Where no-one has gone before – The Farthest

The Farthest,

Directed by Emer Reynolds

Another of my slate of screenings at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was this gem of a science documentary from Irish director Emer Reynolds, on one of the greatest feats of exploration – the Voyager missions. I’ve been a space geek for as long as I’ve been a science fiction fan, the two interests often cross-feeding one another (the great Arthur C Clarke incorporated new knowledge gleaned from Voyager and other missions into some of his science fiction writing). And I grew up with Voyager, launched in 1977 when I was just a kid, I followed the missions, in those long ago, pre-internet days through the old fashioned media of documentaries on the BBC, the Sky at Night and journals like New Scientist, right through to my teens and early adulthood as this long, long mission progressed, taking us on a “grand tour” of the outer planets and showing sights no human had ever seen before.

The history and the science will be familiar to many who have an interest in space exploration, but this is a story that is well worth revisiting, because it is a magnificent triumph of ideas made real by clever engineering, and that human urge to explore pushing us further than ever before; our ancestors, be they European seaman or the great Polynesian navigators on wood and reed rafts, sailed vast oceans of the Earth, exploring, and with Voyager we sailed a sea of stars to the distant planets… And then beyond.

The two Voyagers took in giant worlds, including a couple we didn’t even know existed until a couple of centuries ago and revealed more complexity and wonder than anyone dared hope for, from the searing radiation around mighty Jupiter and its moons, those wonderful rings around Saturn, those cold, remote outer giants of Neptune and Uranus. It showed us volcanic eruptions on a world other than our own for the first time, and these probes traveled billions of miles from our home, reprogrammed from the increasingly distant Earth for each mission, clever maths taking them on a course not just to worlds, but using the gravity of those worlds to “slingshot” onto their next trajectory (receiving a speed boost into the process). Kepler and Newtown would have approved. All this with 1970s technology…

NASA and JPL opened their archives to the film-makers, and while anyone with an interest will have seen some of this, there is much here that has rarely, or never, been shown. A small amount of CG compliments the real Voyager footage to give us views of the craft themselves, but the images Voyagers 1 and 2 brought us are the main visual focus here; a beautiful scene shows a time-lapse montage of a planetary approach by Voyager, from its perspective, from distant disc to close-up details, even clouds. The clouds scudding across the skies of another world. Astonishing.

But the real heart here – as with The Last Man on the Moon, which I reviewed here last year – is the human element. The people who worked on Voyager. The engineers who designed them, the scientists who worked on the missions, the people who conceived of and executed the famous Gold Disc both craft carry, with two hours of music from different eras and cultures on Earth, and greetings in many languages, including one by a young Nick Sagan, Carl Sagan’s wee boy: “hello from the children of Planet Earth”. A message in a bottle, afloat on a galactic sea. Coming through all of this film, Emer Reynolds draws out the science team, and brings genuine emotion to the film. There’s huge pride at what they accomplished, taking advantage of a rare alignment of the planets for this astounding mission, and how they made new discoveries and saw things for the very first time that no human had even known about, let alone seen.

There’s even a lovely bit of archive footage of a party after the final fly-by, when a special guest arrives to play music to the team – Chuck Berry. Of course he played Johnny B Goode, which is on the Gold Disc, and there among the celebrating science team is dear Carl Sagan, dancing happily to Chuck Berry. It’s unlikely any alien intelligence will ever find Voyager and get to play that disc, but as one scientist noted, it’s not impossible. And the very inclusion of it was a mark of enormous optimism, a reaching out, here we are, we’re just learning our first steps out of the cradle, but look what we have achieved already, please contact us. If it isn’t discovered by some other species in the future, the craft will continue on, possibly outlasting the Earth itself, a slice of human culture preserved among the stars.

And as the film notes, these remarkable wee craft are still working, forty years after launch. Their last encounter with the planets was long ago, but they still send daily data back home – one engineer commented that when they were launched back in 1977 the technology to receive signals from such a distant source didn’t exist, they made it while the probes flew on, to listen into a whisper in the cosmos. After the remarkable planetary encounters there was still science and wonder to be had, from the Sagan-inspired “family portrait” of the solar system (when he argued for turning the cameras back towards Earth, now not even a pixel wide to Voyager’s lenses, the “pale blue dot”), to seeking out the heliopause, the point where the influence of our sun ends, marking the boundary of the solar system. In 2012 Voyager 1, the fastest moving of the pair, finally detected the end of this influence; it officially crossed the boundary, leaving our solar system, the first human-created object into interstellar deep space. No wonder those scientists were so proud of what they accomplished.

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(director Emer Reynolds and editor Tony Cranstoun talking about The Farthest at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

And one day, when the power finally fades, and those last reports dwindle into static, Voyagers will still have one mission as they continue on to the stars: the gold disc, humanity’s message in a bottle, that wonderful optimism that permeated the Voyager missions, that Reynolds brings out in her interviews with the science team in the film, will power that final mission, perhaps forever. This is a remarkable documentary, celebrating the ingenuity, the science, glorying in the wonders discovered, but above all it is about the people behind it, who built a dream and sailed it across the worlds. For anyone interested in science and space exploration this is unmissable.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog; The Farthest will be released in Irish cinemas on July 28th

You are here….

Taken by NASA’s Cassini probe earlier this month, the planet Earth is a bright pinpoint of distant light, viewed through the magnificent rings of mighty Saturn. Stunning.

This reminds me very much of one of my favourite photographs from space exploration, the famous “pale blue dot” image taken almost three decades ago by the Voyager craft, when the late and much-missed Carl Sagan argued for the probes, now passed the outer worlds, to be turned around and take a perspective of our world and our solar system, a “family portrait” as Carl put it, giving us a view that no human had ever seen before in all the ages of the world. In that image our world was even smaller, not even a full pixel. It gave a vastly different perspective on human affairs – those who consider themselves so important because they are rich, powerful, connected, from this distance – a small one in astronomical terms, vast in human terms – they mean less than nothing. Perhaps world leaders should all take a moment to look at such images and think about them for a moment… (via BoingBoing)

Happy Yuri’s Night

It’s Yuri’s Night, a world space party being marked around our little, blue marble to celebrate the great Yuri Gagarin, the very first human who really did go where no man has gone before, riding a column of fire into orbit on this day in 1961. A rocket, leaving the surly bonds of Earth and out into space, launched by the then Soviet Union, a remarkable achievement which came only six decades from the first fluttering powered flight of the Wright Brothers. Six decades from a few seconds in the air, only feet off the ground to a human being thundering into space and orbiting our planet.

There’s something wonderfully, romantically heroic about that first Space Age – engineers, programmers, designers, cosmonauts and astronauts, none of them truly knew exactly what they were getting into. It was all new – building on work that had gone before, of course, but now at a level never tried, at a level where some really did wonder if it would work, and if it did work as they hoped, could a human being travel in it? Could they survive? Nobody even knew if a human body could function in the microgravity environment – would your heart and lungs still function? How do you eat? Does it affect your vision? What about radiation? And how about getting home again safely? The inferno of re-entry, could their frail, basic craft really stand up to the intense heat? And what about the cosmonaut within, the re-entry blocking all communications so for those few moments they would be truly alone, unable to speak to ground control, ground control anxiously waiting for the interference to clear to hear their voice, to hear if they had survived the blaze of re-entry, a few moments which must have been an eternity

None of this had been tried, they simply didn’t know, it was all new, making those first pioneers like Gagarin, Tershkova, Leonov, Glenn, Armstrong all the more heroic in my eyes. Imagine being willing to train for this, to risk your life to push that envelope and achieve something which had only ever been a dream. So much optimism then, onwards, outwards, faster, further! Space awaited, orbit, then the Moon, maybe Mars and beyond… So different to our downbeat present when we have a new generation of spacecraft, but only for the super-rich, and Mars, let alone any further, is still decades off. The promises of my comics annuals that by the time I was an adult space would be in reach of everyone, we would take holidays there! Those promises never materialised, to my eternal regret – now approaching the big five-oh at the end of this year it looks like that’s something I will never get the chance to do.

Yuri became the most famous man on the planet on his return. Dragging his chute and suit from his landing in a field he smiled on his return to Earth and told them not to be alarmed, he was one of them, he was a comrade, a friend. One looked at his capsule and suit and asked if he had come from outer space. Yuri reportedly laughed and said as a matter of fact, yes! Suddenly an idea which had been science fiction, space flight, was now science fact. Sadly Yuri died young, killed, of all things, in a normal aircraft training flight, after having survived the rigours of the space programme tests and that history-making first manned mission. Years ago I read a joint autobiography on both sides of the space race by Alexei Leonov (first man to attempt a space walk) and David Scott; in Leonov’s memoirs of the Soviet effort the affection he and his fellow cosmonauts had for Yuri was still strong, even decades on.

Yuri flew before I was born, he died when I was just a baby, but he’s been one of my heroes all my life.

Travelling at the speed of light…

This gorgeous video shows you the journey of a photon from the sun (well, the surface of the sun, I imagine – the journey from core to surface of the sun takes far, far, far longer), out into the solar system and all the way past the inner, rocky worlds until it reaches mighty Jupiter, king of the planets, all taken in real time. The speed of light is fast – the fastest thing we know of (so far, not counting possible existence of supralight particles). So fast, as one writer observed, that most civilisations take millennia to realise light even travels at all. But when you move out into the vast distances of space even the speed of light seems tardy by comparison. It’s some eight minutes and twenty seconds just to reach us on Earth, and we’re only the third rock from the sun. “Riding Light” takes us out beyond the terrestrial worlds – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Earth – then on, avoiding the tumbling asteroid belt, until it reaches magnificent Jupiter, some forty five minutes later:

Riding Light from Alphonse Swinehart on Vimeo.

The Last Man on the Moon

The Last Man on the Moon,

Directed by Mark Craig,

Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell

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That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”

Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.

But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?

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(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)

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Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to  the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.

If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.

Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.

Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”

The Last Man on the Moon -Trailer from Mark Stewart Productions on Vimeo.

And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.

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(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)

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And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.

Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”

And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.

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(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)

This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.

And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.

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(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)

And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?

I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.

The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan and Arthur C Clarke sat down for a chat…

Here’s some vintage video of a conversation moderated by the late Magnus Manugsson, between Arthur C Clarke, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, discussing life, god, science, the universe and everything… Let me just say that again: ARTHUR C CLARKE!! CARL SAGAN!!! STEPHEN HAWKING!!! Three of my heroes of science… Has sudden geekswoon… This was recorded in 1988 – strange to think of the four here (including the distinguished Magnus, who used come into my old bookstore from time to time and was always charming when he did), only Professor Hawking is still with us, a man who was told his illness would claim him when he was still just a young man. (link via BoingBoing)

Climate Changed – science goes graphic

Climate Changed: a Personal Journey Through the Science,
Philippe Squarzoni,
Abrams Comicarts

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Climate change – it’s rarely been far from ours news reports over the last couple of decades, and increasingly so in recent years (freak once in century storms happen repeatedly, is it the climate changing and did we alter it?) and just this week we’ve seen a major UN report on expected climate change and the colossal cost to our civilisation if we don’t actually take action. And that action requires a lot more than people in Western nations changing to energy-saving lightbulbs and doing their recycling more – important though those are. And this month also sees Philippe Squarzoni’s approach to this huge scientific-political-ideological-cultural problem in comics form. In pretty weighty comics form, actually – this graphic science work weighs in at well over four hundred pages. This is not a quick read, nor should it be. We’ve seen an increasing number of graphic works tackling heavyweight subjects in recent years and making them very understandable and accessible to pretty much any reader, in the case of books like this even those with only their basic high school level of science learning.

This is not exactly jumping on the bandwagon though – for starters the book first came out in French from Delcourt a couple of years back, and secondly it is quite clear not just from the length but the detail Squarzoni goes into that this is something he has been working on for years. In fact early one we see that this large, complex work actually grew out of a previous bande dessinee Squarzoni had been working on, a book on French politics. As he researched and drew a section on the environment the author suddenly finds himself coming to a halt. When his partner asks him why, he replies it is because he is using phrases like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘greenhouse gases’. Common phrases these days, we’re all familiar with those terms, right? His partner points this out. Yes, he responds, but what do they actually mean? I’m using these phrases lifted from bits of research and re-using them in my work but I don’t really know what they actually mean, what they involve and what they portend for the future.

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And that is, perhaps, the crux of Climate Changed – many of us know these terms, we even use them sometimes in earnest pub discussions. But how much do most of us really know about the subjects these terms cover (Darryl Cunningham, you are excused this, we know you’ve researched it!)? I mean really understand, not just a vague knowledge assembled from the BBC website articles of the Guardian, but know the various aspects of climate change and how they relate to one another – and there is not just one topic here to get to grips with, this is a real multi-headed monster, a hydra of our own making, and we need, badly need, to understand the problems, and how they interact with one another, before we can even start to consider our response to them. Assuming, of course, we have the luxury of time to formulate a response. And also assuming humanity is wise enough to decide to take relevant action. And let’s be honest, recent events where agreed restrictions on targets like emissions being missed (after already being set fairly low to begin with) or even simply ignored by some nations, that latter part is not looking good right now.

Squarzoni, as you would expect, looks at the science behind climate studies and draws on numerous experts to discuss the observed changes, relating them to historical data gleaned painstakingly from sources such as deep ice cores and tree rings, to give centuries and even millennia of historical context. Because we know the Earth’s environment is always changing – it always has, it probably always will, ours is an incredibly dynamic bio system of overlapping, interacting elements: amount of sunlight reaching the surface, various gases at different altitudes in the atmosphere, currents in the air and the great oceans, the amount of ice at the poles or on glaciers, the amount of vegetation, venting from natural sources such as volcanoes… It’s a massively complex system with each component having effects on the other, which in turn cause further effects, from increased flooding to drought, even to the fabled “mini ice ages” (think of those pictures depicting the ‘frost fairs’ on a solidly frozen Thames). And this is before you factor in human activity…

We’ve started things we cannot control…

Despite the nay-sayers (and there are still many out there, often those with a large financial stake in the status quo of consume more, make more, want more) too many of these scientific studies clearly show large increases in output from human causes which are interacting with this incredibly complex environment’s variables – the charts leap following the industrial revolution really getting going in the 1800s and the post-WWII boom accelerates this at an astonishing speed. And it isn’t just as simple as more power stations pumping out CO2, or too many cars belching exhaust gases into the air – Squarzoni also draws on economic, social and cultural elements to this debate. Advertising imagery crops up numerous times, symbolic of our modern, Western, post-WWII urge to increasingly consume, tied to the cultural ethos of a capitalism that assumes we can endlessly consume, expand, consume more, expand – more production, more buying.

But we live in a finite system, there are only so many resources, and we are using them at an alarming rate. Not just the obvious resources such as fossil fuels being depleted (and increasingly so, with developing nations industrialising) but the simple, everyday items we all take for granted. Shiny new smartphone to replace the previous one – hey, it’s tiny, it’s just me, how much difference does that make? But multiply by the number being marketed and sold across the globe, the resources used to create them (rare minerals, metals), and the energy of mining those resources then that of the factory… And you get the picture. And don’t even get started on people who drive massive SUVs around city centres, the dirty looks Squarzoni gives repeatedly to a large Land Rover parked in the middle of Lyons speaks volumes!

We continue to act like it’s nothing. And the worst thing is … it feels pretty good…”

But this isn’t some anti-capitalist diatribe – as Squarzoni points out neither he or any other person in the West has any desire to cut their use of resources from energy to affordable, plentiful food (and industrial scale agriculture is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses), losing our comfortable lifestyle where we have electricity on tap, central heating, easy transport, affordable range of clothing… He doesn’t really fancy cutting his environmental imprint to that of someone living a malnourished life in an underdeveloped nation without clean water, heating, power… And obviously none of us do. But if we can’t believe the lie of endless expansion and ever increasing consumption how do we square that circle of lowering our impact on greenhouse gases and resource scarcity with maintaining a decent standard of living? Especially as, increasingly from the 1980s on a small cadre of oligarchs and super-rich live a publicly indulgent, opulent lifestyle we’re all encouraged to want to emulate (work hard enough and anyone could be a billionaire in a mansion and yacht!). Plus why, he asks, should we ordinary folk decide to cut down on things like flights to cut pollution if the super-rich are swanning around in a Rolls Royce or a giant yacht?

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And then there is the developing world – how do rich nations who created much of the pollution and resource consumption problem tell developing nations, no, sorry, you can’t come up to our standards, the planet won’t take it? He has to wrestle with this personal responsibility when offered a dream post, several months artist in residence in Thailand. But as he is in the middle of working on this book and researching the impact of things such as flying how can he in good conscience accept travelling there? He’d love to, but isn’t that hypocritical of him? But if he doesn’t go, but the guy down the street continues to run round town in his gas-guzzling SUV, what different has his personal sacrifice made? And, as his partner asks him, does that mean that he will never fly again? Does that mean the places they’d love to see together will be off-limits for them? What about green technologies? Are some good or just a bandwagon that some big companies (who have given more than their share of pollutants) a new, image-friendly ‘green’ marketplace to exploit? From large corporate installations to the personal, such as solar panels or wind turbines on the roof of our homes, which are actually effective, which will help do a bit to reduce our impact, and which are really just a salve to our conscience?

It’s one of the aspects of this book that makes it so accessible and easily understandable – for all the expert talking heads (which are frequent, but while slightly repetitive as a method, it is nonetheless a good way of getting information from expert sources across to the reader) talking about the Big Picture – what government, massive corporations and trans-global organisations such as the UN are trying to do (or frequently failing to do, depressingly), the sheer array of different experts required to make sense of it all (climatologists, industrial experts, meteorologists, geologists, disaster relief experts, economic experts and more) he continually comes back to the personal level, both from the personal responsibility side of things (what can we do individually? How do we encourage others to do the same so small change become large differences? Why should we if others don’t?) but it also reminds you constantly that the author himself is not a scientist, that he’s coming to this subject himself as an individual and realising from his research that, just as some of the experts are arguing, this is a subject that requires individual responses and changes in lifestyle, but also collective – this is a global problem and no nation will escape effects.

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Even if you are lucky enough to live in a country where, say, temperature rises from greenhouse gases are mitigated because actually it makes your region a bit nicer to live in during winter months, you will still suffer because resources from oil to container vessels full of food come in from all around the world. And some of those areas may suddenly stop being so productive. Or may even be under rising waters. And then there are those rising waters – with a huge chunk of our global population (including massive Western cities of millions) right by the coast there will be problems. Perhaps catastrophes (imagine millions being displaced as environmental refugees, both in the developing world and even in the rich, Western nations – consider the thousands of poorer citizens left behind to face the waters in New Orleans after Katrina, but on an even larger scale).

On the art front there are, as you might expect perhaps for a thick tome dealing with science, a lot of graphs, and a lot of ‘talking heads’ as a series of experts from different fields – climatologists, energy experts, economists and more – to deliver large sections of information. But to stop these being too repetitive he also uses a variety of other visual tricks – his obvious love of cinema comes in handy, with frequent visual references to the iconography of film, for instance, and advertising imagery is used regularly, while he keeps grounding this vast subject in the personal with scenes from his own life with his partner and dog, as well as flashbacks to childhood (comparing his journey through life to the relentless change of the world). This also leads to a touching scene further in, as the years go past and their trusted old dog passes away we see later scenes where Squarzoni goes walking in the snow, accompanied by a ‘ghost’ dog, just the outline of his old pal by his side, not actually drawn in detail, the memory of his dog by his side. His walks through the French countryside include some quite lovely large scenes – we may be doing something bad to our environment, but it is still a quite beautiful world, he is pointing out. And in a book where there are many small, close up panels of people talking or detailed charts and graphs it’s nice to be able to breathe in the fresh air of a large, beautifully rendered scene of lakes and mountains.

climate changed philippe squarzoni abrams 05

It can be quite overwhelming reading – to be honest, despite finding it utterly fascinating and compelling I found it best to limit myself and read it in chunks (the layout of sections actually made this quite a suitable way to approach the book), partly not to simply overload my brain with concepts and figures and arguments, but partly also so I could allow myself time to stop and consider what I was reading. And despite what you may think, it isn’t entirely negative or doom-laden (although there is a strong pessimistic bent) – Squarzoni doesn’t restrict himself to covering everything we’re doing wrong as a species, he marshals many of those same ‘talking heads’ of his expert panel to discuss possible changes. All are adamant we have to change, and the science backs this up – despite some very shoddy media reports – as he points out when some opponents used media claims of dissent between scientists to fuel doubt about climate change a study of a decade of appropriate peer-reviewed scientific journals revealed no such disagreement, compared to about half of articles written by journalists which tried to convey there was doubt about human-made climate change – draw your own conclusions from that. And all point out that such changes are best managed incrementally – none of them want to tip the world back into economic chaos by suddenly imposing major changes without planning viable alternatives, and the quicker we start changing and adapting then the less severe those changes have to be (as opposed to head in the sand, wait till last minute then have to take radical surgery instead of holistic long term treatment approach). And all agree that such change can’t simply be forced, the democratic principle has to be used, people engaged in the debate, informed and give consent (and indeed to pressure) to their political leadership for changes.

climate changed philippe squarzoni abrams 01

It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking work, well-researched (coming with a good bibliography and list of various experts quoted and other resources for learning more), and the graphical approach makes the task of assimilating the mass of complex material much simpler for the reader. Squarzoni is also to be commended for taking in the large range of industrial, economic, social and cultural aspects to climate change and relating them to one another, in addition to the perhaps more obvious issues of just what sorts of waste we’ve pumped out relentlessly into our own biosphere without thinking about what it was doing. This isn’t a single problem, it’s a series of multiple but interconnected problems, some exacerbated by natural causes, but most from human causes which many simply don’t think about much, beyond the afore-mentioned changing to energy efficient bulbs. But as one expert points out in the book, the Earth has it’s own timetable – change is happening and most consider we’ve gone beyond the point where we can stop even more change coming. But we can adapt to it, we can limit the changes, manage them better, if we’re informed and able to make those decisions (and the drive to see them through – actual action, not just fine speeches from politicians or ads telling us how much giant oil companies care about the environment). And as with many problems, reading about them is a fairly good place to start… Don’t be put off by the size of the book or the heavyweight subject matter – as I said Squarzoni does a remarkable job in putting across the subject and also personalising it (it also arrives bearing plaudits and awards from the European scene), and let’s face it, as arguments erupt already over this new UN climate report out this week, we could all do with being more informed on a subject that affects every single person on the planet.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Cosmos, the next generation…

Space has always fascinated me, perhaps not surprisingly as I was born at the peak of the Apollo programme, just a couple of years before Neil Armstrong’s giant leap on the Moon. I had my little astronaut suit to play in, repeats of the original Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO, numerous other Gerry Anderson shows – space and an optimism in the future and in our ability to learn to use our own brains and science to better humanity were popular topics (sadly so much more pessimistic today for many). I was a child of the Space Age and then grew up in the early Information Age, I had a stack of astronomy books on my shelves even as a kid (reader then, as now). And then there was Cosmos and Carl Sagan on the television. I read and read, by the time I was 9 or 10 I could tell you the difference between a Gemini and a Soyuz and an Apollo capsule, I knew who Kepler was and how his mathematics shaped our understanding of our solar system.

Carl Sagan – Cosmos (Trailer) (1980) from Xhulian Traja on Vimeo.

I loved my books, but in Cosmos I could see it all – a history of science here on Earth and how it applied to our expanding knowledge of the universe itself, not just showing fascinating glimpses of distant creation, but putting it into a context of accumulated knowledge. I didn’t  realise that aspect of it until I was much older, but subliminally the message was received and somewhere inside my young brain, absorbed and applied and forever after I have taken simple delight and pleasure in finding links between pieces of knowledge, that wonderful moment when you realise that something you are reading or watching relates to some other subject you read previously, connection and connection and connection. I still take pleasure when that happens today, and it was a lesson Sagan taught in the original Cosmos, that knowledge is one thing, but the ability to step back, place that piece of knowledge into context, was even more important, because then you start to assemble the jigsaw that shows The Big Picture. We never actually finish that particular jigsaw, because none of us is omniscient, but there’s so much pleasure to be had from assembling and connecting those pieces…

carl sagan with viking lander

The original Cosmos also helped me humiliate an utter prig of a senior at my school, who tried to make me and my friend feel small and stupid. Back when there was a single BBC Micro for the whole school we were busy programming on it when this senior barged in with a friend, demanding we stop and they get to use it because their science teacher had an “important” programme that “we wouldn’t understand”. I asked what it was, and in a very condescending tone he told us it was to do with Kepler’s laws and we wouldn’t know anything about that. I proceeded to outline the main points of Kepler’s laws and observations and place them in their historical context for good measure. I would only be about eleven or twelve, he was about fifteen. I watched him deflate and become utterly humiliated as it was clear to all in the room that Mr Superior knew less about this subject than a boy did. Thanks to Sagan and Cosmos, where I learned of it then, me being me, I had followed this up by reading more about it. Learning is our friend. And sometimes we can use it in interesting ways, to beat an intellectual bully. Satisfying in itself, and also taught me a lesson too – there’s always someone who knows more than you do…

Sagan’s books and his Cosmos series had a huge influence on me. I think his series and the programmes of the great Jacques Cousteau taught young me an enormous amount about science and what Sagan called “the awesome machinery of nature.” My brain was never terribly good with maths, so studying science at university was never likely, my thoughts were more wired to the arts and language, and I have no regrets over that because I am forever in love with words, but they, and my piles of related books, left me with a huge fascination for an and appreciation of science and learning. And space exploration and astronomy especially, but again there’s that thing about learning being linked – learning about theories of how the other planets became the way they are prompted me to read some geology to understand this better. As a kid I also loved dinosaurs (which wee boy doesn’t?) and of course that linked with geology, which also lead into theories of evolution, which in turn lead to books about why it is humans can think, have language, create abstract thought, the very faculties that allowed for astonishing things like space exploration. There it is again, link, after link after link, all adding layers of context to what was learned.

cosmos neil degrasse tyson

And so this evening the much anticipated new Cosmos made its UK debut, with an introduction by President Obama, no less. Of course dear old Carl has been gone for a number of years now, but his influence is still felt, from his own opening narration and choice of similar location to that he used for his original introduction to the use of the ‘spaceship of the imagination’. And the new presenter, Neil deGrasse Tyson also embodies another link to Sagan – a joyfully personal one too, as he recounts at one point how as a seventeen year old student Sagan had invited him to visit. He arrived during heavy snow and Sagan talked to him, showed him his lab and offices at Cornell and presented him with a signed copy of one of his books (which he still has), an encounter which enthused the young man not only to a career in science but to emulate his role model in communicating science to a wider audience, to let everyone share in the knowledge and consider its implications and possibilities, which is important given how such matters often affect all of civilisation.

Cosmos Trailer from Nat Geo Channels Intl Creative on Vimeo.

And so the new show’s first episode this evening… The format is similar to the classic Cosmos, the mixture of astronomy but interspersed with history, both human history of ideas and understanding and the deeper history of our own world, solar system, galaxy and universe. Again, context, links, without which facts don’t mean much. Of course the graphics are vastly superior to the effects the 1980 show could ever hope to create (although back then I still remember marveling at them). But the most important quality, more important than the scientific facts, the history, the learning, was something Sagan gave me in the original, Cousteau did with his shows, Arthur C Clarke did with his books – and that is the quality of sense of wonder. Simple as that – a sense of wonder that makes you feel like a bright eyed child again staring at the stars and imagining and dreaming.  And yes, the new show had that sense of wonder.

You can read a short interview with the new Cosmos presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Nat Geo site.

You Are Here…

An infinitesimal dot in a vast space, containing, as the great Carl Sagan once said of another famous image from our exploration of space, the Pale Blue Dot image, every single person you ever knew, your mother, father, brother, your grandfather, his father back to the earliest proto human, every cat, dog, fish, bird, every beggar and king, every famous musician, every humble artisan, all lived on that dot. That’s home. Now Cassini sends us this spectacular image from Saturn, the crown jewel of the solar system, the Earth, a bright, blue dot (arrowed in the pic) glowing in the vast distance, millions of miles away while the magnificent rings of Saturn wheel above.

the earth from Saturn Cassini

Every person, everything we’ve ever done is on that dot, from the first single celled creatures through the great dinosaurs to us, all contained inside that glowing dot. And yet look at this picture, look at how far we can reach, further than anyone in thousands of years of human history – look at how far we can reach when we put out efforts and those big brains evolution gave us to some wonderful effort instead of squabbling and fighting among ourselves on that same small dot. When we’re not doing that, this is the kind of thing we can accomplish, and it is magnificent. A little reminder as we see endless bad news of wars, disasters, economic ruin and more every night on the news that actually we are remarkable, our species built this clever probe, worked out a complex flight path around celestial bodies at huge speed, swinging around gravity wells and did so with such precision it can send us back images of our own world as seen from the rings of Saturn and we can share it at almost the speed of light through fiber optic networks of computers across that little globe, instantly.

The Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, and the water seems inviting...” Carl Sagan.

Turing 100

Professor Jim Al Khalili, ERS Turing lecture 02

(Professor Jim Al-Khalili signing books after the Turing lecture)

On Thursday night I attended a special guest lecture at Edinburgh University’s George Square Theatre, organised by the Edinburgh Royal Society, with author, theoretical physicist and broadcaster (he’s presented some excellent science documentaries on the BBC and C4) Professor Jim Al-Khalili. It was part of a series of events going on this year to mark 100 years since one of the great minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was born. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Turing – the father of computing and Artificial Intelligence, working out systems on pencil and paper before he and his colleagues, along with the GPO’s hugely gifted electronic engineer Tommy Flowers, created the world’s first electronic computer, a device so secret it was classified for decades while publicly others took the glory for ‘first’ computers later. Because they used this to help break the Nazi Enigma codes, without which the Second World War might have taken many more years of hard struggle and countless thousands more lives. He and his Bletchley Park colleagues were, in a real sense, war heroes, just not the sort who carry a rifle into combat, but utterly essential to the defeat of the Axis and the safeguarding of free civilisation. Turing was also a gifted visionary who was able to conceive of using science and mathematics to model thought processes years before others, giving new pathways to exploring both computing technology then emerging as well as understanding more how the incredibly complex human brain works and how that could be applied to machines, if they too could be make to think, each step along that road revealing more about the astonishing complexity of our own minds than that of our complex technology.

Sadly in the 50s Turing, a homosexual man, was arrested, homosexuality being illegal at the time, stripped of his security clearance despite his wartime record and given a choice of chemical castration or prison. He took the former but was never the same; depressed he took his own life with an arsenic laced apple. So little appreciation from the government of the country he had helped save with his genius and dedication and a reminder today when we see some clergy and politicians making unsavoury remarks about gay people how such comments can lead to attitudes and actions which can take lives, to the detriment of all of society… Turing remains one of my scientific heroes, though, and I was pleased that a public campaign a couple of years ago resulted in the then Labour government of Gordon Brown publishing an official apology for the way Turing had been treated back in the Britain of the 50s.

Jer with Professor Jim Al Khalili
(my friend Jer with Jim after getting his copy of Jim’s latest book signed)

Reviews From the Past: How To Build a Nuclear Bomb

Another of my almost-lost reviews from years ago – tis review of Frank Barnaby’s science/history book was first written for The Alien Online back in November 2003 and was quite pertinent at the time as rows over the claims for WMDs in Iraq pre-invasion then the failure to find any post-invasion and the idea that we had largely been lied to by governments to justify the war was growing.
How to Build a Nuclear Bomb and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction

By Frank Barnaby
Published Granta, September 2003

How I learned to fear the bomb and start worrying more

Okay, first off, despite the cheeky title this is not a manual on the construction of thermonuclear devices. So those of you who were technically minded and looking for a project to occupy you over the long winter nights can stop reading now. What this little book actually does do is act as a handy-sized, easy to understand primer on Weapons of Mass Destruction – those WMDs all the cool kids are talking so much about these days.

Barnaby, a nuclear physicist who worked at Aldermaston, amongst other places, lays out concise explanations in a language easily accessible to the layman, describing each of the three main WMDs: atomic, biological and chemical (now you know where 2000 AD’s ABC Warriors got their name from).

The section on each type of weapon system is then broken down into brief overviews explaining the history of the weapon’s development, how they work, how they can be deployed by governments or small groups, what effects they have and, even more depressing, the history of their actual use, from chemical weapons on the fields of WWI Flanders to nuclear annihilation over WWII Japan.

This is not to say that Barnaby is an alarmist. Far from it; in fact he seems to have written this sensible book in order to counteract the souped-up hyperbole of the mass media in our post 9-11 world and the dreadful spin (if not actual misleading or even lying claims) about WMDS from governments. He has aimed to cut through this and produce an effective introduction to let the thinking person understand some of the real history, possible effects and uses of WMDs. In this respect I’d say he was extremely successful. For example, I now know that WMDs are not in fact invisible. Which does make me wonder why the US/UK can’t find all those ones in Iraq.

Although very informative, this book is, almost by its nature, disturbing reading. Describing how simple it is for someone to create chemical or biological weapons is frankly terrifying, and the example of the Tokyo subway attack using Sarin (the group responsible also had produced Anthrax) highlights the danger. The fact that immensely wealthy and powerful international pharmaceutical companies have used their might to stymie effective checks on production facilities in case someone is using them to secretly create bio or chemical weapons is even more alarming. There is no international system of checks – as exists for nuclear facilities – because the companies are too worried about possible industrial espionage and are prepared to put the lives of others at risk to protect their profits.

This is unlikely to be of surprise to anyone who has followed these same companies’ years of trying to block cheap, generic drugs to third world nations, but it is still more than a little astonishing that even in the current political climate there is no body to check up on chemical and biological facilities world wide. Given their history – look how many such weapons were created by IG Farben in Nazi Germany alone – you’d think the industry would be a little more safety compliant.

There was one aspect of this book that was even more horrifying and disturbing than this however. This dealt with the history of the deployment and use of WMDs. Often by the same ‘responsible’ governments who now act out military adventures to supposedly save civilization from madmen armed with WMDs. Chemical agents dropped in Vietnam, gas weapons used by Germany, Britain and France in World War I and, of course, the nuclear fires over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that burned the horror of WMDs indelibly into the public mind for all time in much the same way as they burned people’s shadows into the walls.

And before anyone argues that these events are being taken out of historical context, Barnaby discusses the vast destructive arsenals Russia, Britain, America, China and France hold to this very day and are reluctant to get rid of, while trying to ensure other nations do not possess similar weapons; although to his credit he does not take a political stance on this, merely reports the facts.

So, yes, this is disturbing material, but if you follow current events then you should know this stuff so you can try and cut through the spin and scare-tactic headlines. Information is a weapon every bit as effective as WMDs and its one weapon we should all have access to.