The date of the Scottish Independence Referendum is near. On 18 September 2014, people will be able to say whether or not they want Scotland to be an independent country.

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Prototype wave machine2. Photographer - Lou-Atessa Marcellin

A New Scottish Enlightenment, Mohammed J. Ali's Design Interactions graduation project, goes back to 1979 (the year of the Scottish devolution referendum which invited citizens to vote in support for a devolved deliberative assembly) to imagine what could have happened if the Scottish Independence Referendum had actually taken place 35 years ago and people had voted in favour of it.

Ali's counterfactual speculation proposes that the positive outcome for the referendum leads to the creation of the New Scottish Government. Scotland is a place known for its inventiveness and the independence invigorates the nation's creative spirit. A key policy of the government is to help citizen achieve personal energy independence, paving the way for a future liberated from the reliance of fossil fuels. The measure sees the prototyping of DIY energy generating machines, the re-purposing of abandoned coal mines, and even the discovery of the first self-sustaining fusion reaction. Furthermore, the success of the energy policy leads to the creation of alternative economic paradigms where different forms of exchange and economy are created based on distribution and sharing of energy.

The work A New Scottish Enlightenment describe the outcomes of some of the key pieces of legislation either on an individual, community or global level.


Timeline for New Scotland

A few questions to Mohammed J. Ali:

Hi Mohammed! The events you chart make our own present look extremely backwards. Why is your project located in counterfactual speculation rather than directly in an unspecified future?

One of the reasons I wanted to examine a counterfactual Scotland, was because on 18th September this year, there is a referendum for independence. There was a similar referendum in 1979 for a devolved government. Then, despite a Yes result of almost 52%, Scotland didn't eventually become independent. An addition to the Scotland Act 1978 stipulated that 40% of the entire voting public had to vote in favour. If that had actually happened, Scotland could have become an independent country. It's a bit more complicated, with a bit more politics than this but it all adds a layer of reality which would have been lost if I'd positioned it in another time/place.

In a twist to the real events, I propose Scotland actually becomes independent in 1979. We can then begin to imagine what might have happened given what we know has happened since then. An alternative Scotland is a way of perhaps holding a mirror to what could potentially happen after September 18th this year. The world might suddenly start to become a very different place.

I also wanted to look at what might happen to a modern, developed country which becomes independent, a unique event in modern times. The legislative, social and economic models of its former political partner/leader are replaced by those more sympathetic to the ideals of the new state. Scotland has historically been socialist, certainly left leaning; the map often turning red (the colour of the Labour Party) during general elections.

Perhaps one of the reasons why our current reality might look backwards in comparison to that in the counterfactual is because I imagined a country emboldened by independence and willing to try more extraordinary measures to bring individual independence to its people. I wanted to take advantage of the boom in research into alternative energy technologies which was happening during the seventies and early eighties resulting from an over-dependence on oil, coal and gas reserves mainly held by a minority of overseas nations.

The reality is that in the eighties, global research funding into renewable energy technologies was cut, as a result of the steady drop in the price of oil and its increased availability. I wanted to conceive a progressive nation where there was a realisation that energy was always a key component in humanity's evolution and that the current sources of energy were simply a staging post in the progress towards the next (hopefully better) one.

The Acts of Parliament of the New Scottish Government were simply tools to enable this to happen - think of Jimmy Carters National Energy Act 1978 and the later Energy Policy Acts in the US. The Legislative Acts in the speculation "A New Scottish Enlightenment" have some basis in the real world, from where they could be drafted into the speculation.

Important technological events such as the introduction of Napster in the late 90s meant that I could draw on peer-to-peer file sharing as a means of creating an analogue in New Scotland where surplus energy could be transmitted across a conjoined energy and information network.

The key was the creation of a country with the potential to be a blank canvas onto which I could paint a picture describing potential futures. In this respect Scotland was the perfect example. We don't know its future, but we can examine its past and describe the potentials of what might have been.

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Installation RCA June 2014. Photographer - Mohammed J Ali

Energy is a highly lucrative business. Why would a state (and the corporations that are closely linked to any government) have any interest in leaving it into the hands of the people?

The UK energy production and distribution sector were centrally controlled until the privatisation of the electricity and gas markets from the mid-80s. Historical precedents suggest that this new state could also have created a nationalised oil infrastructure similar to Iran's in 1951, which happened despite fierce British opposition, or Iraq's in 1972 to name but two. However, New Scotland continues to receive revenue in the form of taxation from oil production which it accumulates into a Sovereign Wealth Fund. This is used to ultimately make the people of New Scotland independent, in energy terms, through the creation of their personal energy infrastructures.

In your scenario, the New Scottish Government's first act is to create a sovereign wealth fund with the proceeds of North Sea Oil. What is this fund exactly?

Sovereign Wealth Funds are often the accumulated capital received from the tax receipts of oil production. They are usually invested in a portfolio of real or financial assets to enable them to grow. New Scotland as a result of independence would inherit the oil reserves within its national coastal boundary. It follows a Norwegian model by creating a fund to enable future projects or to be used in times of need.

The New Scottish Government decides to begin investment in energy infrastructures from 1985, which coincides with the period in which actual receipts from oil revenues were at their greatest.

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Could you explain the various 'inventions' you were showing at the RCA exhibition?

The first 'invention' is the creation of a home workshop inventor. Its basis is the Salter Duck developed in the 70s and early 80s by the scientist, Stephen Salter, at Edinburgh University. It takes the form of an energy harvesting wave machine. The picture shows the inventor in his workshop, working on the device. He received funding through the Public Energy Act 1985 from the Sovereign Wealth Fund. This Act was a means of creating the start of a personal energy infrastructure for the people of New Scotland. In our contemporary real world we see this more and more: the installation of solar panels, geothermal heat pumps and windmills. The Act was also a way for creative invention to take place following the repeal of energy intellectual property rights the year before.

By the year 2000, the New Scottish Government wants to halt conventional nuclear energy production. It also launches the "Third Millennium Prize". This is analogous to the Longitude Prize of the Eighteenth Century, where the government of the day tried to resolve one of the crucial impediments to progress of the time, the ability to travel across the oceans safely and directly. I also had in mind John F Kennedy's address at Rice University in Houston, Texas where he spoke passionately to the American people about the need to succeed in sending the first men to the moon. These were projects of national importance or pride.

In New Scotland, there is decreasing dependence on nuclear energy following the implementation of other energy creation/transformation methods. However, much of the rest of the world still needs access to substantial, sustainable and uninterrupted energy sources.

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The 'fusion reactor' is the culmination of research started in 2000, when New Scotland becomes the global hub for fusion research. This is backed by the Sovereign Wealth Fund, of course, enabling the research to flourish. Ultimately, as is often the case, a serendipitous scientific discovery creates a breakthrough illustrated by the fusion reactor pictured. In this instance research is encouraged by a hothouse environment not unlike Silicon Valley, but where intellectual property is no longer a barrier.

Government funded mega projects are not new. We've had many countries collaborate on a number of different fusion projects, and the European Space Agency, the ISS, CERN, NASA are all centrally funded by combined or single governments.

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Lochgelly Geothermal Mineworks. Drawing by Dimi Constantinides

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Poster Community Energy Act 1992. Assisted by Esa Matinvesi

In 1992, people realized that they could use the existing mine works, abandoned in the 60s, to generate geothermal heat in order to heat the town and provide the resources required to create new industry. How would that work? How can an abandoned mine provide energy?

I wanted to look at different scales, from the personal (Public Energy Act 1985), to the global (Third Millennium Prize 2000). The Community Energy Act 1992 made possible the implementation of intermediate sized, community wide energy infrastructures. What could happen if communities with a shared past, interest or skills were encouraged to work together?

Lochgelly is a former mining town in Fife, in Eastern Scotland. When coal mining stopped in the 60s, the town and its citizens were largely forgotten. Overlooked and existing infrastructures were important. How could we repurpose what we had already created? I wanted to explore the use of geothermal heat within the old infrastructure of the coal mines.

Geothermal heat pumps work on the same principle as our refrigerators, but in reverse. They take advantage of the constant temperature of the earth from 6m to over 100m below the surface. Cold water is pumped down and returned to the surface to have the geothermal heat extracted. Geothermal power can is an excellent source of hot water, which could in turn open the town to the possibilities of different types of industry. Food processing or the hotel trade for example both require huge amounts of hot water which the mines could produce in abundance. The possibility for extracting energy from other infrastructures also exists. True geothermal energy could be extracted from abandoned oil wells which regularly bore several kilometres through the earth. Perhaps disused fishing fleets could be retrofitted with wave energy devices allowing them to become floating electricity generators.

This element was also examining the relationship we have to energy in another way. We are so used to having electricity come to us from distant power stations, why not create infrastructures where people go to the sources of energy. It then opens a new set of questions: are cities abandoned and the countryside re-inhabited? Collaborations with architects and vehicle designers come to mind.

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Poster Public Energy Act 1985. Assisted by Biin Shen

I was very surprised by the Energy Intellectual Property Rights Act 1985 which would remove intellectual property rights for energy technologies. This is obviously very seducing but i don't see many signs nowadays of intellectual property rights being lifted. Why would it have been different in 1985?

You're quite right. This is a surprising step for a fledgling country. I didn't want to make this project a whole series of spectacular implausible revolutionary actions. That would have made the counterfactual story lose any element of believability, but this is bold move with perhaps just enough basis in fact to push the scenario forward.

The formation of free and open software pioneer, Richard Stallman's real life GNU Project in 1983 is a development that bleeds into the timeline of the New Scottish Government. They realise that independence from corporate control can encourage the development of technologies much faster than when they're chained to copyrights and patents. Open collaboration is the key.

The background was the concept of a shared human destiny found within alternative publications such as The Whole Earth Catalog or Mother Earth News. Stores such as Real Foods in Broughton Street in Edinburgh, were established in the mid-70s and promoted open, environmentally sustainable living which go hand-in-hand with the beliefs of organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Many believe that ideas are the property of humanity and they belong in the public realm, Sir John Sulston versus Craig Venter on DNA sequencing and exploitation, for example. Even Plato and Aristotle held differing views on the nature of property and ownership. A government whose major concern is the development of sustainable energy and energy independence would be more likely to also see the benefit of a greater distribution of knowledge. The New Scottish Government realise the importance of this wider, generational thinking and pushed through the implementation of this Act.

I had planned to have the Energy Intellectual Property Rights Act occur much later in the timeline, to reflect a wider public debate, but as it's so critical to the development and ethos of sharing, it had to happen as soon as possible after the creation of New Scotland.

Today, intellectual property rights are contingent on the creation of profit and the promotion of capitalism. This means keys technologies can be tied up for years making further developments take even longer.

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Poster Third Millenium Prize 2000. Assisted by Esa Matinvesi

Are you planning to push the project any further?

The next step is to take the project to V2 Test_Lab in Rotterdam. It has also been picked as a finalist in the RCA Sustain Awards during London Design Festival 2014, which coincides with Scotland's' Independence Referendum on September 18th.

I'd like to expand on the economic concerns, the creation of sharing economies within an energy and information peer-to-peer distribution structure and the energy currencies it creates. What happens to conventional economics when rather than trying to store the energy you've created, which is difficult at the best of times, you give it away? A different system of values start to play out. Economy changes from our obsession with the accumulation of resources, to one where we share. How do corporations function after 2021 when the Watt starts becoming an established global currency?

The expansion of the timeline is important too, but without making it didactic; there needs to be room for interpretation and discussion. I'd like to leave the prospects of Torness nuclear power station or the different relationship between a wealthy New Scotland and perhaps a weaker less influential England, up to the imagination of other peoples. Would the remains of the Union start adopting the measures pioneered north of the border? All sorts of other questions remain to be explored. How is the new nation affected by migration or by new or old alliances?

Much of this work allies with Frederic Jameson's paraphrasing of Slavoj Zizek, "It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism". This project is really about provoking thinking, about how we can foster alternative political systems which have a truly long term, globally inclusive philosophy. How do we create less damaging economic environments which fit better within our ecosystem, and how to give more exposure to one of the fundamental relationships that makes us human: energy, economics and politics?

Thanks Mohammed!

Sponsored by:





I see far more exhibitions than i can blog (i could but i'm fairly lazy, you see.) So this morning, i went through all the photos i took in London galleries and museum in June and threw them hastily in this almost laconic post in case you're in town and bored. Being bored in London seems to be my latest obsession but that's another story.

Here we go...

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Home-made apparatus to test if a detector would work on Mars, c. 1960s. Object no. 2012-125 © Science Museum, James Lovelock

The ever fabulous Science Museum has a small show about the work of scientist and inventor James Lovelock. I spotted this apparatus to test if a detector would work on Mars. Lovelock built it in his home lab in the 1960s while working on NASA's Viking Mission to Mars. It is made with an ordinary kitchen jar and lid. The detector was sealed inside the jar and air was removed via the valve on the left to replicate Martian atmospheric pressure.

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Check out the Exponential Horn while you're in the building.

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Paul Granjon, Biting Machine

Speaking of wild inventions. I caught the very last day of the Paul Granjon exhibition at Watermans. It was called Is Technology Eating My Brain? and it was very very funny. It's not every day that i laugh my face off all alone in an art gallery. The show was the result of the artist's residency in the art center. He had a couple of works in the gallery (including a magnificently visitor-unfriendly Biting Machine), the rest were works made by participants of Granjon's Wrekshop. They included a slicing photo booth and a geranium survival kit.

I spent far too long watching the videos of Granjon's fancy inventions and performances:


The antigravitational vehicle for cats

I watched this one three times:


Kicked by Furman

And I now need this book: Hand-Made Machines [Includes DVD]

The show's already closed alas! but here's a few images. And a video.

The Victoria and Albert museum was showing the short listed artists and the winner of the Prix Pictet. The theme was Consumption in all its disastrous relationship to environmental sustainability.

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Abraham Oghobase, Untitled

Abraham Oghobase photographed hand scribbled texts advertising the various informal services offered by people living in Lagos, a city of over ten million inhabitants and the commercial capital of Nigeria.

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Michael Schmidt, Lebensmittel

In Lebensmittel, Michael Schmidt portrayed the mechanized, industrialized food system of contemporary Western culture. From pigs standing skin to skin in a factory farm to piles of discarded food. Seeing the images one next to the other up on the wall was both shaming and mesmerizing. No wonder the series won the prize.

The exhibition closed a couple of weeks ago.

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Suzanne Treister, Post-Surveillance Art (POST-SURVEILLANCE ART POSTER/WORLD OPEN DAY), 2014

Suzanne Treister was investigating the rise of mass intelligence and data collection long before it became fashionable to do so.

Talking in the context of her Post-Surveillance Art series, she said that: "What has altered for me post Snowden, is not an awareness and negotiation of a changed condition, but the knowledge that now almost everybody else knows something which was clear as day if you did a bit of research, and it's great to no longer be called a conspiracy theorist."
 
The show closed a few days ago at Maggs Gallery. It was both dramatic and surprisingly humourous.

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I have no time for design products, except when they come with a Soviet aura. The GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design is showing all kinds of plastic toys, a dial-less Telephone, red velvet flags, retro futuristic vacuum cleaners, etc.

Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain is at the GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design until 24 August.

I also visited The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture during the press view. I can't say that was the show of my life. AT ALL! But there were a couple of works i was glad to see again....

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Maurizio Cattelan, Him, 2001

and discover:

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Katharina Fritsch St Katharina and 2nd Photo, 2007

The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture is at the Hayward until 7 September.

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GUN Architects, Rainforest

Gun Architects's rainforest-inspired pavilion at Bedford Square for the 2014 London Festival of Architecture.

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Ri Hyang Yon, 21, dancer in the Arirang Games, during a practice session in the car park, May Day Stadium, Pyongyang (Copyright: Nick Danziger)

Photojournalist Nick Danziger visited North Korea in 2013. He recorded the everyday life in the DPRK and was given rare access to cities outside Pyongyang. The story behind each photo is probably more interesting than the photos themselves. The subjects are doing very ordinary things (getting their hair done at the hairdresser, sunbathing by the sea with their kids, etc.) only it does look like the photos were taken in the past.

According to the British Council the exhibition is "the first cultural engagement of its kind" between the UK and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Guardian adds that it opened in London with no advance publicity, for fear that the dire relations between North Korea and the west might sink the first cultural project of its kind.

Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK (North Korea) is open at the British Council HQ in London until 25 July.

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I spotted this one in the street.

I'm spending a couple of days in Lodz for the Photo Festival. Or rather, the Fotofestiwal. I haven't seen all the exhibitions yet but so far, so good. I've been particularly fascinated by Zhao Renhui's A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World which has been selected for the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Fat polar bear swimming in Hudson Bay

The photo series attempts to document the ways in which the human species has altered the planet, and in particular other life forms.

The result of his research is a visually stripped back catalogue of curious creatures and life-forms. Some had to evolve in order to cope with the pressures of a fast changing world. Others appeared as the results of direct human intervention, mutations engineered to serve purposes ranging from scientific research to the desire for ornamentation:

Remote-controlled coakroach, peanuts injected with the DNA of a lobster so that they will never go bad, medicinal eggs with extractable antibodies against cancer, caterpillar-killing cabbage carrying the gene responsible for producing the poison in scorpions, tomatoes that do not go bad, sugar cane engineered with human gene, the first tiger mosquito found in Norway, etc.

Zhao's work addresses man's relationship with nature, and related issues of morality and ethics, paying close attention to how our attitudes assumptions about the natural world are often shaped by institutions of authority and the media.

Quick selection, with comments copied/pasted from the project website:

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Blood bee

Every year, scientists report findings of bees being attracted to discarded soda cans, leftover drinks and various sweet things. This is due to the combined effect of a declining natural supply of nectar in the wild and the insect's possible craving for caffeine. In Singapore, a community of bees has been raiding a factory producing sodas of various colours. The red dye from a certain brand of soda remains in the bees' bodies even after they have processed their food into honey. Over time, it is found that the stomachs of these bees have turned red, changing from their usual orange amber hue. The honeycombs in the hives are also found to have turned into a shade of blood red.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Unbreakable egg

A company in Japan has developed a technique to create eggs that are so strong that they cannot be broken. The only way to access its contents is to puncture a hole in its shell with a pointed tool. The egg was created by adding the plant protein of a banyan tree to a chicken, thus creating an egg with a bark-like texture.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Non-genetically modified Corn showing an aura

Corn is the number one crop grown in the United States and about 88% of it is genetically modified. Although there is little evidence that these crops pose a threat to humans, scientists are still understanding the effects of genetic engineering on corn. Scientists recently discovered non-genetically modified corn emit chemicals when they are being attacked by pests. These chemicals, which signal wasps to attack pests, are not present in genetically modified corn. Through Kirlian photography, the aura of a non-genetically modified corn can still be seen.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, rhinoceros with no horns, Grand Prix Fotofestiwal 2014

A small population of white rhinoceroses in Africa has evolved to have horns so small that they are barely visible. Experts believe this could be due to years of hunting individuals with large horns. The remaining rhinoceroses with smaller horns left to breed will eventually created a whole new hornless generation.

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Fake beef, from the series A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, 2013

It has recently been found in China that pork has been made to aesthetically look like beef. 'Beef colouring' and 'beef extracts' were added to pork to make it look and taste like beef.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, World Goldfish Queen

China organised the first International Goldfish Championships in Fuzhou in 2012. Over 3,000 goldfish from 14 countries competed for different titles including the World Goldfish Queen crown. Goldfish are judged by five criteria: breed, body shape, swimming gesture, colour and overall impression. The show stealer was a giant goldfish weighing around 4kg. The judges noted that not all goldfish can grow this big as factors such as breeding may affect size. Goldfish are bred out of generations of genetic mutations since the Jin Dynasty and their exact origins are unknown.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Wild flowerhorn

Flowerhorn cichlids are ornamental aquarium fish noted for their vivid colours and bulbous humped heads. A man-made hybrid, the flowerhorn was popular in Singapore in the late 1990s. When their popularity waned, owners released the fish into the local waters. Today, the fish thrive in large numbers in local reservoirs and waterways. Scientists have reported that the flowerhorn has taken on a different adaptation in recent years. The bulbous and round head it once had has given way to a sharp, flat and rounded disc. It is posited that the more streamlined form allows them to swim quickly away from predators.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Moon dust (ash belonging to 103 species of insects collected from a lamp cover)

Less than 4% of Singapore exists in total darkness after 10pm. Insects are attracted to artificial light sources, though no one knows exactly why. The insects are usually killed by exhaustion or through contact with the heat from lamps. After being incinerated, their bodies become a heap of ash, collected in the covers of street lamps. The ash, also referred to as 'moon dust', is used by scientists to study the ecological impact of light pollution on insects.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, square apple, Grand Prix Fotofestiwal 2014

Sold in a department store in South Korea, these square apples were created as gifts for students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test, with some inscribed with the words 'pass' or 'success'. A similar square watermelon was developed in Japan in the 1980s. The cubic fruits are created by stunting their growth in glass cubes.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Falcon that is an owl

Falcons are diurnal birds but have recently adapted to become nocturnal, like owls. Urban falcons have begun to use artificial illumination from street lamps and lit buildings to hunt for bats throughout the night.

Photo on the homepage: Remote-controlled cockroach., from the series, A guide to the flora and fauna of the world. More at The Institute of Critical Zoologists.

The Grand Prix Fotofestiwal is on view at ART_INKUBATOR in Lodz until 15 June, 2014.

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Mauser and Bullet, 1938

The Michael Hoppen Gallery has just opened an exhibition featuring a selection of vintage prints by Dr. Harold Edgerton, a photographer whose works are found hanging in art museums and galleries across the world. He even won an Oscar with his short film Quicker 'n a Wink. Yet, Edgerton was adamant that he was a scientist, not an artist.

The professor of electrical engineering at MIT invented the ultra-high-speed and stop-action photography when he synchronized strobe flashes with the motion being examined, then took a series of photos through an open shutter that could flash up to 120 times a second. The invention enabled him to photograph motion that was too fast to be captured by the naked eye: balloons at various stages of bursting, bullets tearing through fruits, divers rotating through the air, devil sticks in action, an egg hitting a fan, drops of milk coming into contact with liquid, etc.

If that were not enough, Edgerton was also involved in the development of sonar and deep-sea photography, and his equipment was used by marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau to scan the sea floor for shipwrecks. Or for the Loch Ness monster.

During the Second World War, he pioneered superpowered flash for aerial photography used to create night time reconnaissance images, revealing the absence of German forces at key strategic points just prior to the Allied attack on June 6, 1944.

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Bobby Jones, Golf Multiflash (Iron), 1938

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.30 Bullet through Apple, 1964

To trigger the flash at the right moment, a microphone, placed a little before the apple, pickes up the sound from the rifle shot, relays it through an electronic delay circuit, and then fires the microflash (via.)

Moments after the apple was pierced by the bullet, it disintegrated completely.

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Bullet through a Helium Bubble

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Bullet through King, 1964

A .30 caliber bullet, traveling 2,800 feet per second, requires an exposure of less than 1/1,000,000 of a second. Edgerton turned the card sideways and the rifling of the barrel caused the rotation of the projectile, which, in turn, carved out the S-shaped slice of card between the two halves (via.)

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Atomic Bomb Explosion, circa 1952 (more images)

After World War II, the Atomic Energy Commission contracted Edgerton and two of his former students to photograph atomic bombs as they exploded. The trio developed the rapatronic (for Rapid Action Electronic) shutter, a shutter with no moving parts that could be opened and closed by turning a magnetic field on and off.

Revealing the anatomy of the first microseconds of an atomic explosion, the fireball was documented in a 1/100,000,000-of-a-second exposure, taken from seven miles away with a lens ten feet long. The intense heat vaporized the steel tower and turned the desert sand to glass (via.)

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Untitled (Rugby ball), 1938

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Gussie Moran, 1949

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View of the gallery space

The exhibition Dr. Harold Edgerton: Abstractions is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London until 2 August 2014.
Image on the homepage: Antique Gun Firing, 1936.

Synthetic Aesthetics. Investigating Synthetic Biology's Designs on Nature, by designer Alexandra Ginsberg Daisy, social scientists Jane Calvert and Pablo Schyfter, bioengineers Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy.

Available on amazon UK and USA.

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Publisher MIT Press writes: Synthetic biology manipulates the stuff of life. For synthetic biologists, living matter is programmable material. In search of carbon-neutral fuels, sustainable manufacturing techniques, and innovative drugs, these researchers aim to redesign existing organisms and even construct completely novel biological entities. Some synthetic biologists see themselves as designers, inventing new products and applications. But if biology is viewed as a malleable, engineerable, designable medium, what is the role of design and how will its values apply?

In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to 'design nature.' These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?

Synthetic biology is driven by its potential; some of these projects are fictions, beyond the current capabilities of the technology. Yet even as fictions, they help illuminate, question, and even shape the future of the field.

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Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas, Selfmade, 2014. Photo: Science Gallery

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Human Cheese Making 2: Bottles, 2010. Photograph by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

I don't think i've ever reviewed a book and recommended it to scientists. Synthetic Aesthetics, however, should appeal to the art/design crowd and to the science community alike. It should also interest anyone who is eager to look beyond overenthusiastic headlines that promise a world-saving 'green' technology and who would like to understand better the benefits, risks and uncertainties of a field that might sometimes appear foreign and abstract.

Synthetic Aesthetics brings together synthetic biologists, social scientists, designers and artists to talk about what it means for science, culture and society to not only redesign existing organisms but also to design new ones, constructing in the process completely novel biological entities. As you can expect from the avant-garde minds invited to take part in Synthetic Aesthetics, the essays discuss the possibilities, real and imagined, of a future in which 'synbio' is part of 'nature', design and everyday life but some of the authors also look at the historical and cultural precedents of human interference with nature, from The Island of Doctor Moreau to producing GMOs.

Synthetic Aesthetics doesn't offer any easy answer regarding the challenges and potentials of 'synbio'. What it does very well, however, is opening up a space to have a broad discussion about questions as critical as: Could reprogramming organisms answer the problem of the finite resources of the planet? How do you design what doesn't exist, not even in our imagination? When should we turn to synthetic biology rather than to political or technical solutions? What are the implication of applying an engineering mindset to life materials? etc.

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Designers: Will Carey, Adam Reineck. Scientists: Reid Williams, Wendell Lim, Packaging that Creates its Content

Roughly one half of the book explores projects that resulted from a close collaboration between scientists and artists/designers. I'll just highlight one of them because it has a good balance of 'sci-fi' and everyday practicality.

Packaging that Creates its Content envisioned a probiotic drink that relies on bacteria to morph into a physical cup when exposed to a specific light wavelength. During shipping and storage, the cups remain dormant until water is poured inside, creating a healthy drink. After several uses, the cup's walls begin to degrade and it can be composted.

'Packaging That Creates Its Contents' helps people think about what the world would be like if packaging never created waste.

Get that book! I've searched high and low for a book that would explain synbio in a clear, engaging and intelligent way. I'm glad i've finally found it.

Views inside the book:

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Image on the homepage: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, The Synthetic Kingdom: Carbon Monoxide Detecting Lung Tumour, 2009. Photograph by Carole Suety.

Notes and video from the keynote that science writer and paleontologist Richard Fortey gave at the Age of Wonder festival in Eindhoven a few weeks ago.

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Richard Fortey at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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The Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

The paleontologist's talk was titled Four billion years of life on earth: what should it teach mankind? It was my favourite moment in a festival that impressed me with the way it mixed disciplines, old technologies and innovation, science fiction and pure science, reflections about the ecological-humans” and artistic experiments. Like most people who had a chance to be there, i do hope we'll get to live more "ages of wonder." But i digress. Fortey talked about Darwin and how his theories have been misinterpreted and misapplied to justify the practices of some capitalist business models. It started with his unconventional (that was his word) ideas about the history of life on earth and ended with comments on the soft drink industry.

But here is the official blurb:

Fortey believes that the natural progress of evolution is always towards greater richness, and that this is the way our planet is meant to be when Darwinian evolution is allowed to play out naturally. Mistaken ideas about Darwinism have contributed to a view of human life that diminishes rather than enhances richness, particularly in the Weltanschauung of market capitalism.

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Trilobite fossil. Photo by James L. Amos

The video of his talk is below but since i had already typed my notes from Fortey's presentation before the video was uploaded, i thought i'd just leave them on this page in case you're interested in checking out some links. Besides, my pictures of dinosaurs are way nicer than his.

Age of Wonder - Keynote Richard Fortey from Baltan Laboratories on Vimeo.

For most of his working life Richard Fortey was employed in the Natural History Museum in London. His research has long focused on trilobites, a fossil group of extinct arthropods (joint legged animals) that were around for at least 250 million years. These marine creatures present the first really well preserved eyes in the fossil record . They evolved into all sorts of ecological niches and are a paradigm in miniature for evolution as a whole. (cf his book Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution)

Charles Darwin's seminal work on evolutionary biology served as a backdrop of Fortey's presentation.

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On The Origin of Species (Flickr/apsmuseum, via rnw)

The full title of Darwin's book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life but its meaning and essence has often been replaced in popular imagination by the punchier formula "the survival of the fittest". That wasn't Darwin's phrase. It was introduced in a text book about biology by Herbert Spencer 5 years after the publication of the Origin of Species but it was adopted as an instant description of how evolution works. In some ways this simplification has had some unfortunate consequences. For example, it leads to the idea of progression, with each stage being an advance on and eliminating the previous one.

Referring to the previous evening's talk about Super Intelligence, Fortey said that if we followed this Survival of the Fittest eationale then the supercomputers, which will soon equal then surpass and eventually make obsolete human intelligence, are the next step in this logical progression.

The first part of his talk took us on a whirlwind tour of the history of life to illustrate progression.

If you want to see a living image of what the pre-Cambrian world looked like towards beginning of the origin of life, you have to go to Shark Bay, Western Australia where stromatolites still live. They look like rocks but are actually living communities of blue green bacteria. They are preserved in this area of Australia thanks to some very peculiar ecological conditions (the place is very hot and not pleasant) which have kept away all the animals that have evolved after the pre-Cambrian.

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Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia. Photo via all that is interesting

The Stromatolite photos is a snapshot of life 2.5 billion years ago.

Life existed before that. We know that at least by 3.5 billion years ago, living cells were already reproducing. We can find them as fossils but they are very rare and the ones we find from 2.5 billion years ago look very much like these stromatolites. Some of the fossils look like living blue green algae. It's very hard to tell the differences in some cases between the fossils and the ones still living.

Stromatolites are very simple organisms but they have one important property for the history of the planet: they photosynthesise, they exhale oxygen, making life on earth possible for us. When life first appeared on Earth, the planet was very unwelcoming to life. Its atmosphere had lots of carbon dioxide and probably also poisonous gases and nitrogen. It had very little oxygen, if any. It's the activity over billions of years of these algae, these blue green bacteria that transformed the atmosphere into something that animals could subsequently breathe. Some of the very early organisms that existed before that and would this die in the presence of oxygen are still with us, living in crevices around the world. They never went away but the oxygen-loving organisms took over.

We can fast-forward to when organisms with organized nuclei appeared. And then to about 1.3 billion years ago when the first sexually differentiated organisms are found in the fossil record. Once you differentiate the sexes, you get more possibilities of cross-breeding and more possibilities of variations and inherited variations which obviously ups the whole evolutionary stakes. So far, we've been talking about progression, even in quite a simple way.

About 540 million years ago we arrive at the base of the Cambrian period and that's when trilobites appear in the fossil record. Trilobites are far more complicated organisms that anything we've seen before. Trilobites themselves are no more, they died out about 250 000 million years ago. These were animals with hard parts, they had the first toughened exoskeletons. We found trilobites with bite marks on them which brings us to another step in this history of the evolution of complexity as these marks show there were predators around of the time. Most of the earlier organisms were minutes. Trilobites can fit comfortably into the palm of a man's hand. Which means that at the base of the Cambrian animals got large, they are distinctly animals and some of them got hard parts, skeletons.

Alongside the trilobites were other fossils. For example the Burgess shale in Canada which didn't have hard parts but was soft-bodied. Soft bodied organisms are harder to preserve. Aysheaia, for example, was one of these soft bodied Cambrian organisms and it is clearly related to the still living velvet worm.

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Aysheaia pedunculata (image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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Velvet Worm. Image Natural History Museum

In fact, most of the living of the largest groups of the animals that we know today had their first representatives in the Cambrian period. Around 542 million years ago, took place the so-called Cambrian explosion which saw evolution work very fast and produce designs which are still with us today.

Life so far was fully marine but it eventually found its way onto land. Of course, each of these evolutions made for a new ecology and that's progression two.

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A thallose liverwort, Lunularia cruciata

The ancestors of nowadays' Liverworts left water and crawled over the surface of wet mud. Their green pads were photosynthesizing and releasing more oxygen into the atmosphere and as that happened it made it more suitable for animals to follow them onto the land. Now when you go onto land, you open up other possibilities for evolution, which gives way to a new eco-system.

The next stage were organisms moving upwards (to get more light and thus take over your neighbours.)

These animals and plants are not just fossils, they are still with us so the first qualification to the idea of progression is that when organisms evolve to the next stage, they don't die out, they are still with us, they have a niche that enables them to survive. The simple idea of progression of organism giving rise to another which outcompetes and eventually replaces it and so on is not an adequate description of what is happening in the world. Live moves on but the history is retained.

Fortey further explored this idea in his book Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind.

The next stage is to support that photosynthesizing column and carry it upwards to make a tree.

The animals shortly followed the plants. The first ones were tiny insect relatives and then creatures that eat insects and ultimately our first distant ancestors, the first quadrupeds who came from their fishy relatives and set foot onto land. One of these fishy relatives is still living today: it's the Australian lungfish.

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Australian lungfish, Basle Zoo. Photo via zoochat

This lungfish is recognized by both zoologist and DNA studies as a close relative to our other relative that came out from the sea onto land. Some time during the Devonian period more than 400 million years ago, it came out onto land. Until recently, paleontologists were looking for a 'missing link', for the fossil of a fishy type of creature with a fin that looked like a hand.

They eventually found this missing link. It's the Tiktaalik, a creature with a complex series of bones bones in the feet, half way between a fin and a hand. The early creatures that came to land actually had 6 or 7 digits, not 5.

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Tiktaalik Roseae (image guardian liberty voice)

We now have an ecological structure that you might recognize today: prey, predators, low and tall plants, etc. So far, it all sounds rather linear.

Fast forward to the age of the dinosaurs, the terrestrial animals continue to evolve and get larger. The botanical situation at the time was similar to today's except that there were no flowering plants. Some of those dinosaurs were covered in small feathers, even tyranosaurus rex had fuzzy feathers. One group of these dinosaurs went on to give rise to the birds which evolved together with and from the dinosaurs but didn't die out with them. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, small insect-eating mammals gave life to large herbivorous & carnivorous mammals that preyed on them. e.g. bison, a survivor from the last Ice Age.

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Feathered dinosaurs. Image credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences/Dr Brian Choo (via Wired)

The final step is an animal that is a mammal that has consciousness and high intelligence. And so we have a rather linear progression that goes from the first cell to the intelligent human being. Could the next stage be the supercomputer that takes the brain element further into its next stage? Maybe... but that wouldn't be an adequate description of what evolution really does.

However, it not simply an upward story. The history of life has been punctuated by mass extinctions when hundreds, sometimes millions of species became extinct within a short period of time.

The so-called K-T event, for example, brought about the demise of the dinosaurs and many other organisms. But there were other mass extinctions. One of them at least took place at the end of the Permian period, and it was even more extreme.

Survival then might have been lottery or maybe the surviving species had some quality that you didn't now you possessed but came useful when crisis arose and got you through. There was an element of serendipity in the organism that passed through.

The K-T event took out dinosaurs and other organisms in the sea. It reset life and gave the mammals a chance to evolve into the forms we have today.

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Planet Dinosaur. Image BBC

Throughout the history of life, brain power did increase in general. Metabolic rate also increased between the reptiles and the mammals. There is thus a progressive aspect in spite of these interruptions. The biggest interruption was the end of the Permian period (about 250 million years ago) when all the continents were united and the ocean went seriously anoxic. There was a violent eruption of volcanic gas in what is now Siberia. It produced the biggest extinction the world has seen. 90% of species probably disappeared. e.g. the ammonites.

These extinction events reset the clock and give survivors the chance to re-evolve, to regenerate ecologies. Every time a mass extinction has intervened, evolution has filled up the gap afterwards, often with a very rapid period of evolution where the ecology reasserts itself. It is a very neglected fact about the history of life. A couple of examples: the coral reef which is often taken as a paradigm for biologically varied communities. The reef habitat goes back past 4 mass extinctions. At each stage, the reefs died out completely, but shortly afterwards they re-evolved which means that evolution rapidly fills all the niches.

Another example is the woodland found in the south of England (and elsewhere in the world) with trees, plants and ferns. This particular structure has evolved from the coal forests of the Carboniferous period more than 300 million years ago that ultimately produced coal deposits. The structure of those forest is not so different from the ones we have today and it is extremely species-rich but not as species rich as today's tropical forest, the richest habitat on earth.

You could replicate his argument with most of the major habitats on earth: they are very rich in species and after an extinction event, they 'restock' and become rich in species again. Now how does that not seem to fit in the account of the survival of the fittest? if one species is particularly good, it outcompetes the other so you would expect much more of a one species takes all situation but when natural evolution is allowed to play out, it goes for extremely species rich environment.

Each of these extinction events allows life to replay itself in a sense and it replays itself always towards biodiversity and large numbers of species, not the dominance of one or two. The end product of evolution as it really works is thus a huge, incomparable diversity of organisms on the planet.

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Richard Fortey at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

Scientists tend to avoid imputing human or moral values to their work. Fortey, however, added moral value to his ideas by saying that biodiversity is the way the world is supposed to be and not the dominance of one or two species.

Some people say that we are now in a period when we are decimating the biodiversity of the planet, we are putting species extinct very fast or at least reducing their numbers to almost zoological garden proportions. Fortey's feeling as a biologist is that this is morally wrong. Extinction does happen naturally but if we can say as a precept that the state of nature as it should be is one that maximizes its richness, then you have a moral ground for saying what we are doing to the planet is wrong. The right state of the world is a rich one and we are going against it.

Geerat J. Vermeij, in his book Evolution and Escalation. An Ecological History of Life pointed out that much of this richness is generated by antagonism between prey species and the predators. The prey evolves by developing new techniques to defend itself.

Summary of richness and its implications. What does richness mean?
- it's the end result of natural selection operating through geological time
- it's a combination of biodiversity, ecological specialization and geological sensitivity
- it's the state to which evolution leads if left to play under natural circumstances
- it's the way the natural world is and should be
- it's nothing like the human world produced by unfettered capitalism or by the controlled 'command economy' of communism regimes.

We humans are just another species and perhaps our human society should also regard richness as a desirable end.

The misapplication of Darwinism or when the 'survival of the fittest' is misapplied in the wrong situation (the 'winner takes all' justification):

The Market is just another example of Darwinism in action. These days in the UK we keep hearing statements describing the Market as if it were a Darwinistic phenomenon. Margaret Thatcher talking about market forces said 'there is no alternative.' Even the corporate business model for the market uses the language of natural selection. Trawling through the newspapers, Fortey found example of this: we must adapt or die, we mustn't be dinosaurs, competition is threatening our market niche, it's a jungle out there, there will be a Starbucks on ever street corner, etc.

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The County Butchers in Cornwall has added wild grey squirrel onto its list of game. Photo: Adam Gerrar/ SWNS via The Guardian

How did it get there? The model in the business man's mind is something like what has happened to our squirrel population. The South of England used to be inhabited by a population of red squirrels. Then came 'the American invader', the grey squirrel. It is clever, more aggressive, and brings with it a nasty disease. It is a much more successful animal. This kind of model is "the model takes all" model which lies behind this interpretation of the Darwinian process as applied to a lot of human activity.

For Fortey, this is a violation of the principle of richness. The good state is one of proliferation of many product and places to make life as rich as possible.

The end of product of the capitalism is nearly always very similar to the case of the grey squirrel: you get a reduction in richness. In capitalism, however, you often end up with a duopoly of two companies with very similar products that have eaten up other companies and then have to sell one another on superficial differences.

Coca-cola bottles from around the world present subtle differences that reflect the local brands that the Coca-cola corporation has replaced over the years. If you look at the whole Pepsi vs Coca Cola line of products, you will find that these mega soft drink companies offer some one to one correspondences. For example, sprite and seven up are virtually identical. The main difference is the amount they spend in advertising.

The wine industry is the opposite. It's the coral reef of the supermarket. There are infinite varieties of wines to choose from. Many were produced by small business. These are species actively evolving, which adds to richness.

Fortey's idea wasn't about anti-capitalism but about how capitalism could also result in creativeness, innovation, variety.

Does this have any use?
It is wrong for human beings to make species extinct. The world will become a less rich place if we carry on as we do.

7 billion people on Earth, that's too many and if we need to feed them with shrinking resources, then how are we going to build super computers to take us to the stars?

Is it too Utopian? Almost certainly yes.

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The Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

Previous posts about the festival: "Volta", the oversized voltaic pile, Age of Wonder: Superintelligence and existential risks, Tree Antenna: using trees for radio transmission.

There are more images on flickr and videos on Vimeo.
Image on the homepage via Earth Times.

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