Sunday 28 October 2018. My new essay in my series POSSIBLE WORLDS@RELOADED is available via the link below.
Tuesday 9 October 2018. In 2003 my second book – The Silent Landscape – was published. It caused something of a stir at the time, combining as it did scientific knowledge of the oceans with a recounting of the 19th century voyage of HMS Challenger, the first marine expedition devoted solely to scientific discovery. It was even optioned for TV.
The Silent Landscape developed out of an approach that I had used in my first book, Architects of Eternity: The New Science of Fossils, where I combined science with good old fashioned stories about the scientists who had made the discoveries,
I have continued that approach since, in my book Lives of the Planets and in my forthcoming book The Isotope Man.
But I found myself wondering what it was that united these people and the only answer I could find was the simple pleasure of finding things out – the satisfaction, if you like.
In The Silent Landscape I mentioned how the naval officers and crew aboard HMS Challenger referred to their crew of onboard naturalists with the quasi-ironic homage ‘the Scientifics’. This reflected, then as now, a respect for science and also a certain wariness of its practitioners.
These days you will sometimes see the term ‘nerds’ used to describe those who study science (largely, I suspect, as a result of the TV show The Big Bang Theory) but it is no longer the pejorative it used to be. Instead it connotes a certain respect as well as a slight bafflement that people can make a career out of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. On the other hand, that pursuit has given us a lot; medicines, communications, transport, space exploration as well as other, less wholesome outcomes. Anyhow, as a homage to one of my favourite science essayists JBS Haldane and a nod to one of my favourite SF movies I have decided to collect my essays under the title POSSIBLE WORLDS@RELOADED.
These essays are a bit different from what we might term my commercial writing – for magazines and the internet – in that they take as much time and space as is required to understand new developments in diverse fields of science. For I am not a specialist scientist, I am a generalist who seeks to tease-out general themes from specific lines of scientific research. And if you enjoy my rather irreverent writing style, then that can’t hurt either, Right?
Having spent far too much of the past two years in and out of doctor’s surgeries, clinics and hospitals I now have a far deeper understanding of the applied side of science than I ever thought possible. I have had so many X-Ray’s I can eat my meals raw and they are cooked by the time they hit my stomach. I can practically take apart an MRI scanner with a bent paperclip and my knowledge of medical pharmacology means that I could consult for the scriptwriters of Breaking Bad.
Having walked the hallways of the John Radcliffe Hospital in the wee, small hours of the night wondering if the Ferryman now takes PayPal, I have a new and profound respect for doctors, nurses and support staff and the life-and-death decisions that they take every day.
POSSIBLE WORLDS@RELOADED is dedicated to them.
Tuesday October 2nd 2018. My account of the voyage of HMS Challenger – the world’s first great scientific expedition of oceanography – will be available on amazon for £2.29 from Thursday. Enjoy!
Tuesday September 25 2018. I am delighted to say that I am now making the short synopsis of my biography of Professor Sir Nick Shackleton FRS (of Greenhouse Effect fame) available on-line for publishers to peruse and pursue if they so wish.
If you wish to receive a copy of the long synopsis please email me at email@example.com.
It has taken me many years to write it, in amongst all the other things I have to do to make a crust! As you may know I was Nick’s first graduate student to specialise in his field.
Here’s a picture of Nick and I on the day he was awarded his Doctorate of Science (Sc.D) at Cambridge in 1985.
All enquiries to me in the first instance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click to read the synopsis at Nick_Shackleton_Short_Proposal
Click to read Chapter 1 The Fenland Tardis
Monday September 24 2018. Having spent the last two years in and out of the John Radcliffe hospital and with more to come, I have been suffering from, as Kipling might have said, a ‘malaise of the interior cupboards’. Reading has helped me get through this very frightening time and none more so than a particular piece of writing by the man who inspired me to be a science writer in the first place, Stephen Jay Gould.
To me and many others, Steve was the greatest scientific essayist of the Twentieth Century. His balliwick were the biological – and particularly – the evolutionary sciences. I knew him slightly, and he always made time for me in a hectic schedule when I visited Harvard or Woods Hole or when he visited the UK.
One day in the 1980s Steve found himself in hospital with cancer – specifically the poor-outcome disease peritoneal mesothelioma. He was given the bad news that he might not have long to live. But with his razor-sharp mind and his extensive knowledge of statistics (gleaned through work on animals such as the extinct Irish Elk) he was able to see through the harsh reality of the numbers to a far more more humane outcome.
Put briefly, statistics – by their very nature -homogenize a variety of different inputs; in the case of medicine, not least the patient’s health, the time since their cancer was diagnosed, and the individual’s will to survive. So Steve wrote THE MEDIAN ISN’T THE MESSAGE explaining all this and emphasising the importance of a positive mental outlook towards even serious illness.
In the process he gave hope to thousands who found themselves in a similar position – not least of all, me.
So thanks Steve, passed away sixteen years now, for a piece of writing that even today generates an enduring legacy of hope
Sunday September 23 2018. There was a time back in the 1990s when science fiction seemed to lead science fact. This was when it looked as though we could be able to reconstruct dinosaurs from their DNA just as Michael Crichton had speculated in his book Jurassic Park. Alas, it was not to be and the idea sank almost without trace. Something similar appears to be happening to the science of molecular clocks as measures of evolutionary rates. I am on the trail and hope to be writing a feature on it soon. Watch this Space`
Monday June 4 2018. Next year is a huge anniversary for space travel – 50 years since NASA landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. I have written extensively around the subject at Astrobiology Magazine. Click here to read my stuff.
A cautionary tale for Christmas Eve Pub-Goers
I met Dennis one afternoon during the wettest December for seventy-eight years. Some would say ‘Global Warming’, but I would riposte, ‘Grant Application’. I knew as well as most, and better than many, that science in the 2010’s was the era of the expedient proposal. The EP, as I had come to call them, were proposals that we dreamt up over pints in the Eagle back at the Fen Poly. The outline took maybe thirty minutes and after that it was back to the Department for the usual three weeks of costings and administrative constipation.
Dennis sat by himself in the chair by the bar. Everybody else would have used a stool but Dennis was not intimidated by his low perch.
His personality was too big for that.
I sat opposite him and pretended to read. It was an mediocre thriller by an indifferent scientist, and before long I began to think that I was reviewing one of the eponymous ‘EP’s’ alluded to above. At length I laid the book down and, temporarily forgetting that molten torrents start from tiny lava seeps, I engaged the bespectacled stranger in conversation.
“It beats me how he can sell that.”
Dennis looked startled for a second. Engagingly like a Roe deer I had once met en route to a early morning deal on the Portobello Road. He looked left and then right with a winning smile adulterated by a pinch of hesitation that I soon learned was caused by childhood deafness. Eventually his eye caught mine and his smile intensified to a effulgent radiance I previously had only associated with Bible stories.
“What was that?” He lent forward and cupped a hand around his ear in the time honoured tradition of the aurally challenged.
“I said, ‘It beats me how he can sell that’.”
He looked at me speculatively for a moment and lowered three inches of IPA with a slurp redolent of satisfaction.
“You could do better?.”
His benevolent expression belied offence.
“On a good day. Perhaps. It’s all a question of time”. With a glance at his vacant jug I asked, “Can I get you another?”
He glanced at his in the same direction and then, with a peculiar dual gesture, simultaneously answered in the affirmative and invited me to join him. “Ah, time, yes indeed.” He seemed to find something amusing.
Bringing his pint and my own refill I lowered myself onto a stool that tottered in front of his chair. Raising his glass, he offered a silent toast, and then re-engaged his palate with relish. He looked at me, his eyes bright, as I took a more cautious sip. I wondered in that instant how old he was. Fifty, maybe sixty? Seldom had I seen a more ageless man.
“We’re all dead here, you know.”
I stared at him, startled, and at an infrequent loss for words.
He sighed breezily. “Oh yes. Didn’t the villager’s tell you?”
I hesitated. The truth was that the locals up the hill had recommended the pub to me, and that was why I had made the thirty minute walk through precipitation that, in a bygone age, would have been called ‘stair-rod’. The villagers had also said that the pub was unusually well preserved for its age and advised me to look out for ‘local colour’ at the bar.
“How do you mean?”
It was his turn to stare at me. “You require amplification?”
I nodded. “Much like you.”
“Well,” he said, and transfixed me with a gimlet stare. “You have the time.”
His glass was again dangerously low and I refilled it without request. With a low murmur of thanks he ordered his thoughts.
He looked at me thoughtfully. “Ever heard Hotel California?”
“You know that line, ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave?”
I nodded again.
The words were delivered with a flat finality that somehow shook me. I stood and made my way to the low oak-beamed door that sagged tiredly in the corner beside the notice board.
I looked back at him and he nodded once; imperceptibly.
I swung the door open and looked into infinity. Where before the tiny village of Muxborough had slumbered in the winter rainfall, now there was only a swirling void of painful white radiance dappled with speeding black flecks.
I whirled back to him. He nodded gravely and with a certain, not un-inebriated satisfaction, said, “Bit of bother over at Hinkley Point, some years back.”
“Hinkley Point. You know, our local, nuclear,” the words were smeared with contempt, “power station.”
“I don’t get it.”
“And why should you my dear chap? Why should you? The simple fact is that we appear to have left our local portion of the time-space continuum. You see,” he lent forward earnestly, “as that fellow down there has told us,” he nodded to where a tired man sagged, white-faced against the Lilliputian bar, “ we’re on a cusp”
“A cusp. You see, we were all here some years back, a Thursday evening it was, when there was a bit of a bang. We felt a jolt and then nothing, and thought no more of it. Until we tried to leave of course.”
“What happened then?”
He paused and looked meaningfully at another empty glass. I refilled it without demure. “Well, when young Derek opened the door to go home, he found himself staring into the white void that you yourself have seen. But he walked out anyway.” He shrugged.
“And what?” He looked slightly irritated.
He looked momentarily confused. “We never saw him again.”
I sat back and sank some of my own beer. “ So where did he go?”
“No idea. Although that man there,” He nodded in the general direction of the harassed gentleman at the bar, “thinks that he knows. Says we’re suffering from ‘cross-talk’ and that poor Derek’s trapped in Hilbert Space. Still, there is one happy consequence; we never seem to run out of beer.”
My interest was engaged. I sidled up to ‘the fellow’ and looked into red-rimmed eyes. I did not dissemble. “What’s going on?”
He knew instantly to what I was referring. Quietly, he said, “You hear that tune?”
It was Hotel California again. I nodded.
“In this case it happens to be true. When Hinkley Point blew it knocked us up onto a Hilbert cusp.”
I nodded in Dennis’s direction. “He keeps on about cusps. Could you be a little more specific?”
“Of course. We were moved up out of our space-time continuum onto a cusp. A bit like the ridge between grooves on a gramophone record. Neither one place nor the other. Hence: A cusp.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well the maths is a little involved but I’ll see if I can’t keep it simple. You know what a Mobius strip is?”
“Yes. It’s a strip of paper with a twist in it.”
He looked impressed. “Exactly. It’s a strip of paper which through a trick of topology has only one side and one edge. An unusual arrangement, as I think you’ll agree.”
I was beginning to get a headache but he continued remorselessly. “A Mobius strip is a distorted expression of Hilbert space. A place where the laws of physics don’t operate as they do in our world. The cusps between universes are in Hilbert Space. And that’s where we are now.”
“Meaning we are neither in once place or another. We’re poised between alternate universes. We can’t leave because there is no exit. Like a Mobius strip which has only one side, Hilbert space has no entrance – or exit.”
“What about Derek? The man who left to go home?”
He shrugged. “Never saw him again”
“How long ago was that?”
He smiled then, a narrow smile full of unfulfilled and unfulfillable longing. I glanced down the bar toward Dennis. He too was smiling, but in his eyes I could see now a yearning expression which impaled me with terror. I glanced back to the physicist.
Suddenly his smile had turned sad. “About twenty years” he said.
Copyright reserved. Richard Corfield
Monday December 11 2017. It is no particular secret that I have spent much of 2017 in and out of Doctor’s surgeries and the John Radcliffe Hospital. I am now well on my way to recovery but that would not have been possible without the help of the most amazing medical team. So thank you, Elle, Neil, Jeremy, Jane, Silvia, Chloe and Suan (to name just a few). You are all amazing! Viva the NHS!