The endless fascination of volcanoes

Volcanoes, volcanoes, volcanoes. You wait years for a good book or a film about volcanoes to come along and then they blow up all at once. In 2022, Sara Dosa’s incredible, unmissable – incroyable! incontournable! – documentary about the eccentric French filmmakers and volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, Fire of Love, was nominated for an Oscar. It should have won. Then, last year, volcanology’s own Brian Cox, Clive Oppenheimer – professor of volcanology at the University of Cambridge and Werner Herzog’s companion and guide in his documentary film about volcanoes, Into the Inferno (2016) – published Mountains of Fire: The Secret Lives of Volcanoes. Now erupting on to the scene

A surprising number of scientists believe in little green men

In 1928, a young physicist and engineer named Karl Jansky began working at Bell Telephone Laboratories, tasked with investigating any sources of static that could interfere with long-distance radio communication. Cobbling together a system of antennae on a merry-go-round, he successfully found that thunderstorms were annoying in just this way. But there was a small bit of noise left over, and he kept scanning the sky to locate the culprit. To his surprise, he eventually found it was coming from Sagittarius in the centre of the Milky Way. He christened it ‘star-noise’. We now know that he had correctly identified the emanations from a supermassive black hole; and, quite by

Why won’t Chris Packham have a real debate on climate?

On Sunday, the BBC did something unusual. It invited Luke Johnson, a climate contrarian, to join a panel with Laura Kuenssberg to discuss net zero. As followers of this debate will know, the BBC’s editorial policy unit issued guidance to staff in 2018 saying: ‘As climate change is accepted as happening, you do not need a “denier” to balance the debate.’ Although it did allow for exceptions to this rule: ‘There are occasions where contrarians and sceptics should be included within climate change and sustainability debates.’ Presumably this was one such occasion. I can’t help thinking Packham’s ‘devastating put-down’ would have been more effective if it had been true The

What we owe to the self-taught genius Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon were both taxonomists, born in the same year (1707), but apart from that they had little in common and never met. Buffon was French, Linnaeus Swedish. Buffon was suave, elegant, tall and handsome (Voltaire said he had ‘the body of an athlete and the soul of a sage’), whereas Linnaeus was a bumptious little man (under 5ft), who was widely regarded as uncouth. Buffon’s funeral was attended by 20,000 mourners but Linnaeus died almost forgotten, after suffering from a brain disease for 15 years. Yet the Linnaean system of taxonomy has survived much better than Buffon’s, which was hardly a system at

Are we finally beginning to understand gravity?

The question of why things fall has puzzled our species since we crawled out from the darkness of our primitive ignorance. Aristotle was the first to offer a serious theory. He proposed that each of the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) had a natural place to which it innately wanted to return. Fire and air rise because their place is in the heavens, whereas earth and water return to the Earth. Aristotelian philosophy had such a profound impact on human thought that this view prevailed for nearly 2,000 years. Only with the Renaissance and the ideas of Kepler and Galileo was it finally challenged; and only by standing on

I’ve found the cure for climate anxiety

A new documentary, Climate: The Movie, by the maverick filmmaker Martin Durkin, is becoming a phenomenon, though it’s received almost no publicity in the mainstream media. It rejects the idea that we’re in the midst of a ‘climate emergency’, so that’s hardly surprising. But it has already racked up millions of views online and been translated into ten languages. I watched it on YouTube on Monday and can confirm it’s a dazzlingly entertaining film that distils the case against climate alarmism into a succinct 80 minutes. One of the reasons it’s so hard to challenge the narrative about climate change is because it supposedly reflects the ‘settled’ scientific consensus. We’re

Dinosaurs, dogma and the Victorian mind

In March 1860, shortly after The Origin of Species was published, Charles Darwin wrote to Leonard Horner thanking him for some surprising information. ‘How curious about the Bible!’ he exclaimed. Horner had taken aim at the marginal notes that were printed in the standard (and ubiquitous) Authorised, or King James, Version. These began with the date of creation, 4004 BC, as calculated by Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th century. Darwin was astonished. ‘I had fancied that the date was somehow in the Bible,’ he wrote. The disturbing ‘monsters’ dug from the cliffs of Lyme Regis did not sit well with the literal reading of Genesis The fact that Darwin,

Life is a far richer, more complicated affair than we imagined

In 1982, the philosopher Karl Popper suggested that ‘science may be described as the art of systematic simplification’. In this mind-stretching book, Philip Ball seems to wish to prove Popper’s statement both wrong and correct. On the one hand, Ball is a clarifier supreme. It is hard to imagine a more concise, coherent, if also challenging, single volume written on the discoveries made in the life sciences over the past 70 years. The author is a former editor of Nature and has been privy to the flow of cutting-edge results coming from the world’s leading research programmes over the past decades. How Life Works has a sense of up-to-the-minute authority.

Now imagine a white hole – a black hole’s time-reversed twin…

There are many ways to measure the course of human history and each will give an insight into one or more of the various qualities that have made us the most successful great ape. Every major advance, whether in war or art or literature, requires imagination, that most amazing of human capacities, and the ability to ask ‘What if?’ – to take the world from a different perspective. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of science. While there is an inherent provincialism in revolutions in art and literature, progress in science is universal, and moves, like Dante’s Hell, in concentric circles of ever deeper understanding. It is

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight

Caspar Henderson writes beguiling books about the natural world, full of eyecatching detail and plangent commentary. His Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st-century Bestiary came out in 2012. A Book of Noises is a worthy companion – a pursuit of auditory wonders, a paean to the act of listening and a salute to silence. Item: the music of the spheres. (The planets’ orbits, proving unideal and elliptical, suggested to the musically minded astronomer Johannes Kepler an appropriately sad, minor-keyed leitmotif for the Earth, where, he felt, misery and famine held sway’.) Item: the world’s loudest sound. (The asteroid Chicxulub that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago; also an

Why driving above the speed limit is a mug’s game 

Imagine you are choosing between two proposed road-improvement plans, but have the budget for only one. Both of the roads mooted for improvement are 20 miles long, and your sole aim is to reduce average journey time by as much as possible. Which would you choose? Someone travelling slowly to begin with has more time on the road to profit from any gain in speed 1) Improving Road A, which increases the average speed from 20 to 25mph (i.e. 25 per cent faster). or 2) Improving Road B, which increases the average speed from 40 to 65mph (62.5 per cent faster). The majority of people, including many experts, instinctively plump

Science fiction: the crisis in research

The president of Stanford University, the neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, has announced his resignation following an investigation into allegations of fraud and fabrication in three of his lab’s scientific papers, including one cited as the most important result on Alzheimer’s disease in 20 years. The report exonerated him of committing the fraud but found he had failed to correct the errors once they were brought to his attention.  The pandemic provided a glimpse of how far scientists will go to bend conclusions to a preferred narrative The vast majority of scientists are honest, but recent years have seen many cases of scientific misconduct come to the surface, implying there is a

Deus ex machina: the dangers of AI godbots

Something weird is happening in the world of AI. On, you can pose questions to an artificially intelligent Jesus: ‘Ask Jesus AI about any verses in the Bible, law, love, life, truth!’ The app Delphi, named after the Greek oracle, claims to solve your ethical dilemmas. Several bots take on the identity of Krishna to answer your questions about what a good Hindu should do. Meanwhile, a church in Nuremberg recently used ChatGPT in its liturgy – the bot, represented by the avatar of a bearded man, preached that worshippers should not fear death.  Elon Musk put his finger on it: AI is starting to look ‘godlike’. The historian

Who laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round?

In 2020, an American pilot and daredevil named ‘Mad Mike’ Hughes launched himself in a homemade steam-powered rocket, hoping to achieve enough altitude to prove to himself that the Earth was flat. Unfortunately, the rocket crashed and Mad Mike was no more. ‘I’m not going to take anyone else’s word for it, or Nasa, or especially Elon Musk with SpaceX,’ he had once explained in an interview. ‘I’m going to build my own rocket right here and I’m going to see it with my own eyes what shape this world we live on is.’ In this way he became a martyr to the modern conspiracy theorist’s mantra: ‘Do your own

Andrew Pontzen: The Universe In A Box

53 min listen

My guest in this week’s Book Club podcast is the cosmologist Andrew Pontzen. His The Universe In A Box: A New Cosmic History describes how we have learned to simulate first the weather, and then the universe itself – and how we discovered that those simulations don’t just mimic reality but allow us to learn new things about it. Dark matter, the Big Bang and the scientific importance of suboptimal pizza: it’s all here.

The science of horse racing

Everybody in racing is looking for an edge. With 7-4 the field, the punter is looking for a 2-1. The racecourse executive wonders which pop group will add 4,000 to the gate if booked for after-racing entertainment. The jockey on a confirmed front runner plans to slip the field out of the stalls. Trainers all seek an extra ingredient to help win them races consistently. At Sarsen Farm, a state-of-the-art new yard in Upper Lambourn built on the site of what was once a decrepit farmhouse then a Jockey Club tractor depot, Daniel and Claire Kubler are hoping that what a famous if ungrammatical advertisement for white goods used to

How science became politicised

Here’s a paradox. Over the past two-and-a-half years, a cadre of senior politicians and their ‘expert’ advisers across the world have successfully promoted a series of controversial public policies by claiming they’re based on ‘the science’ rather than a particular moral or ideological vision. I’m thinking of lockdowns and net zero in particular. Yet at the same time, this group has engaged in behaviour that has undermined public confidence in science. Why appeal to the authority of science to win support for a series of politically contentious policies – and then diminish its authority? Take Anthony Fauci, for instance, who recently announced he’s stepping down as chief medical adviser to

In search of the peripatetic philosopher Theophrastus

Publishers lately seem to have got the idea that otherwise uncommercial subjects might be rendered sexy if presented with a personal, often confessional, counterpoint. The ostensible subject of Laura Beatty’s book is the pioneering Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus. He was a friend of Aristotle’s, and was once thought his intellectual equal, but is now little known except to a few classicists and historians of science. But since no one wants to publish a straight book on Theophrastus, we get instead a book that is at least as much about Laura Beatty, her library researches, her travels in Greece and her kitchen garden. Her publishers describe the book as ‘genre-defying’.

A tribute to my friend James Lovelock

The scientist James Lovelock died this week at the age of 103. He was best known for his Gaia theory, which found that Earth is a self-regulating system formed by the interaction between living organisms and their surroundings. Here, Bryan Appleyard, who co-wrote ‘Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence’ with Lovelock, pays tribute to his friend: James Lovelock died this Tuesday on his 103rd birthday. I had known him since 1988 when I met him at his then home in Devon. He later moved to Dorset where he lived with his wife, Sandy, in a coastguard’s cottage overlooking Chesil Beach. He loved the landscapes of the west of England. In

The musical note that can trigger cold sweats and sightings of the dead

Imagine that all the frequencies nature affords were laid out on an extended piano keyboard. Never mind that some waves are mechanical, propagated through air or some other fluid, and other waves are electro-magnetic and can pass through a vacuum. Lay them down together, and what do you get? The startling answer is a surprisingly narrow piano. To play X-rays (whose waves cycle up to 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 times per second), our pianist would have to travel a mere nine metres to the right of middle C. Wandering nine and a half metres in the other direction, our pianist would then be able to sound the super-bass note generated by shockwaves rippling