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Richard Dawkins interview

24 Sep

It’s not every day you get to meet Richard Dawkins. In August, I visited the great man at his Oxford home to interview him for BBC Focus magazine. Topics of conversation included his 40-year run of books (beginning with The Selfish Gene in 1976), the evidence for evolution, the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, and the public reaction to The God Delusion (anyone who’s not seen this video of Dawkins reading out some of his hate mail should remedy that now).

You can read my interview in the October 2015 issue of BBC Focus:

dawkinsinterview

Frankenstein: the Birth of a Monster

30 Oct Birth of Frankenstein

When it comes to horror stories, Frankenstein is probably the most famous of them all. Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece has sent shivers of fear through generations of readers, inspired countless adaptations, and become the gold standard for tales of terror and suspense. It’s a story that becomes even more unsettling, though, when you realise it was inspired by twitching corpses, violent volcanoes and disturbing nightmares…

Mary Shelley’s famous novel barely needs an introduction. Its protagonist, Dr Victor Frankenstein, is fiction’s original ‘mad’ scientist, dedicating himself to chemistry at university so that he can learn how to create life out of inanimate matter. The being he cooks up, however, is repulsive:

“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, … his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Dr Frankenstein looks with horror upon his monster (credit: Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein)

Disgusted, Dr Frankenstein deserts his horrible creation – but the monster will come to haunt him for the rest of his life. First, it murders Frankenstein’s little brother; then, when the scientist refuses to create a female companion for it, it kills his closest friend and beloved wife too. Distraught, Frankenstein vows to take revenge and pursue his monster until one of them is dead. But the scientist fails in his mission and, after months of pursuit, he dies from pneumonia near the North Pole.

When Mary Shelley began to write her spine-chilling story, she was just 18 years old and without a novel to her name. So what inspired her nightmarish tale? In an introduction to the book’s third edition in 1831, Shelley finally explained how she “came to think of and to dilate upon such a hideous idea”. As it turns out, the true story behind Frankenstein is even more intriguing than the novel itself, involving electrified frogs, reanimated corpses, and a rather strange summer holiday…

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Book review: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

2 Oct

To be fair, this book could have been given any number of equally provocative titles. Why do we have pubes? Why do some people fall in love with horses? What’s in a fetish? Because, as well as the eponymous love organ, Why is The Penis… covers an ambitious array of eyebrow-raising topics: bestiality, cannibalism, self-gratification… and that’s just for starters. The Cloudspotter’s Guide this is not.

Why Is the Penis… is a collection of essays about some of the more bizarre, dirty, and downright disturbing aspects of human nature. It’s the second book by the American writer and psychologist Jesse Bering and, true to the title, it spends a fair bit of time explaining how the penis obtained its peculiar physique. It also looks at the science behind semen (is it good to swallow?), the testicles (why do they hang in such an apparently vulnerable fashion?), and female ejaculate (what is it exactly?).

Jesse Bering – science writer and psychologist

But that’s just the light stuff. Elsewhere, Bering turns his attention to the taboos that most science writers would usually brush beneath the carpet. He explores the psychology behind sexual fetishes, delves into the history of cannibalism, investigates why humans are such prolific masturbators, and tries to understand why some people love animals. No, not just love them, I mean really love them.

In the hands of someone else, this might all have been rather trashy and gratuitous. Happily, though, Bering’s take on these controversial topics is refreshingly non-judgmental. Rather than sensationalising the subjects, he approaches them as a clear-headed psychologist; his rational, considered explanations make even the most bizarre behaviour seem strangely – almost disconcertingly – normal.

There are also some unexpected moments of poignancy scattered throughout the book. In one section, Bering addresses the issue of suicide and gives a harrowing insight into the mind of someone who’s contemplating ending their life. In another, the author describes going to a funeral parlour with his dying mother to make arrangements for her funeral. Disillusioned with the slick, commercialised ‘business of death’, Bering beautifully outlines his vision for an alternative burial tradition in which people are laid to rest underneath their favourite tree:

“Two massive walnut trees growing side by side with interlocking branches seem somehow more than mere trees when we learn that they’re actually growing upon what was once a husband and wife who lived centuries before.”

Bering is a brilliant writer with a bright, engaging style, and it’s this that holds Why Is the Penis… – otherwise just a collection of individual essays – together. The essays are grouped into themes, but there’s no overarching narrative – my one minor quibble. On the upside, though, this means that the book can be dipped into at any time, with each essay acting as a stand-alone chunk of text.

Going back to the book’s title, it’s perhaps a good job that Bering went with the one he did. After all, if he’d named his collection after one of the more provocative essays – ‘Podophilia for Prudes’, let’s say – Why Is the Penis… might have had a lot more difficulty infiltrating your local library or bookshop. And that would have been a big shame. So go and track it down – you’ll never look at your nether regions in the same way again.

This review first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Guru magazine, alongside an interview with Jesse Bering. Download the magazine for free here.

Songs of Science #7: Saint-Saëns

10 Sep

Camille Saint-Saëns was a French late-Romantic composer who’s probably best known for his The Carnival of the Animals suite – a lively musical journey through the natural world. Most of the suite’s 14 movements are inspired by a particular animal. “Tortoises”, for example, sees the strings play the can-can music (“Galop infernal”) infuriatingly sloooowly; “The Elephant” has a double bass playing a lumbering, comical melody; and “The cuckoo in the depths of the woods” features a clarinet mimicking the Common Cuckoo’s famous call.

One of my favourite movements is “Fossils”. I’m not sure what kind of fossils Saint-Saëns was imagining when he wrote it, but the clickety-clackety xylophone makes me think of dancing skeletons. The addictive melody still sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it must have done when it was first written in 1886. Listen out for the short snippet of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” – this may have been Saint-Saëns making a joke about those musical ‘fossils’ which we always dig up generation after generation.

“The Swan” is probably the most famous movement in The Carnival of The Animals, featuring a romantic cello solo floating gracefully over a surface of tinkling pianos. It’s nice, but a little on the melodramatic side for me. I prefer one of the other aquatic movements: the magical “Aquarium”. You might recognise this one – it’s been used in several films, as well as inspiring the soundtracks of countless others. It’s a beautiful piece of music, and it whisks me off to cloud cuckoo land every time I hear it.

Watch a virtuoso performance of the Carnival of the Animals suite on YouTube here.
For more of my ‘Songs of Science’ posts click here!

An Exceedingly Curious Bestiary

13 Feb

Somewhere in deepest, darkest Australia lurks a most terrifying assortment of animals. Shark-helicopter hybrids patrol the skies. Mechanically-enhanced rats wage war against robotic beetles. The bones of long-dead animals are reanimated into hideous configurations. And that faint sound of trickling water? That’s the sound of David Attenborough wetting his pants.

A Pilot Fish, guided by its fishy co-pilots (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

For the past five years, Kaitlin Beckett has been bringing this nightmarish ecosystem to life. Based in Melbourne, Kaitlin makes artwork that is inspired by anatomy and the natural world, but with a distinctly dark and surreal twist. I couldn’t resist posting up some of her work, so scroll down for a selection of these weird and wonderful beasties, as well as an interview with Kaitlin herself.

Say hello to the Beetle Walker (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

Kaitlin, when did you begin your magnificent bestiary?

I started painting seriously about 5 years ago, though I’ve been drawing and sketching all my life. I’ve always loved watching nature documentaries and sci-fi films so my bestiary started to develop from these. I’ve also been collecting gas masks and goggles for a while now so these pop up on my creatures all the time.

What’s your usual process for creating the artworks?

I normally turn an idea around in my head for a while before I sketch it out. Sometimes once it’s sketched I’ll work on it straight away. I create larger sketches, test colours and composition, and once I’m happy I’ll transfer it to canvas and ink in the outline. I add the colour next with my airbrush and some hand painting, then there are several layers of ink splats, pastel and ink linework before it’s finished.

A wise old Samurai Tubfish (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

Do you have any favourite artists? Terry Gilliam sprang to mind when I first saw your work…

I am a fan of Terry Gilliam! A few of my all time favourite artists are HR Giger, Beksinski, Escher, Mucha, Lempicka, Kahlo, Bacon and of course Dali…too many to name!

Although the creatures are quite fantastical, their anatomy is often very detailed and intricate. What is it that appeals to you about mixing the real and the imaginary?

I think it’s an artist’s job to share a bit of their imagination and to look deeper into things, to reimagine and reinterpret. While I appreciate the technical skill behind photorealistic art, I can’t get excited about paintings that look like photographs, unless there’s a twist or a surprise, or some element of fantasy or surrealism. My creatures have an almost cartoon-like look, though I adore fine detail and texture so I’m trying to combine these elements in my work.

The Longhorn Octopus…possibly quite friendly (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

If you were a mad scientist for the day, which of your creatures would you bring to life?

Perhaps not the fell beasts – they would eat me! I’d perhaps like to hitch a ride in my Pilot Fish shark helicopter, and my Longhorn Octopus could possibly be friendly.

Finally, what are your plans for 2012?

I had a crazy year last year with a solo show plus a few big group shows so in 2012 I’m taking it easy and focusing on getting better at airbrushing and sculpture. I’m taking part in a joint show in September with a very talented artist (my beasts meet vigilantes!), so I’m looking forward to that.

Frigate Bird – one of Kaitlin’s first sculptures

Now that Kaitlin’s beginning to work on sculptures, maybe it won’t be too long before the Curious Bestiary gets its own zoo. Let’s just hope the cages are securely locked…

Visit Kaitlin Beckett’s Curious Bestiary here!

Europa: Life in our Solar System?

2 Feb
This article first appeared in the February 2012 edition of an awesome new science magazine called Guru. You can download the magazine for free here.

Please listen carefully. There is life on Europa. I repeat: there is life on Europa…like huge strands of wet seaweed, crawling along the ground…Imagine an oak tree…flattened out by gravity…Tendrils, stamens, waving feebly…”

Europing for a miracle

Tendrils, stamens, waving feebly (credit: George L Smyth)

Professor Chang is stranded on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. His air supply is rapidly running out and he’s got no chance of being rescued; all he can do is die with dignity and hope that somebody hears his final radio message.

“I’ve only two requests to make…When the taxonomists classify this creature, I hope they’ll name it after me. And – when the next ship comes home – ask them to take our bones back to China.”

Fiction becoming fact

If this sounds like science fiction, well, that’s because it is. This gloomy scenario takes place near the beginning of 2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke’s sequel to his most famous novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In Odyssey Two, Clarke imagines Europa to be teeming with extraterrestrial life, sustained by a liquid ocean beneath the moon’s surface. He was undoubtedly inspired by images sent back by the Voyager space probes during the late 1970s, which revealed Europa’s surface to be covered with a smooth shell of ice, raising the possibility of an underground watery ocean.

Europa has since become one of our Solar System’s most enigmatic bodies. Evidence now points to a huge ocean under its icy surface, possibly containing twice as much water as all of the Earth’s oceans combined. And where there’s water, life is often not too far away. Suddenly, Arthur C. Clarke’s story doesn’t seem quite so outlandish… Continue reading

When Google Doodles Scientists

13 Jan

Ever since 1998, Google has been brightening up its homepage with “Google doodles”, playfully customised logos which celebrate a current event or the birthday of a famous person. The first ever doodle was created when the Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, attended the Burning Man festival and wanted to let Google users know that they were “out of office”.

Since then, the Google doodle has become a bit of a pop culture phenomenon. There have now been over 1,000 doodles, celebrating events ranging from the anniversary of the ice cream sundae to Freddie Mercury’s 65th Birthday (this one needs to be seen!).

A couple days ago, being the geek that I am, I got quite excited by a science-themed doodle – a strati-tastic version of the Google logo in celebration of Nicolas Steno, an important figure in modern geology.

So, noticing that Google keeps an archive of all of its doodles, I thought I’d find out which other scientists had been honoured by Google’s creative bods. Turns out there’s quite a lot… Continue reading

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