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Archive by tag: PD SmithReturn
May 03, 2022

How the quest for a deeper understanding of particle physics has transformed the way we live

In 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen noticed that a phosphor-coated screen gave off a green light when exposed to a cathode ray tube. He quickly realised that he’d found a new invisible ray. Asked what he thought when he saw this green light, he replied: “I didn’t think. I investigated.” In fact he spent seven weeks investigating, locked away in his laboratory and only coming out when his wife, Anna, insisted he eat something. He rewarded her concern for his wellbeing by using the unknown rays to make an image of her hand on a photographic plate. It proved that they could travel through skin and flesh: the plate revealed her bones and wedding ring. When she saw the image, she was appalled, saying: “I have seen my death!”

In his notebook, Röntgen used a letter to denote the unknown rays: “X-rays”. As Sheehy says, this is “possibly the best unintentional branding in the history of physics”. Within a year of his discovery, X-rays were being used to find shrapnel in soldiers’ bodies on the battlefield.

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Apr 08, 2022

From the Lake District to Kent – the history of four women and the landscapes they rescued

In 1951, it emerged that the BBC planned to erect a 229-metre television transmitter at North Hessary Tor on Dartmoor. Lady Sylvia Sayer, chair of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, was incensed. It would, she wrote, be “landscape-slaughter on a more than usually impressive scale”. The “alien” presence would be “a perpetual reminder of that modern ‘civilisation’ which most people come to a national park to forget”.

Despite Sayer’s forceful rhetoric, her campaign against the mast – her “first major foray into activist politics” – failed. But although she had lost one battle, the war to preserve the landscape of Dartmoor continued: “From her stone cottage in a tiny Dartmoor hamlet, she orchestrated frequent campaigns that combined her verbal eloquence, combativeness and grasp of legal statute and planning processes, placing her among the most effective post-war environmental campaigners and lobbyists.” Branded a “militant conservationist” by the press,Sayer fought on valiantly until her death in 2000. And yet today she is a little-known figure. Matthew Kelly’s book attempts to give her the recognition she deserves, along with three other women who campaigned to save the English countryside: Octavia Hill, Beatrix Potter and Pauline Dower. Their activism has helped shape the modern environmental consciousness, as well as preserving landscapes and access rights across the country.

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Mar 24, 2022

Sunken off Suffolk, buried on the Welsh borders, uncovered in an Orcadian sandstorm … an eloquent tour of lost communities

Matthew Green first heard about Dunwich, the drowned medieval city off the Suffolk coast, in 2016 during a period of instability and “emotional turmoil” in his life, when his father died and his wife left him. “I was determined to discover how our country has come to be shaped by absences,” writes Green, “just as my life had come to be defined by what was no longer there.”

Dunwich, once a major port of 5,000 people and the capital city of Saxon East Anglia, fell victim to coastal erosion. Of its seven parish churches, All Saints was the last to succumb. Its tower collapsed into the sea, together with the cliff on which it was built, in 1922, “amid a waterfall of dead men’s bones on to the beach below”.

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Jan 18, 2022

A mind-bending philosophical investigation that argues virtual worlds are just as real as anything else we experience

In the Wachowskis’ 1999 film The Matrix, the humdrum life of the central character Neo is revealed to be an illusion. His green-tinted reality is actually a digital simulation created by connecting human brains to a computer. When Neo swallows the red pill offered to him by Morpheus, his body is disconnected from the computer system and he is plunged into a new and frightening reality: for the first time he experiences the physical world.

But as philosopher David Chalmers points out, how does Neo know that this new reality is not just another convincing simulation? Or, as the Professor Cornel West (who played Councillor West of Zion in The Matrix Reloaded) puts it: “It’s illusions all the way down.” This is the mind-boggling philosophical rabbit hole into which Chalmers invites his reader to dive headlong: is this – to paraphrase Bohemian Rhapsody – the real world, or is it just fantasy?

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Jan 06, 2022

An intimate account of 10 years spent learning to climb celebrates the “electrifying charge” of risk

Climbing, says Anna Fleming, is “a form of dance”, an intensely physical ballet between self and rock. This book charts her stony path to mastering the craft of traditional climbing, from being a “terrified novice” to a “competent leader”. Unlike sport climbing, where bolts are left in the rock for others to use, traditional climbing involves a lead climber who inserts metalware into cracks in the rock, to which safety ropes are attached. These are then collected by the climber’s partner.

Leading, Fleming admits, used to terrify her. But what she describes as the “electrifying charge” of risk is an essential part of learning to climb. Falling and being caught by the rope is a necessary experience. Climbing the Cuillin on Skye in her early 20s, she was saved by her rope from “the brink of a mortal abyss” when a large block she caught hold of came loose. “I walked away feeling deeply humbled, carrying an enhanced respect for the gravity of these heightened places,” she writes. Only when she returned four years later to complete the route did she feel that her “mountain apprenticeship” had been truly served.

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Dec 29, 2021

The fascinating story of a unique landscape surveys the climatic changes that made this desert dry – and explains why it will one day be green again

For Paul Bowles, the Sahara was “one of the last great terrae incognitae left on this shrinking planet”. His 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky was inspired by the desert’s “intensely poetic” dunes and in a later essay he described its impact on him: “In this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating … For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came.”

The Sahara is vast, covering about a third of the continent of Africa. From the Atlantic to the Red Sea it sprawls across 4,800km, and from its southern to its northern limit is a distance of some 1,800km . It is, said Bowles, “a continent within a continent”, with its own mountain ranges, plains, dunes, valleys and volcanic craters. And yet its lakes are made of salt and its forests are no longer alive but petrified fossils. For most of this lunar landscape is without vegetation or even soil. He found the experience like travelling to another planet: “Not a blade of grass for hundreds of miles. Stark black hills rising from endless plains with a thin surface layer of fine gravel. Great humpbacked sand dunes aligned in seemingly endless rows parallel to the wind. Sand, dust, and wind; wind, dust, and sand.”

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Jun 25, 2021

A brilliant scientific storyteller reads stone, pottery and bones to bring us the latest moving updates about our prehistoric ancestors

In 2002, not far from Amesbury in southern Wiltshire and a mile or so from Stonehenge, archaeologists were investigating the site of a new school when they discovered something remarkable. It was the grave of a man, aged between 35 and 45, who died more than 4,000 years ago. Wessex Archaeology conducted the excavation and they labelled his remains as “skeleton 1291”. But to the public he soon became known as the Amesbury Archer.

Among his bones were no fewer than 18 beautifully crafted flint arrowheads. The shafts had long since rotted away, along with the bow. But their positioning suggested they had been cast into the grave after the body had been laid in the wood-lined chamber. Together with two stone wrist guards, or bracers, they formed the largest collection of bronze age archery equipment ever found.

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Jun 02, 2021

A fascinating exploration of the line between science and pseudoscience takes in anti-vaxxers, ufology and spoon-bending physicists at the CIA

During the Covid-19 pandemic we have watched science evolve almost daily with each headline and news report. We have listened to explanations of competing ideas about how the virus emerged, how it spreads, whether it can be caught from mail, whether face masks work, the efficacy of new treatments and the risks of new vaccines. As scientists debated, gaps in knowledge were revealed and theories contested. There were even allegations of pseudoscience. But according to Michael Gordin, this is how science works.

The label of pseudoscience has been applied to everything from ufology and eugenics to the pursuit of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster (or cryptozoology, to use its scientific name). What do we mean by pseudoscience and why in our techno-scientific age are such fringe ideas still so prevalent? These are the questions Gordin seeks to answer in this brief (some 128 pages) yet fascinating book.

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Apr 30, 2021

Turning vegan ... a series of investigations, presented with humour and humility, into our contradictory relationships with pets, livestock and wildlife

While researching this book, Henry Mance worked briefly in an abattoir, or “a disassembly line”, as he aptly terms it. As he watched sheep being stunned, their throats slit and then hung up, still twitching, from metal hooks on a motorised track, Mance asked himself: “How did humans come to this?”

His book is an attempt to answer that question, as well as an exploration of how our attitudes to pets, livestock and wild animals have changed through history: “I wanted to know whether my love for animals was reflected in how I behaved, or whether – like my love for arthouse films – it was mainly theoretical.”

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Mar 05, 2021

An illustrated record begun in the ‘strangest spring’ of 2020 celebrates the enduring beauty and culture of birdlife

In spring 2020, as Covid-19 spread fear and infection around the globe, seismologists were able to track “a wave of silence passing over the earth, its course exactly following that of the virus”. According to Steven Lovatt, silence descended on Britain, perhaps for the first time since the Industrial Revolution: “Finally, the earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was song.”

The pandemic struck in the northern hemisphere just at the moment when birdsong was resuming after the bleak winter months. That “strangest spring” will be remembered not just for the new virus, but as the time when the nation became aware of birdsong. Silent streets and gardens were filled with “a rising choir of chirps, trills and warbles”. People shared recordings made on their phones of “the woozy fluting of blackbirds” and “the deep purring of wood pigeons”.

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Feb 12, 2021

From Nanjing roast duck to ‘barbarian pepper’ and dim sum ... a splendid introduction to the complex history of China, via cooking

Jonathan Clements grew up in Southend-on-Sea. In the 1970s, his father played drums in a local Chinese restaurant, the Garden of China, “an odd mixture of industrial chic and orientalist kitsch”. As children they ate there regularly (“my brother cut his teeth gnawing spare ribs”) and Chinese food has been “a constant pleasure and addiction” for Clements ever since, propelling him into a career studying east Asian history and culture.

The Emperor’s Feast tells the story of Chinese food, starting 3,000 years ago with the Book of Rites (Liji), attributed to Confucius, which described meals as the thing that “separated savagery from civilisation – the raw from the cooked”. But Clements also cleverly uses food – the part of Chinese culture with which many western people are most familiar – as a way of charting the complex history of China, a vast country made up of many peoples, cultures and cuisines.

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Dec 18, 2020

An evocative and uplifting study of cemeteries, where every headstone has a story to tell

On 20 March 2014, two women were walking through Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin after visiting the grave of a family friend when they found the body of Shane MacThomáis, who had written books about the city and its cemetery. He was 46 and had been struggling with depression for some time. He was also, as Peter Ross says, “the best-known guide at the most-famous cemetery in Ireland”, visited by 200,000 people a year.

MacThomáis once said of Glasnevin: “The place is so vast you could tell the whole history of Ireland ten times over.” It is a city within a city; its 124 acres hold 1.5m graves, more than Dublin’s current population. “I don’t think he saw it as a place where dead people were laid to rest,” said his daughter. “I think he saw it as so much information stored around him. It was like a library.” MacThomáis’s knowledge of Irish history was so vast, Ross writes, “that his suicide was likened to a library burning down”. He was buried alongside his father in the cemetery that had meant so much to him.

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Dec 05, 2020

The round-the-world cycle ride that turned into an internet sensation – with the help of a feline companion

When Dean Nicholson left his hometown of Dunbar on the eastern coast of Scotland in September 2018, he had just turned 30 and was planning to cycle around the world. This wasn’t only a test of physical endurance, it was also an attempt to escape the daily routine and to find fresh purpose in his life: “I hit the road to find a road.” What he didn’t expect, however, was that “a scrawny, grey-and-white kitten” would show him the way.

At the beginning of December he was in the mountains of southern Bosnia, making for the border with Montenegro, when he heard a meowing behind the bike. Scampering along the road was “a scrappy wee thing” that fitted into the palm of his hand, with “sharply pointing ears, spindly legs and a thick tail”. She also had beautiful big green eyes.

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Oct 10, 2020

The compelling story of tracking down the secrets of a ‘desk murderer’ and confronting his family with his crimes

In 2011, having just completed research on the experiences of Jews in Vichy France, Daniel Lee met a Dutch student who told him a remarkable story. Her mother had taken a chair to be reupholstered in Amsterdam. When she returned to collect it, the man angrily told her that he did not work for Nazis or their families. He then presented her with a bundle of old documents covered in swastikas that he had found sewn into the chair’s cushion. She was astonished and had no idea how the documents came to be there. Born in Czechoslovakia, she had bought the chair while studying in Prague in 1968.

Both the mother and the daughter were keen to know more about the mysterious man whose documents were hidden inside their chair and Lee agreed to take a look. They turned out to belong to Robert Griesinger, a German lawyer who was sent to Nazi-occupied Prague in 1943 as a senior civil servant. His passport photo showed a handsome man “with slicked-back hair and a strong, distinctive face”. He had a scar on his left cheek which, as Lee later discovered, dated from his time in a rightwing student duelling fraternity in Tübingen. Ranging from 1933 to 1945, the documents included his proof of identity and profession. But why had he hidden them in the chair?

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Jul 25, 2020

The plight of a much maligned predator is investigated in this plea to respect the life in our oceans

America’s fear of sharks began in the summer of 1916. During a 10-day period four people were killed in the sea off New Jersey and one seriously injured. According to the conservationist and film-maker William McKeever, “the events triggered mass hysteria and the first extensive shark hunt in history”. The idea of a “deranged, man-eating great white on the loose” had been planted in the American psyche and it would eventually inspire Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws – which has sold 20m copies – and Steven Spielberg’s famous film.

The fallacy that “sharks as a species are nothing more than bloodthirsty man-eaters, apex predators with no other purpose than to kill” is widely believed. The reality is different. In 2018, there were four deaths attributed to a shark attack. The US, which is the country with the most attacks, had one that year. Ants kill 30 people a year there, and bees 478.

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Jul 10, 2020

What should happen during the summer holidays? Evocative memories of roaming out of parental reach

In 1966, John Mullan begged his parents for a foreign holiday after a school friend went, with his family, to Majorca for the summer: “My mother shook her head and said: ‘Darling, going abroad is vulgar.’” Instead, they went to shingly Suffolk. Three years later, Harry Ritchie from Kirkcaldy travelled to Majorca on his first foreign holiday. It was a revelation: “Being able to take clothes off for a holiday, rather than having to put more on: that was wonderful in itself.”

While researching her delightful oral history of school summer holidays, Ysenda Maxtone Graham found that many people didn’t go abroad until they were adults. Indeed, “going-away type holidays” to faraway places are only a part of the story Maxtone Graham tells. Summers were, she finds, “more a matter of stasis than travel”.

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Jul 09, 2020

Listen to the dawn chorus, find a giant moth ... suggestions to enrich your life

In CS Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy reads out a spell for revealing hidden things. Inspired by this idea, nature writer Simon Barnes offers 23 “spells” for making nature visible, from “Magic Trousers” (waterproofs) and “the Snake-Charming Spell” to “How to turn into a swan” (by canoeing). Each chapter sets out new techniques and equipment to open our eyes to the mammals, birds, butterflies and reptiles living largely unnoticed all around us. These spells also reawaken primeval parts of our consciousness, long dormant in our urban lives: “We are hunter-gatherers in suits and dresses and jeans and T-shirts.”

With practical tips on how to identify animal traces such as otter slides and badgers’ snuffle-pits, and how to find an elephant hawk moth the size of your palm, Barnes describes the wonders of nature with an infectious enthusiasm. How many people get up to hear the dawn chorus? It is “the single biggest wildlife miracle that we have in Britain”. Puffins, eagles, dolphins – Barnes has suggestions for finding all these “magical beasts”. By making space in our lives for nature, “you do something to your brain”. And according to Barnes, “the wilder you are, the more amazing life is”.

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Jun 13, 2020

This regal butterfly has a short lifespan but is ‘a mighty metaphor for our relationship with beauty, and with nature’

It all begins with an egg half the size of a pinhead. After it hatches, the caterpillar spends 10 months on a willow, followed by three weeks pupating upside down. Out of this emerges a giant butterfly like no other in the UK.

The female purple emperor (Apatura iris) is “bold, brown and brazen”, while the male is “stunningly beautiful, with shimmering wings of iridescent blues, purples and violets”. With a wing span of about 8cm, the males are immensely powerful and will defend their treetop territories against all comers, including birds and even drones. Mysterious, elusive and enthralling, the beauty of this tropical looking butterfly is fleeting; it lives a mere 10 days. But in this time “it transports us into a world that is very different from the one we know”.

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May 06, 2020

A life-affirming study of the pleasures of tending a plot or garden, and soothing your mind

Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, has a unique view of gardening: “I have come to understand that deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden.” For her, a garden – such as her own at Serge Hill, Hertfordshire – is far more than just a much loved physical space. It is also a mental space, one that “gives you quiet, so you can hear your thoughts”. When you work with your hands in the garden, weeding or clipping, you free your mind to work through feelings and problems.. By tending your plants, you are also gardening your inner space and, over time, a garden is woven into your sense of identity, becoming a place to “buffer us when the going gets tough”.

It was Wordsworth who said that to walk through a garden is to be “in the midst of the realities of things”, to be immersed in the primal awareness not just of nature’s beauty, but the eternal cycle of the seasons, of life, death and rebirth. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed modern technological life had alienated us from the “dark maternal, earthy ground of our being”. He grew his own vegetables and argued that “every human should have a plot of land so that their instincts can come to life again”.

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Apr 29, 2020

From baobabs to London planes, the unique characteristics of the Earth’s trees and their role in human lives

There’s a whole world in every tree, says Jonathan Drori. Travelling eastwards from his London home, he chooses 80 trees from the 60,000 or so species on the planet. He starts with the London Plane, “a tree of pomp and circumstance”, first planted in Berkeley Square, Mayfair, in 1789. A hybrid of the American sycamore and the Oriental plane, they have set an example to urban planners around the world.

The smooth bark of the beech has long been associated with writing: beech boards once enclosed vellum books and in many languages the words for this tree and for the written word are similar.

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Apr 24, 2020

Some households don’t have one, many don’t want one … a fascinating insight into how addresses affect ordinary people around the world

According to Deirdre Mask, “most households in the world don’t have street addresses”. That includes many parts of rural America. When Mask took a trip to West Virginia to find an acquaintance who doesn’t have an address, she got lost: “For generations, people had navigated West Virginia in creative ways. Directions are delivered in paragraphs.” The lack of an address can be a matter of life and death if you need an ambulance. Some drivers have resorted to asking people to listen out for the siren and to guide them by phone: “Getting hotter? Getting closer?”

But giving people a street address is not simple. For a start, many don’t want one. One farmer was outraged that his street was to be named after the banker who refused his grandfather a loan during the Great Depression. Workers setting up signs have been greeted by men with shotguns.

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Mar 27, 2020

From a tent in a field to Winston Churchill’s Chartwell, a rich and eclectic collection of essays, edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee

In the 1980s, my father wrote a guide, Writers in Sussex, for which I took the photographs. During our research we visited the former homes of 40 or so writers. They included William Blake’s flint cottage in Felpham (“the sweetest spot on earth”, according to Blake); Rudyard Kipling’s imposing stone manor house, Bateman’s, at Burwash; Hilaire Belloc’s home, King’s Land, at Shipley, which was originally a tithe barn built by monks; and the cottage Mervyn Peake lived in while writing Titus Groan, within sight of the massive grey walls of Arundel Castle – an inspiration, perhaps, for Gormenghast. Peake is buried nearby, his gravestone inscribed with a moving line from one of his poems: “To live at all is miracle enough.”

Sadly some of the houses have now gone. One of those is Asheham House, near Beddingham, which Virginia and Leonard Woolf rented in 1912, before they bought Monk’s House, in nearby Rodmell, in 1919. Leonard aptly described it as “romantic, gentle, melancholy, lovely”. When we visited in the autumn, the trees around this remote and austerely beautiful house, with its elegant Gothic windows, were bare and echoing with the raucous calls of rooks. Locals had told Virginia that Asheham was haunted and it became the subject of her story “The Haunted House”.

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