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Wilderness With a Cast of Thousands

This review of five books on Antarctica appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 26 April 2013.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the dream of discovering a lost southern continent, more bountiful than the Americas, had died an icy death. James Cook, who spent much of the 1770s zig-zagging the Southern Ocean in search of the fabled Terra Australis Incognita, concluded that no-one could make it further south than the Resolution’s hard-won 71°10’S, and that whatever “inexpressibly horrid” land might lie beyond the pack ice “would not be worth the discovery.”

Though Cook’s prediction proved incorrect, those who did venture beyond the sea ice were inclined to agree with his assessment. “Great God! this is an awful place”, observed Captain Scott of the Geographic South Pole, which he reached – too late – in January 1912, while his ship-mate Apsley Cherry-Garrard described polar exploration as the best means humanity had yet devised of having a wretched time.

But, as these five books plainly attest, the century since the death of Scott has seen such views of Antarctica transformed, from a howling wilderness to an ice-bound utopia, a kind of transnational Eden devoted to the pleasures of research. “A science playground”, as Gabrielle Walker describes it in the introduction to her “intimate portrait” of the frozen continent, “a place where modern humans can write themselves afresh.” For Gavin Francis, it was the “cold purity” that impressed him most, “the simplicity of that world of ice and light”, while for David Day, the place supplies an object lesson in international agreement, the Antarctic Treaty of 1961 having so far guaranteed peace on the continent, while serving “as an example of cooperation” that the rest of the world might heed.

Day’s Antarctica is an impressive piece of work, an impartial and deeply researched account of the politics of polar annexation. It is, of course, an ongoing story, of which the British government’s recent decision to name a sizeable section of British Antarctic Territory “Queen Elizabeth Land” is only the latest installment. The Argentine response, condemning Britain’s “anachronistic imperialist ambitions” is typical of the bad-tempered rhetoric that has dominated the question of Antarctic possession for much of the past two centuries, many examples of which enliven the pages of Day’s book. I was particularly struck by the angry exchanges between the explorer Douglas Mawson and his ship’s captain, John King Davis, over what the latter called “that bloody rubbishing business of raising the flag ashore.” (Though sometimes Mawson didn’t even go ashore: he once claimed British sovereignty over a 1,000-kilometre-wide section of the continent by planting a flag on the summit of an offshore island that overlooked the newly annexed land.) It was the Antarctic Treaty that brought such antics to an end, but as Day points out, the signatory nations continue to wrangle over their Antarctic possessions, bolstering their claims through the preservation of historic monuments such as Scott’s and Shackleton’s century-old huts: emotive relics from the age of exploration that also serve as strategic reminders that “we” were here first. In this context, it is interesting to note that Day is the only one of the five authors who has never set foot on the continent. “Like Cook”, he writes, “I have been slowly circling the Antarctic.” It seems a curious omission, given how accessible the place has become; every (southern) summer sees more than 30,000 visitors arrive, swelling the resident population of some five thousand scientists and support staff, though in winter that number drops to just over a thousand, many of whom apparently regard themselves as the luckiest people on earth.

One of those lucky ones was Gavin Francis, who spent a year working as the base-camp doctor at a remote British research station on Antarctica’s Caird Coast. Empire Antarctica is his record of that year, an intense and lyrical portrait of the slowly changing polar seasons, at the heart of which lies the cold monotony of the lightless southern winter. At first, as the sun gradually dipped below the horizon, Francis felt he was adjusting well to the coming of the polar night. But by the end of the second month, he writes, the frozen darkness had lost any beauty it once held: “it became a pause, a limbo, a drawn breath between history and the future”. His colleagues on the isolated station grew listless and forgetful, while tempers frayed due as much to the lack of privacy as the lack of natural light. Some even developed the notorious “Antarctic stare”, brought on by months of isolation, as though zombified by the pitiless dark. And then, one morning, the light of the returning sun offered its first chromatic inklings:

The sun was rising in my blood. I felt the promise of its return. One day while out skiing I saw the whole horizon spread with carmine and crimson; a widening garden of roses sprang up between the ice and the stars. Then a mirage started to flicker in the frozen air. The line of the horizon was obliterated, and the roses were replaced by a forest fire of black and scarlet flame. The prismatic air shifted the light depending on the height of the observer: if I crouched down the whole blaze moved to the east, if I stood up it rolled to the west. I stood silent witness to a beauty that was suddenly precious.

This shines with a clarity and lyricism descended from Thoreau; but confessional rhapsody is a risky venture, and there are moments in the book when Francis’s emotions overwhelm the telling of the story. At one point, for instance, during an account of an afternoon spent huddling with the penguins on the Brunt Ice Shelf, he rehearses the Transcendentalist idea that birds live more joyfully than humans, existing, he writes, “in a series of almost discontinuous eternities.” This is an interesting, if anthropomorphic, idea that neatly counters Cherry-Garrard’s better known (and equally anthropomorphic) contention that “nobody on earth has a worse time than an emperor penguin”. It would have been good, perhaps, to end the passage there, but instead Francis goes on to tell us that in “sharing their winter incubation, becoming one with their huddle, I felt as if I was taking part in that great joy”, a sentiment that seems both intrusive and spurious, given that he has no way of knowing what emotions, if any, a wintering penguin might feel. Indeed, the male emperors’ annual feat of endurance – a winter-long fast, spent silently incubating an egg that must never touch the ice – is mysterious to us precisely because it is unfathomable.

But Francis is not the only one to have succumbed to the cult of the penguin. Gabrielle Walker recalls that she began her time on the ice determined to resist these “clichés of Antarctica”, distrusting the way their cuteness is used to reduce the continent’s alien vastness to a manageable human scale. She would write about them only “because there was interesting science to tell. That was all.” Her vow did not last long, however, and the day an Adélie penguin played statues with her – “each time I turned it was motionless. Each time I walked, it walked with me” – was the day she finally lost her battle with the anthropomorphic impulse. Needless to say, an Adélie penguin features prominently on the cover of her book.

Penguins, though, are not the continent’s only walking clichés. Most of the resident scientists and staff that Walker encountered during her five Antarctic trips seemed to fall into a handful of predictable types: usually hairy (one has “an untamed shock of white hair”, while another has “a shock of tight black curls that fall frequently across his face”); often taciturn (“I had been warned that he wasn’t so good with people”); and always obsessed (“he spends as much time as possible out here in his field camp, among his penguins”). Their work, however, is invariably fascinating, and Walker’s book is at its best when exploring the intricacies of Antarctic science. At one remote station on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet she visits a simple snow chamber dug into the ice, through which sunlight is filtered into the purest colours possible on earth, as much art installation as scientific instrument. At the bottom of the chamber she finds an intense violet glow, shimmering at the furthest limit of the visible spectrum, “the end of the rainbow, the last colour that human eyes can see” before light slips past us into invisible ultraviolet. At the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, meanwhile, she visits the site of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a vast instrumental array designed to detect the particle debris left over from some of the universe’s most spectacular events (exploding stars, colliding black holes, gamma-ray bursts): an instrument so expensive that it merited its own line in the American Congressional budget. Buried more than a kilometre deep, where the ice is at its purest and most transparent, IceCube’s strings of detectors have effectively transformed the entire continent into a kind of prospector’s sieve, angled to capture those elusive neutrinos as they rocket their way through the icy depths with tell-tale bursts of blue light.

IceCube is an enormous structure, and one of the more disquieting revelations of Walker’s book is the scale of human industry on the continent. There are now hundreds of buildings and motorised vehicles, distributed mainly around the coast, with McMurdo Station – “Mactown”, Antarctica’s unofficial capital – resembling a 19th-century mining town, a sprawling, unsightly mess “with no ice and little romance.” The continent is becoming a managed environment, not just in the stations, with their cashpoints and bowling alleys (the one at Mactown uses stuffed penguins for skittles), but out on the ice, too, where every Weddell seal wears a prominent coloured tag, and every adult penguin is well used to the sight of people. And though science, not colonization, remains the official justification for the establishment of Antarctic settlements, colonization has indisputably begun: on the Argentinian base, at the tip of the Peninsula, a school has opened to educate some of the dozen or so children – “citizens of Antarctica” – who have been born on the continent since the 1970s, in defiance of the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, under which children and dogs are banned. It sounds, writes Walker, “like a wonderful childhood”, but unless (or until) the Treaty is overturned, such unofficial settlements are unlikely to thrive.

But if the scale of current activity on the ice comes as a surprise, so does its historical reach. This is the subject of John Harrison’s Forgotten Footprints, an account of the first adventurers to make landfall on Antarctica, many of whom had gone in search of the abundant seals and whales described in Cook’s reports. As Harrison points out, it hardly matters who was the first to set foot on the continent, though he devotes a fair few pages to supporting the priority claim of a forgotten English merchantman named William Smith. In February 1819, having been blown off-course while rounding Cape Horn, Smith made landfall on what are now the South Shetland Islands; the following year, he was commissioned by the Royal Navy to survey the new islands, in the course of which he discovered the Antarctic Peninsula.

Well, maybe; there have been plenty of other claimants, notably American sealers, though as Harrison notes, annual fur seal harvests remained steady until Smith’s reports were published, after which the catches increased so sharply that within two years the Antarctic fur seal had been hunted almost to extinction. In 1821, the Russian explorer Gottlieb von Bellingshausen arrived at Deception Island to find eighteen ships already moored amid scenes of wholesale slaughter. Though seal and whale numbers have now recovered, evidence of the industrial carnage is preserved at the “historic site” of Whalers Bay, where, as Harrison’s photographs show, the shoreline is littered with the ruins of vast barrels abandoned in the 1930s when the price of whale oil slumped, while off-shore lies the century-old skeleton of a Norwegian factory ship: a reminder of the long and crowded history of Antarctic exploitation that preceded the heroic age of the explorers, whose “race to the Pole” forms the centrepiece of Chris Turney’s 1912.

Turney’s book is named for Antarctica’s annus mirabilis, when no fewer than five state-funded expeditions were active on the ice. Scott and Amundsen’s tandem mission is now a familiar story, but Turney is good at retrieving the kinds of telling details that make it read afresh, such as the fact that Amundsen’s logistics were so well managed that he and his men actually put on weight during their return from the Pole, in contrast to the slow starvation of their doomed British rivals. But the most surprising revelations concern the Japanese team, led by Nobu Shirase, a Buddhist priest turned polar explorer, whose disorganized mission stands in comic contrast to the achievements of Amundsen and Scott. At one point Shirase’s ship nearly ran into Amundsen’s, the Japanese having mistaken the startled Norwegians for pirates. The only words in common that the two teams possessed turned out to be “nice day” and “plenty ice”. As Turney observes, it’s an extraordinary thought that two expeditions should meet by accident “at the bottom of the world”, even though Antarctica was awash with explorers. By this stage Shirase had abandoned his plans for a rival dash to the pole, and while Amundsen’s team headed south to victory, Shirase’s ventured instead into an unexplored sector, claiming it for Japan with a bamboo flagpole and shouts of banzai (“ten thousand years of life”). They nearly didn’t make it out, however, as the offshore sea ice was beginning to break up, putting their ship in danger from drifting floes. After several attempts, Shirase and his men were finally hauled aboard, but they had to leave their dogs behind on an uninhabited ice-shelf. The animals’ howls of distress at the sight of the departing ship proved a traumatic end to the expedition, and Shirase apparently remembered the dogs in his twice-daily prayers for the rest of his long life.

“Antarctica has little time for humans”, as Gabrielle Walker observes, yet each of these books has a cast of thousands, who between them have ventured over all but a fraction of this once forbidding continent. Even the South Pole remains the focus of an extraordinary amount of human activity, with “dormitories, offices, trucks, pool tables, shower blocks, saunas and science”. Antarctica, it seems, is no longer the world’s last wilderness, but what is clear from these five highly readable books is that its enveloping, elemental whiteness continues to cast a spell on those who, in Shackleton’s words, “burn with a strange passion for the South.”

Richard Hamblyn

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This piece, co-authored with Professor Mark Maslin, co-director of the UCL Environment Institute, appeared in the Times Eureka supplement in March 2011

There’s a puzzling soliloquy in the first act of Richard Bean’s The Heretic – currently playing at the Royal Court Theatre – in which the head of a climate research unit at an unspecified British university declares that climate scientists are “the kings of the castle”, and that environmental science is now the cool degree on campus.

If only. Like other instrumental sciences, climatology is largely about measurements and arguments about measurements, and for every field-trip to a photogenic glacier there’s a ton of contentious data to compute. But the global urgency accorded to climate change has given it a distinct cultural allure to which the arts have become increasingly attracted. In the last six months alone there have been three major theatrical productions in which the principal character is a climatologist: Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London, the multi-authored Greenland (currently on at the National Theatre) and Bean’s The Heretic (Royal Court). And then there’s Ian McEwan’s Solar, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital novels, and the television drama Burn Up, each of which pits a heroic climate scientist against the forces of planetary destruction. It may be strangely flattering but it’s not exactly plausible, though it probably stems from a fundamental mismatch of scale: climate change is an all-encompassing planetary phenomenon involving every major earth system from the oceans to the atmosphere; it is also a global political challenge affecting every nation on earth. The arts, however, are resolutely human-scale, with a single character or motif standing in for an array of competing ideas.

The problem with all this “scientist-as-hero” is that it misrepresents the collaborative nature of science. All three climate plays portray their protagonists as troubled loners, rooting out the evidence needed to single-handedly save the planet. Greenland’s climate modeller, Dr Ray Boykin, is so terrified by his own data that he tries to keep it secret, until a glamorous adviser from the Department of Energy seduces it out of him: science literally getting into bed with politics! It is one of many laugh-out-loud moments in a play which, despite some faults, is an impressive attempt to convey the scientific and ethical complexities of its subject. Much of its technical content is quoted from credible sources (in fact Boykin’s “scary” model derives from a recent Hadley Centre paper), while the multimedia design allows for a range of supporting material such as graphs and charts to be shown alongside the dialogue. The central scene, set at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, is a brilliantly nuanced examination of the summit’s collective policy failure, and is worth the price of admission alone.

So why have the critics been so harsh? “Two punishing hours of strident polemic” (Telegraph); “not so much a play as a statement put out by a committee” (Observer); “horribly similar to surfing the web” (Sunday Times). A recurring complaint, even in the more sympathetic reviews, is that with four playwrights involved (Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne), you can’t tell who has written what. From a science perspective, this is a surprising objection: most scientific books and articles are multi-authored, collaborative enterprises in which no individual “voice” can be detected. In the arts, by contrast, where individual creativity is valued very highly, such collaborations, while not unknown, remain relatively rare. But this situation seems to be changing, and Greenland, with its heterogeneous authorship, its wealth of documentary material gathered through exhaustive interviews with scientists and policy-makers, and its supporting programme of platform talks and discussions, is testament to an emerging, evidence-based model of making collaborative, documentary art.

And it seems there will be a lot more of it in the future, due in large measure to the ongoing work of initiatives such as TippingPoint, Cape Farewell, and Julie’s Bicycle, which have spent the last few years bringing climate scientists and artists together in creative colloquy, and in some cases commissioning new pieces of work. In fact on Tuesday this week TippingPoint, with generous support from Major Road and Without Walls, announced seven new climate change commissions, ranging from intimate spoken word pieces to huge outdoor installations. Look out for As the World Tipped, an extraordinary piece of aerial theatre set around the disastrous Copenhagen Summit; The Funeral for Lost Species by Feral Theatre, an immersive blend of visual art, performance and participatory workshops; and My Last Car by 509 Arts, a multi-authored celebration of the end of the automobile era. Whether or not these artworks prove successful – and there is an army of critics out there waiting to judge them – it is clear that climate change, with its manifold challenges, has become one of the shapers of contemporary culture. The science may be “settled”, as Al Gore contentiously claimed, but the art is only just getting into its stride.

Mark Maslin and Richard Hamblyn

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Climate Change Plays

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 25 February 2011

Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner & Jack Thorne, Greenland, Lyttleton Theatre

Richard Bean, The Heretic, Royal Court Theatre

The trouble with global warming is that you can’t see it happening. You can see its effects on the ground, of course, but not the thing itself. Greenhouse gases remain stubbornly invisible, so their accumulation in the atmosphere must be visualized by other means, plotted onto those fearsome looking graphs that tell us we’re all going to fry. Who can forget the famous scene in An Inconvenient Truth (2006) where Al Gore is hoisted by hydraulic lift some ten metres up the y-axis of an elongated graph showing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, projected to the year 2100. After 2050, when a concentration of around 550 parts per million had been reached, the temperature line went vertical, soaring beyond the furthest reach of the fireman’s lift, in a dramatic literalization of the statistical concept of a measurement going off the scale. That episode has become an indelible part of the climate change story, an iconic image of runaway warming – or runaway alarmism, depending on your viewpoint – and it haunts this pair of thematically linked plays in revealingly different ways.

The National Theatre’s multi-authored Greenland begins in a stylised supermarket through which teenage eco-activist Lisa (Isabella Laughland) hurtles in a suspended shopping trolley, denouncing the fact that so much of what we eat is wrapped in plastic and flown half-way round the world. “How many planes just to bring us our shopping?”, she asks, as a vast projection appears on a screen behind her: it’s that graph again, complete with its accusing vertical, up which Lisa suddenly ascends in her fly-wired trolley in an affectionate parody of Gore’s great elevation. As her parents watch nervously from below, Lisa announces her decision to become a full-time climate warrior: “Mum, the ice is melting and I’m really, really scared.” Over at the Royal Court, meanwhile, climatologist Kevin Maloney (James Fleet) complains that the infamous y-axis is in fact upside down: “If you get up really close to the telly, and freeze frame it, you can see. You work your guts out, a lifetime, then some smarmy tit comes along, gets his y-axis upside down and picks up a Nobel Peace Prize.”

As these two snapshots suggest, Greenland and The Heretic cover much the same ground, but their outlooks are worlds apart. Greenland is a passionate, data-driven analysis of our wavering response to environmental catastrophe, while The Heretic is a cynical campus comedy that views the pieties surrounding climate change (“the artist formerly known as global warming”) as ripe for a knockabout farce. Neither makes for particularly comfortable viewing.

Like last year’s Earthquakes in London, in which the looming climate crisis was examined from multiple points of view (and the Cottesloe transformed into a psychedelic cabaret bar), Greenland is a fast-moving collage of intersecting storylines that merge into one another at breakneck speed. Without Bunny Christie’s ingenious design and Aline David’s mesmerising choreography, the whole thing would be unwatchable, but once you’ve got used to the fragmented structure, the play – or rather plays – take on an extraordinary collective energy, as the action moves between climate camps and COP15 (the disastrous Copenhagen Summit of December 2009), via a series of restaurants and hotel bedrooms, all of which requires the fifteen-strong cast to switch between multiple roles with seamless rapidity.

Inevitably, some of the storylines are more rewarding than others: the relationship between Peter McDonald’s troubled climate modeller, Ray, and Lyndsey Marshal’s steely-eyed politician (“Phoebe Hammond, Department of Energy; I hope you’re not wasting my time”) is wonderfully well observed, while the arguments between a lesbian couple over how to lead a greener lifestyle are wearisomely banal. Lisa’s commitment to climate activism is also endearing and annoying by turns, though it occasions some good lines, such as her question during a heated discussion at a climate camp meeting: “Excuse me, are you an activist or an anarchist? It’s just that the anarchists are on at 2.” But the best scenes of all are those set at Copenhagen, where the self-serving politics of climate compromise are dissected with anger and panache. We follow a pair of civil servants from the Mali delegation (“there are fifty of us – more than Belgium!”) as they arrive at the summit full of expectation, only to be worn down by ten sleepless days and nights of “negotiation by exhaustion”, at the end of which Obama flies in to negotiate in private with a handful of selected representatives. When the “Copenhagen Accord” was announced the following day, the majority of delegates had no idea what was in it. Phoebe Hammond, attending the summit with her boss Ed Miliband (the then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), is in bed with Ray the climate scientist (and his laptop) when the surprise announcement is made, and in one of the evening’s more effective sequences, they watch crestfallen as the scale of the summit’s failure sinks in. Meanwhile, Ray’s latest climate model spools out behind them on a giant screen, its implications clear for all to see: that the Copenhagen agreement has grotesquely underestimated the scale of future warming to which our atmosphere is irreversibly committed. “By the time your daughter is 35 the tarmac on her road will be melting twice a year, and she will probably have to teach her children how to use a gun.” Phoebe, however, is already getting dressed, late for the accidental “brush-by” with Obama that she has been frantically arranging for her boss. “Do you fancy him?” asks Ray, as Miliband’s face fills the screen, and Phoebe’s answer: “No. I tried” gets the biggest laugh of the night.

There are more and bigger laughs in Richard Bean’s The Heretic, though far less in the way of substance. Jaded earth scientist Dr Diane Cassell (Juliet Stevenson), who has spent her research career monitoring sea level rises in the Maldives, has made an unsettling discovery: sea levels there are not technically rising; which is to say, the sea is rising, but so are the islands. It seems these long-standing poster children for climate catastrophe are not about to drown. Having ignored her head of department’s warning not to publish her findings (he is worried they might jeopardize future funding), Cassell receives the first of a series of death threats from a radical environmental group called the Sacred Earth Militia. “All heretic’s must die”, it reads, complete with misplaced apostrophe. Could it be the work of her problematic student, the über-green Ben Shotter (a superbly shambolic Johnny Flynn), who refuses to board the university minibus on the grounds that it’s bad for the planet? Cassell, now transformed into a full-scale climate sceptic, is suspended from her post following a tumultuous appearance on Newsnight in which she declares to a video-projected Paxman that “there is no evidence that CO2 is the cause of twentieth-century warming . . . the real global warming disaster is that a small cohort of hippies who went into climate science because they could get paid for spending all day on the beach smoking joints have suddenly become the most powerful people in the world.”

Satire doesn’t have to be realistic, of course, but it should at least try to be plausible, and the problem with The Heretic is that its sheer galloping implausibility distracts from the questions that it really wants to ask about the politicization of science. Cassell’s professional situation is simply not credible, and neither is that of her boss (and former lover) Kevin Maloney, who by the second half of the play is not only beginning to come round to her way of thinking, but is sitting in her kitchen helping Ben the bicycling student hack the emails of Kieron McKay, a leading climate scientist at the University of Hampshire who has refused a Freedom of Information request to release his historical data. Sound familiar? It’s Climategate, shifted from UEA, of course, but with the same basic features in place, including the disguising of an inconvenient cooling phase through the binning of awkward data. None of this is news to Dr Cassell – “I’m a sceptic because I have no choice, the science isn’t good enough” – but for Professor Maloney the stolen emails are a revelation, even though it turns out that he is similarly guilty, having been caught out making misleading claims about the melting rate of Himalayan glaciers. “This is one scientist bodging,” he says. “We’ve all done it. I know the planet’s warming from the ice cores I’ve drilled myself. I go to Greenland every year – you can stand on the glaciers and watch them melting.” Meanwhile, the Sacred Earth Militia have Cassell’s house surrounded, just as her anoxeric daughter goes into cardiac arrest, and the plot begins to terminally unravel.

The curious thing about both these productions is how historically specific they are. “Isn’t this all a bit 2009?” as one of the characters in Greenland asks, to which the answer is a categorical “yes”: Climategate and the Copenhagen Summit dominated the headlines during November and December that year, and for those two hectic months it was as if the politics of climate change had recalibrated the world, and that nothing would be the same again. These two plays were presumably commissioned in the midst of all that high-level drama; one year on, however, climate change has all but disappeared from the news schedules and (rather like Ed Miliband himself) it takes a bit of effort to recall how important it seemed at the time. It’s an interesting exercise to try to imagine what a climate change play set today might look like, though Greenland gets close in a brief flash-forward in which Ray the climate modeller meets up with Phoebe in the aftermath of the 2010 election. Ray wants to give up science – it’s too depressing and no-one listens anyway – but Phoebe remains determined to stay in policy-making, even as a blizzard of paper descends over the entire auditorium, the play whiting out in a storm of information, as the audience is blinded by data.

Richard Hamblyn


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Planet in a Pebble

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 7 January 2011

Jan Zalasiewicz, The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History, 234pp., Oxford University Press, £16.99

Early in our planet’s history, around four and a half billion years ago, a Mars-sized neighbour named Theia crashed into us at forty thousand kilometres per hour. As the two planets atomised from the violent impact, most of Theia melted into the Earth, its iron core sinking into ours to form the medium-sized body we call home. As some of the outer materials of both planets hurtled away from the impact site, they, too, began to condense into a new, smaller body that would go on to orbit the re-formed Earth: our Moon. “It is a fine story”, as Jan Zalasiewicz observes, though it is only one of many fine stories that can be told through the apparently ordinary pebble from which this extraordinary book proceeds.

It is a brilliantly simple idea: pick a pebble at random from, say, a beach in Wales, and see what its constituent elements can tell us about the history of the Earth. A slate-grey pebble, criss-crossed with lines of whitish quartz, it is composed mostly of oxygen, silicon and aluminium, along with traces of nearly a hundred rarer elements, including strontium, vanadium and rubidium. What exactly are these elements, where did they come from, and how did they come to be compressed into the “enormous atomic vault” of our palm-sized pebble? To answer these questions, Zalasiewicz takes us on a dazzling voyage of telluric discovery, from exploding stars whose storms of neutrons seeded our planet with mineral grains, to dense layers of solid methane that lurk beneath the oceans to this day, and through which the proto-pebble would have migrated slowly during its billion-year journey underground.

Today, almost everything that happened to the pebble and its particles can be retrieved in the laboratory, and Zalasiewicz’s explanations of how geologists have learned to unravel such complex geochemical matrices are just as gripping as his detailed accounts of the pebble’s eventful history. Take zircon, for example, a high-density accessory mineral that often turns up in trace quantities in rocks such as granites and quartzes. Zircon crystals may not be much to look at, but they have a set of unique chemical properties that allow geologists to reconstruct the long-vanished landscapes in which they formed. Even better, zircons act as eerily accurate atomic clocks that can tell us when as well as where they first appeared, granting earth scientists access to a virtual “time machine”, as Zalasiewicz describes it, “one that can traverse an entire planet from its beginnings” nearly four and half billion years ago.

Because such dizzying depths of time are all but impossible to grasp (I, for one, have no real sense of what “four and a half billion years ago” actually means), they offer a challenge to anyone setting out to write a work of popular geology. Zalasiewicz’s solution is to divide these great swathes of time into distinct topographical regions through which our pebble blithely wanders like the hero of some picaresque novel. Thus, 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period, the surface of the Earth began to teem with life, with heavily armoured fish colonising the waters above the long-buried pebble. Later on, at the end of the Cretaceous, around 65 million years ago, the giant meteorite that is likely to have killed off the dinosaurs would have caused the entire Earth “to ring like a bell . . . the pebble-form, while still firmly part of its underground rock stratum would have trembled too as the impact waves passed through.”

Treating the pebble as a Zelig-like protagonist helps to build a surprising narrative tension, and towards the end of the book, as the pebble-stratum is about to break the surface and start its new existence as a weather-beaten slab of rock, the story begins to get into its stride as a geological page-turner. Waves crash against the shoreline, picking up the exposed sheet of slate and hurling it against the cliff face. “The now-nearly-pebble breaks off, as a sharp-edged shard of the slab. It has all the features of its own narrative, that we have followed until now,” writes Zalasiewicz. Once the sea takes over proceedings, the time-frame shortens dramatically, and after only a few years of incoming tides, with the tens of thousands of collisions they provoke, the pebble and its neighbours have lost their jagged edges, and now take their places in a shingle bank where the forces of erosion are already grinding them back to their constituent parts. Every tide reduces a pebble to a detectable degree, and on particularly exposed stretches of shoreline, an individual pebble can lose nearly half its mass over the course of a single season, while cosmic rays relentlessly bombard its surface, breaking down silicon and oxygen atoms into fragments of radioactive debris. “Night and day”, notes Zalasiewicz, “the pebble is disintegrating.” Not many books can make you care about a dull-looking fragment of rock, but one of the many achievements of this enjoyable excursion into the deep geological history of our planet is a momentary sadness at the thought that Zalasiewicz’s ancient protagonist – his “capsule of stories” – will soon have been worn away to nothing.

Richard Hamblyn

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Life of the Volcano

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 1 October 2010

Volcano: Turner to Warhol, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until October 31

James Hamilton, Volcano: The Volcano in Western Art, 48pp., Compton Verney, £7.95.

Alwyn Scarth, Vesuvius: A Biography, 342pp. Princeton University Press, $29.95

Three months before this exhibition opened, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, throwing millions of tonnes of volcanic particulates into the earth’s upper atmosphere. “A genius stroke of publicity”, as the show’s curator, James Hamilton, wryly described it, but the week-long eruption proved to be more than merely well-timed, for it served to change the focus of the entire exhibition, transforming it from a richly detailed survey of volcanism in art to a topical reflection on the ungovernability of nature.

The result is a gripping display that unfolds over three spacious suites of rooms at Compton Verney, the eighteenth-century country seat near Stratford-upon-Avon that has developed a reputation for hosting innovative arts events in the six years since it opened to the public as an exhibition space. And Volcano is certainly innovative, drawing its chronology not from historical or artistic periods, but from volcanological stages that plot the life cycle of an active volcano from dormancy to awakening, through violent eruption and aftermath, then back to quiescence once more. It is a clever curatorial conceit that allows an eclectic mix of eras and styles to hang together in every room, connected by the seismic narrative. Thus the first room is devoted to the classic, conic beauty of dormant stratovolcanoes such as Hekla in Iceland and Mount Fuji in Japan, as depicted in the celebrated woodcuts of the nineteenth-century Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige, while the second room is filled with premonitory puffs of smoke from Vesuvius in Italy and Cotopaxi in Ecuador, the latter represented by a trio of delicate oil sketches made in the early 1850s by the roving American landscape painter Frederick Edwin Church.

But sparks soon begin to fly, and by the time one has made it across the connecting gangway to the second suite of rooms, accompanied by the booming soundtrack of James P. Graham’s fourteen-minute film Iddu (“him” in Sicilian dialect), an immersive multi-screen rendition of a trip around the ever-erupting island of Stromboli, the show has gone fully pyrotechnic, with its pair of big guns, Turner and Warhol, firing sky-high lava fountains at each other from opposite ends of the room. Yet, as Hamilton points out in his accompanying catalogue, neither Turner nor Warhol actually saw an eruption: these images, of Souffrière and Vesuvius, are as much about the potency of paint as they are about the pent-up energies of the earth, Warhol’s runny acrylic producing “lava of its own in the unexpected paint spatters that fall down the canvas”.

For them, as for most of the other artists in this exhibition, a volcanic eruption was an imaginary apocalypse of light, heat and terror, a single blasting moment of sublimity that shakes the world to its core. “The blaz’d hill in lightnings shone”, as Turner described it in an overheated poem that he insisted on exhibiting alongside the painting in 1815; “down its sides of liquid flame / The devastating cataract came”. In reality, most eruptions make for disappointing viewing, consisting of dense, choking clouds of ash and smoke, with the occasional streak of orange lava to alleviate the gloom. As Norman Lewis noted, in his classic account of the last major eruption of Vesuvius in 1944, “I had been prepared for rivers of fire, but there was no fire and no burning anywhere – only the slow deliberate suffocation of the town under millions of tons of clinker . . . the whole process was strangely quiet”.

But even those artists who did witness eruptions at first hand – notably Pierre-Jacques Volaire and Pietro Fabris, both of whom were resident in Naples during Vesuvius’s late-eighteenth-century heyday – were happy to exaggerate the visual effects, Volaire’s impressive “Vesuvius Erupting at Night” (c.1778) peopled with a crowd of spectators who would have been incinerated on the spot had the eruption been anything like as fierce as he depicted it. Joseph Wright of Derby spent a month in Naples during one of Vesuvius’s quieter phases, but he compensated by filling more than thirty canvases with the incandescent fury of an all-out Plinian explosion. “’Tis the most wonderful sight in nature”, he claimed. Of the few who attempted a documentary treatment of the subject, only the Danish painter Johan Christian Dahl came close to verisimilitude in his “Eruption of Vesuvius” (1820), a dull, sooty tableau of smoke and flame that was commissioned by a “Mr Monticelli, professor of mineralogy in Naples”, who presumably instructed Dahl to paint exactly what he saw.

Cartoonists, of course, are under no such obligation, and one of the exhibition’s most enjoyable sections explores the regularity with which volcanic eruptions have been used for satirical ends, from James Gillray’s “The Eruption of the Mountain, or, The Horrors of the ‘Bocca del Inferno’” (1794) which elided geological and political upheaval, as the French Revolutionary Terror entered its bloodiest phase just as Vesuvius spectacularly blew its top, to Christian Adams’s “Election Smothers Britain” (2010), one of a number of newspaper cartoons that likened the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud to the imminent general election: “Eyjafjallajokameron”, as Peter Brookes neatly summed it up in his Times cartoon for April 22. Gillray also used the image of an erupting Vesuvius as an unsubtle dig at the elderly, impotent Sir William Hamilton, who remains better known for having been cuckolded by Horatio Nelson than for founding the science of volcanology during his thirty-six-year diplomatic posting to Naples. Hamilton climbed Vesuvius on at least sixty-eight occasions, and his detailed drawings and observations, which he sent to the Royal Society in London, led him to conclude that “volcanoes should be considered in a creative rather than a destructive light”, even though his hobby came close to killing him on a number of occasions.

In some ways Hamilton is the hero of this exhibition – his great folio plate-book Campi Phlegraei (1776) lies open in a glass case beneath a contemplative portrait of him by David Allen – just as he is the hero of Alwyn Scarth’s highly readable Vesuvius: A biography, two excellent chapters of which are devoted to Hamilton’s exploits on the turbulent mountain, where much of his time was spent ferrying nervous British aristocrats as close to the smoking crater as they dared. But the book’s best chapter is its last, in which Scarth assesses the likely impact of the next major eruption of Vesuvius. It makes for disquieting reading, given that the population of the region (some 600,000 people) has doubled since the last outburst of 1944, with thousands of modern-day lazzaroni living in illegally built high-rise housing that continues to creep up the volcano.

“Russian roulette”, as Scarth observes, “is not a game that volcanoes usually lose”, though, incredibly, almost no public attention is paid to civil defence procedures; in fact, many of Vesuvius’s inhabitants have apparently convinced themselves that their volcano is extinct, that it’s merely a mascot, a talisman, an “enormous lucky charm” that watches over the fertile landscape, rather than the ticking time-bomb of geophysical reality. So, in the words that appear scrawled beneath Willie Rodger’s crayon drawing in one of the last rooms of the exhibition, “When Will Vesuvius Blow Again?”. It’s a question that can be answered with surprising precision, according to Scarth, who estimates that the next big eruption will occur some time between 2023 and 2064, and that, given the scale of its expected violence, “over half a million people could be in grave danger of succumbing to a horrible death”.

Such anxiety about the violence of nature has staged a comeback in recent years, with hurricanes and tsunamis (along with terrorism and climate change) replacing the nuclear threat, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of the more recent images in the exhibition make visual reference to the clouds of war, with Keith Grant’s “Eruption Column at 20,000 feet, Heimæy, Iceland” (1976), depicting a vast mushroom cloud of churning ash that towers over the lava fields like the aftermath of the Trinity bomb test, while Ásgrímur Jónsson’s “Flight from a Volcanic Eruption” (1945) depicts a column of refugees trudging over the scorched earth as a firestorm rages behind them. These bleak Modernist images come as something of a revelation, most of them having never been seen outside Reykjavik before. Gudmundur Einarsson’s starkly Vorticist “Eruption of Grimsvotn” (1934), for example, is one of the show’s highlights, a tremendous billowing updraught of pure jagged energy, “conveying with sharp diagonals and searing colour the sudden, destructive and overwhelming scream of the mountain as its explodes into smoke and fragments”, as Hamilton vividly describes it in the catalogue.

Finnur Jónsson’s “Lakagígar Craters” (1940), by contrast, depicts a lifeless lunar landscape of fissures and vents that was once the scene of the biggest lava flow in human history, an eight-month effusive eruption that smothered nearly 600 square kilometres of the island, killing around a quarter of the population. It is a place that still haunts the Icelandic memory, though as this exhibition shows, there are plenty of others that do the same: Hekla, Surtsey, Grimsvotn, Heimaey, Eyjafjallajökull, each an illustration of the truism that civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice. It’s a lesson that becomes apparent in the final room of the exhibition, where images give way to the thing itself, in the form of a neat grey pile of gritty ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption: a million fragments in a glass vitrine, a glimpse of what the world is made of.

Richard Hamblyn

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This first appeared in the London Review of Books on 25 February 2010

Richard Shelton, To Sea and Back: The Heroic Life of the Atlantic Salmon, Atlantic Books, 213 pp., £18.99

The wild Atlantic salmon has been a totemic fish for centuries. Some of the oldest laws in Britain were drafted in its defence; one of the lesser-known clauses of the first Magna Carta (1215) ordered the removal of all salmon weirs in the Thames and Medway estuaries, a statute that remained in force until the end of the nineteenth century. In Scotland there is still no public right to fish for salmon, even in the sea, while recent by-laws passed in England and Wales have reinstated a number of ancient restrictions, including on the use of ‘Viking’ haaf nets that have been a feature of Cumbrian salmon fishing for more than a thousand years. Native American, Norse and Celtic myth-makers wove the figure of the wise or noble salmon into a number of early myths and legends, such as the sixth-century Welsh quest narrative Mabinogi of Culhwch and Olwen, in which a sea-scarred Severn-born salmon is revered as the oldest and wisest creature on earth; or the Ossianic legend of the Salmon of Wisdom, the skin of which was accidentally eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill, who from it gained oracular access to all the knowledge of the world.

Salmon — the name derives from the Latin salmo, to leap — has always been a fish apart, marked by its unusual capacity to migrate between the hydrologically distinct worlds of salt and fresh water. According to William Camden’s Britannia (1586), the salmon leaps of Pembrokeshire were Britain’s first tourist attractions, to which scores of people would gather ‘to stand and wonder at the strength and slight by which they see the Salmon get out of the Sea into the River’. The spectacle remains one of the great sights of autumn, and people still crowd the banks of the Teifi to watch the returning salmon launch themselves at the cascading waters in brute determination to reach their ancestral spawning grounds upstream. Many don’t make it, but for those that do it marks the end of an extraordinary circular migration that begins and ends in the same shallow gravel-beds to which every sea-run adult will seek to return at least once in its life — an impulse that was confirmed by the philosopher Francis Bacon in the 1620s, when he tied ‘a Ribband or some known tape or thred’ around the tail of a sea-bound smolt, retrieving it the following year when the fish returned as a splendid silver grilse.

‘Smolt’; ‘grilse’: as Richard Shelton observes, salmon are spoken of in a ‘stained-glass language’ of their own, their life stages marked by an icthyological lexicon unchanged since Chaucer’s time. Born in a ‘redd’, a shallow, gravel-covered depression dug by the female in the days before spawning, newly hatched salmon begin life as ‘alevins’, tiny, buoyant creatures with their yolk-sacs still attached. Once the yolk has been absorbed, the fast-growing fish, now known as ‘fry’, are able to feed for themselves, turning instinctively to face the oncoming current in order to graze on drifting insect larvae. Some months later, the juvenile salmon, now known as ‘parr’, move downstream to deeper water, where their markings grow darker and their shapes more distinctively salmonoid. By the following spring, most parr have begun the first of the bodily transformations that will enable them to cross the hydrological boundary from the river to the sea: once their kidneys have been primed to reverse their usual freshwater function of taking in salts and excreting dilute river water, their skin-colour brightens to reflective silver through a microscopic coating of guanine crystals, and their body shapes taper out in anticipation of the long voyage ahead. It is then that the smolts, as the fish are now known, are ready to head downriver to the sea.

Once out in the open ocean, the salmon are lost to view. By day, they swim too near the surface for a ship’s sonar to distinguish them from the acoustic ‘clutter’ created by wave action and at night, when they descend, their shoaled shadows merge with those of the myriad inhabitants of the deep. It is only in recent years that fisheries scientists such as Richard Shelton have succeeded in tracking the oceanic wanderings of spring smolts — or rather, ‘post-smolts’, now that they have taken leave of the river. As soon as they reach the sea, it appears, Atlantic salmon (unlike their shore-hugging relatives, the sea trout) head rapidly away from the coast, crossing a series of sharp salinity and temperature contours in what appears to be a headlong journey north towards the plankton-rich feeding grounds of the Norwegian Sea. The annual phytoplanktonic bloom, which covers much of the North Atlantic in microscopic algae every spring, is the most important event in the global marine system, a vast green banquet that attracts much of the world’s zoöplankton, the host of tiny free-swimming animals on which the rest of the oceanic food web depends. For a few short months, as millions of tonnes of nutrients transform the top few metres of the North Atlantic into a kind of concentrated chowder, shoals of long-distance predators make their way to the feast, their migrations assisted by the same north-trending currents that stir up the oceanic broth while preventing its dispersal. Young salmon, from rivers on both sides of the Atlantic, arrive in their tens of thousands to gorge themselves on krill, sand eels, and arctic squid, their bodies growing fast compared to those of most other sea fish, from the few ounces they weighed on leaving home, to three pounds or more by the end of the summer, and to eight or even ten pounds by the end of the following year. Some of these fattened-up one-winter salmon, now known as grilse, will begin to make their way back to the redds of their birth, bidden by the distant scent of familiar waters that was imprinted on their sensory systems during the outward stage of the journey. The others will remain at sea for another year or two, sometimes even three, before they too turn for home, transported, as though under a spell, back to their ancestral rivers, and up the series of perilous and exhausting leaps that gave Salmo salar its name.

To Sea and Back is a remarkable book, a lyrical zoögraphy of the Atlantic salmon that weaves in and out of a wider historical narrative of ocean exploration, fisheries science and personal memoir. Admirers of Shelton’s previous book, The Longshoreman: A Life at the Water’s Edge (2004), will be familiar with the fluid structure (as well as with — it must be said — a fair amount of revisited material), but the controlled meanderings that marked out The Longshoreman as a new kind of literary nature writing range further afield in this second outing, in which the central motifs of exile and homecoming — to sea and back — are refracted through a series of autobiographical asides that evidently made a strong impression on whoever wrote the press release that accompanied my copy of the book, since it gave the title as: To Sea and Back: The Heroic Life of the Atlantic Shelton — an insightful slip, given that much of the interest of the book derives from untangling the complex relationship between the author’s first-hand knowledge of the sea, and the personal circumstances that first drew him to it.

It was, he says, the chalk streams of the Chilterns that made him ‘first a naturalist and then a biologist’, a process encouraged by the books he discovered in his grandparents’ library, a room overshadowed by the menacing horns of long-dead highland cattle. Frank T. Buckland’s multi-volume Curiosities of Natural History (1857-72) held a particular fascination for him — ‘I have the four little books in front of me now’, he writes, ‘and opening the first of them, it falls open at the chapter on rats that was my favourite holiday reading of over half a century ago.’ Ah, yes, Frank Buckland and his edible rats. As a would-be social reformer and committed zoöphagist — an eater of unusual animals — Buckland was convinced of the double benefits of putting rat meat on the national menu: not only would it help relieve the hunger of the poor, it would also ease the infestations that plagued every city in the world. ‘It is not generally known what good eating young rats are’, he wrote, with a lack of squeamishness inherited from his father, the Very Reverend William Buckland, Dean of Westminster, who regularly plied his dinner guests with dog, panther, crocodile and hedgehog, as well as with canapés of toasted field mice (a particular favourite of Frank’s). Although the failure of his rat meat campaign was followed by other failures to amend the eating habits of the poor — ‘in my humble opinion, hippophagy has not the slightest chance of success in this country’, [p.114] he wrote in the wake of a disastrous dinner in which every dish, from the soup to the jelly, had been prepared from the carcass of a knackered old cab horse —, it was in his role of Inspector of Salmon Fisheries, to which he was appointed by the Home Office in 1867, that Frank Buckland finally made his mark on the British diet, by introducing stockbreeding methods to the rearing of salmon and trout. His aim was twofold: to increase domestic fish supplies, while introducing fast-growing freshwater species to the newest territories of the British Empire, namely New Zealand and Tasmania. Trays of ice-cooled ova were shipped across the world to be released into some of the southern hemisphere’s most pristine rivers, but while the European trout species established themselves well, the Atlantic salmon failed utterly, their genetic predisposition to head north to colder waters proving lethally unsuited to the warm, shark-patrolled expanses of the South Pacific.

At home, meanwhile, Buckland was becoming quite the showman, touring a miniature salmon hatchery around the country, while campaigning for the cleaning up of industrially polluted rivers from which ‘the king of fish’ had virtually disappeared. Buckland’s claim to have met the elderly man who caught and ate the last salmon of Thames seems about as likely as his father’s claim to have eaten the dessicated heart of Louis XIV (‘I have eaten many strange things’, he declared, ‘but have never eaten the heart of a king before’), but his outrage over the poisoning of British rivers was authentic, and his published findings did much to change the views of politicians and industrialists, though probably not of the factory owner who assured him, in all sincerity, that ‘sulphuric acid was a tonic for the fish.’ [p. 124] But however gratified Buckland might have been ‘to hear again of salmon in the Kelvin, Clyde, Tyne and Thames’, he left another legacy in the form of modern high density fish-farming, the greasy-fleshed results of which, as Shelton rightly complains, ‘bear little culinary relation to their wild-caught counterparts. The flavour tends towards the uriniferous with lower notes of stale fish food.’ Even Shelton’s terrier, Dinah, ‘an otherwise enthusiastic little scavenger of generally catholic tastes’, refuses to touch it, though the Bucklands would probably have wolfed it down raw.

Most farmed salmon tastes horrible because caged fish have no opportunity for active swimming. Fed on high-fat pellets full of artificial colour — the pinkness of a wild salmon’s flesh comes from the amphipods it eats during its time at sea — the cooped-up salmon simply put on weight without distributing the fat around their bodies. A wild sea-run salmon, by contrast, prepares itself for the journey home by storing fat reserves across its muscles, connective tissues and under the skin, from where it will draw the energy to sustain it during the herculean task ahead. As soon as it smells fresh water again, an adult salmon will stop feeding, devoting itself solely to the rigours of the voyage, its body beginning its final transformation, as its immune system shuts down to conserve energy, its skin starts to lose its silvery sheen, and (in the case of the male) a rush of hormones prompts the lower jaw to change shape, curving into an aggressive-looking underbite known as a kype, a jutting scimitar used for fending off other males in the spawning grounds upstream.

The journey can take many months, however, and as the starving returnees battle against the freshwater currents, their fuel reserves deplete rapidly, consumed by the effort of the journey as well as by the production of eggs (by the females) and milt (by the males), so now they must rely on bursts of adrenalin to scale the near-vertical ascents. The physical cost of such homecoming is enormous, and those that do make it home to spawn arrive in a terrible state, weak, exhausted, and already dying from disease and starvation, so the effort of mating, described by Shelton with an Attenboroughesque attentiveness — ‘the quivering displays of the sailor home from the sea bring the hen to arching orgasm’ — is often their final act. Shelton coolly describes the lingering death of a spawned-out male — now known as a ‘kelt’: the last of its names — lying in ‘the shallow tail of a pool’, with its arteries blocked and muscles wasted, its broken skin scarred by bacterial infections, as it slowly drowns in the water that seeps into its wounds. The death and decay that follows serve to replenish the river with phosphates and nutrients that in a few months’ time will help sustain the hatched young that emerge from the redds, buoyant and vulnerable in the shallow water, until they, too, are ready to head downstream on the first stage of the homeric odyssey, ‘their great adventure’, as Shelton calls the vast oceanic circumnavigation that will end, as do all great journeys, back where it began.

Richard Hamblyn

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The Wavewatcher’s Companion

This short review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 2 July 2010

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Wavewatcher’s Companion, Bloomsbury, £14.99.

On a bright February afternoon at the beach, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society and author of the bestselling Cloudspotter’s Guide, stared sadly up at the nephologist’s arch-enemy: an unseasonably cloudless sky. As a fellow cloud enthusiast, I know just how he felt, but as he gazed towards the empty horizon his interest was caught instead by the motion of the incoming waves. What exactly was a wave, he wondered; where had it come from, how did it get there, and what was it actually doing? By the time he left the beach the thwarted cloudspotter was a born-again wavewatcher, and this engaging book, which aims to do for waves what Pretor-Pinney’s earlier book did for clouds, sets out to tell the life story of every kind of wave imaginable, from ocean waves to radio waves, via seismic waves, brain waves, even Mexican waves.

The result is a witty and well-researched book, though its premiss is undermined by the fact that a number of Pretor-Pinney’s so-called waves are not really waves at all. Traffic waves, for example, are simple stop-and-go phenomena caused by fluctuations in driving speed, while a Mexican wave is just a scaled-up relay game in which members of a crowd wait their turn to raise their hands in the air. Lumping them in with true, energy-transferring waves such as ocean waves, seismic waves and electromagnetic waves, simply because they have the word ‘wave’ in their names, seems puzzlingly arbitrary, despite Pretor-Pinney’s jocular insistence that “everything is a wave”. Yet it’s this informality that makes the rest of the book so rewarding, its looping digressions taking us on a series of suitably non-linear journeys along wobbly bridges, earthquake zones, tidal bores and Neolithic burial sites. It ends with a long and rhapsodic account of the world’s most famous breakers at Banzai Pipeline, a treacherous reef off Hawaii’s north shore that happens to produce a regular wave known as a “cloudbreak”, due to its resemblance to a classic summer cumulus. It turns out this apprentice wavewatcher was looking out for clouds all along.

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This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement for 2 October 2009

Creation (Various cinemas)

“I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true”, wrote Charles Darwin in 1876, “for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” These uncharacteristically forthright words, written shortly before Darwin’s death, are all the more remarkable in that they were faithfully copied out and preserved by his widow, Emma, during the course of collating his personal papers, though she did ask that they be omitted from the published version that appeared in 1887. Whatever pain they may have caused her — a convinced Christian, whose husband’s loss of faith was a source of lasting grief and torment to her — she nevertheless recognized their sincerity and significance, and chose to pass them on to posterity.

Though Darwin’s loss of religious faith was slow, stealthy and (according to him) painless, the version of events we get here, in Jon Amiel’s evolutionist weepy, is of a crisis that threatened to unbalance a mind already destabilized by the death of the Darwins’ daughter, Annie, in 1851. Annie’s ghost, played with disarming solemnity by ten-year-old Martha West in her first screen role, haunts Darwin’s waking thoughts, as well as his elaborately cinematic dreams, in which she cajoles him into finishing his much-delayed book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). “What are you so scared of; it’s only a theory”, she says at one point, a question aimed as much at the 20 percent of Britons (and 47 percent of Americans) who continue to reject evolutionary science, as it is at her grieving father. For Creation is not exactly a ghost story, nor is it a straightforward biopic; it is, instead, a loosely historical account of the sad personal circumstances in which the most influential book of the last two hundred years was slowly and painfully completed.

It had been a long wait for all concerned, particularly for Darwin’s scientific allies, to whom he had confided his revolutionary ideas ever since his return from the Beagle voyage in 1836. Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) — a suitably barking Toby Jones — was the most vociferous and impatient (“you’ve killed God, sir, you’ve killed God”), while Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) urged him to overcome his tiresome psychosomatic disorders and knuckle down to work. Meanwhile, the long-suffering Emma, played with gloomy stoicism by Jennifer Connelly, bore daily witness to her husband’s emotional disintegration as he battled with depression following the death of his daughter, while struggling to finish his book.

Paul Bettany, perfectly cast as the young Charles Darwin (he is also Connelly’s real-life husband), spends much of the film either lying on a couch, slumped at his desk, or visiting his hydrotherapist at Malvern spa (the ever-reliable Bill Patterson), and only comes to life during the sunlit flashbacks, watching Annie turning cartwheels on the beach, or fossicking for beetles during a riverside picnic (“don’t tell me, don’t tell me, it’s . . . Carabus violaceus!”). The riverbank scene contains the film’s most compelling sequence, in which a discussion of the God-given “harmony” of nature is countered by the hidden spectacle of a fledgling sparrow falling from its nest, dying of starvation and being eaten by worms, in a time-lapse visualization of Darwin’s celebrated “entangled bank” passage from the last page of The Origin of Species. “All of nature is a battlefield”, as Joseph Hooker observes, to the displeasure of the sanctimonious Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), Emma’s spiritual counsellor and Charles’s sworn enemy. Though there is only a modicum of science in the film, this richly imagined episode is an unusually thoughtful (and successful) attempt at portraying a scientific concept on the screen.

If only more of the film could have been like this, instead of the television melodrama it mostly resembles, complete with clunking, anachronistic dialogue (“Charles, we need to talk”). But even though its scientific content is frustratingly slight, and its emotional register close to histrionic, Creation is nevertheless a brave and serious film, not least for its very un-Hollywood contention that scientific understanding can enrich us emotionally as well as intellectually. Down by the river, as the picnicking disputants sip their tea, the gulf between the pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian view of the world — in which the extinction of weak offspring, whether a bird, an orang-utan, or a consumptive child, is all part of the pitiless struggle for existence — seems to open up before them in the afternoon haze. “So much beauty for so little purpose”, as Bettany’s Darwin concludes, “yet there is grandeur in this view of life.”

Richard Hamblyn

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Darwin’s Eye for Life

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 17 July 2009

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, 344pp., Yale University Press, £40 (US $75)

Like many aspects of his contradictory public persona, Darwin’s legendary philistinism was not as straightforward as it seemed. As his son Francis observed, the great man seemed to derive a certain satisfaction from portraying himself as “an ignoramus in all matters of art”, cheerfully dismissing contemporary high art as “affected nonsense and [a] waste of money and time.” When the critic John Ruskin invited him to view his private collection of Turners, Darwin confessed afterwards that “he could make out absolutely nothing of what Mr. Ruskin saw in them”; yet Ruskin’s disheartened response — he chided Darwin for seeing the world through the eyes of a vivisectionist — was equally myopic, for it overlooked the surprising richness of Darwin’s visual imagination, which, as this stunning exhibition sets out to show, was a crucial component of his unparalleled achievements as a naturalist and thinker.

Darwin had not always been resistant to the arts: in fact he made regular visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum during his time at Cambridge in the late 1820s, “and my taste must have been fairly good, for I certainly admired the best pictures, which I discussed with the old curator”, as he recalled in a later memoir. He began to collect old prints and reproductions of Italian Renaissance works, and even managed to wade through Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art; but it was his exposure to natural history illustrations that served to open young Darwin’s eyes to “the bright tints of nature” that were evident in the watercolours of Audubon and MacGillivray, outshining “the dingy high-art colours” that he encountered on the walls of the museum. The Cambridge botanist John Stevens Henslow, who was Darwin’s natural history tutor, was an accomplished and highly observant watercolourist, whose annotated teaching sheets, collaged from dozens of exquisitely drawn botanical studies, apparently made a powerful impression on his students. Two of these sheets are included in the exhibition (in an introductory section entitled “Darwin’s Eye”), alongside a range of other visual materials that helped direct the course of Darwin’s later research. Among them is an astonishingly dense and detailed lithograph of the Brazilian rainforest, which Darwin recalled when he arrived in Brazil on H.M.S. Beagle in 1832, writing to Henslow that “nothing but the reality can give any idea how wonderful, how magnificent the scene is. . . your engraving is exactly true, but underrates rather than exaggerates the luxuriance.” Such detailed visual recall was characteristic of Darwin’s observational cast of mind, an attribute that was reinforced by the long-standing traditions of natural theology that continued to dominate Victorian attitudes to nature. Labouring to uncover the intricacies of the natural realm was still regarded as an act of homage to the wisdom of the divine creator, and was not yet associated with the march of secular scientism for which Darwinism would later be held responsible. As Diana Donald (one of the exhibition’s co-curators) points out in her introduction to the accompanying catalogue, Darwin was keenly aware of the visual dimensions of the scientific enterprise, and “the foundation of his brilliance as a natural scientist was his ability to study nature with sustained attention and insight.”

By the time he returned from the Beagle voyage in the autumn of 1836, Darwin had amassed enough research materials to last him for the rest of his life. Considering his frequent bouts of ill-health, his work-rate was prodigious, and over the course of the following four decades he produced fourteen major published works, two of which — The Origin of Species (1859) and its sequel, The Descent of Man (1871) — utterly transformed mankind’s understanding of the natural world, as well as his own place within it. The social and religious impact of evolutionary theory can hardly be overstated; writing The Origin of Species was, as Darwin famously observed, “like confessing a murder”, and Victorian culture was both unnerved and energised by Darwin’s revelations. This inspired exhibition — the first of its kind — traces the impact of evolutionary thought on the work of nineteenth-century artists across Europe and America, from the stark Jurassic shoreline of William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay (1858) to the unsettling simian elegance of Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1881), via a host of more literal visual interpretations such as George Bouverie Goddard’s The Struggle for Existence (1879) and George Frederick Watts’s Evolution (1898-1904), the latter portraying a monolithic Earth Mother gazing off across a dark primeval landscape while her gang of feral offspring fight it out among themselves.

But it’s the photographs that really make the show. Henry Fox Talbot’s The Geologists, for example (an early salt print from c. 1843), poses a middle-class couple in their Victorian town clothes against a vast stratified rockface, the man pointing stiffly to an intrusion of fossil-laden limestone. Taken only a few years after Darwin’s return from the Beagle voyage, this haunting image seems a world away from the natural history illustrations that first inspired his travels. Darwin was much taken with this new visual technology, and one of his later (though less successful) publications, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), was among the first scientific works to be illustrated with photographs, some of which were specially commissioned from the Swedish-born portrait photographer Oscar Rejlander. The selection of posed mug-shots of Rejlander “expressing surprise” and of Mrs Rejlander “sneering” are easily the funniest images in the exhibition, but they also serve to illustrate the difficulties that Darwin faced when it came to the visual representation of his ideas. His contention that our minds and emotions are as much products of evolution as our ape-like physiques was always going to be difficult to demonstrate, particularly as his argument was so dependent on his choice of supporting images. But, given the impossibility of photographing animal expressions (long exposure times required sitters to keep still), Darwin turned to the sentimental dog-painter Briton Riviere, who supplied a series of annotated drawings of dogs in various emotional states (“humble and affectionate”, “aggressive and snarling”, etc.), although, as Riviere pointed out in one of his many letters to Darwin, tail-wagging was impossible to convey effectively in a drawing.

The critics had a field day with The Expression of the Emotions, not only for its unquestioning anthropomorphism, but also for its exposure of Darwin’s middle-brow tastes, typified by his fondness for Sir Edwin Landseer’s soulful pooches, whose homesick expressions and upturned eyes were much admired by provincial Victorian gallery-goers. Darwin was aware of his aesthetic limitations, acknowledging in his Recollections of 1876 his own “curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes.” By then (he was in his late sixties), he found all forms of fine art tiresome, with the exception of popular novels, though “only if they do not end unhappily — against which a law ought to be passed.” So it’s hard to imagine what Darwin might have made of this wide-ranging exhibition, with its profusion of images by the likes of Ruskin and Félicien Rops, though he probably would have approved of the Landseers on show in “The Struggle for Existence” room, especially the pair of fighting stags who, antlers entwined, lie dying from exhaustion on a Scottish hillside. As Darwin observed in The Descent of Man, skeletons of stags were often found with their antlers locked together, “shewing how miserably the victor and vanquished had perished” in the struggle for sexual dominance. The fact that an animal’s sexual impulses could override its instinct for self-preservation was something that Darwin had already noted in connection with the mating rituals of birds, in which the males’ displays of movement and colour would increase the dangers of predation. The elaborate (and extremely noisy) courtship routine of the male Argus pheasant was a case in point, and Darwin’s rhapsodic account of the distinctive “ball-and-socket” markings on its large secondary wing feathers (“it was more like a work of art than of nature”) served to reinforce some of his more controversial ideas about the nature of sexual selection: firstly, that (with the notable exception of the human race) females were in charge of sexual choice, and secondly, that animals, especially birds, had evolved a taste for beauty. Once again, the critics rounded on Darwin’s anthropomorphic assumptions — it was noted that Darwin had managed to project himself into the mind of a peahen —, and, as Jane Munro (the exhibition’s other curator) points out in an excellent catalogue essay, Darwin appeared to base his assertion that birds “have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have” on the fact that people the world over, from Maori chiefs to Victorian hostesses, took pleasure in adorning themselves with “borrowed plumes.” To illustrate the point, a large and lustrous canvas by James Tissot — The Artists’ Wives (1885) — hangs opposite a looped video of a Malaysian Argus pheasant going through his noisy courtship routine: as the excited bird reaches a climax, his impressively raised feathers seem to mirror the plumage on the hat of Tissot’s central figure, an elegantly dressed Parisian woman who turns in her seat, as though to see where all the noise is coming from.

A witty pairing, and typical of the insight and imagination that has gone into curating “Endless Forms” (the title is taken from the famous last line of The Origin of Species: “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”) And though this major exhibition has been put on as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of Darwin’s birth, the result is far more than a commemorative exercise, for it succeeds in placing a familiar figure in an entirely new perspective, revealing the surprising extent to which Darwinian ideas, in changing the ways we understand the world, have changed our ways of seeing it.

Richard Hamblyn

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Tropic of Cold

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 22 August 2008

Paul Colinvaux, Amazon Expeditions: My Quest for the Ice-Age Equator, 328pp., Yale University Press, $32.50 £20.00

In late 2005 the Amazon rainforest suffered its worst drought in a hundred years, prompting the Brazilian authorities to declare a state of national emergency. As army helicopters dropped supplies onto villages left stranded by the retreating waters, forest fires spread into Amazonia’s remote south-west, consuming some three thousand square kilometres of the most diverse habitat on the planet. Droughts and fires are, of course, natural features of any forest system, but the 2005 dry season was unusual both for its longevity and for the fact that, unlike most South American droughts, it was not caused by an El Niño event in the eastern Pacific Ocean, but by an anomalous bout of north Atlantic warming: the same warming that generated hurricane Katrina. For an ecosystem as vulnerable as the Amazon basin, already under sustained attack from large scale deforestation, global ocean warming constitutes a potentially serious threat — for if the next Atlantic heatwave happened to coincide with a severe El Niño in the eastern Pacific, the resulting double drought could prompt forest die-back on a massive scale, transforming one of the world’s principal carbon sinks into one of its principal carbon sources: a classic positive feedback scenario in which drought and die-back amplify the warming that caused the drought in the first place, which in turn leads to worsening drought, and thus to ever increasing heat, until the climate finally regains control by doing something drastic.

The Earth, after all, has seen it all before, from hothouse periods such as the scorching late Permian (c. 250 million years ago), when atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were ten times higher than they are today, to sudden climatic crashes, as at the end of the Ordovician (c. 450 million years ago) when global temperatures fell by more than 10°C, precipitating a mass extinction in which two thirds of life on Earth abruptly disappeared. Glacial eras tend to be just as inimical to life as hothouse ones, due to lack of rain rather than the cold itself, so it might seem reasonable to assume that rainforests such as the Amazon would be the first to suffer during a dry ice age, withering away to savanna as the ice-bound rains continued to fail. Isolated patches of higher forest might survive by drawing moisture from mist and clouds, but the rest would die back into a treeless waste, an arid plain incapable of supporting much in the way of life. But according to the ecologist Paul Colinvaux, this assumption is entirely false, and forty years of forensic fieldwork has definitively disproved it. By analysing ancient pollens laboriously extracted from lake sediments across the equatorial Amazon, Colinvaux has concluded that the region remained deeply forested “even through the vicissitudes of an ice age. The climate changes that inevitably happen are taken, as it were, in the forest’s stride”. In other words, the ice-age Amazon was as green as it is today. If Colinvaux is right — and it remains an “if”, in spite of his insistence that his findings “tear[s] the guts out of the arid Amazon thesis” — the mainstream view of the Amazon forest as a climatically vulnerable ecosystem will need to be updated, to reflect instead the “stability and tolerance” that has ensured the region’s survival.

Such insights are loaded with ecological implications, since a clearer understanding of Amazonia’s past is likely to influence our understanding of its future, so it is unfortunate that Colinvaux devotes so much of Amazon Expeditions to rehearsing decades-old arguments with his academic colleagues rather than pursuing the significance of his findings. The principal targets of his long-nurtured feuds are the proponents of the so-called “refuge theory”, a hypothesis advanced in the late 1960s as a means of accounting for the peculiar distribution of Amazonian wildlife: many of the bird species found in the Amazon confine themselves to particular patches of forest, indeed many of these patches are populated by groups of species unique to those areas, “as if these animals had carved little nation states out of the great forest”, as Colinvaux puts it. Given that the more abundant trees and flora are present throughout the three-thousand-kilometre-wide expanse of forest, the oddity of Amazon bird distribution had long invited scholarly explanation, which eventually arrived in the form of a paper published in the journal Science in 1969 by the German geologist Jürgen Haffer. Haffer argued that Amazonian endemism reflected the region’s ice-age past, when die-back caused by glacial aridity left only a few scattered patches of forest, the inhabitants of which went on to evolve in isolation from their neighbours. When these isolated hillside patches (which Haffer called “refuges”) were reunited by regrowth during warm interglacials, the local species remained where they were, at home in their long-established niches.

Haffer’s Pleistocene refuge hypothesis supplied an elegant solution to the endemism puzzle, and was quickly taken up by ecologists and biologists in universities all over the world. Colinvaux, however, who had begun his career shortly before the hypothesis came out, had doubts about the whole idea of Amazon aridity, and in spite of the fact that Haffer’s explanation had quickly become established as the consensus view, he set off for the Amazon with the express intention of proving the theory wrong. Colinvaux’s account of his equatorial adventures is by far the most rewarding part of the book — think Indiana Jones and the Refuge Paradigm — and there is something rather heroic about his single-minded endeavours, at least there would be if he wasn’t such a cross-patch. Every argument at an academic conference, every rejection by a scholarly journal, every sharp exchange of words is brooded over and analysed, Colinvaux’s capacity to harbour a grievance extending to his still feeling “narked” about not being invited to a biodiversity conference in 1979. No doubt all this sheds fascinating light on the process of scientific canon formation, but it only serves to remind me of why I got out of academia: not so much the egotism and the endless point-scoring — you encounter those in every profession — but the loss of intellectual perspective that comes with the culture of micro-specialisation. Refuge theory is of central importance to Amazonian palaeoecology, but Colinvaux’s assertion that it constituted a paradigm shift on a par with the acceptance of plate tectonics is wishful thinking, though perhaps understandable on the part of someone who has devoted his career to disproving it.

So, given that he rejects the idea of ice-age “refugia”, what is Colinvaux’s preferred explanation for Amazonian species distribution? It is a complex question, particularly as many of Haffer’s “refuges” are in fact vast tracts the size of Ireland or Idaho: can an area of land on that kind of scale really be thought of as “isolated”, even within the immensity of the Amazon forest? And is complete geographic separation necessary for speciation anyway? The Amazon’s vastness and great antiquity — by Colinvaux’s reckoning, it has been permanently forested for something like ten million years — create plenty of environmental niches, separated by climatic or geographical gradients, as well as by the sheer distances involved. “Take all this into account”, he says, “and isolates seem more likely than not.” As plausible as it sounds, however, even with Colinvaux’s hard-won pollen histories submitted in evidence, the everlasting Amazon theory has not yet seen off Haffer’s refugia, the “beautiful hypothesis” that has inspired a generation of ecologists. So it may be some time before a conclusion is reached on the true nature of the rainforest’s ice-age past, by which time we may already be dealing with the legacy of its warmer future.

Richard Hamblyn

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