I tell you this because you are cursed. This curse will find you, as it did him, and her, and me. I tell you this now so that you may be ready.
In the deep of the Peruvian jungle, there is a cave that runs through a mountain. It has the appearing of a gaping mouth, spurred with broken teeth. It is the howl of the mountain. It is the hungry darkness.
He went in there. He was a hunter, and he had gone out to those murky, exotic reaches to kill things. He carried a stout black rifle slung over his shoulder, and a fat silver handgun at his hip. He killed things to take them home where he would preserve them as trophies, and make them part of his home, and his family legacy. Organic pieces of animal matter, trinkets that spoke of the strength and command of a long-dead patriarch that housewives would blithely rub with feather dusters and that children's tremulous little fingertips would make upon soft sticky touches.
The air of the jungle was sharp and cool that season, kept moist by the winds that came in from the Atlantic. But the cave seemed to emanate a curious warmth. The dark interior was made soft by air thickened with traces of suspended moisture. He disliked the wet, clammy welcome of the air, but it pricked his curiousity. What lay within? Geothermal heat, hidden hot springs. The silent breathing of beasts and hidden predators. The promise of danger made him smile a little, grimly. He could not resist the unspoken challenge of the creatures that his imagination painted, or the secrets that tried to conceal them from him. He went in.
He lit his small gas lantern, hanging it by a hook on the base of his rifle. Not the best place to carry a light, and it risked hindering his aim, but it could work well enough for lamping animals to be shot. He travelled prepared. He went in, eyes flickering from the rough walls made smooth and slick by condensation and the greenish slimes of fungus-like things that were living. The floor was padded with a thin carpet of soft grey ash and leafmould.
He wanted to see what lay within. He dreamt of discovering secret cave paintings, artefacts, simple secret little things, the tracks and spoor of animals, the bones chewed by the predator that would match the mystery promised by this cavern.
It opened up before him long and dark and warm and wide, and he found nothing.
Nothing but that soft caress of air that became a sticky, sweltering, grasp. Nothing but the soft pad of mould becoming the gluey tread of decay and liquid. Nothing but the bland smell of wet rock and steamy water.
He went in further than he should have. He went in.
He found the end of the tunnel. It was a sheer face of slick rock. He put out a hand and touched it, drifting his fingertips through a layer of scum. It was oddly warm, like a living thing. He should have left it at that. One man, making his mark upon a hidden place, leaving nothing but melting fingerprints behind.
But as he began to turn, his gaze falling from the brown, rather boring, truthfully, wall, he saw the folded scrap at the base of the wall.
He knelt, and put his fingers on the soft greyish scrap. It was as soft as a piece of animal hide, but when he rubbed it gently he realised it was a folded piece of paper. It was damp with the moisture of the tunnel, and through the softened sides he felt the hard little lines underneath.
Paper, here. So he was not the first human to explore the long tunnel.
It pleased him to find this little morsel of treasure. A mystery. He decided to carry it out of the tunnel, and open it in the daylight, so he put his fingers around it, and stood. He walked out of the tunnel and towards the tiny point of light.
There had been nothing living inside, not even bats. Still, the pistol at his hip, the small rifle slung over his back... suddenly he was very aware of them. Very glad of them. And he denied the reasons why he did it... but he turned around and looked behind him.
The dangling light of the lantern showed the end of the cave, with nothing between that face of rock and himself. He turned away, telling himself it had been as he had expected. A formality, really, merely marking the place in his memory for one last time. He had never been afraid of the dark, ever. He had always been exceptionally brave.
His feet made no sound upon the ashy floor. It was no longer than two steps before he wanted to turn again. He took two more steps. Hesitated. Told himself it was because his foot was secured, briefly, by the sticky floor. Tried to pull it out for another step. Threw a quick glance over his shoulder.
Nothing there. Dim gloom of the interior, beginning to be edged in sooty puddles of shadow as the lamplight drew further away. He turned and walked quickly.
The mouth of the tunnel was growing into a brilliant white circle ahead, and he had to distract himself. He investigated his find. The paper was thick and strangely made. He pushed his fingertip in and opened it up.
Inside, the fine silver lines of a wire pentacle glinted brightly. Its slender lines tapered to fine needle points. It looked as though it had been freshly polished.
Well. Valuable? Perhaps. He wondered who had taken it down the tunnel, and put it there. A trinket that some explorer had probably forgotten, a treasure that a native had hidden. Still- at least now he had some treasure to take away with him. He weighed it in his hand, enjoying the thought that this bit of shaped wire connected him to some long-gone explorer. He admired how the dully reaching swathe of daylight made it glitter bright cold gleams.
There was the softest of noises behind him. Something re-settling, gently.
With a rush of gladness at the excuse to do so, he turned and brought up his rifle.
How sharp the divide now was between the darkness and the light. It was strange how blackened and opaque the interior of the tunnel looked, and how the pale light grey-yellow of the walls abrupted switched into the painted black. And how one tendril of that black gave a crafty flicker, low down on the floor. It moved, resettled. Paused.
The hunter's hands gripped his gun tightly. Held it before him, ram-rod straight, keeping the lantern frozen still.
The shadows breathed softly. They moved, a gentle shuffle of readiness. The eyeless black watched him.
There was an unpleasant twist of adrenaline in him that he refused to recognise as fear. His lip curled. Was he a child? He could taste the odd flavour of the cavern- warm, musty, and repellent. Old. Wet bones. He sucked a mouthful of bitter acidic saliva and clasped the edges of the trigger, that familiar loved feeling, the only metal ring he cared to wear. He pulled his index finger back until the gun was poised to shout.
Nothing moved. Nothing. And yet, the hunter knew that the darkness was alive, and watching him.
He would not shoot until the creature moved forwards. Because, of course - there is nothing really there. How stupid that would be. To waste a bullet on a foolish trick of the light.
That would be wrong.
And the darkness now looks like lifeless shadow.
HIs tension becomes disappointment. His finger eases its pressure on the trigger.
The hunter turns and walks towards the entrance once more. After a few steps, he turns again. His retreat is an invitation. He wants the beast to be unafraid.
But there is nothing there. The darkness seems to have filled in the long cavernous passage perfectly to match his stride. The distance between himself and the apparent end of the tunnel seems unchanged. It's like a dream, where you can walk for ages, but hardly cover any distance.
Somehow, however, he doesn't want to walk back. He turns with difficulty, expecting at any moment to hear the sudden scuffle of feet as the creature rushes him. It really is like a dream, after all.
He thinks, I will count five steps and turn.
Now there are glassy eyes in the blackness.
My past and current selves are very happy. I'm on Falkor, the Luck Dragon of the Neverending Story, though he is currently in the form of a sizeable research ship. The RV Falkor is fed / funded by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a private foundation dedicated to ocean research, and I'm honoured to be the artist-in-residence of the latest expedition in the Gulf of California.
However, Falkor's flight has been tempered. Currently we are still in port at Manzanillo, waiting for a few affairs of containers, customs, and scheduling to click into place so that we can start the expedition. This is day 3 of my experience on board Falkor, and so far the rumours are true. The crew are warm, the scientists are friendly, and the food is amazing. There will be no scurvy here and in fact I plan to put on a few pounds. You know, just in case. Thus far I have read Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, James Nestor's freediving book Deep, and precisely two pages of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The gentle listing of the ship from side to side is peaceful rather than nauseating and makes for fun navigations of various corridors. Have you ever tried to overtake a drunk person pinging from wall to wall as they march down a narrow passage? It's like that.
Falkor is so-named to bring luck to its unique missions. Funded privately by the Schmidt Foundation, Falkor is free to pursue exploration and research outside the typical constraints of public funding. That is to say, when there's a limited pot of research council funds to go around, it's usually the research proposals most likely to produce useful - or profitable - results that get the funds. In effect, it helps if a scientist knows what kind of results they're going to get, before they've even done the research. But Falkor can take the risk of going places that have scarcely been explored, to allow researchers the freedom to just try and discover, to collect, to find out. Falkor provides the time and the opportunity, and researchers just need to apply to take part, bringing their ideas and projects.
When we set off there will be some 30 days of sailing the ocean so that our assorted company of geophysicists, biogeochemists, microbial ecologists, genomists and ecophysiologists can discover what lies below. There will be new discoveries and plenty of science to communicate. I'm going to help by creating some art, animations, and apps. I will also be perfecting the quietest way to enter and exit a top bunk so that my cabinmate Professor Monika Bright does not eventually strangle me, and looking eagerly for blue whales in the ocean horizon. Please follow my journey and hound me with questions.
Last weekend I attended the New Scientist Live event, in the ExCel Centre, London. There was a lot to see and a lot of people to see it; the air buzzed with voices and noise. Here's a few exhibits that sparked my imagination. As I said to my friend, you can't put a price on the feeling of inspiration - that's why I love science.
Virtual Reality is amazing. Sensory Reality is astounding. SENSIKS offers a virtual experience that caters to all five senses, combining them into a 'sixth' full sensory experience. Visitors outside the SENSIKS booth queued impatiently; left with dreamy smiles on their faces and wistful remarks that their time inside the booth had passed too quickly. I spoke with Fred Galstaun, the CEO - see a short video below, and watch if you can spot him doing the logo for SENSIKS. More about the company and their platform on their website.
Another booth, holding a small cinema, was Axiom.
Axiom is a refresh of traditional healthcare debates through a sci-fi and storytelling medium. Visitors to the Axiom booth could settle down to watch a short film about a lost, lone astronaut in space. You can watch the film on their website here. With mounting fear, calling out to Mission Control, struggling to grasp control of her situation, the astronaut represents a patient in the healthcare system. How much are Mission Control willing to spend on bringing her home? What decisions should they involve her in? What resources do they have to use? I thought this was a great idea - a way to refocus and explore a sensitive issue that involves many players.
Axiom also invite you to share your own story of triumphs or struggles in healthcare, which could be featured on their website.
This is Axiom. Life. Above all else.
Back when I was a researcher for BBC Learning, one of my tasks was to make a detailed report of the new Computing curriculum. Of course the problem was that there was no Computing curriculum! Plans were moving ahead to bin the outdated IT / ICT curriculum (anyone else remember anything from their IT lessons other than blinding tedium and clicking of MS Word? Indeed) but there was no official Computing curriculum. The way it looked was that in autumn 2012, schools were going to start rolling it out... and it was up to their staff to implement it. There were a lot of passionate advocates of teaching computing, coding, and real programming skills to young people though, so I found a lot of optimism out there and even felt envious of the lucky students approaching this new age of mad computing skillz. (Still, some opinionistas believe it's just a cynical push to drag down high wages rather than modernise education for the 21st century). The push goes on, and the tools just get better and better.
Take NOVA. A DIY Artificial Intelligence Robot. And I thought home CRISPR kits were a perfect example of hi-tech biohacked for the public. NOVA is being developed by Creoqode, who have also developed an open source game console for you to program games on. These things aren't just for kids, but they are cheap enough, accessible enough, and fun enough for kids to learn. And they're bringing retro-gaming into the modern technology, by putting its creation literally in your hands.
I like to imagine an unspecified time in an alternative reality future, calling out to my offspring down in the American-style capacious basement we inexplicably have (guess I'm living in America). I'll have bought him a few hijinks and gadgets off Kickstarter, let him order a few innocuously ingeniously designed electronic AI projects, as you do...
"What are you doing down there, little Johnny?"
"Oh nothing Mom..."
iHuman. What is it to be human? This disruptive research institute at the University of Sheffield takes on this question. I didn't see fully what they had on display, but their leaflets were interesting. Their website hosts an eclectic range of events from multiple research projects. In particular, they want the public to chime in with their experiences of living with learning disability under austerity cuts in today's society.
AugmentifyIt - As we swirled out with the dregs of the crowd on the final day, someone flagged us over. There was time for them to fire up two more sparks of inspiration.
AugmentifyIt presents Augmented Reality learning designed for young children from 3+, using cards you need to buy and a free app. The presenter showed us a quick glimpse; in a casual wave of her phone over a card, a miniature, beautiful spinning galaxy appeared in the unreality of Augmented Reality. I also remember researching this at the BBC back in 2012, but back then the examples I found consisted of brightly coloured blocky 3D structures floating in the air. But even Pokemon Go shows the technology has come on in leaps and bounds. No, I've not played Pokemon Go. I hear it's silly. And addictive.
Rehabilitation Gaming System create VR games to rehabilitate patients who have suffered brain damage. Their system is already used in hospitals daily by stroke patients.
Updates from the Human Brain Project - six ICT platforms including the Neurorobotics platform and Medical Informatics.
Stuck for a Christmas present? Micro Drones! We're all going to be under surveillance anyway, right?
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.
The sun cast across deep dark aquamarine sea. A clean Belgian owned boat of avidly active foreigners, so ready to dive, and sun browned Indonesian divemasters. I'm not sure of the best word to describe the crimson goldfish-like fish at Batu Bolong. Hordes? A flood? Drifting clouds? And at Manta Point, those straight-edge cut black wraiths passing suddenly below, huge and alien. I dive and we cover a coral garden with drifts of fish, projecting crags of rock and coral, thin garden eels poking up from the sand. Clouds of tiny transparent fish with electric blue hearts and heads. Orange black-tipped fish that hug close about a coral tower, flicking back inwards and outwards again like tongues of flame, fire disintegrated into separate components moving in sync. On the third dive, mostly flat fish, perfectly disguised till they rill themselves away. Fourth dive, early morning stroll in the coral garden. Little lionfish, their spines held stiffly away from their bodies like unforgiving demands of a Brazilian parade costume. A nudibranch, the nudibranch I once painted, like a stretchy-gum pull of black stripe white edge yellow edging blue. My favourite thing I saw, old friend. Big silent groupers and sweetlips further down. The sea and all its life. Ah, the second dive and the mantas, of course. They approach in gangs. THey are not as thin nor paper-like as they appear, when in person they are cuboid-rhombuses, big, white, sizeable. The fifth dive, a comical disaster. The current streams at times, ifting us up and outwards, horizontal. I was annoyed initially by the profferred hand, I am a stubborn person, I think I know how to swim in scuba. Now, linking arms become an urgent necessity. I wonder if someone is dynamite fishing nearby, these shockwaves that rush and stream us like lifted ribbons. The force plasters us against the wall and brings us into contact with anemones, which raise hand-stinging bumps on my hands. Like touching a jelly nettle. Sixth dive, a current sweeps us along a wall that rushes past, too fast to appreciate.
Now, brown water river banks of pandanus jungle. That cresting crocodile, and a hidden monkey. Orange tree-hobos await, somewhere. What do they see? What do they think?
Face like it is encased in a prehensile moon. Flat, with radar panel or satellite-dish likeness. Eyes small black round marbles. Rufous orange-red hair. My hair colour, when it is due for another dye.
Arms longer than legs. They shamble. Do they look like ET walking, or does ET look like a walking orangutan?
A smell rises off it, animal oil. They move by hand holds. No coiling, no jumping.
Nose and eyes concentrated together in the centre of the face. Bodies rotund, like a filled sack. Like a teardrop with comical limbs. But they can move fast when they need to. No lurch, no pounce. Just move with an unchanging motion of immense strength.
I dive at a shipwreck in Amed, shortly after dawn. Afterwards, stunned by the darkness and strangeness, I write this.
Lichen-encrusted, sprouting whorls of polyps and silicates. Pieces that have fallen into helpless decay. Velveteen fish with large unabashed eyes. Fins open and close in side-fan-flicks. The bumpheads are tooth-jutting, jaw-juttingly ugly, faces afixed in solemnical disgust. One huge one peels away from the flock to investigate us closer. Wringled green-grey dull skin. Moss-stained teeth. A jaw-wired-shut grimace.
A hawksbill turntle, beak downturned in an old man's disapproval. Eyes flick and twitch to take us in. Fins scoop with praciced motion through the water. Crazy-paving dark brown, cracked choc ice coating over yellowed white.
They wear scowls, these turtles. Everything underwater runs on slow motion. Flits of fish become miasma around the corals. Bluish water stains the ground brown and the corals yellowed. Its fins describe shapes. Nemo wrestles amongst the avid fingers of sea anemones.
Breathe, breathe. Hold breath frequently at different volumes. Long to exhaule. Ears that refuse to pop, an eye that keeps filling with salt water. So many tribes, all around, everywhere. I need to know their names. From above, snorkelling, they look mindless. When amongst them, they look like life. Like nature. Nature eerily close. This doesn't happen above the surface.
Drive in the darkness to the end of Amed, where a Balinese band play decent reggae covers. This is backpacker music and oddly hard to find in Bali. I eat a glass noodle salad, sip a cold beer, write this.
Happiness tonight is live reggae, a scratchy singer's voice, and warm night air. Myopic eyes, contact lens fogged, but so all is sensuality, all is warmth. Human connection and my own sense of mobility and independence to take me to those places of connection is a continuous ouroboros I treasure. Do I have the fire? What is the fire now?
The next day I snorkel through two bays in Amed. There is another shipwreck. Looking down, face plunged into the sea, I spy a thick and ugly face glowering below. I'm so surprised I yell into my mask. Thick-lipped and ugly, a huge black moray eel poking its head out. I turn, twist, peer through shoals of tiny flickering fish to see it again. It retreats slowly into the shipwreck. Cold and warm currents twine from underneath.
In the other bay, I swim out so far I can scarcely see the bottom. I like doing this, because I'm not a good swimmer, never have been, so it's a treat to feel myself float and pull through the water without fear of drowning. I like feeling like a speck floating upon deep water, looking at a seabed so far below that I can't see it. It's like floating above a mystery. I find a tiny sunken temple closer to the shore. It would be pleasant to come out here each day to pray.
Not quite a blog, but things that I have written.