Project Nimbus is the outcome of several years of collaborative research by artist and inventor Dave Lynch together with physicist Mike Nix and maker Aaron Nielson. Using off-the-shelf technology, the team built an experimental device that projects bright moving images onto clouds. Onto pretty much anything cloudy actually: clouds of course but also vapour from cooling towers or urban vents. A difference with a work like HeHe's Nuage Vert and other projecting cloud projection pieces is that, with Project Nimbus, the technology is invisible to the audience. They don't see the beam as it is flying in a plane a mile high above the ground. The illusion is total and probably also a bit unsettling.
Project Nimbus is based on the zoopraxiscope developed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1879 and regarded as the first movie projector. The zoopraxiscope projected sequences of images from rotating glass discs and was devised in order to prove the validity of Muybridge's animal in motion research. Lynch team customized the device by using laser as a light source but they kept the image of a galloping horse, as a tribute to the photographic pioneer.
Interestingly, the project was also inspired by a US military paper about 'non-lethal weapons' (PDF) in which the author suggested projecting holograms to scare a target. The scenarios he gives to demonstrate the soundness of the idea include: projecting the 'ghost' hologram of the dead rival of a drug lord with a weak heart; screening images of troupes to confuse the enemy and make them think that you came in large numbers (which sounds very Ghost Army of WWII); or projecting the image of an ancient god over an enemy capitol whose public communications have been seized (what a condescending plan!)
I first heard of the project a few months ago (big thanks to John O'Shea!), couldn't find enough details about the work for my liking and thus contacted Dave Lynch to ask him my many questions. He kindly involved physicist Mike Nix in the conversation:
Hi Dave! Your motivations for the project state that you don't intend to deceive and you don't even want to exploit the project commercially. Project Nimbus is an 'open source cloud projector to share with artists and activists as a means for creative expression.' Did you receive some offers to use the work in commercial contexts?
You could see it a mile away, that glint in eye of the enlightened business mind, if I'm honest, I'm amazed we got there first. It would have been crushing for the pioneering act to be attached to the transient agendas of advertising, I partially fund my art practice though working in the commercial playground on large scale installations for international brands, commonly losing creative autonomy and artistic quality due to time and budgetary constraints, all underpinned by the necessity to focus purely on spectacle. The inspiration, process and model of collaboration that are fundamental to this project are rooted in artistic enquiry.
In 2007, I realised the potential of the projected image, the original idea was to project a symbol of hope, an Angel, taking stimulus from childhood archetypes in mass media and religion to create an ubiquitous icon in direct response to the US military's strategy of fear. By projecting the image from the air, the projection beam had no earthly location, appearing to make the technology invisible and increase the power of both illusion and audience impact. The more I explored this concept, the notion of mis-interpretation i.e. an Angel of death, ignited the potential power of the image without media anchorage. How would this potential manifest if the idea for image was left open to originate from the people engaged in the journey and process?
This lead me to focus on the technological development, the idea of creating a non-lethal weapon of mass communication became the sharing of the device's blueprints and subsequent methodology through open source structures. This was underpinned by the decision to keep the spectacle of the final image open for debate with collaborators and audiences to explore elements such as; our human relationship to the image, ownership of the sky and clouds, image saturation though advertising and potential use for creative expression as a mass media communication device.
Whilst we had multiple requests to project logos and all manner of social media concoctions throughout the 3 years, including a prime time mainstream Saturday night TV show aiming to project the images of the audience onto clouds! With all of these, we were hot to point out; the experimental nature of their ideas, the dangers associated with such activities and how this could be 'disastrous' for a brands reputation if (alluding more to when) it went wrong.
Although largely self-funded, with the exception of a little seed money from arts festivals, the project often fell on tight times and I'd be lying if I said the commercial side didn't cross my mind in these dark times as it felt that multiple agencies were about to realise our dream. Yet key to the process of Nimbus was to honour the time, shared ideas and actions of all the collaborators who had given time in good faith, this currency transcended the commercial appeal. We were all on this adventure, it was intoxicating, chasing what many thought impossible, we were breaking new ground and certainly not going to fall to commercial temptation just to achieve a world first.
This kept the project rooted in collaboration, between experts in their respective fields, artists, scientists, makers, pilots, film makers, cinematic historians and more working together in search of something beyond the spectacle, the real success is in the model of the genuine collaborative act. The influx of money from commercial sources would have certainly muddied and potentially destroyed the collaboration, there was no measure on peoples time, as soon as what we did have a price, it would have removed us from the experiential process. In keeping the first projections on clouds from aircraft true to artistic endeavour is a testament to our process, we hope that our actions will inspire others; that we can all make big things happen thorough collaboration, alternative currencies and belief.
The team behind PN is made of an artist (Dave Lynch), physicist and laser expert (Mike Nix) and a maker (Aaron Nielsen.) What was the working process like? Did each of you have a specific role or task to perform, for example?
Dave Lynch: It was the foresight of Aaron to start prototyping from scratch upon presenting the Mk1 Laser Zoopraxiscope and asking for help to build a cinematic shutter. This radically altered the potential for the design process whilst opening up ways for anyone to recreate our work through sharing. Upon seeking advice on the nature and dangers of lasers with Mike and Prof. Ben Whitaker at their chemical physics lab in Leeds University, we realised we shared a common ancestor through the work of photography and projection pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. For me, Muybridge's projection work of animal locomotion (a series of photographs in quick succession depicting the movement of an animal) has been a cornerstone of research for my work projecting animations from moving vehicles.
Mike Nix: It turns out that the field of ultrafast laser spectroscopy, which aims to 'freeze-frame' molecular motion, also draws analogy from Muybridge. Nobel prize winner Ahmed Zewail even referred to the same horse projection we used in his prize acceptance speech.
Dave Lynch: After a brief discussion about the pursuit to rediscover how Muybridge's projector mechanism worked, we had the laser cut prototype zoopraxiscope Mk2 on the lab's laser table, I was pushed to one side as Mike and Ben proceeded to 'experiment' or destroy the first prototype whilst suggesting ways the original could have worked. At this point we had a cyclic prototype process, through scientific experimentation and understanding of the zoopraxiscope's mechanism through the physics of light, we could move the design process forward. With this knowledge, we could work with Aaron to construct the next prototype, which then returned back to the physicists for further experimentation. This was the catalyst for collaboration, it wasn't long before we were all in one space.
Our process allowed each discipline to grow through genuine collaboration, to some degree, we all became artists, scientists and makers. In addition to our intuitive, creative aptitudes from the natures of each disciplines became our shared process. The ideologies associated with making enabled us to rapidly prototype ideas through; testing, construction and re-appropriation of other technology or methods. Science gave the knowledge, although rudimentary to science, it enabled the pioneering optics of the laser zoopraxiscope through physics by calculation. The art gave us a vision, focusing on the production of wider project and an umbrella to discuss the image's social engagement potential in the spheres of both art, science and make, opening the doors to commonalities of how information is controlled, disseminated and scapegoated.
Our languages merged, whenever we became locked throughout the process of design or strategy, the natural approaches of enquiry from each discipline provided either direct knowledge or more often, inspiration from a radically different and sometimes absurd view point. This ability to inspire each other through our merged knowledge and languages gave rise to the projects progression across the board. There were no questions too ridiculous and no judgement when asking as could potentially be expected in our own professions or social circles.
You developed Project Nimbus over a period of 3 years (if i understood correctly). What was/were the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while working on the project?
Nimbus has overcome many challenges in both practical and technical terms, this is largely due to coincidental good fortune of the people and festivals we met on our journey. The project sat on the shelf since the original conception in 2007 until a seed residency from Abandon Normal Devices and the Octopus Collective back in 2012, Initially I was very lucky finding Mike, Ben and Aaron as collaborators in re-designing the zoopraxiscope. Thinking it would be straight forward, its arguably the first ever photographic projection device from 1887, so it couldn't be that hard to figure out with two physicists, cinematic and engineering experts; could it?
We quickly had the mechanics of two rotating discs; one, the shutter disc compromising of 14 vertical slits, the second, an image disc holding a series of 14 frames of 16mm film with images of a sequential loop of Muybridge's horse in motion. The laser light passes though the shutter disc, creating a flash on the image disc, thus creating a succession of flashing images that we see as animated motion, simple! Yet one key bit of information eluded us all, the rotation ratio between the two discs. It wasn't till around 6 months later, we were introduced to Stephen Herbert, a cinematic historian who had worked on several zoopraxiscope replicas, he had the formula for the ratio.
1 : -1 - They rotate at the same speed in opposite directions. A week later, we had the zoopraxiscope Mk3 and soon witnessed the running horse in the lab for the first time, it felt like we were stepping in Muybridge's footprints, It must have been quite something when he saw his horse in motion projected for the first time, for us it was truly magical until we realised we had to face our biggest challenge yet.
With the current laser, a 2W 405nm blue laser from Ebay, you could just about see the horse in the pitch black, instantly Mike wanted to try a 'proper laser'. The Millennium is 5W of 532nm green laser used in the lab for experiments, this produced a clear bright image of the running horse, caught easily on camera in the dark, yet not bright enough for the clouds and besides having a cooling system the size of a fridge, it costs £20k. Prof. Ben Whitaker pointed out that the blue 405nm laser is at the lowest part of the human spectrum of vision. The lab laser of 532nm green is at the top for human vision so it was unlikely that it was ever going to work with this setup. We called it a day and I seriously pondered if this was the end of this part in the adventure. A few days later, I received a phone call from Mike stating that he had an idea to make it work...
His idea was brilliant; As the light passes through the slits in the first wheel, this is where we lose most of the light, so by replacing the slit wheel with wheel of 14 hemispherical lenses we could achieve a 90% brightness increase. But to test this theory, we would need to spend a £1k on laser grade specially cut lenses! This coincided with a residency at the Full of Noises festival in Cumbria, offering us £1k to research the project further, we took it as a sign and went for it, without this fortuitous coincidence and deadline to present our findings that summer, its hard to say if we would have continued down this path. After the residency, the project was quickly leaving the realms of the ideal low cost approach, we had come so far at this point that I decided to take a loan to buy a 2w 532nm green laser to give us the best chance possible in the skies. We had the best projector our money could buy, it was literally make or break from here on in.
We were fortunate with the pilots, they are an inspiration to work with, calm, calculated and incredibly skilled at what they do, getting hold of a plane on the other hand isn't always that easy. To begin with we had a great airfield and access to planes but there were no landing lights, so we couldn't fly at night. Landing at major airports was way out of our budget and nothing happened for a year. Even though we found airports with landing lights which were in budget, we then had the issue of finding a pilot / plane owner who was happy for us to carry out our activity at that airfield. Luckily the pilot from our early attempts came across a plane in an airfield near Nottingham.
The other major challenge was getting everything in the right place at the right time, predicting the weather is one thing, predicting cloud cover over a specific area at a specific height is another, essentially its mark one eye ball. The cloud conditions we needed happened every 6 weeks or so, in addition, we had to align the plane, pilot, second passenger to operate the zoopraxiscope. Multiple times, we would arrive and the clouds would dissipate before our eyes as darkness fell.
When you finally get airborne, you have no idea of a clouds size or relative distance, many a time we would head towards a bank of clouds only for it to disappear due to; weather conditions, a change in altitude, it becoming too dark so you loose sight in the dark soup or the clouds were so vast in the first place, that you are no nearer after 20 minutes of flying.
When we finally found them, the pilots flight agility required for us to capture the images was second to none, circling round whilst weaving in and out. Filming a mile above the ground, with a horizon at 45 degrees, hanging out of an open window going 100mph with the parallax motion of multiple depths of cloud layers has to go up there as one of the challenges. It certainly gives adrenaline a run for its money.
And could you briefly explain how it works? Because i suspect that it is more complicated than just bringing a projector on a plane.
I'm particularly curious about how you operate the projector once you are on the plane? Does it screen the animation through the plane window? Would any plane do? And do you need special authorizations to project from a plane?
We have the zoopraxiscope mounted on a tripod strapped down inside the plane, power for the laser and drill which powers the projectors mechanism comes from a marine battery and inverter tied down in the back. As we approach the cloud, the cue for turning on the laser is when the person in the front opens the window, after a 7 second safety delay the whole projector comes into life, its watched over by the person in the back in case of any issues. Our methodology has been honed over several years, through the design and multiple installations in the aircraft both on the ground and in the air, we have the install down to about 20 minutes, its a tight squeeze. The zoopraxiscope points our of an open the window, this removes the potentially dangerous back scatter from the laser being reflected back into the plane and due to the divergence of the beam, the projector is safe to look back at after 30m away. If were less than 30m away from another aircraft, we have other problems to worry about! Essentially, the light on the front of the plane is brighter than the laser projector.
What's next for Project Nimbus? Are you planning to develop the work further? Exhibit it?
Following a small grant from the Arts Council England, we have been working with Mike Stubbs at FACT Liverpool on potential next steps. As part of the ACE app, we plan to write up the process and collaborative model with the aim to publish in a journal & finalise/ release the zoopraxiscope designs through open means. Following the success of the article and hilarious conspiracy theories, we're planning a lecture tour and small bookwork from the 3 years of extensive documentation of the project and have some exhibitions planned in Yorkshire this autumn as part of the British Art Show.
As for getting back into the clouds, we aim to return to the skies with the zoopraxiscope later in the year for a piece with the discovery channel. Other plans include a large scale digital installation, which brings yet more R&D requiring serious flight time and here in lies a dilemma. Whilst we are looking at funding streams to push the boundaries in this kind of practice, we will likely require partnerships with commercial entities for in production. Finding a respectable, forward thinking partner or brand who is not solely about the exploitation of the idea now becomes part of the challenge. We can utilise this powerful form of mass communication for meaningful issues facing environment, society and culture, but in doing so we risk opening the door to what the project has fought against since its inception.
More notes from the Drone event organized by the Disruption Lab Network in Berlin a couple of weeks ago (the first post, The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, is over here.) Eyes from a distance. On Drone-systems and their strategies brought together a former drone operator, investigative journalists, criminal law researchers, artists and critical thinkers to reflect on the following issues:
What is the politics and the regime of power beyond drone-systems? Which are the consequences both on militant networks and civil society of an increasing automatism of conflicts? Can we track down the hidden strategies that move target-killings? Can we understand better drone technology?
The symposium was brilliant. For many reasons: the impeccable choice of speakers, the variety of perspectives, the stimulating Q&A with the audience. But i think i should salute the fact that many women participated to the conference, both as speakers and as members of the public. This will hopefully be a inspiration to conference organizers who believe that technology is a 'man thing.'
But let's get to the talks of the first evening. Two of them were given by people who have or used to have a direct, daily experience of drones.
i was incredibly moved by Asma al-Ghul's video contribution. She is a journalist and author from Gaza who writes about human rights, social issues and is never afraid to openly criticize Palestinian ruling authorities. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the international award for courage in journalism. On August 3, 2014, at least nine members of her family were killed in an Israeli airstrike. She was not allowed to get out of Gaza (more about that below) and sent a video to tell us about everyday life under drone surveillance and sometimes attacks.
The other speaker was Brandon Bryant, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who joined the Predator drone Program in 2006 and left in 2011 when he started questioning the ethics of the program and his own role as a soldier. He has since shared with the world his battle with PTSD, his guilt over killing people and his concerns about the U.S. drone operations.
Bryant also recently set up Project Red Hand to expose mechanisms of corruption, manipulations and wrong doings.
You can watch Bryant's presentation on YouTube but here's a small summary.
Brandon Bryant. Photo Ethan Levitas for GQ
When the GQ article came out in 2013, it was titled Confessions of a Drone Warrior. The word 'warrior' offended him. Drone technology made him feel like a coward, not a warrior. He could kill a human being at the other end of the world at the click of a button. 'What's more cowardly than that?'
And since the technology is used by the U.S.A., a country supposed to be the most powerful in the world, then he believes that the U.S. is the worst type of coward. Instead of leading by example, the U.S. is acting like the bully in the playground.
When you're a drone operator, you're a low class sniper. No one respects you in the military. You don't have to do the hard stuff. Yet, you are given the responsibility to take someone else's life without really being given the information necessary to understand what's going on and who exactly you've just murdered. You are told to look for people doing 'nefarious things', but we have no understanding of these people's culture. The first time Bryant had to shoot, he was told to fire at 3 individuals simply for the fact that they were carrying weapons.
Bryant also believes that as citizens we have responsibilities as well. Our duty is to raise our voice whenever there is a concern about the involvement of our government in the drone program. And if you're not American and think this doesn't really concern you, do check out his video, towards the end he describes the role of Europe and in particular Germany in making the drone operations possible.
Bryant's talk was very moving, especially when he revealed that 'back home' people don't want to hear his story. His brave decision to speak out and denounce the lack of ethics of the drone program was not seen with a kind eye, he even received threats from friends and colleagues who said he deserved to be shot for raising his voice.
Israel is the world's number one drone exporter. It has been experimenting the technology with deadly consequences on Palestinians for years so it wasn't surprising that the DNL had invited two writers from Gaza to Berlin to share their experience with us. Unfortunately, it was also no surprise to learn that neither Ebaa Rezeq nor Asma al-Ghul had been allowed to get out of Gaza.
However, Asma al-Ghul sent a video to tell us about life under drones in Gaza. Alghoul couldn't come to Berlin because of the closure of the borders. She is blacklisted for some unknown reason (like half the population of Gaza, she explained) and wasn't allowed to go beyond the Erez checkpoint controlled by Israel.
Gazans are very familiar with drones. They have lived through 3 wars in 8 years and even a child is able to recognize the arrival of a drone. They are so much part of everyday life that people in Gaza are giving the drones nicknames such as as 'Buzzer' or 'Zanana', onomatopoeia that come from the ugly sounds they make in the sky. In fact, drones have taken such a part of people's culture that they started calling 'zananas', the intelligence men who follow people or simply nosy people.
Drones cause serious stress and anxiety among the population. A drone evokes war and death. Once you hear it coming, you brace yourself for a bombardment and the death of people. On a side note, it's impossible to ignore their presence if you are watching TV because they ruin the transmission. "Every Israeli aircraft is dreadful,' she explained. "Apaches, F-16s and drones. Especially the F-16, when they break the sonic barrier and make severe explosions in the sky. "
Some Israeli drones are used for reconnaissance purposes, others fire missiles. Some do both.
"It's been six months since the war ended,' she says and war is still inside of us. People keep asking us whether there's a war coming. Since the end of the war, 40 people who live by the border-line areas have been killed by drones. One of them was a resistance fighter. Over 60 boats have been destroyed. 66 civilians including fishermen were detained by the Israeli forces in the post-war six-month period.
These statistics show there's no peace, there's no real truce and people feel they are threatened all the time."
A study recently released by Aid agencies in Gaza shows that over 100,000 Palestinians are still displaced. The situation is catastrophic. Gazans live in complete depression, in addition to unemployment and poverty.
Young people still dream of change, of reconciliation, of a new life to be born.
In addition to the domestic obstacles which cripple the population, Gaza is also facing political arrests and lack of speech freedom for journalists. The West Bank is not any better than in Gaza. Any journalist who criticizes president Mahmoud Abbas on Facebook can get into trouble, for example. Even the political reconciliation is far away now. It's the first anniversary of the Beach Camp accord this month and nothing has been applied.
The next event of the Disruption Network Lab will take place on May 29-30 in Berlin.
Previously: The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones.
DIYsect is s documentary series 'about the DIY Biology & Biology-Art intersection' and it is rather good.
In Summer 2013, filmmaker Benjamin Welmond and artist-biologist Mary Maggic Tsang traveled across the U.S. and Canada to meet the biohackers, artists, synthetic biologists, writers and curators and talk with them about the possibilities, challenges and dilemmas brought forward by biotechnology. The result is a portrait of DIY biotech hack and biotech art by the very people who are directly involved in it.
The authors of the series write:
I only discovered the existence of the episodes a few days ago (thanks Adam Zaretsky!) The films are short and sharp. They are released as soon as they have been edited. For free. On vimeo. Let's go!
The first episode of the web-series, Learning in Public is of course the introductory one. The directors interview members of the DIY biology movement as well as artists such as Steve Kurtz from the Critical Art Ensemble, Claire Pentecost, and subRosa.
Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror gets political. It starts with the FBI bioterrorism case against Steve Kurtz and then goes on to reflect the FBI's change of tactics. Realizing its errors, the FBI is now reaching out to the DIY BIO community 'for mutual education.'
DIYSECT Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror
Things are gettng tricky with episode 3. Fear of the Unknown which should be out on vimeo today!
The episode delves into the discussions surrounding synthetic biology. On the one hand, a project like the Kickstarter-funded Glowing Plant is creating controversy by bringing synthetic biology to the consumer market in the form of a plant that glows in the dark. Its developers' rhetoric is fairly unconvincing (at least as far as i am concerned.) On the other hand, the technology watchdog group ETC. Its members fear the lack of regulation (the plant doesn't require any form of approval in the U.S. since it is not food) and the potentially damaging impact that the release of the plant might have on the environment. Somewhere in the middle is artist Adam Zaretsky who has long used his provocative performances to try and raise a broader debate about what is ethical or not in the field of synthetic biology. There's this great moment in the film when he explains that we don't really know what we are doing and that we need to stop and think before we 'fuck up our world' beyond human control.
On a side note, i believe we need to see more of Zaretsky's provocations and reflections here in Europe, so let's help him fund his next trip to the old continent.
Image on the homepage: Critical Art Ensemble in Halle/Saale, Germany performing "Radiation Burn: A Temporary Monument to Public Safety", October 15th 2010.
What might sound like an ecological abomination is actually the start of a process that will create a new eco-system beneath the sea: an artificial reef. The sunken boat will provide a hard surface to which algae and invertebrates adhere, providing food for fish.
The artist bought the boat off eBay for 75 pounds. It was called Brioney Victoria and had been rotting for decade at a Canvey Island yard. He emptied it, added a concrete wheelhouse to make it look like a working boat and then stripped it of anything that could potentially be harmful.
Once ready, the small fishing vessel was towed out to sea. Faithfull set it alight, opened the seacocks, let water into the boat and dove off as it started sinking.
Five cameras were mounted on board to record the boat's descent and they are still monitoring its transformation, transmitting images via a dedicated website and relaying them to exhibitions. The first one is at Fabrica, a former chapel turned art gallery in Brighton. The show, which is part of the Brighton Photo Biennial, will later move to Calais and Caen.
In the Brighton gallery, a big overhead screen show the boat smoking and very slowly sinking beneath the waves. A series of monitors at ground level broadcast the images from the drowned boat.
Faithfull was interested in investigating how an ordinary object at the end of its existence is given a new, almost eternal life.
Like some of the artist's previous works, REEF documents the plight of a camera exposed to extreme elements or sent on a journey from which they might never come back. In 2003, for example, Faithfull sent a video camera attached to a weather balloon into the stratosphere.
Simon Faithfull Interview for REEF Project
Simon Faithfull will be giving a talk at Lighthouse on Tue 21 Oct 7- 8.15pm. And if you miss the evening, check out REEF at Fabrica in Brigton as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial. The show is open until 23 November 2014.
Also part of the Biennial: Amore e piombo: The Photography of extremes in 1970s Italy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Previous posts about the festival: "Volta", the oversized voltaic pile, Age of Wonder: Superintelligence and existential risks, Tree Antenna: using trees for radio transmission.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest will be artist and 'videosmith' Sam Meech whose work explores the role of analogue technologies in a digital landscape, and the potential to fuse the two in production, projection and performance.
I discovered Sam's work in Liverpool a few weeks ago, it was part of Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, an exhibition at FACT that explores how the working day has evolved from the industrial revolution to the digital age. Sam Meech has hung over the gallery a banner which translates into a knitting design the working hours patterns of people active in the 'creative industry' and they are, as you suspect, radically (depressingly??) different from the traditional 8 hour shift.
Sam is also a co-director of Re-Dock - a not-for-profit arts organisation, developing projects that explore ways in which communities relate to digital media, ideas and public space.