The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Address to the Edinburgh Science Festival Church Service 2022

The Edinburgh Science Festival closes with a church service in the historic St Giles' Cathedral. It includes a ten-minute non-religious, non-political address. This year I was honoured to be asked to give it. As you can see, the service is as splendid as the setting. My talk starts at 33:28. The text follows below.

The theme of this year’s Science Festival is Revolution. This is an apt topic here in St Giles, which after all is the very spot where the revolution, in the then Three Kingdoms, began: a revolution that created modern Britain. But whether Jennie Geddes is real or legendary, I hope no chairs are hurled at the pulpit today. So, steering well clear of religion or politics, I’d like to talk about how we talk about politics, and when and why people started talking about revolution. Interestingly enough, it was at about the same time that our revolution happened, in the seventeenth century.

In the same century, and perhaps by no coincidence, there was a scientific revolution. The mechanics of Galileo and Newton was the subversive science of its day, challenging the metaphysical doctrines of ancient tradition as shatteringly as the artillery it helped to aim battered down the walls of lordly castles. And it left its mark on our language of politics.

When you look at the language and vocabulary that we use to describe political events, you find a surprising number of words from seventeenth-century physics and astronomy. Revolution in that context meant a complete turning of a wheel, or the circuit of a planet in its orbit – the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, as Copernicus titled his revolutionary thesis. And revolution, as a metaphor in politics, originally meant something very similar – a return to the starting point.

At the time it must indeed have seemed like that. You get rid of a King, you fight a civil war and end up with a Protector, and then the Protector dies and before you know it you have a King again. And everything seems to be back in the same place as it was before: after the Interregnum, the Restoration. Looking back, people in later centuries could see more clearly that it was not: that some things had changed irreversibly, and the revolution, you might say, kept rolling on.

We still talk of masses, which may or may not be in motion. We speak of political and social movements, which may or may not have certain dynamics. We evaluate the balance of forces. If we’re politics professors or journalists, we may ponder the electoral cycle. We may look at a social or political system – and that word too, system, originates in astronomy – and ask whether the system is stable or unstable, or whether or not it is in equilibrium. We may investigate the system’s mechanics. We may despair at the system’s inertia, and hope, perhaps in vain, for some impulse or even momentum to change it. And can the change we seek or fear be accelerated, or retarded? Should we worry about possible retrograde developments? Will our action in the end produce a reaction?

It’s Newtonian mechanics all the way down! Well – perhaps not quite. There are some other sciences that we draw on for political metaphor: the idea of a political upheaval surely comes from geology, as does a political earthquake, when the tectonic plates of politics shift. (I wonder how many years of the Edinburgh Science Festival, and how much toil of primary and secondary school teachers, and how many school visits to Dynamic Earth it took before plate tectonics became a political metaphor that everyone could understand!)

Our most troubling political language comes from biology, and evolutionary biology in particular. The metaphors of competition, of natural selection, of struggles for existence have been applied and misapplied with dire consequences. This pains me greatly, not least because I trained as a zoologist. Now, I’ve read Darwin, and for my sins I’ve even read Herbert Spencer, and I can honestly say that in these matters they are both much maligned. There is no basis in their work, let alone in modern biology, for any kind of racial politics. But when the founding text of a discipline is titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life it’s all too easy to see how misunderstandings could arise.

Is there a biological science that might offer us a more fruitful language for politics? I think there is: ecology. It’s already provided us with two familiar terms in politics: sustainability, and diversity. Ecology examines all forms of life in interaction with their physical environment and with each other, and identifies and measures the flows of energy and material among them. And humanity, of course, is now a somewhat important form of life, and affects these flows on a planetary scale, not always entirely for the good of itself, let alone the rest.

Ecology, I think, is as subversive a science in our time as Newton’s mechanical philosophy was in his. Why? It delivers warnings about what our interactions with the rest of nature are doing to us and to the planet, certainly. But it does more. It suggests a science of ourselves that starts with our relationship with the rest of nature, and with each other. Like it or not, we all need food, drink, and shelter, and like it or not we can only get them from the rest of nature and in and through relationships with other people. Human beings can’t sustain themselves individually, like the sea-birds outside my window, or co-operate instinctively, like the ants in my back yard. We’re social and productive by necessity but not by instinct, so we must rely on thought and speech. To make our living together, we have to speak and think, imagine and create, question and discover. An ecologically inspired science of humanity could start from these facts, and trace the flows of material and energy through human society and back to the earth and air and water around us. It could ask what people think they’re doing, and investigate what they’re actually doing. It might dig up all kinds of inconvenient truths about where stuff comes from, where it goes, and how it gets there -- and who gets it, and who gives. And if these connections became widely known and understood, people might want to change a lot of what goes on.

Perhaps we need a better metaphor for change than revolution. One that has always stuck in my mind is ecological succession. On land left bare by ice or fire or landslide or flood, different populations of plants, animals and fungi settle in well-defined stages, each incomplete and unstable in itself, each more complex and diverse in its components and their interactions, until finally there arises what is called the climax community, a combination of species that is self-sustaining and self-reproducing: a mature forest, for example. The more complex and various the community, the more stable and resilient it is. Is such complexity and diversity, then, that we should expect and work towards in our human community? What would a climax community of humanity look like? Are we there yet? I’ll leave these questions open. I’m not here to preach.
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Tuesday, March 08, 2022

BEYOND THE HALLOWED SKY is a Kindle Daily Deal today

Get it here today!
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Sunday, December 12, 2021


What with one thing and another I’ve neglected to mention here that my new novel, Beyond the Hallowed Sky, has been published. It has been well received so far, with good reviews in The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday and SFX. The book launch at the Cymera mini-festival, in the form of an onstage conversation with Professor Ruth Aylett, went well. You can read the first chapter of the book here.

It’s the first volume of the Lightspeed Trilogy, and the second volume is well underway.

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Friday, December 03, 2021

What does fiction tell us about our hopes and fears for technology?

I'm delighted to say I'm on an online panel at the Digital Ethics Summit 2021, with Tabitha Goldstaub, Professor Sarah Dillon, and Ted Chiang.

4.30pm – 5.05pm GMT, 8 December 2021.

Register for free here.

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Monday, November 22, 2021


Details here.

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Saturday, August 21, 2021

‘Nineteen Eighty-Nine’

I’m very happy to say that I have a short story, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Nine’, in the first issue (Autumn 2021) of the new online science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine ParSec, edited by Ian Whates, now available here from PS Publishing .

The story has been long in the making. Sometime in the early 1990s I had an idea for a story called ‘Nineteen Eighty-Nine’, in which events like those of 1989 in our world happen in the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I wrote it and sent it to Interzone, and they sent me a kind rejection note suggesting that I try a local fanzine. I sent it to the local fanzine New Dawn Fades, and they rejected it. The editor softened the blow by encouraging me to write something else for them. They later accepted, I think, a review and a poem. But for the moment, I was done with short stories. After that, there was nothing for it but to write a novel.

That’s the story I’ve told now and again, usually with the punch-line that the best thing about the story was the title, because it tells you exactly what the story is about.

Now I’m going to have to retire that anecdote.

Earlier this year, shortly after I had read that Orwell’s fiction was now out of copyright, Ian Whates emailed me to ask for a story for a new venture he was planning. I pitched ‘Nineteen Eighty-Nine’. Ian was keen, so I looked at my old story (or what I could find of it), decided it was beyond help, and wrote an entirely new story. I’m fairly sure it’s an improvement on my first attempt.

One inspiration for the new version was the article ‘If there is Hope’ by Tony Keen, in Journey Planet #3 (pdf). Another was the article Orwell on Workers and Other Animals, by Gwydion M. Williams, which makes the intriguing point that 1945 is missing from the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

While writing the story I chanced on a clue to Orwell’s pessimism that, as far as I know, has escaped scholarly attention. Orwell, it turns out, had read and been impressed by George Walford's pamphlet The Intellectual and the People.

Walford drew on his mentor Harold Walsby's The Domain of Ideologies, the founding text of what Walford later called Systematic Ideology. This argued that the major social outlooks form a historical, numerical, and political series in decreasing order of antiquity, size, unity, and radicalism. The (historically) oldest and (currently) largest group is the apolitical, followed by the conservative, the reformist, the revolutionary, and the anarchist ... with the tiniest, least effectual and most extreme group being the Systematic Ideologists themselves, who understand the whole process but can't think what to do about it.

More about this another time, but it seems to me significant that Orwell attributed political apathy, ignorance and indifference to – not 'perhaps the largest single group' of the population, as Walford did – but to the vast majority: 85%.
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Sunday, October 04, 2020


'Somebody died fae vaping. Yir better aff back on the fags.'

--- Lady at bus stop, a few months ago.

You might think it bad taste to talk about vaping in the middle of a pandemic, and you'd be right. But this hasn't stopped a slew of public health bodies, politicians, and activists from doing just that, so I see no reason to unilaterally disarm.

If you want some proper science and good sense on the topic, follow Clive Bates on Twitter, and read his excellent blog. Meanwhile, here's my own overdue rant.

I've been meaning to blog about vaping for a while. My Twitter feed sometimes seems to be about little else, rather to my embarrassment whenever I scroll through it. So I'll start by explaining why it matters to me. As with many vapers, my story begins with smoking.

To cut that long story short: I smoked, first a pipe then cigarettes, from my early twenties to my late fifties. I tried to quit many times. The annual ratchet of tax rises in the Budget reliably brought on another attempt. Surely I'll stop, I told myself, when they're over 50p a pack! Not even the £10 pack did the trick. Neither did Allen Carr's book, willpower, shame, and the pub smoking ban. One day about ten years ago I saw an electronic cigarette in a petrol station, and bought it. It was shaped like a cigarette and had a tip that glowed when you drew on it. After buying a few of these and finding it inconvenient when they ran down I soon was ordering the same brand with rechargeable batteries and replaceable cartridges. I was still smoking, but a bit less than before, and the ecig made pub conversations much more convivial and less often interrupted than they'd become. The kick was feeble, the nicotine faint, the taste indifferent, but it was better than nothing.

Then a student in a mid-morning break at Napier showed me a more advanced e-cig, with a refillable tank, and told me where to get them. That very lunchtime I hastened over the hill to Emporium Vapour at Gorgie Road, and bought a starter kit. Within weeks, and without trying, I'd gone from smoking a pack of cigarettes a day to a pack a month. I went from tobacco flavours to fruit, menthol, spearmint... eventually settling on Kiwi and Strawberry, a half dozen tiny bottles of which I've just ordered. I smoked what turned out to be my last cigarette in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2016. Vaping had succeeded where decades of New Year resolutions had failed.

In the meantime, I'd been through the battle over the EU's Tobacco Products Directive, which saw concerted efforts to ban or severely restrict vaping and frantic, largely self-funded efforts by vapers to save it. We all learned a lesson in how EU laws are made. The vaunted principles of transparency, evidence, proportionality and subsidiarity didn't, let's say, stand out. The outcome was some pointless, petty and harmful regulation that wasn't as bad as we'd feared – and thousands more people in Britain who hated the EU and were active, informed and outspoken about it on social media. I'm not saying it swung the referendum, but it can't have helped.

The real threat to vaping, however, came from the United States. As long as vaping was a hipster fad, it could be fought by ridicule and junk science, of which there was plenty. The typical experiment involved burning out ecig coils and forcing mice to breathe the resulting toxic smoke for a month. The results of the mouse autopsies could then be turned into excited press releases and even more excitable headlines.

Another line of attack was that the vaping industry – or, absurdly, the tobacco industry – was 'targeting kids'. In US usage, 'kids' can mean anything from toddlers to graduates, but let's be generous and assume it meant in this case teenagers. The massed ranks of mom and pop businesses and evangelical ex-smoker start-ups that made up Big Vape in those days were allegedly targeting teenagers with 'kid-friendly' flavours: sweet and fruit flavours, sometimes with names reminiscent of the kind of candies actual kids like. 'Gummy bears' was a common talking point. The slogan, repeated to this day, was 'Flavours hook kids'. The claim makes sense until you give it a moment's thought.

When you do give it a moment's thought, you recall that teenagers are anxious to put away childish things, to take on the trappings of adulthood as quickly they can, and to defy the conventions and pieties of the adult world as annoyingly as they can. This is, of course, one reason why they smoke cigarettes. If you wanted to appeal to teenagers, your ideal vape flavour branding would be redolent of tobacco harvested by slaves, shipped by pirates, imported by smugglers and smoked by highwaymen.

The real 'target' (i.e. market) for fruit and sweet flavoured vapes was people like me: adult smokers and ex-smokers and would-be ex-smokers. Smokers who take up vaping usually start with imitations of their familiar tobacco flavours, but fairly soon (perhaps because the imitations are not all that convincing – copying tobacco flavour has turned out to be surprisingly difficult) move on to sweet and fruit flavours. If these flavours are presented as having the generic tastes of sweets they enjoyed in childhood (and may not have tasted since, for the sake of their teeth or their waistlines) all the better -- it adds a touch of harmless nostalgia.

And that market – unlike the pocket-money, illegal market of high-school students – is huge. But open-tank vaping doesn't appeal to all of them. If only there was a product as convenient as cigarettes! A start-up company set out to design just that, and succeeded. Juul is a slim device with a USB-cable rechargeable battery and replaceable cartridges of liquid. It gives the same instant nicotine kick as a cigarette. So I'm told – thanks the above-mentioned petty EU regulations, the high-nicotine pods aren't available here.

The trouble with Juul was that these devices really did appeal to teenagers, mainly if not wholly the very teenagers who would otherwise have been (or indeed already were) smoking cigarettes. Juul and similar devices are easy to conceal, almost undetectable in discreet use, and leave no tell-tale smell. This duly set off a moral panic – at the same time as the prevalence of actual cigarette smoking among teenagers dropped to a historic low. The 'Flavours hook kids' nonsense has driven ban after ban on flavoured vaping liquids. This was (and is) bad enough.

Then came disaster.

Cannabis use is illegal in the US at a federal level, but in the past decade some states have legalised it: first for medicinal use, then recreationally. The possibility of vaping cannabis didn't escape attention, and was soon realised. Legal weed stores sell an eye-watering variety of vape pens and cartridges, as well as cannabis cakes, candies and for all I know actual leaf. Because it's legal in some places but not in others an illegal market soon sprang up. Some of the criminal entrepreneurs supplying it found that they could cut cannabis-based oils with thickening agents, one of them Vitamin E acetate. This turned out to be deadly. More and more people were rushed to hospital, and scores have died, with severe lung injuries. The source of the problem was soon exposed by the legal cannabis industry. It was obscured at first because the victims had often been vaping cannabis illegally (because of their age or location) and admitted only to 'vaping' or even, more alarmingly, to 'juuling'. Blood tests, however, soon showed what they'd been vaping. It wasn't nicotine.

The lie ran around the world before the truth got its boots on. Certain US public health authorities, notably the Centers for Disease Control, did their utmost to warn against 'vaping' and 'e-cigarette use' in general and almost nothing to warn against vaping illegal cannabis in particular. The misconception, to put it no more strongly, persists and is reinforced by various public health authorities, lazy journalists, and anti-vaping activists to this day.

That's why the little old lady at the bus stop kindly advised me to go back to smoking.
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