the m john harrison blog

Tag: science

how things do change

“We’re not in a position where we can afford to be particularly arrogant about our understanding of what the laws of nature must look like.” –Michael Dine, University of California.


changing Our World

“Professor Robin Dempsey began his career in the physics of alternate universes, designing an experiment which showed that the enormous number of possible versions of our universe differentiated by a change in position of a single elementary particle by a femtometre to the left is inexplicably smaller than the enormous number of versions differentiated by a change in position of a single elementary particle by a femtometre to the right. This enabled him to solve what had become known as the Red-Blue Jumper Problem. The number of universes containing a minute change in the position of a single particle is so enormous that it massively outweighs the enormous number of universes containing a change from a boy wearing a blue jumper to a boy wearing a red jumper. The chances, in fact, of us detecting any noticeable difference between our universe and the next universe along are almost infinitely small.” –Changing Our World

Read the rest in Arc 2.1 Exit Strategies.

sorry to have to say this again, but

Science fiction survives on its metaphors, catching an echo from the human context then rifling current science for an image or chain of images to act as a correlative. The rationales behind this project (including the rationale that it’s all rational, the claim that the project has, or should have, more in common with scientific discourse than poetic, philosophical or political discourse) are less important to the general reader than the excitement of the found image. Science fiction is not read as a form of peer-reviewed publication.

getting the science right

When you speculate about the future your first duty is to get the science right, so for yesterday’s post I worked hard on that.

put up or shut up, december 3rd

I also expect to see Dennis Wheatley’s lovers, fucking in a shallow scrape in the sand. Otherwise don’t call us, we’ll call you.

photo: Cath Phillips

back out in the cold

Some forms of SF are becoming irrelevant not because we’re living in “the future” but because, with the rise of gadgetopia over the last decade or so, science has begun to directly claim its place in the spectacle. In another ten years, with less need for publicity partners, shared branding may be over as far as the major stakeholder is concerned. But this could be an advantage. No longer a junior partner in the TED/SciArt project–no longer limited to proselytising, cheerleading & pegagogic duties, & owing no one anything in the way of intellectual fealty–science fiction could return to one of its shadowier, guiltier, more fulfillingly imaginative relationships with the concept of knowledge. SF writers could rediscover the freedom of being unapproved outsiders working in a space which precisely isn’t an internet teaching aid.

answers to a questionnaire

I came late to this “Questionnaire of the Weird”, but here are my answers:

1: Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“It was a Saturday afternoon, about 2:19.”
2: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
3: Look at your watch. What time is it?
4: How do you explain this—or these—discrepancy(ies) in time?
There is no dispcrepancy.
5: Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
I think it’s weird you would ask that. You don’t even know me.
6: Do you believe in astrological predictions?
No, I’m not fooled by all those false-colour images of gas clouds, & Prof. Brian Cox calling it the “You-in-Ee Verse”.
7: Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
Not in London.
8: What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
I think they’re the last place God made.
9: What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit; then my friend S’s face, in dark, impasto-looking tones on Skype, which made her resemble a Munch madonna. Munch’s madonnas are, as someone once put it to me, “the Anima on a stick” & a great deal weirder than anything wilfully weird.
10: What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
“Inspire” is a bit like “gaze” to me, the way you’ve used it in Question 7 above. I don’t really get it.
11: What would you have “seen” if you’d been blind?
I don’t know. But there are plenty of things I would have missed seeing. Dogs. A girder. Two or three larks going up & down like elevators over some upland landscape. Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site. Windmills, linocuts, bees. A bus. A wrist. The list is endless.
12: What would you want to see if you were blind?
To start with, at least, I would want to see some indication that I wasn’t seeing: so, darkness, maybe, or like that. Weirdly enough, my cat went blind not long ago.
13: Are you afraid?
I have deep & constant anxiety.
14: What of?
I was afraid of the dark until I started night-running on moors & hills in the late 1970s. Once you become anxious about putting your foot down a hole in the dark & breaking your ankle, you stop being anxious about just the dark; the vague & generalised is replaced by the actual & practical. Now I’m afraid of the usual things, loneliness, pain, death.
15: What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
Scorcese, No Direction Home.
16: Whom are you afraid of?
I am afraid of everyone.
17: Have you ever been lost?
See answer to Question 9, but also I am an expert at it (see answer to Question 14). At least as much of an expert as Rebecca Solnit, although she is a great deal more articulate about it than me.
18: Do you believe in ghosts?
I don’t.
19: What is a ghost?
A ghost is content. It is subject matter, or grist to your mill.
20: At this very moment, what sound(s) can you here, apart from the computer?
Quite complex tinitus, left ear. A high-pitched whine, like the one you hear after a loud gig. Under that, a sort of hiss such as you might have heard from a valve radio knocked off-station in 1953. Behind that, quite a long way back, various bangs & rumbles I take to be the circulation of the blood, or perhaps a small unacknowledged war taking place a mile or two off in East Sheen.
21: What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard: for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced terror. Certainly not from a sound. But I have a well-honed startle reflex, see answer to Question 13, & any high-attack sound will stimulate it.
22: Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
No. But I have done uncanny things.
23: Have you ever been to confession?
24: You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
“Weird” is a word for a kind of content or subject matter I often visit, though I have no personal relationship with the weird now except to make metaphors. I went through a period when I couldn’t have HP Lovecraft on my shelves. If I had him on my shelves I would read him. If I read him I wouldn’t be able to sleep. The same was true of Arthur Machen, although it was never true of Robert Aickman because by the time I got to Aickman my life had steadied me down a little. In a sense, he’s too clever to be frightening; in another sense, something like “The Swords” is so uncanny that you know you are probably avoiding the issue so as to remain calm.
25: Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
Perhaps it’s a cabinet in which you keep curiosities. Have you read “The Hare with Amber Eyes” ? It’s the history of 264 netsuke, displayed for part of their life in a cabinet in Vienna to show off the taste of their owner–to make their owner interesting by association. It’s been quite a bestseller but I found it, in the end, to be a sort of bland imitation of WG Sebald. Anyway, perhaps that’s what a cabinet of curiosities is: a place to keep the things which make you look interesting by association. Or comparison.
26: Do you believe in redemption?
I do, but I don’t know why. For me, redemption is like some aspects of the sublime: I try not to revisit or acknowledge them, in case I taint them with the anti-sublime.
27: Have you dreamed tonight?
I believe so.
28: Do you remember your dreams?
Not always.
29: What was your last dream?
I don’t remember.
30: What does fog make you think of?
I haven’t seen any really high class fog for a long time. The kind that, if it’s in a city, sets everything at one remove and makes it so interesting again; or the kind that, if it’s on a moor, you think: shit, which direction was I going in before this happened, see answer to Question 9 ?
31: Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
Do you mean made-up animals ? Why would I believe or not believe in them ?
32: What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
Skull Radio & Mexican Death TV.
33: If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
I haven’t any idea.
34: What is a madman?
One of the people in charge of the asylum.
35: Are you mad?
All I’m sure of today is that I’m not in charge of the asylum.
36: Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
It isn’t really necessary to believe in the existence of secret societies for them to exist.
37: What was the last weird book you read?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit.
38: Would you like to live in a castle?
Yes. I would also like to live in a beach hut.
39: Have you seen something weird today?
I haven’t. But I keep wanting to call you “darling”. For instance, in answer to Question 54 below, What goes on in tunnels ?, I wanted to reply, “I don’t know, darling. I’m so rarely in one.” Isn’t that odd ? I find it odd.
40: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
Do you mean weird ? Or do you mean Weird ? Anyway, I will always have a soft spot for the Brothers Quay’s Institute Benjamenta. I several times tried to watch it with a girlfriend when it first came out on DVD, but we kept having sex halfway through & I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the end. But it certainly looked weird.
41: Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
Curiously enough, I addressed this question a year or two ago, here.
42: Can you see the future?
I can, yes, & it works.
43: Have you considered living abroad?
Once or twice.
44: Where?
Spain. Mexico.
45: Why?
Because they are warmer & more human than London.
46: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
Repo Man.
47: Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
Not especially.
48: What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
“The Flight from the Enchanter”, Iris Murdoch.
49: Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
I wouldn’t have any use for either. I don’t know what the weird has to do with the mildly bizarre or whimsical.
50: Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
I’d rather have a new magnifying glass if I needed one. I own an entry-level survival knife. I would like an ESEE-3MIL with a carbon steel blade & a sharpened back edge. But my favourite knife of mine is a 465 Puma Backpacker, circa 1980, which I have managed not to lose all those years. I climbed with a guy called Jeremy who used to be a butcher, so he sharpened everyone’s knives for them. Worried by a certain vagueness he sensed in me, he kept mine blunt.
51: What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
A layer of very cold water.
52: Do you like taxidermied animals?
Sometimes. But I don’t find them weird, & I don’t find myself weird for liking them. Generally I try not to associate myself with things as a way of gaining some of their presumed eros, see answer to Question 25.
53: Do you like walking in the rain?
I don’t dislike it.
54: What goes on in tunnels?
I don’t know, I’m so rarely in one.
55: What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
Mexican Death TV.
56: What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
Nothing much.
57: Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
Is it famous ? How inappropriate of me not to remember.
58: Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
Apart from Pere Lachaise, and the really unheimlich two-level cemetery on the A628 outside Tintwhistle, Greater Manchester, I can take or leave graveyards. Running in woods at night can be as entertaining as running on moors at night, especially in the snow. Although I have to admit I haven’t done it for a couple of years. Some woodland is almost ludicrously Aickmanesque: that patch under Rhinog Fawr, for instance, into which you descend if you follow the Roman Steps path all the way east.
58: Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“I wish I’d kept those old clothes.”
59: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
60: Look at your watch. What time is it?
It’s always 2:19 in here.

bad move

Watching environmentalism wrong-foot itself to this degree is sad. Now they’re just rolling about on the floor with all the other “narratives”. When everything’s a clash of fantasies, nothing ever gets done. Will postmodernism ever end ? Probably not–too useful to the legal, political & religious professions. But on a more optimistic note, at least string theory (“postmodern physics”) seems to have given up on itself. The universe can go back to being inelegant.

Reading: Irene Nemirovsky, All Our Wordly Goods. Life doesn’t get much better than that. Looking forward to: a nice Indian lunch with Mic Cheetham. As for this, it’s as clear & beautiful as Nemirovsky, & as long as we all use our intelligence to understand what’s going on, it’s the upside of making narratives. It goes well with this, & with Municipal Archive’s whole project.

how mass can be relevant to you

Discoveries would include the God Particle, a tiny entity also called the Higgs Boson, which is believed to give objects – including people – their mass.

Don’t you just love the grammar of this, that wonderful “also called” ? Followed swiftly by the reminder that mass is important because “people” –ie, Observer readers like us–have it, & peopleness is what underwrites the project of science, after all ? Is there anywhere else in the world where middle class journalism feels it has to do this particular form of mealy-mouth ? Is there anywhere else in the world where the values of the Lifestyle & Wellness section have to be carried through to the science reporting ?

an imaginary review (6)

A clear & useful bridge between science and the public is constructed in this empathic literary novel of a boy & how he comes to terms with his world. Explanations of everything from black holes to epigenesis demonstrate the author’s engagement with the scientific worldview, & act as the pivots of metaphors for a full range of human emotions & concerns. The total effect is one of numbing boredom, & of a mind which has carefully removed everything of excitement from its encounters with physics, cosmology & molecular biology. A Hay Festival version of the Popular Mechanics-style science fiction of the 1920s, this novel has a similar mission to educate its demographic–primarily 40/50-year-old reading-group members with a humanities degree. As a result, the very last thing its author has managed is to be, as his dustjacket claims, “boldly imaginative”. The most interesting thing about the book is its title, the literary referentiality & linguistic quirkiness of which promise more than they can ever deliver.


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