Art and nature

Making Nature is a special exhibition at the Wellcome Collection until May 2017. Subtitled “How we see animals”, it looks at how our perceptions of animals have been shaped by they way they have appealed to us as objects of curiosity, utility or entertainment. While the first room is perhaps a bit uninspiring – animal classification systems and their controversies – don’t let that put you off, because this exhibition has some real gems – like the African clawed frogs used for 30 years as living pregnancy testing kits in the US.

Wellcome are big on trying to bring science and art together, but they do try to keep the science solid and resist the wishy-washy metaphorical interpretations loved by some galleries who don’t understand the science but think it sounds cool. Wellcome’s approach is to bring artistry into the presentation of the science – well-mounted, carefully-lit displays with audio stories told through personal earpieces, subtly making you interact with the objects without realising it.

There are also some occasional pieces of random themed artwork thrown in, including some artist videos which failed to engage me. They just felt out of place – the actual science and history presented here is so fascinating that it doesn’t need any artificial additions. However, one artwork did stand out – a video installation of a Ted Chiang short story, The Great Silence. I thought this was very well judged – it let the words of the story take centre stage, while providing a subtlety immersive atmosphere. Try to see it from beginning to end, rather than starting half way through.

Other highlights include an early 20th century taxidermy diorama of squirrels playing cards – a reminder that any presentation of nature is biased by the presenter. As the exhibition tells us, even nature documentaries tell a human story, because they are edited to show what appeals to the viewer. And this indeed is an in-joke, because the curators have done the same thing in creating this exhibition. But that’s fine with me. Just as zoos, built originally to entertain, can also seek to educate, so too should educational exhibitions seek to entertain. And nature is perhaps the best intersection of education and entertainment, and of science and art.

A leap in the dark

2016 will be one second longer. A leap second will be added at the end of the year at midnight UK time, to realign our clocks with the rotation of the earth. Normally, such a momentous event is heralded by an extra pip in the BBC Radio time signal; but at new year the pips are not heard on domestic radio as they replaced by the sound of Big Ben.

2016 was also a leap year, but leap years and leap seconds are quite different things. Leap years come about because we use different yardsticks to measure time. You can’t fit exactly 365 days in a year the same way you can’t fit exactly 30 centimetres in a foot, so you need to make a few corrections here and there. If we didn’t force a year to begin at midnight, we wouldn’t actually need leap years at all, but then we’d probably argue about how to define the first of January when the year begins, say, in the late afternoon.

By contrast, a leap second arises because the earth’s rotational speed isn’t an entirely accurate measure of time, as it is affected by geological and tidal processes. Today’s timekeepers – ticking by atomic processes and synchronised by distant quasars – are more accurate than the earth. In the past, our clocks were poor and we continually corrected them against the sun and earth. Now they are too accurate, and so we fiddle our standard of civil time (Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC) to cater for the unpredictabilities of our planet.

Turning time is not without consequence. Communications, navigation, scientific experiments, high frequency trading – these can rely on very accurate time measurements. Fortunately, UTC is not the only time standard; others such as UT1 can be adopted for different applications. In fact, the idea of a universal time standard is fairly new. Before the necessities of coordinated railway time tabling, towns would each have their own time zones, according to the sun’s path overhead. Going back further, the hour was once defined as the separation of daylight into twelve parts – so that the length of an hour changed throughout the year.

As our needs change, so too will our preferred time frames. As our lives become more global, coordinated by computers using global clocks, future generations may abandon local time and adopt a universal time worldwide. But will they abandon the leap second? That would require a whole new time standard, or breaking the traditional link between our measurement of time and that of the earth – no longer a leap in the dark, but perhaps a leap of faith.

Inner secrets of the lung

This incredible 19th century lung cast was one of the medical curiosities on display in a 2014 Harvard Museums exhibition. It shows how finely detailed models of inner lung structures were made by filling the airways with a hardening substance and dissolving the outer tissues. While this technique loses features such as muscles and blood vessels, it nevertheless gives some sense of the complexity of the airway tree.

Even this amazing detail doesn’t come close to capturing the full lung structure. In reality the airway tree branches more than 18 times, each branch becoming finer until they are too small for the casting process to work, and finally reaching hundreds of millions of tiny alveoli, the air sacks which fill the lung and enable your body to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. And there’s much more to the lung than airways – whole other trees of arteries and veins which can be separately cast in similar ways.

This technique dates from at least the 17th century. What may surprise you is that, despite the incredible developments in imaging technology over the last 50 years, our best computer simulations of the lung still use measurements made in the 1960s, based on casts similar to this one, with length, radius and angles measured painstakingly by hand using precise instruments. The casting process helps preserve the shape of the lung, which would otherwise collapse without the normal pressure from the air and blood flow and the tension-reducing surfactant in the living lung. Nowadays we can see inside the body using imaging techniques like CT, but their resolution is still nowhere near fine enough to see the intimate inner structures of the lung. These casts remind us that in science, even antiquated methods may yield knowledge that serves us for decades to come.

Setting the standard

We rely on common standards every day, whether in time, currency, postcodes or browsing the internet. But standards don’t just appear. Measurement systems tend to evolve organically according to local needs, and standardisation is the difficult task of bringing them all together.

Historically, standardisation has been driven by economic or political necessity. Silver “sterling” pennies were used throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms long before King Athelstan standardised the currency to help fund the Danegeld (the massive protection money paid to the Vikings). The pound was originally a weight of silver but evolved into national currency standards (the pound Scots was dropped with the Act of Union). The gold standard – linking currency directly to gold quantity – was adopted by many countries in the 19th century to head off an inflationary crisis. This led to the creation of international exchange rates, a system that has outlasted the gold standard itself. Despite its eventual scrapping, we still use the term gold standard to describe a process which is the best available, particularly in medicine.

Like the pound sterling, the Stirling pint is a regional measurement turned national and was roughly 3.5 imperial pints. This should remind us that weights and measures are historic in name only; “pounds”, “pints” and so on have meant different things in different places over time, and standardisation is an ongoing process. National standards were often driven by the practicalities of goods taxation and international trade. The imperial measurement system was spread across the world by the British empire – and rapidly dropped by many of the countries as they gained independence. Britain still retains a few imperial measures in official use, such as pints of beer, but most peculiarly is the mixing of metric and imperial for official distance measurements: miles for long distances but metres for short distances. But mixing units can be disastrous; Nasa’s Mars Climate Orbiter was destroyed due to an imperial/metric mixup by one of its contractors. And Christopher Columbus messed up his circumnavigation calculations by confusing Roman and Arabic miles. But changing a standard can be notoriously difficult – banks can spend billions of pounds merging incompatible IT systems. And changing standards can be unpopular (even if ultimately beneficial), such as Sweden’s “H-day” in 1967, where the entire country switched to drive on the right in line with the rest of continental Europe.

Nowadays standardisation is increasingly important in technology and communications, and this is even recognised by a World Standards Day. It might seem a miracle that the internet crosses national boundaries, and your phone and electronic devices work in different countries, but this is actually due to decades of hard work. Technologies come and go, and there are the regular battles between the likes of VHS and Betamax, but eventually (and with appropriate nudging by governments and international standards agencies), sanity often wins out and standards emerge.

World Standards Day is celebrated on 14 October – except in the US, where this year it is celebrated on 27 October, and Canada where it was celebrated on 5 October. Well, not everything can be standardised.

Lost kingdoms

An odd thing about visiting southwest Britain is that you can buy a “Wessex” train pass. That may not sound odd, until you realise that Wessex ceased to exist a thousand years ago. If you’re used to the oddities of the British railway system, you might not be so surprised that you can buy a ticket to a place that doesn’t exist. The nostalgia of Wessex has always lived on in the novels of Thomas Hardy. The Wessex Regionalist Party may want something more, but without much success; at the last election, their (only) candidate stood against the then prime minister and lost by 33,911 votes.

Wessex was one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, and while the kingdom disappeared with the Norman conquest, the name lived on and survives today in the names of businesses and public bodies. Such revivals don’t always last. The Wessex Trains franchise was abolished by the government in 2006, presumably when they realised that Wessex doesn’t actually exist.

However, another anglo-saxon kingdom remains served by the railways: East Anglia. This name describes England’s eastern counties, and is widely used in regional names such as Anglia Television, although the shortened name Anglia really refers to a wider area that also encompasses the forgotten kingdoms of Mid and West Anglia. Unlike Anglia, the name Mercia is less well known, and has been generally replaced by “The Midlands”. More people will be familiar with Tolkien’s reimagining of the kingdom of Mercia as the Rohan (or Riddermark).

Many people understandably confuse Northumberland (the county) with Northumbria (the ancient kingdom). There don’t seem to be precise borders for modern-day Northumbria, but it has finally relinquished its claim on southeast Scotland, long the source of conflict. But while Northumbria lost some of its lands to Scotland, the former Celtic kingdom of Strathclyde has ceded its Cumbrian territories to England. The kingdom’s name was revived in the 1970s as part of a local government reorganisation in Scotland, and now Strathclyde is often used as a loose description of the greater Glasgow area.

Several kingdoms have more or less lived on as modern counties, such as Kent. Its motto “invicta” (meaning invincible) has been adopted as a synonym for the county in the names of radio stations and sports teams. However, despite their heritage, few British counties still refer to themselves as kingdoms. Strangely, the one that does call itself a kingdom is Fife, even though there may never have actually been a kingdom with that name. If it existed, the Pictish kingdom was probably called Fib, so the tourist agencies promoting the Kingdom of Fife may actually be Fibbers.

Daily photo

I’ve been posting one photo taken every day since January 2015. You can find all the images in Flickr – click on the photos to take you to the album. My photos are free to reproduce for non-commercial use, provided you credit me and don’t alter them.



A curious blog