Today I will be visiting Entangled: Art, Science and Quantum Computing. This is an exhibition exploring the world of quantum mechanics through art, through the medium of early stage quantum computers, and created by the Quantum Engineering Technology (QET) Labs at the University of Bristol, and the Systems Research Group from the Royal College of Art.
My knowledge of quantum computing was last updated a good few years ago, so I'm keen to learn a little more of what's happened since then...
There's a detailed description of the participating artists and their science-themed works over at the V&A blog.
I have two jobs, and one thing I especially love about each is keeping an eye on breaking science stories from week to week.
There is, for instance, the description of a master-gene that controls female or male traits in a species of beetle. Not like an on/off switch, but like a regulator, a conductor, a puppeteer, tweaking the expression of multiple genes to grow male horns or female genitalia.
The possibility that the woolly mammoths had entered an sticky evolutionary pool full of stagnant water, their dwindling populations forcing impromptu pairings leading to poor genes and low genetic diversity. I had recently read about the tiny population of vaquitas, the world's smallest cetacean - 30 left in the wild! How can the giant panda and European bison plod on, while this mammal species is thrown to the wayside? - and wonder what genetic diversity could be left to them. At university I learned that the cheetah population was so small and closely related, squeezed through the genetic bottleneck, that cheetahs could share skin-grafts without immune rejection. The cheetah had been one of my favourite animals as a child, yet only when I was an adult would I understand the genetic consequences of being endangered.
An article describing a serotonin transporter (SERT) gene which, in some forms, can make a child more prone to anxiety and lower maternal attachment. I read about similar genes, SERT and MAOA, in Lone Frank's fascinating book, My Beautiful Genome. It's suggested that while these genes affect how a child's personality develops, the negative impact of the genes can be avoided by environmental intervention. Good parenting. Nurturing. The individual's own cognitive effort. But it's too early to start screening for these genes; we don't understand enough - neither scientists, nor us.
This was my favourite painting from The Art Book, a well-thumbed miniature bible to art which my brother had won for his work.
I'm very pleased another writer / scientist has used it as a springboard to discuss the future of human embryo research in the US.
'Writers write', said Stephen King, and as a long afficionado of this fervent and occasionally schlocky writer, I take this advice to heart. Writers should write. Every day. Like it's work. No, because it is work. Practice getting words out into blank space until they cease to feel like awkward building blocks and become something flowing, something sculpted, something continuous.
Writers also read, though. My memory is something more like sandstone than marble these days, like most adults, so things leave less lasting impressions, but I must have faith they leave something. So, books, lately. I picked up Karl Ove Knausgaard's first book in his autobiographical series. Why on earth are people going bananas over this long dreary soliloquy about a man's relatively ordinary life, I wondered, jealously, before browsing the lucid prose and conceding my unequivocal defeat. The secret is in the storytelling, not the story itself. I've often thought of writing my own misery memoir, but I don't yet have the talent for making it into autobiography. I had to return it to the library as i was moving house. My adventure into the experience of being a small boy in Norway and all that happens there and thereafter is going to have to wait.
Then Blackout, by Sarah Hepola. A memoir of drinking, drinking too much too often, and then the experience of not-drinking. I love the honesty, the energy. The neat little spins of phrase. Beer is the gasoline of adventure. The pages she wrote that had the last-call honesty of someone pulling the listener close. It's a zinger.
I also chewed through Robin Hobb's latest kick at Fitz and the Fool, in the new trilogy of that name, Fool's Assassin. Man but did it take several multiple hundreds of pages before that title made sense. Relapsing into an old heavy genre-fantasy tome addiction, I did 608 pages in one night and half a day. Who am I kidding? She's an excellent writer and I loved being back in the slow moving detail of her world. She never overdid it, like JV Jones. On the other hand, now I have renewed interest in tracking down Endlords if it ever gets written. And yet I remain ever grateful that ASOIAF has given rise to Game of Thrones, which will ensure that the story gets finished before my first grey hairs sprout and the next book is published.
DBC Pierre, Breakfast with the Borgias, and Lights Out In Wonderland. Breakfast with the Borgias was a waste of two lengthy commutes that equated a whole day of reading. Man arrives at hotel, man is quashed into a surreal dreary grey magical realist f-ed up setting full of quibbles of slightly interesting dialogue and violent events, culminating in the reader wondering what the hell is going on and whether to keep turning the pages. I might get it, I might not. I don't care, I'm not remembering that one. It might as well have been one of those children's ghost stories where it turns out the narrator has been dead all along, or something, y'know, whatever, totally surprising. It was my second re-read of Lights Out and I still can't figure out entirely what's happening in the ending. Alas, googling this question does not lead me to enlightening Reddit threads. I think he's telling me to shrug it all off, and enjoy the ride nevertheless. Variants of this message have already been poignantly etched into my heart by Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, and the words of a special favourite painter, Zdzislaw Beksinski, that if you're viewing hell you might as well do it from a comfortable seat. Well, he certainly crafted some clever scenes.
Stephen King's Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I was so happy to see another collection of short stories from him. He was the first writer to bridge me from the Childrens section to the Adults, back when I was so little and shy that I was afraid I was trespassing in there. I loved Just After Sunset, Everything's Eventual, Full Dark No Stars was... harrowing and even ridiculous at times, but all right, pretty classic King and thus good reading. I made it through about three or four stories before relegating this one back to the library. I feel bad about writing that. But it's a big book and my nightstand is covered with competing clutter.
Caitlin Moran. How to Build a Girl, Moranthology, Moranifesto. All available in quick succession. Messy, ebullient, ridiculous, smart, female, and her writing too. The Moranifesto still lives happily on the nightstand and is on re-read for when my daily inner monologue still hasn't had a chance to bubble out and it's dark already. It's an excellent writing spur.
That leaves me down to three remaining books - Bill Bryson's One Summer:1967, Michael Brooks - The Secret Anarchy of Science, and [Somebody's] - Epigenetics, a Graphic Guide. The bookshelf is getting skinny.
When I lived in Amsterdam, I particularly enjoyed the Stedelijk Museum. There's a few wonderful Abstract Expressionist and Abstract pieces there upstairs - Cathedra, by Barnett Newman, a glowing wall of ethereal blue, and a Rothko containing a melting horizon. Yves Klein's moonrock alien blue landscape.
There's more to Abstract Expressionism than colours or chaos. Intent. Meaning. Emotions. Contemplation. But equally, part of the pleasure is the casual interpretation. And doesn't it all sometimes look like a big, glorious, mess?
In science, colours are blooming too, abstract interpretations from rational intent. The Brainbow, shades of fluorescence used to tag not only neurones but fibres of the tongue, the stem cells of the small intestine. Stem cells producing the blood cells. A mess to the untrained eye, a precise labelling system to the scientific one. Beauty in the chaos of identification.
The confirmation of a 100 year-old theory of Albert Einstein renders any blog or website posting pretty inconsequential. While the global news machine rolls on, champing out articles about Zika, Trump, refugee crisis, there is now a fervent subsection dedicated to reporting on the discovery of gravitational waves.
The import of the discovery is condensed into stylised, eye-catching and somewhat bewildering numbers. "The announcement is the climax of a century of speculation, 50 years of trial and error, and 25 years perfecting a set of instruments so sensitive they could identify a distortion in spacetime a thousandth the diameter of one atomic nucleus across a 4km strip of laserbeam and mirror," cries The Guardian.
Why should we care? "While the political displays we have been treated to over the past weeks may reflect some of the worst about what it means to be human, this jiggle, discovered in an exotic physics experiment, reflects the best," says the New York Times Sunday Review, through the patient and poetic words of Lawrence Krauss.
The New Yorker delivers an exciting narrative of the human stories behind the science. "David Reitze, the executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, saw his daughter off to school and went to his office, at Caltech, where he was greeted by a barrage of messages. “I don’t remember exactly what I said,” he told me. “It was along these lines: ‘Holy shit, what is this?’ ”
XKCD delivers a swift dose of black line science snark, while NASA release a succinct dose of no-nonsense reporting.
One UK tabloid takes a typical run at the story. "Einstein was RIGHT!" screams the Daily Mail.
A thousand ways to tell this story. The science, now captured by observation and theory, enters the human narrative. You can read LIGO's richly detailed press release here, if you too would like to try your hand at capturing the "waves that propagate at the speed of thought."
Day 2 introduced some of us to a full night's sleep, and thus restoration of our full powers of intelligence, wit, humour and beauty. However this day also brought our remaining wayward fellow students to Erice, in much the same state of delayed-flight sleeplessness and jetlag as we earlier arrivals had been.
The first talk was of 'a very special candle' – synchrotrons, as explained by Francesco Sette of ESRF. Synchrotrons are facilities that fire incredibly intense beams of light through objects. Synchrotron radiation is capable of illuminating research down to the atomic level, to explore the shape of molecules and to clarify the structure of viral ribosomes. This ability can also be used to piece together larger pictures, such as by revealing hidden van Gogh paintings, and reading the writing inside ancient scrolls from archaeological digs. Francesco led us through a potted history of synchrotron facilities, from the first tabletop-sized synchrotron of 1947, to the massive facilities that exist today throughout the world. Modern synchrotrons can generate radiation which is 100 million times brighter than the first described x-rays of 1885. Most facilities are distributed throughout Japan, the USA, and Europe. Later on, we would be introduced to a notable synchrotron being built in the Middle East.
But next, Nicola Nosengo bade us to consider why light technology prevails, or fails. The invention of the blue LED in the early 1990s is considered so significant that it scooped a Nobel Prize in 2014. The invention of red LEDs, those red spots punctuating the everyday machines of our households and the glittering eye of HAL, did not win anything. For the combination of red LEDs, green LEDs and blue LEDs means that now white LEDs can be created. White LEDs are heralded as an efficient, energy and money-saving means to illuminate our environments and lifestyles. This steady improvement continues to uphold Haitz's Law, which predicts a steady increase in the light LED technology can produce against falling costs. This is the simple economic ideal, that better science leads to better technology at cheaper prices for all, and that more efficient, cheaper lighting will be a massive mainstay against global warming. But when our environment presents us with new benefits, we tend to change our behaviour to take advantage. This is Jevon's Paradox, quite simply, the message being that increasing fuel efficiency can increase consumption. So should we believe the hype about how beneficial LED lights will be? “Innovation in a single technology is one thing. Innovation in a technological system is another,” Nicolo warned.
Similarly, just look at the impact that cars had on society, and our behaviour in this strikingly brilliant film...
Luca Serafini delivered the second and final lecture on Extreme Light Infrastructure, focusing on the development of the ELI-NP laser in Romania. His first talk on ELI had been a crash-course in incredibly brilliant lasers operating at numbers and timescales of bewilderingly high and short scales. My brain was still trying to get to grips with these notions when it began learning about the ELI-NP laser. This laser will fulfil the nuclear photonics 'research pillar' of ELI, which means its research focus will be to explore and manipulate atomic nuclei. That's the easy part. The difficult part to comprehend is that this will be a uniquely powerful laser at the very forefront of research, producing the shortest and most powerful laser flashes, such that the acceleration of photons achieved over 10km of accelerator can instead be generated from 1cm pulses of plasma. The mechanism by which this is achieved emulates the gamma-ray bursts of distant galaxies, the brightest radiation events in the universe. Luca introduced a present and near future where relativistic optics become ultra-relativistic optics and eventually QED optics. The words he used dipped in and out of my uneven grasp of self-taught physics like the hazy plot of a badly dubbed film. My consciousness was rooting through slightly abandoned reserves of my brain, hurriedly seeking more mental yardsticks for scale and wonder. I stared at a helpful analogy for electrons surfing waves to understand this high-level physics. It was reassuring in its simplicity, a pictoral pacifier. Again, how helpful analogies can be used to translate physics for non-mathematicians, I thought, reassured. Sketching out futuristic ideas for high-energy lasers, such as to scan sealed containers and detect nuclear fuel, Luca reflected that the ELI-NP laser is also a prototype, at the front-line of technological progress. How its technology will come to be adopted and refined by industry remains to be seen.
We went out to seek lunch in Erice, and became entangled in the curious nether reaches of Sicilian time. It is an elastic and abstract concept that swept us up, fed us (some of us / eventually / not at all) and deposited us for a necessarily late-starting seminar hosted by Open Knowledge.
Open Knowledge is a non-profit organisation who promote open data. That's the generic nutshell description, but the seminar conveyed richer and better messages to us. Open Knowledge ask us to be aware of our own power as data journalists - curators of the sea of available open data. Data journalism can open up specific perspectives in a topic, as well as uncover new stories. The eponymous handbook can be found here. Jonathan Gray and Liliana Bounegru showed us examples of a range of data curations, with impacts ranging from the entertaining - The Most Googled Thanksgiving Recipes by US State presents a surprising selection of American cuisine - to the ever-prescient – Climaps reveals geographical preparation to climate change – to the brutally sobering – The Migrants Files meticulously documents the loss of 29,000 human lives. Open Knowledge have also created the Panton Principles specifically for open data in science, to help scientists to make data from their studies available for public use. Afterwards, we planned our own data projects. The topics on our mind proved to be drones, anti-vaxxers, and science engagement.
Francesco Sette's talk showed us the distribution of synchrotrons throughout the world, which are mainly distributed throughout Japan, the USA, and Europe. But Giorgio Paolucci introduced us to SESAME, the first synchrotron in the Middle East. SESAME is a research facility that will both augment and unify the work of scientists from multiple Middle Eastern countries. Through political tensions and regional conflict, the “common language” of science is the focus of the developing SESAME facility.
After another dinner, the evening was finished with a night-time stroll to the castle where Larry Krumenaker, astronomer and science journalist at University of Heidelberg's Institute of Theoretical Physics, introduced us anew to the stars. Little had I realised that the tools for measuring degrees of latitude, had forever been located at the ends of my wrists. Larry introduced us to various memorable stars and bodies of the night sky, pointing out useful features including Venus, silvery siren, the bright star Regulus, the constellation of the Lion which also happens to look like a mouse, and the North star.
And that was Sunday.
Here, have some more Marsala wine.
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