good guesses at how to interpret complex sensory stimuli. We make assumptions about continuity, for example: the aeroplane that flies into a cloud is the same one that flies out the other side. We group together objects that look similar, or that are close together. Although the Gestalt principles are not foolproof, they make the world more comprehensible. Both in sound and in vision, the ability to interpret sensory data this way must have had clear evolutionary benefits.

In music, this means that melodies that move in small pitch steps tend to sound unified and ‘good’, while ones with large pitch jumps are liable to seem fragmented and harder to make out. Traditional melodies in diverse cultures do indeed proceed mostly in small rather than large pitch steps. Regular rhythms also contribute to coherence, while erratic ones are apt to confuse us.

The composer’s job is to manipulate the expectations that these principles produce – enough to avoid predictability and create a lively musical surface, but not so much as to lose coherence. Out of the interplay between expectation and reality comes much of music’s capacity to excite and move us. But what happens if these rules are seriously undermined? In Boulez’s Structures I or Stockhausen’s Klavierstück VII, say, there is no discernible rhythm, and the ‘melody line’, if one can call it that, is as jagged as the Dolomites. In this situation, we can develop no expectations about the music, and this absence of an audible relationship between one note and the next cuts off a key channel of musical affect. What remains may be a temporarily diverting sound, but the indulgent listener risks becoming like the sentimental audiences about whom nineteenth-century music theorist Eduard Hanslick complained, wallowing in the sonic surface while oblivious to the musical details.

And yet how can Structures lack structure? It is one of the most ‘structured’ pieces of music ever written! It was composed using the technique of ‘integral serialism’, in which musical parameters such as pitch, dynamics and rhythm are prescribed along the lines of Schoenberg’s ‘twelve-tone’ method, introduced in the 1920s. In Schoenberg’s original formulation, this approach dictated only the choice of pitches, and it was meant to eliminate all vestige of tonality – the anchoring of a piece of music to a tonic centre, which enables us to assign it a particular key. Schoenberg considered that tonal music – which meant all Western music until that point – had become tired and formulaic, and serialism was supposed to offer a systematic way of composing atonally.

The composer first chose a tone row: all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, lined up in a particular order. This was the composition’s basic musical gene: the piece was made up of repetitions of the tone row in strict order, sounded simultaneously or in succession. Individual notes could be immediately repeated, and could be used in any octave. And various mathematical permutations of the tone rows, such as reverse order, were also permitted.

The twelve-tone method ensures that no note is used more often than any other, so that none can acquire the status of a tonic merely by repetition. By the 1950s serialism had became, in many leading schools of classical composition, the only ‘respectable’ way to compose; anything hinting at tonality was considered passé and bourgeois. Yet Schoenberg not only failed to justify his horror of tonality – a composer like Béla Bartók displayed remarkable dissonant invention without abandoning it – but more importantly, he never truly came to terms with what its abandonment implied for both composer and listener. Since atonality has no tonal ‘home’, there was nowhere to depart from or return to, so that beginning, endings, and the entire matter of large-scale structure became problematic. As Roger Scruton says, ‘When the music goes everywhere, it also goes nowhere.’

Tonality is also one of the pillars of music comprehension. Far from being a decadent Western device, it is used in just about every musical tradition in the world (it does not rely on Western scales). Cognitive studies have shown how tonality provides a sense of location in pitch space and a way to organize the sequence of notes. It is the removal of this, far more than any considerations of harmony and dissonance, that many listeners find disconcerting in serialism.

This is not to say that atonality in general, and serialism in particular, is doomed to sound aimless and incomprehensible. There are plenty of other parameters, such as rhythm, dynamics and timbre, that a composer can deploy to create coherent structures. Schoenberg often did so masterfully, and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite (1925-6) is so beautifully wrought that one would hardly know it was a twelve-tone composition at all. But as integral serialism and other techniques progressively and systematically subverted other means of providing audible organization, so it was unsurprising that audiences found the music ever harder to ‘understand’. The serialist’s rules are not ones that can be heard – even specialists in this music can rarely hear tone rows as such. Boulez’s serial piece Le Marteau sans Maître was widely acclaimed when premiered in 1955, but it wasn’t until 22 years later that anyone else could figure out how it was serial: no one could deduce, let alone hear, the organizational ‘structure’. One can hardly blame audiences for suspecting that what is left is musically rather sparse.

This is not to imply that music must return to tonal composition, with its cadences and modulations (although that is to some degree happening anyway). But ‘experimental’ music can only qualify as such if, like any experiment, it includes the possibility of failure. If musical composition takes no account of cognition – if indeed it denies that cognition has any role to play, or determinedly frustrates it – then composers cannot complain when their music is unloved.

Sadly, although these difficulties afflict only one strand of modern classical music, the fact that it was once dominant means that all the rest tends to get tarred with the same brush. Its critics often fail to differentiate music lacking clear cognitive ‘coherence systems’ from that which has new ones. What Javanese gamelan experts Alton and Judith Becker say of non-Western music pertains also to much contemporary experimental music: “it has become increasingly clear that the coherence systems of other musics may have nothing to do with either tonality or thematic development… What is different in a different musical system may be perceived, then, as noise. Or it may not be perceived at all. Or it may be perceived as a ‘bad’ or ‘simple-minded’ variant of my own system.” Often the only thing that stands in the way of comprehension, even enjoyment, is a refusal to adapt, to realise that it is no good trying to hear all music the way we hear Mozart or Springsteen. We need, in the parlance of the field, to find other ‘listening strategies’. Gyorgi Ligeti’s works can be appreciated as some of the most thrilling and inventive of the twentieth century once we realise that it handles time differently for instance. Musicologist Jonathan Kramer distinguishes it as ‘vertical’ rather than ‘horizontal’ time: musical events do not relate to one another in succession, like call and response, but are stacked up into sonic textures that slowly mutate and take on almost tangible forms.

It would arguably benefit all concerned if some experimental music, like much of Stockhausen’s or Boulez’s oeuvre and certainly the ambient noises of John Cage’s notoriously ‘silent’ 4’33”, were viewed instead as ‘sound art’, a term coined by Canadian composer Dan Lander and anticipated by the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises. That way, one is not led to expect from these compositions what we expect of music. For if music is not acknowledged as a mental process, sound is all that remains.

Added note: The comments continue on the Prospect site, and make interesting reading. Of course, there are the inevitable blogosphere crazies. Will Orzo thinks he should tell me about this field called music cognition, in which people study other people’s responses to music. Thanks Will – hey, maybe I should use some of that work in my book on music cognition! Seriously, though, anyone who actually knows this field, as opposed to having looked it up on Wikipedia, would see straight away that this is precisely what I’m drawing on in my claims about how atonalism is perceived, especially the work of Fred Lerdahl, Carol Krumhansl and David Huron. If I am regurgitating anyone’s opinions, it is theirs. If you want references, look up my article in Nature last year (453, 160).

As for Joe Schmoe – anyone figure out who he’s ranting against? Sometimes it seems to be Stubbs, sometimes Adorno, sometimes Babbitt, sometimes me. An angry man. But incoherently so.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The bioethics of human cloning

It’s a funny business, bioethics. I’d never really before now looked into what it is that people called bioethicists do – but the more I do so, the more it feels that their job is basically to offer personal opinions with a professionalized aura. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about that – practising scientists tend to spend too little time thinking hard about ethical issues (beyond the basic stuff of plagiarism, fabricating data and so forth), so it is good that someone does it. And when this kind of ‘op ed’ discourse is conducted with considered philosophical rigour, and/or informed by a humane and open-minded perspective, it seems potentially to have a lot to recommend it. But from what I’ve seen so far, it strikes me as a very mixed bag.

I’ve currently been grappling with the views of Laurie Zoloth on human cloning. Zoloth is no ringside commentator, but wields considerable clout as the Director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University. And this is what makes me kind of surprised.

Her position is laid out in ‘Born again: faith and yearning in the cloning controversy’, a chapter in Cloning and the Future of Human Embryo Research, ed. P. Lauritzen (OUP, 2001). This essay is also available online (in more or less verbatim form) here. The title goes a long way towards articulating her position. Human cloning, she believes, is all about a yearning to avoid death, and thus a narcissistic impulse to produce a copy of oneself.

Now, this is very odd. You can imagine this being the impression of someone outside the mainstream of the debate, particularly someone intuitively opposed to the idea. And there are good reasons to feel unease at the idea of reproductive cloning in humans, even in the face of the cogent arguments that Ronald Green puts forward, in the same book, in its favour. But Green makes it clear that the principal motivation for reproductive cloning is as another variant of assisted conception, alongside conventional IVF. It might be used, for example, in cases where couples wanted to have a genetically related child but either the man or the woman had no gametes at all. One can see the arguments: is it, for example, really any more potentially confusing for a child to know fully about their genetic heritage (and parentage) than to know only half of that equation in the case of anonymous gamete donation? And cloning would also offer female couples who want to conceive a child the same potential advantage over sperm donation. Of course, that opens up another can of worms in some eyes, and all the more so if one considers male homosexual couples using surrogacy for gestation. But I’m not going to argue (here) about whether such reproductive cloning is justified; the point is that the parental wish for a genetically related child, rather than for a ‘copy’ of oneself, is the motive force behind arguments supporting it. Sure, it’s possible to contend that the wish for any genetic relation to a child is itself narcissistic – and this then is a kind of narcissism displayed by the majority of the human race, and universally accepted as a ‘natural’ human desire.

Zoloth also takes on the issue of cloning performed to ‘replace’ a dead child. She movingly describes a situation in which she could appreciate this wish, but in which she could also see that the better response was to confront the anguish of the loss. Notwithstanding the fact that there is no law or intervention that prevents parents from conceiving another child ‘normally’ in response to such a tragedy, I think few would dispute that attempts to ‘replace’ a dead child are never a healthy thing. But both here and in the case of efforts to cheat one’s own mortality through cloning, the simple fact is that such actions are deluded in any event from a scientific point of view. This isn’t, as Zoloth implies, a case of science offering the temptation and bioethicists advising us to resist. Any scientist worthy of the description who knows the first thing about genetics will be the first to point out that genetically identical individuals are not in any meaningful sense ‘the same’. In her comments here, Zoloth tacitly endorses the myth of genetic determinism that scientists are always at pains to dismantle.

It seems extraordinary that a leading bioethicist would labour under these misconceptions. Naturally, if you’re temperamentally opposed to human cloning then it makes strategic sense to pick the worst possible reason for doing it in order to argue the case against. But one might question the ethics of doing so, if done intentionally. If done unintentionally, the issue is then one of competence.

What I’ve noticed in several of the critiques of the new reproductive technologies and of human embryo research is a shameful evasion of plain speaking. Time and again, one can see where the argument is inevitably heading, but the critic will not spell that out, for what one can only assume is fear of saying something unpopular. Instead, they take refuge in woolly, wise-sounding rhetoric that masks the real message. They present their criticisms – and some are, without doubt, well motivated – but decline to explain what their alternative would be. So then, for example, Zoloth says that ‘advanced reproductive technology’ relies on the notion of infertility as a disease, which must then of course be ‘cured’. This is a valid criticism: there are real dangers of setting up a situation in which people consider it their ‘right’ to have any medical treatment that will offer them the chance of conceiving a child – and in the process having their condition pathologized. But to simply say this and leave it at that is to dismiss the plight of infertility all together – to imply that ‘you just have to learn to live with it’, or perhaps, ‘you’ll just have to adopt then’ (from a greatly diminished pool, for both social and medical reasons). Zoloth nowhere acknowledges that infertility has always been seen as a problem – not just today but in the times to which she looks for the ‘wisdom of ages’. How can it possibly be that someone who makes so much of her Jewish heritage seems oblivious to the ‘disgrace’ that Rachel felt when she could bear Jacob no children (until God relented, that is). (Mind you, Zoloth’s theology seems to hold other surprises – for can it really be the case that, as she suggests, Noah is now the object of rabbinical criticism for thinking only of his wife and children and not arguing with God about the injustice of destroying the rest of his community? Sounds like a good point to me, but can it really be the case that Jewish theologists now think one should be prepared to pick arguments with God? Wild.)

So then, the unspoken text of Zoloth’s essay is that infertility is a bad roll of the dice that you have to learn to put up with. At least, I think that’s what it is. She doesn’t put it like that, of course. She puts it like this: we must look for a ‘refinement of imperfection, not the a priori obliteration of imperfection. In this, we could serve to remind [sic] of something else: of the blinding power of human love, which sees and knows, right through the brokenness’. Got that?

If I’m right in my interpretation, this doesn’t seem to offer a great deal of empathy for people who encounter infertility. Oh, but that’s mild – for elsewhere Zoloth says that ‘The hunger of the infertile is ravenous, desperate’. There are more offensive things you can say to infertile people, but not by very much.

Well then, sic indeed – for there are times when you have to wonder quite what has happened to her prose and grammar. I suspected at first if there might be a first-language issue here – if so, all criticisms are retracted – but it doesn’t look that way. Rather, one has to suspect the old post-modernist problem of language becoming a casualty of a reluctance to be truly understood. Sometimes this tension creates an utter car-crash of metaphors. For example, in telling us how parents must reject the desire for a ‘close-as-can-be-replica’ (see above), she says they must ‘earn to have the stranger, not the copy, live by our side as though out of our side’. As though what? What else can ‘out of our side’ evoke if not, after all, a clone? And indeed, the first of all clones, Eve made from Adam’s rib! Why plunge us into that thicket? Does she really mean to? Please, what is going on? (Notice here that ‘copy’ = product of one parent’s genome alone; ‘stranger’ = product of both parents’ genomes. There is some odd asymptotic calculus here, quite aside from the fact that a ‘copy’ of one parent’s genome is surely then far more of a ‘stranger’ to the other parent.)

Then how about this: ‘We need to reflect on the meaning not only of the performance gesture of cloning but also the act of the imagination that surrounds the act in popular culture.’ Now, here’s a statement I do actually endorse; but what a tortured way to put it. Indeed, that is the very aim, in a sense, of the book for which I’m reading all this stuff. And it’s therefore with some gladness of heart that I see Zoloth giving me material to work on. ‘The whole point of ‘making babies’’, she says, ‘is not the production, it is the careful rearing of persons, the promise to have bonds of love that extend far beyond the initial ask and answer of the marketplace.’ How true. And how interesting, then, that for her the hypothetical cloned human (and, to pursue the logic, already the IVF baby) becomes not a person who can be born and reared with love but a mere product of the marketplace. That assumption, that prejudice, is just the thing that interests me.