May 2013 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



“Isaac Asimov Presents Great SF Stories #10 (1948)” ed. Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg. Anthology of the best short stories of 1948. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

“Shadow of Night” Deborah Harkness. Sequel to an urban fantasy where the protagonists have travelled back to 1590, so this instalment is more historical fantasy. Library book.

“Nemesis” Isaac Asimov. Science fiction set in a mid-distance future where some of humanity is living permanently on space stations and interstellar travel is just beginning. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

“A Memory of Light” Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson. Last book of the Wheel of Time series. Library book.

Total: 4


“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” eds. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson. Exhibition catalogue from a 2005 exhibition at the Royal Academy, covering the art collection of the three Qing Dynasty Emperors the Kangxi Emperor, the Yongzheng Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor.

Total: 1


Star Trek Into Darkness.

Total: 1


Architectural Details – a series of photos taken in Cambridge.




Total: 3


Absolute Zero. In Our Time episode about absolute zero, both what it is and the history of the scientists trying to achieve it in the laboratory.

Gnosticism. In Our Time episode about Gnosticism.

Pitt-Rivers. In Our Time episode about Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, the man whose collection forms the basis of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Water. In Our Time episode about the chemical nature of water.

Total: 4


EEG Visit to the Petrie Museum. A trip to the Petrie Museum by members of the EEG where we were given a tour & a talk by Wolfram Grajetzki about Lahun.

“Mummies, Asps and Far Too Much Eye Make-up: Ancient Egypt in the Cinema” John J. Johnston. Talk given at the EEG meeting in May, about films featuring Ancient Egypt.

Total: 2



Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror.

Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver.

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor.

Total: 3


Archaeology: A Secret History. Richard Miles presenting a series about the history of archaeology.

Brazil with Michael Palin. Palin travels round Brazil.

Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War. Programme about the Hundred Years War between England & France, presented by Janina Ramirez.

Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach. Programme about the human digestive system presented by Michael Mosley, involving internal cameras amongst other things.

The Last Days of Anne Boleyn. Part of the BBC’s Tudor Court Season, a programme where seven experts discuss what is known and what is conjectured about the fall of Anne Boleyn.

Ice Age Giants. Alice Roberts talking about the large animals that lived during the ice age, complete with CGI recreations.

Panorama: North Korea Undercover. Programme about North Korea, partly filmed inside North Korea itself.

Wild Arabia. Nature show about the wildlife & people living in Arabia.

Wonders of Life. Brian Cox series about life – mostly about the physics & chemistry behind it.

Total: 9

Ice Age Giants; Brazil with Michael Palin; Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach

The second episode of Ice Age Giants was about the large mammals in Europe during the Ice Age. Roberts started by visiting Transylvania where there is a cave that contains fossil cave bears. The caves also have patches of the walls that have been worn smooth by the bears passing through the caves. These bears were larger than grizzly bears, and were vegetarians. As with modern bears they hibernated, and the animals found in the caves are mostly those that didn’t make it through the winter. But the cave bear specialist showing Roberts these also showed her two that seem to’ve slipped down a steep slope in the cave & failed to make their way out – there are scratch marks in the mud on the cave walls that look like the two bears, an adult & a cub, failing to scramble back up.

Also found in this cave is a cave lion skull. These were one of the top predators of the European continent and mostly ate medium size herbivores like deer. But it seems this one, through desperation or foolishness, had tried to sneak up on a hibernating bear and found it still awake. They had done a CGI fight between the bear & the lion which looked very impressive but not quite real enough. The lion’s skull showed signs of damage from teeth which is why it was thought to have died in a fight.

Cave bears were common early in the ice age, but became rarer as the temperature got colder and eventually became extinct at the beginning of the last glacial maximum. But some animals thrived in the colder weather and the first of these that Roberts talked about was the Woolly Rhinoceros. These animals looked exactly as you’d expect – a rhino with wool, with a bigger horn than a modern rhino. A well preserved one has been found near a remote town in Siberia so they know what the wool looked like as well as the skeleton. Preserved woolly mammoths have also been found in this area, including a baby one that I’m pretty sure we’ve seen before in another Alice Roberts programme.

Both the rhinos and the mammoths were herbivores, and ranged over a wide area from England to Canada – due to how much water was locked up in ice at the time Britain was linked to the continent via a land bridge, and Alaska & Russia were also linked. You’d think that during the ice age herbivores would have problems in the winter due to snow, but actually there was little snow across this area again due to the amount of water locked up in ice sheets. The Mammoth Steppe, as it is called, was an open grassland with lots of flowering plants. This is known from work done in Canada examining the contents of fossilised ground squirrel nests. The squirrels hibernated and stocked their nests with food for the spring before they slept. The nests of ones that failed to make it through the winter obviously still have their spring food store in them when they are excavated and this lets scientists see what seeds and fruits were around at this time.

The last animal discussed were human species. Starting with Neanderthals who are known to’ve killed & butchered mammoths. The expert Roberts talked to thought that they probably did this by herding one down a dead-end gorge and then flinging rocks down from above to kill it. The CGI for this bit was a little less than convincing, which was a shame. The other human species at this time was our own one, and Roberts looked at evidence that they used the mammoths for more than just food. It’s though that they built houses from mammoth tusks (as the tent poles) with hides stretched over them for a roof. Roberts also looked at a piece of carved ivory, in the shape of a bison, from this time.

In the third episode of Brazil with Michael Palin he travelled through the south east of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro. First up was an old gold mine and a current iron mine – this region is a source of a lot of Brazil’s mineral wealth. The gold was mostly mined on behalf of the British (I almost said “by the British” but that’s very much not true). There was a brief stop off at a couple of places, one of which was a farm where a man had a cow with 5 legs and two digestive systems, which was actually mostly to show us how the rural poor lived I think.

Then on to Rio de Janeiro where the rest of the programme was set. Palin didn’t just visit the rich bits of the city but also the poorer areas. The Brazilian government is making a huge effort to clear up these areas and drive the drug lords out and drag the communities into the 21st Century before the World Cup and the Olympics. First armed troops go in for the “Pacification” and then there is investment in the infrastructure and projects like schools and boxing clubs for the youth.

And in last episode he visited places in the far south and the south-west of Brazil. He started by visiting a current heir to the no longer existent Brazilian throne … I hadn’t even been aware that Brazil had been an independent monarchy, apparently they’re descended from the Portuguese royal family. And from that leftover from the past he went on to visit an aeroplane making company, very much an example of Brazil’s future.

Palin then spent some time in Sao Paolo, concentrating mostly on the poorer side of the city, and also pointing out how many Japanese immigrants there are in this part of Brazil. He then went to a town that was like a theme park Germany transplanted to Brazil – Blumenau. Obviously they’d dressed up to do their traditional dances for the benefit of the cameras, but when he then talked to some of the residents of the area they were saying they felt German first & Brazilian second, even though they weren’t necessarily first generation immigrants.

And the series finished up with a trip through some of the more unspoiled areas of wilderness in the south. J commented while we were watching that one of the places was the sort of place an Ancient Egyptian might want to end up. Pantanal is an area of wetlands, that floods annually. The residents farm cattle and the wildlife includes species of ibis.

Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach was a programme we’d recorded a while ago, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be too squeamish to watch. In the end it turned out to be mostly OK – just one sequence where I kept my eyes shut most of the time, and only a couple of contenders for “worst job ever” 😉

The thread tying the whole programme together was a demonstration Michael Mosley had done at the Science Museum. He swallowed a small camera which transmitted pictures from his digestive system over the course of the day. First it travelled down his oesophagus into his stomach, and spent a while there. They supplemented this batch of pictures with a set from a more high resolution camera on a tube that went down his nose, and he ate a selection of brightly coloured veg so that we could see them arrive in the stomach and start to mix with the gastric juices. Then after that second camera was removed he ate a large meal, and there were pictures of that being digested – most of what you could see was the veg, the steak had pretty much disintegrated by the time it got to the stomach. After that the camera moved through the small intestine, where we could see the intestinal villi which are little frondy projections from the surface of the small intestine to increase the surface area available for absorbing food. The stat they quoted was that the surface area of the inside of the human small intestine is about the size of a tennis court. Then the camera proceeded into the large intestine where it mingled with the faeces.

In between the various pictures of Mosley’s insides there were a series of short segments about related things. In the first of these he visited a historian who told him about the discovery of the composition of gastric juices. This was fairly astonishing – a doctor (William Beaumont) in Canada had a patient who had been shot in the stomach, and when the wound healed it left behind a small (inch or two diameter) hole in his flesh straight into the stomach. So afterwards the doctor did various experiments both putting things through the hole into the gastric juices to see what happened, and also drawing out some of the gastric juices to do other tests. Before that digestion was thought to be purely a mechanical process, but this doctor showed that the chemical action of the acidic gastric juices was a critical part of it. There was also a very brief segment just after this where Mosley dipped a coin in a beaker of artificially made up gastric juices and saw that it cleaned the coin.

Still on the subject of the stomach there was a segment about gastric bypass surgery. Which is the one I shut my eyes for most of – I can cope with pictures of someone’s insides, but not so much with surgical stuff stuck into someone. The operation we watched (or in my case listened to) was on a severely overweight man who’d had a heart attack in his late 20s, after a couple of years of unsuccessfully trying to shift the weight his doctors decided that gastric bypass surgery was the best option. I didn’t know before that what actually makes most of the difference after these operations is that there are behavioural changes. Partly because a hormone secreting part of the stomach is segregated from food so doesn’t do its normal job with increasing appetite, and partly because the bit of the small intestine that sends signals to say “full now” is closer to the stomach so the signal is sent sooner after eating starts. 6 weeks after the surgery the patient was saying he’d lost 3 stone, and had gone from never feeling full to being satisfied after eating quite small meals.

When talking about the small intestine there was a segment on perception of gastric pain, and the correlation with differences in personality. For this Mosley filled in a personality test then went through some pain tests (tube down the nose, balloon inflated in oesophagus till it hurt) while hooked up to blood pressure & heart rate monitors. The doctor doing the research was classifying people into either neurotic or extrovert categories, and he had found that the two groups had different responses to pain. Neurotics (like Mosley) showed reduced blood pressure and reduced heart rate. That’s not at all the expectation Mosley went into the test with – the textbook reaction to pain is increased heart rate & blood pressure, which is what extroverts show. The doctor was saying this has implications for treatment of gastric pain – different treatments will work better with different types of patients.

Moving on to the large intestine we had the two candidates for “worst job ever”. First up was the woman who cultures samples of faeces in the lab to look at the types of bacteria they contain. The ecosystem of the large intestine is very complex, with a large number of different types of bacteria. These can aid us in our digestion by breaking down the things we can’t, or they can be the cause of problems. She also talked about flatulence (which is a by-product of a healthy digestive system) and how the differing smells of farts is down to differing compositions of bacteria in the large intestine. Smelly ones are down to having more hydrogen sulphide producing species. Flammable ones down to having more methane producing species. Second candidates were the two people who were doing faecal transplants – in these faeces from a healthy person are mixed with salt water and put into an unwell person’s stomach via a tube down the nose. This can introduce a better mix of bacteria to the gut.

So this turned out to be quite an interesting programme, although I was somewhat glad that we ate our pudding during the other programme we watched on Wednesday rather than during this one!

Star Trek Into Darkness

We went to see Star Trek Into Darkness on Monday, in a surprisingly empty cinema – I know the weather was good for a change but I’d still have expected more people around on a bank holiday afternoon. But at least it being fairly empty meant we got sensible seats instead of under the speaker stack like we had for The Hobbit. Overall I enjoyed the film, it was a fun action film with a lot of neat set piece sequences. I’m not convinced it always made sense, though.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

The bit we picked over most when we got out of the cinema was why Khan had gone to the Klingon homeworld anyway – in the end we decided he wasn’t expecting Kirk (plus bonus Admiral Marcus) to follow and his actual plan would’ve involved some other next step. I’m … not sure what his plan was though. Was he going to negotiate to get his crew back after killing a bunch of people as “proof of concept” for ability to commit terrorism? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to steal the torpedoes, put them on the super secret special ship that only needs one man to fly, then fly away somewhere? Given he seems to be free to do what he wants to do right up until the point where he blows shit up (and even after that even tho he’s made it harder for himself to go anywhere on Earth he’s still pretty free).

Speaking of not making sense … Kirk in the meeting is saying “why the archive? That’s not a good target, there must be a bigger plan.” And oh look, there’s Khan to shoot them all. Except it wasn’t an archive, it was a secret weapons base that Khan had reason to want to destroy so Kirk’s logic was based on a faulty premise … and why didn’t Khan wait to come and pick them off more sensibly for a super-soldier who’s better at everything. (Each ship has a crew of hundreds, could he not find a Harewood for each ship – off they all fly to find Khan and there are a series of earth-shattering kabooms. Plus an extra one for Admiral Marcus’s office building.)

Well, “because Plot” is the reason, and perhaps I should let them have their collection of implausibilities to string together the set pieces because I did like the set pieces.

I think my biggest overall issue with the reboot Star Trek universe is the age of the crew – there’s a genre of fanfic that’s “alternate universe where they’re all in high school” and that’s what this reboot feels like. It’s been a long time since I watched any of the original Star Trek series, but I remember Kirk & the rest of the main crew as more mature. That Kirk was captain because he’d started as a lower officer and been promoted. Ditto the rest of the crew. They’d earnt their positions on the ship. And here we have a bunch of mostly new graduates dumped on a ship all together with no experience and no senior officers. And their interpersonal relationships are all pretty high school too. Lots of bickering and gossip, and “I thought you were my friend” stuff.

Right, enough complaining, what did I like (other than explosions and spaceship chases etc, because that goes without saying 😉 ).

I’d seen some references to Uhura just being “the girlfriend” in this film, but I’d disagree. She gets to come to the rescue rather than play damsel in distress. Like when she’s trying to talk their way out of trouble on the Klingon homeworld – clearly terrified but once she gets out of the ship she’s got her game face on. She fails, but you’re left with the impression she fails because anyone would not because she messed it up. She’s also the one who plays a pivotal role in subduing Khan at the end.

I guess the overall theme was that violence isn’t the right answer, even when provoked. That’s the flaws that both the antagonists have – Khan reacts to being used by Starfleet by lashing out, Admiral Marcus sees the possibility of war with the Klingons and reacts by trying to start it early. And Kirk is a hero because he has that initial reaction and then calms down (and listens to Spock) and tries the non-violent alternative. Most obviously in his reaction to Pike’s death where he’s consumed with the need for vengeance, but then decides to try to take “Harrison” into custody instead. The Kirk & Spock juxtaposition was well used, too – Spock demonstrates that suppressing all emotional reaction just leaves you inhuman & inhumane. And when Kirk just reacts and lets his emotions run the show he gets into trouble. It’s the combination of both emotion & reason that wins.

Interesting that we are told Khan & his crew would kill anyone they deemed inferior & that’s why they’re dangerous, but we never actually see this. All the violence that Khan does in the film is provoked – not justified, see above, but Khan feels it’s a reaction to what’s been done to him. I guess it makes the mirroring of Kirk more obvious – this is what happens when you let your anger cloud your reason.

I read somewhere elseweb, I forget where, that “it wouldn’t be a J. J. Abrams film if it didn’t have Daddy issues”. I haven’t watched enough stuff by Abrams to know this from experience, but it certainly feels true for this one. Most obviously Kirk – not only is his real father dead but first he disappoints his surrogate father then his surrogate father dies in front of his eyes (pretty much). And then Admiral Marcus tries to step in as the next obvious father figure, only to betray Kirk. There’s also Carol Marcus – disowning her father for cover at first, then disowning him for real once she realises (well, has confirmed) that he’s given in to megalomania. And I guess you can fit Spock into that too – he’s trying to be Vulcan enough for the (paternal) Vulcan side of his heritage.

But most of what I enjoyed about the film was that it was fun and full of explosions & chase sequences Candy-floss for the brain, and there’s nothing wrong with that every now & then 🙂

“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 2)

I’m now into the “pretty pictures” section of this book – the photographs of the items that were in the exhibition. Obviously I can’t put those in a blog post, but each section is introduced with a short essay and I discuss the first four of those below.

“Images of Imperial Grandeur” Jan Stuart

This short essay introduces the pictures of the official imperial portraits and court clothes of the type worn in the images. The formal portraits are all of a type: the subject is sitting on a throne facing forwards, dressed in elaborate yellow & blue court clothes with a red hat, there are no background objects. The faces are painted realistically but the expression is always serene. I think they look more like icons of monarchy rather than pictures of people, if that makes sense.

Stuart explains that these formal portraits were not for public viewing, they were only seen by the elite and were an important part of rituals both while the subject was alive and afterwards as part of ancestor worship. Apparently until the 20th Century it was actually a crime for a commoner to own an image of a former or current ruler. I’m not sure from the essay if that was just these formal portraits or if it was all images.

The history of these types of portraits goes back as far as the Han Dynasty (post), but the Song Dynasty (post) is when the style and ritual usage was fully developed. There are aesthetic differences thereafter but they’re relatively minor. At first portraits were only used in Buddhist & Daoist rituals but gradually during the Song Dynasty they came to be used in Confucian rituals as well. The initial reluctance for using them was down to a fear that inevitable imperfections in the portrait might redirect the ritual to the wrong person.

“Qing Dynasty Court Painting” Nie Chongzheng

This essay talks about the formal court paintings which recorded events and decorated the palaces & temples that the emperors used. It’s a little confused in that first it says that there wasn’t much difference in subject matter between the Qing & the Ming Dynasty paintings of this type, and then goes on to explain how it was different in the Qing Dynasty. Presumably what Chongzheng meant is that the details are different but the broad categories are the same? It doesn’t read like that though. The major difference in subject matter is that the Qing paintings have fewer historical themes and more emphasis on current events. Chongzheng suggests this is due to the conquering origins of the dynasty – the historical figures & events are not Qing history, so they preferred to emphasise stuff that was them.

There were changes in the status of court painters during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign – they gained titles that reflected a higher position in the court. The style of the paintings also changed, and incorporated European stylistic elements. As well as Chinese court painters there were several European court painters (mostly Jesuits). This brought vanishing point perspective to landscapes and more realism to portraits. Oil painting techniques were also brought to China by these Europeans, although not many oil paintings have survived from this era of the Chinese court. Another innovation in this era was informal portraits of the Emperors & their families, as well as the formal portraits discussed in the previous essay.

One problem with seeing these paintings in a book rather than in the flesh is that they are reproduced in quite a small size. So you get a sense of the whole scene but the details are lost. But they do reproduce some bits in a larger size, so you get a little bit of a feel for it. Some of these paintings are enormous and must’ve taken a lot of time to produce. Picking one at random to give the dimensions – “The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Eleven: Nanjing to Jinshan” is a silk handscroll that is 67.8cm tall and 2612cm long. It tells a story, you see the fleet sailing along the coast, then a procession on horseback going to a palace in the mountains. From the detail section they show in the book you can see each boat has a complement of courtiers & sailors and the decoration on the boats is all shown, from the long-ish section that’s reproduced in a small size (about half the scroll I think) you can see there are tens of boats, with hundreds of tiny figures on the boats & on land. The landscape & sea are also painted in (not quite realistic) detail.

“Ritual” Patricia Berger and Yuan Hongqi

The Qing Dynasty continued the state rituals of the Chinese state as a legitimisation of their rule. This essay divides the rituals into two sorts. The first of these is the sacrifices to Heaven, agriculture & silk. There was a calendar of such events through the year, and these rituals had to be carried out precisely, using ritual equipment of the right form and all the proper obeisances. These were pretty strenuous – apparently towards the end of his reign the Qianlong Emperor delegated his ritual responsibilities to his sons because he was no longer sure he was physically capable of getting the ritual right.

The second sort of ritual was the sacrifices to the ancestors of the Qing Emperors. These followed the tradition established by the Zhou Dynasty (post), and came in three sorts – shi xiang (seasonal offerings), gao ji (declaration offerings) & jian xin (offerings of fresh seasonal produce). They all involved ritual offerings of food and drink in ceremonial vessels whose shapes were based on bronzes from the Shang Dynasty era even if now they were more often made in porcelain or lacquer.

This section of the book has pictures of several of the ritual vessels. There are also ritual clothes, bells and a court painting showing a ritual taking place.

“Religion” Patricia Berger

The previous essay was about the Confucian rituals, which aren’t really religious per se tho given it includes a belief in Heaven that strikes me as a very technical distinction. But this essay is about religions that regard themselves as religions.

Berger starts off by discussing the Manchu shamanistic faith, which was in some senses invented during the period of the three Emperors covered in this book. Prior to the 1630s the Manchus were not a united people, and in the early years of the Qing origin myths and a Manchu cultural identity was developed, of which shamanism was a part. The shamanistic rituals developed formed part of the ritual calendar from 1644 onwards, and were eventually codified by the Qianlong Emperor.

The Qing Emperors also amalgamated other religion’s rituals into their observances. Berger says that this was seen as a means of controlling their newly conquered territories via their own cultural practices. (Although she doesn’t state it, this must surely be why they embraced the Chinese Confucian rituals as well.) So as well as Confucian rituals of the state, Manchu shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism, the Qing Emperors also promoted other religions including Daoism, Islam & Christianity.

Tibetan Buddhism had particular support. Berger sets out the political path towards this status, including the Great Fifth Dalai Lama recognising the Qing Emperors as boddhisvattas destined to rule over a unified China, Tibet & Mongolian empire (you can see why this would appeal …). But she also notes that the Kangxi Emperor & the Qianlong Emperor seem to’ve been personally inclined towards Buddhism.

Most of the art in this section of the book is Buddhist, and interestingly it doesn’t look “chinese” to my (uneducated) eyes. It looks more Indian, which would make a certain amount of sense.

In Our Time: Water

Water is all around us, and so we tend to think of it as normal and perhaps even boring. This In Our Time episode was about the many ways in which water is unusual and interesting. The experts discussing it were Hasok Chang (University of Cambridge), Andrea Sella (University College London) and Patricia Hunt (Imperial College London).

(This is the second time in a week we’ve listened/watched something about water – the fifth episode of Wonders of Life (post) also spent some time discussing water and it’s uniqueness and importance for life.)

They started out with a bit of historical context – before the late 18th Century water was thought of as an element, not as a substance that was made up of other elements. Antoine Lavoisier was the first person to discover that water is made up of hydrogen & oxygen and he is the person who named those elements. Something I didn’t know but that seems obvious now it’s pointed out, is that the word hydrogen means water-maker and is so named because combining it with oxygen makes water. It took a while for this to be accepted by the scientific community as a whole, and took until the mid-19th Century before the proportions of the two elements were known. But it’s now a matter of common knowledge that water is H2O, two hydrogens and one oxygen atom per molecule.

Hunt told us about how that’s right but not the whole story. Each oxygen atom in water bonds to four hydrogens – two with short covalent bonds, and two with longer hydrogen bonds. The short covalent bonds are the bonds that require a chemical reaction and input of energy to break, and these are the two hydrogens that are part of the water molecule per se. Hydrogen bonds form because the water molecule is polarised, Hunt was describing it as the triangle of the water molecule (sitting with the hydrogens at the base and the oxygen at the apex) has two little bunny ears sticking up which are perpendicular to the plane of the hydrogen atoms. So the oxygen is inside a tetrahedral environment with a hydrogen at each of two of the corners of the tetrahedron, and (effectively) an electron at each of the other two. These bunny ears (which are slightly negatively charged) interact with hydrogens on other water molecules (which are slight positively charged. Chang said that in cruder terms this means that the water molecules are “sticky”. Hydrogen bonds are longer than covalent bonds and don’t need a chemical reaction or large amounts of energy to break – Hunt said that they flick on & off every picosecond (which is 10-12 seconds). When pushed she said that that’s not directly observable, but that you do experiments to do with femtosecond (10-15 seconds) bursts of lasers and do calculations involving quantum mechanics to indirectly observe this (this is her area of expertise) and this is the best hypothesis about what’s going on.

They spent a while talking about the properties of water that are unusual. For instance, ice floats on water. We just take this for granted but it’s a unique property – most solids sink beneath the liquid form of the substance. Sella gave olive oil as an example, if you look in the supermarket on a cold day then you see cloudy solid olive oil at the bottoms of the bottles. Water is densest at 4°C while it is still a liquid, and this has to do with how the hydrogen bonds between the molecules push them apart in the solid (I think).

Water is also unique in how high a temperature it freezes & boils, if you compare it to other similar molecules. They used H2S and NH3 as examples of similar molecules that are gases long before water even liquefies. This again has to do with the hydrogen bonds, these hold the water molecules together when otherwise they might drift apart. Chang explained that in the 18th Century there was a certain amount of confusion about what precisely the boiling point of water is, and it turns out that this is justified. Boiling starts with the formation of bubbles of gaseous water which rise to the surface. The surface tension of water (due again to hydrogen bonds) means that it’s very hard or impossible for a bubble to start from nothing. So if the surface of the vessel is very smooth (like a ceramic mug) then the water can be heated past 100°C before it boils – this is called superheated water. He said that in a normal mug you might get to 102°C or 103°C. I followed a link from the In Our Time programme page to some research Chang has done on this – I was particularly struck by his sixth experiment where using degassed water he found that the water gets to a temperature of 108°C without boiling, and then explodes.

Water is a very good solvent. For small ionic compounds (say, salt – NaCl) this is down to the charges on the ions of the compound that’s being dissolved. The positive ones (Na) interact with the oxygen atoms, and the negative ones (Cl) interact with the hydrogen atoms. The way that the hydrogen bonds between different water molecules make the water form a lattice like structure also helps to dissolve some non-ionic compounds. If the molecule is small enough it will fit in the gaps in the lattice, as if it’s in a cage. Hunt then talked about how this makes water very important in life. Partly because it can carry nutrients around the body (in the bloodstream of an animal, in the xylem or phloem of a plant). Water is also an important part of cellular biochemistry. It is the solvent in which the chemistry takes place, and is also involved in helping some of the components of this chemistry (proteins) to fold up into the right shapes. The way water and some things don’t mix (oils, lipids) is how cell membranes work – if you think of oil droplets floating on water then you can see how they could be formed into a shell around a compartment of water.

They also talked a little bit about how there are more sorts of ice than you might expect. At least 15. Ice I is the one that we normally see, and in it all the oxygen atoms are aligned like oranges stacked up in a supermarket. But the orientation of the water molecules is random – so which direction the short covalent bonded hydrogens are in differs randomly between the molecules. If you do things with temperature & pressure to the ice then you get different forms of ice – the oxygens will still be organised the same as Ice I, but the orientation of the water molecules will be ordered in some way or another. For instance all the short covalently bonded hydrogens might be on the same side of each molecule and lined up in rows.

The take home message was that water is much more interesting than one might think, and that chemists are still finding out new things about it. Sella finished up the programme by telling us about one question that’s got the potential to have an impact on everyday life – why is ice so slippery? Apparently the full chemistry & physics behind this isn’t yet known.

The Last Days of Anne Boleyn

The start of the Tudor Court Season at the BBC! 🙂 This is the first of a handful of one off programmes about the Tudors – not concentrating on the stories of Henry VIII and Elizabeth that are so much a part of national mythology, but instead looking at the other central characters of the times. This programme was about the sudden fall of Anne Boleyn from Queen of England to executed adulterous & treasonous “whore”.

First, I’ll get the big nitpick out of the way: throughout the programme Robert Glenister (narrating) repeatedly refers to the events as happening 600 years ago, or six centuries ago, when in actual fact 1536 is a bit short of 500 years ago. A shame, as from reading the comments on the BBC blog post about the programme it seems some people have got fixated on the arithmetic error and haven’t bothered to pay attention to the rest of it. They should’ve got that right tho :/

The programme is billed on the website as “a radical new approach to televised history”, which is a little overblown, but there is a kernel of truth to it. Instead of a cohesive story that is presented as fact we have seven talking heads, plus a narrator, and they do not agree about the interpretation of the facts available. Suzannah Lipscomb in the BBC blog post breaks the theories down like this:

Broadly, the theories about Anne’s death boil down to four possible scenarios:

  1. that Anne was guilty,
  2. that Thomas Cromwell and, possibly, the Seymours conspired against her,
  3. that Henry VIII wanted to get rid of Anne,
  4. that dangerous talk cost lives and it was what Anne said – rather than what she did – that made her appear, in Henry’s eyes, guilty.

And the talking heads divide up as follows: George Bernard (a historian) was in favour of Anne being guilty. Suzannah Lipscomb (a historian) & Greg Walker (a historian) were in favour of the last of the theories (an appearance of guilt rather than actual guilt). The other four were split between the two conspiracy theories, with Philippa Gregory (novelist, including “The Other Boleyn Girl”) on the Henry-did-it side and Hilary Mantel (author of “Bring up the Bodies” (post)) on the Cromwell-did-it side. I think David Starkey (historian) was also a Cromwell person, and Alison Weir (author of many popular history books, plus some historical fiction) was more on the Henry end of the spectrum. But as I didn’t take notes I may’ve muddled that up a little – there’s a degree of overlap between the two theories anyway, as Cromwell could’ve provided Henry with the means to bring down Anne.

The format of the programme was for the narrator to talk us through the events, and the talking heads gave their opinions on the motivations or causes of things. In between the talking heads there were bits of re-enactment to give us something to look at. I think between them Mantel, Starkey & Lipscomb contributed more than half the discussion but the other four also had space to put their positions.

The programme started by working briskly backwards from Anne Boleyn’s execution on 19th May 1536 via her arrest two weeks earlier, her auspicious start to the year and then started moving forward again from her arrival at court several years earlier. As it wasn’t the focus of the programme we passed fairly swiftly over the intervening years till the start of 1536, just hitting the high points. Anne arrives at court age 21 having spent time in the French court beforehand. She’s intelligent, witty, charismatic, sophisticated … and the King becomes infatuated. He wants her to be his mistress, she holds out for marriage and in the end the King succeeds in divorcing Catherine of Aragon by splitting the English Church from Rome.

So as 1536 starts Anne is married to the King and secure in her position at court. Catherine of Aragon finally dies on 7th January and Henry and Anne celebrate. Anne is pregnant for the second time, and everyone is convinced this time it will be a boy and the heir that Henry needs. All is well. But on the day that Catherine is buried (29th January) Anne suffers a miscarriage, and the dead child was a boy. Henry is devastated, and the pro-“Henry did it” viewpoint identifies this as the beginning of the end for Anne – she’d had miscarriages before and this was a sign to Henry that the pattern was re-asserting itself. Gregory went further and told us about a midwife who examined the baby and discovered it was malformed, and if this was the case then that (in the eyes of 16th Century people) would mean that Anne had committed a dreadful sin or was even a witch. Both Mantel & Lipscomb pointed out that there’s no actual contemporary evidence of this, it’s a story that starts to circulate later long after 1536. Around this time Henry also began to pay court to Jane Seymour, who would be his next wife – again this could be seen as evidence that “Henry did it” but others of the historians pointed out that Henry had several mistresses over his lifetime and there’s no evidence that he was looking for a replacement wife in Jane.

The next major event they covered was a sermon given by Anne Boleyn’s chaplain on Passion Sunday. This had as its theme a warning against treacherous advisers using the story of Haman from the Book of Esther. This is identified by the Cromwell-did-it viewpoint as being squarely aimed at Cromwell, and as a sign of a rift between Cromwell & Anne Boleyn. Cromwell by this stage is the Minister of Everything – all the business of the court passes across Cromwell’s desk. He was also the man who’d managed to find the solution to how the King was to be able to marry Anne, so their rises to power were intertwined. The Cromwell-did-it viewpoint is that they were no longer closely linked, and there was a power struggle going on between them. Countering this Lipscomb pointed out that just because the priest was Anne’s chaplain doesn’t mean that he was speaking on behalf of Anne, we don’t know the motivation behind the choice of text. And it doesn’t seem to make sense for them to be working against each other.

Another thing that happened at this particular service makes it clear that Anne was still in favour with the King – Henry engineered it so that Anne & Chapuys (the Holy Roman Emperor’s Ambassador) came face to face, and Chapuys had to bow to Anne. As he was in the service of Catherine of Aragon’s nephew he had been refusing to meet Anne, and this incident meant that he was forced to choose between being rude and acknowledging Anne as Queen of England. He chose the latter path, quite the diplomatic coup for Henry. And as more than one of the talking heads pointed out, why would he do this if he was already thinking about setting Anne aside?

After this service the King is in conversation with Chapuys, and then the King and Cromwell have a falling out. No-one who heard what was said reported it, but apparently the body language was clear that they were having a row. Cromwell leaves court and stays in his house for a day or two saying he is unwell – he is said to have looked in poor health as he walked away from this charged conversation. They were saying that it’s thought that Cromwell was overstepping his bounds in organising foreign policy. And of course there’d just been that sermon, whether at Anne’s instigation or not it would still seem aimed at Cromwell. It’s after he comes back to court that the whole thing starts to come unravelled for Anne – so this can be seen as more evidence for a rift between Anne & Cromwell. There’s a later letter from Cromwell to Chapuys where Cromwell says that he “made the whole thing up”, but Lipscomb was saying that in the full context of the letter it’s not clear if he made it up from nothing of his own volition, or if he did so at Henry’s prodding or what. I don’t remember if it was spelt out, but I was also thinking that a letter from Cromwell after Anne’s disgrace to a man who had no cause to like Anne might not be the most unbiased source – one can easily imagine reasons why Cromwell might want to claim credit.

The first stage in Anne’s downfall was that rumours about her behaviour started to spread – the incident that sparked it was the Countess of Worcester, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, on being told off by her brother for her loose living says something to the effect of “if you think I’m bad, you should see how the Queen behaves”. Next Cromwell takes a young man called Mark Smeaton away for a chat about this – he was a musician who often played for the Queen & her ladies. The presenters talked a bit about whether or not he was tortured – there’s no direct evidence either way. Apparently torture wasn’t often used at Henry’s court, but set against that is the fact that Smeaton confessed which seems foolish. I remember from Mantel’s novel that she has Smeaton tricked into being boastful. But whatever happened (which we’ll never know) the fact is that Smeaton confessed to having slept with the Queen and named others who also had.

So Cromwell takes this to the King and moves on to a full scale investigation of what’s going on. I think it’s at this point in the programme that they spent a bit of time discussing Henry’s character in relation to why he would believe this. I think Gregory harked back to the theory that Henry as a devout man would see that Anne’s miscarriage was some sort of sign of God’s disapproval. Starkey on the other hand was telling us that Henry was the sort of person who could convince himself of the truth of whatever was convenient. And Anne’s failure to give birth to a male heir and her general demeanour as a woman who didn’t know her place might mean it was convenient to take this opportunity to replace her with someone less arrogant and full of herself, like Jane Seymour. I think it was Lipscomb that brought up the idea that even rumours of adultery were a public relations disaster for Henry – it would be a sign he couldn’t control his own household, and if he couldn’t do that how could he control a realm?

Seven young men are arrested, including Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris (one of the King’s closest courtiers) and Anne’s own brother George Boleyn. They are charged with committing adultery with the Queen, two are later released but five of them go on to be tried and executed for it. All of them except Smeaton deny the charges, interestingly Smeaton never recants his confession. Anne is arrested shortly after them on 2nd May 1536 and taken to the Tower. She denies all the charges, right up to the very end. She defends herself at her trial, but the outcome is a forgone conclusion – she is convicted of adultery, incest and wishing the death of the King and sentenced to be executed. The men are executed on 17th May 1536 and Anne follows two days later. She receives the final sacrament in the Tower before her execution and when she makes her final confession she swore on the threat of eternal damnation that she was innocent of the charges against her. Which Lipscomb pointed out as quite compelling evidence of her innocence – Anne’s about to die and is devoutly religious, risking eternal torment by lying at this point when it can change nothing isn’t in character.

Bernard was the lone voice on the programme suggesting that Anne might’ve been guilty. He drew attention to the fact that when the rumours started to spread and the investigation began no-one stuck up for her or defended her. He also noted that there is a suggestion that Henry was having problems with impotence, and so getting herself pregnant by someone else might’ve seemed the obvious solution to the “how to have a male heir” problem that Anne had. And even the incest with her brother might be explained by this, after all the resulting child wouldn’t look like anyone unfortunate. Bernard also pointed out that Anne & George weren’t brought up together, they met as almost-strangers as adults, so it’s not as disturbing as the modern mind thinks it is.

However Lipscomb pointed out that a lot of the charges were fabricated. The records of the trials are lost, but the list of charges still exists. These are very specific, they list several occasions on which intercourse took place and list Anne plus a named person on a given date in a named place. And even though not all evidence from the time survives modern historians have enough documentation of the places where Anne and the men were during this period to disprove three quarters of the charges because either Anne or the man or both weren’t in the right place at the right time.

Lipscomb & Walker were also keen to point out that the paranoid atmosphere of the court would prevent people from sticking up for Anne – if she’s on the way down you don’t want to get caught in her wake even if you do think she’s innocent. They also pointed out that life for a lady in the court was a tightrope act – you had to appear to be totally chaste, yet also take part in the games of courtly love. Flirt, but not flirt too much. Lipscomb told us that the most damning piece of evidence against Anne was a conversation with Norris where they imply that Norris wants to marry her once Henry is dead. This is taken as evidence by Cromwell that Norris & Anne were plotting the death of the King, but Lipscomb was saying that maybe it was a conversation that just crossed the line a bit too far and happened to be overheard at the wrong time.

I enjoyed this programme (you can probably tell by how much I’ve written about it 🙂 ). I particularly liked hearing the different viewpoints and appreciated that it drew a distinction between “this is a fact” and “this is an opinion”, it was always clear what was known and where people were speculating. Apparently the seven experts were interviewed separately, but they managed to cut the bits of footage together in a way that made it feel like a conversation.

Ice Age Giants; Wonders of Life

Ice Age Giants is a new series presented by Alice Roberts about the large animals that lived during the last ice age. It’s a nice blend of Roberts talking to various experts & looking at fossils, and cgi of what they think the landscape & animals look like. Of course I always wonder what we’re wrong about looking at stuff like that, but it’s cool to see.

The first episode was all about animals in North America. She started with Smilodon fatalis, the sabre-tooth cat – this segment mostly concentrated on how it killed its prey. The sabre teeth are actually pretty fragile (relatively speaking) and one might think that they would be easily broken by getting stuck in struggling prey. They also can’t kill the way modern big cats do – like lions – because they actually suffocate their prey by crushing the windpipe between their jaws or pinching the nose shut. But if you look at the width that a sabre-tooth cat’s mouth can open (to an angle of 120°, twice as wide as lion’s) and the big boned & heavily muscled front legs then another hypothesis becomes apparent. The cats killed by pinning down their prey (to keep them still) then slicing through the throat & ripping out the windpipe or cutting the various arteries there.

Roberts then moved on to talking about the Shasta ground sloth – a large (grizzly bear sized) relative of modern sloths. She visited a cave that had been a ground sloth lair with a palaeontologist who studies these animals – the cave contained a very large amount of sloth excrement. Apparently it hadn’t rotted because the conditions in the Grand Canyon (where this was) are so dry. They looked at bits of this & could see that sloths clearly didn’t digest their food all that well (bits of twig & so on still recognisable). And there was even a large pile near the back of the cave that had distinct layers and so on running from ~40,000 years ago through to ~20,000 years ago – a bit like the geological record in rocks.

Next up were glyptodonts, an animal I’d never heard of before. In the cgi sequences they looked a bit like massive armadillos or turtles on steroids. According to the palaeontologist Roberts talked to these creatures are often found belly up – if they die in water then the weight of their shells makes their body flip over & they sink to the bottom upside own. They had a reconstruction of two of these fighting – they don’t just have massive armoured shells and armoured tails, they also have little armoured hats that look about right for protecting the brain as two of them clash together in a dominance fight (a bit like stags).

Roberts then went to look at large standing rocks with a scientist who is looking at the weathering/wear patterns on the rock. He thinks that the smooth patches must’ve been polished by animals rubbing up against the rocks to scratch their backs as the wear patterns don’t look like any of the other possible causes he’s investigated. The lower bits & bobs could’ve been many things (including modern domestic livestock), but the 14 foot high patches were almost certainly mammoths! The Columbian Mammoth was bigger than the Wooly Mammoth of Europe, and was even taller than modern elephants. And they weren’t hairy, I had no idea you got bald mammoths.

And the last segment of the programme was about the La Brea Tar Pits. Which as soon as she said the name I remembered I knew of them, but I’d forgotten till I was reminded. These are in California, and are a source of natural asphalt. It’s sticky (obviously) and sometimes creatures get trapped in it and die – and to date 3,000,000 specimens of 600 different species of fossils from the era of the ice age have been found in these pits. I don’t think they’ve actually dug through much of them – there was one batch found when an oil company was digging up the tar, and another batch was dug up when some where wanted to build a car park. They’re still processing this batch – it was moved in blocks so they can now excavate it properly. So they aren’t just finding the big animals (which include sabre-tooth cat kittens!) but also the little ones like snails & beetles and such. And this is generating a lot of useful information about the general environment and climate in the area during the ice age period.

Once upon a time I wanted to be a palaeontologist, but I’m not really an outdoorsy enough person to do the work. But you can picture me watching this programme filled with glee and bouncing up & down a bit going “oooh, look at that, isn’t that cool?”. And there’s another episode next week! 🙂

We’ve now finished watching Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life, the final episode was mostly looking at the physical & chemical properties that make life possible on our planet. The ingredients that make it home, as he put it.

So he started out with water, and explained hydrogen bonds. These form because water molecules are polar – the electrons in the molecule are more around the oxygen atom than the two hydrogen atoms. So the oxygen atom has a slight negative charge & the hydrogen ones are slightly positive. These means that bonds called hydrogen bonds form between the oxygen of one molecule and the hydrogens of another. Which makes a body of water not just a bunch of separate molecules but instead it’s a more cohesive thing. This makes water a good solvent (I’m not sure I followed this, but I’ll take his word for it), and so it carries many of the other nutrients we and other life forms need. Its solvent properties also make it a good place for our own internal chemistry to happen – and all living things have a large percentage of water. The cohesiveness of water also gives it surface tension. Cox demonstrated this by looking at pond skaters, which live on the top of water supported by surface tension. Surface tension is also how water moves through plants, all the way from the roots to the leaves.

Next up was light, and he started by looking at all the ways that the light from the sun is harmful concentrating mostly on talking about UV. UV light damages DNA and can burn skin, so most animals and plants have some sort of adaptation to prevent this. Humans (and other animals) use melanin, which is a brown pigment that is particularly good at dissipating the energy of the UV radiation. Cynaobacteria evolved a different way of dealing with light – they absorbed & used the energy. The coupling up of two energy using systems to take the energy of light plus CO2 and turn it into sugars (ie food) and O2 appears to’ve evolved only once – plants do it too using organelles which are descendants of cyanobacteria that now live inside plant cells. And this provides the third of the ingredients we need for our sort of life – oxygen. He went into a cave with a sulphurous lake to look at the sorts of organisms that life in oxygen-free environments – slimy ones, it seemed.

And the last of his ingredients was time. Both the sort of time that gives us our circadian rhythms and gives the monarch butterflies their navigational systems, and also the sort of time that gave us a chance to evolve. If you look at the history of life on this planet there’s a loooong couple of billion years before you get beyond single celled organisms. Even a billion years to get from simple cells (prokaryotes) to complex cells (eukaryotes). Cox was asking “is it necessary to have all that time?”, and saying that we don’t know because we only have one sample so not enough data. I’m not sure I agree – there’s clearly random chance involved in whether or not the right mutations came up, so it could’ve happened immediately or it could never’ve happened. So I don’t think the length of time it did take is significant or necessary. It’s just indicative of how rare a chance it is – because each of the big jumps (non-life -> life, simple -> complex cells, single celled -> multicellular, development of photosynthesis etc etc) has only happened once despite the four billion years available (a third of the age of the universe, don’t forget).

Overall I’ve enjoyed watching this series. It really wasn’t what I was expecting (though I’d find it hard to tell you what I was expecting) but in retrospect it’s obvious that a physcist would tell us about the physics & chemistry behind the biology. And it was more interesting for me because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I did feel he was stronger on the physics & chemistry than the biology which sometimes felt a bit like he was saying things he didn’t quite understand. A bit like me talking about physics to be honest 😉

“A Memory of Light” Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson

The end of the Wheel of Time. Something I wasn’t quite sure would ever happen – not just because Robert Jordan died (although obviously that put a spanner in the works until they organised Brandon Sanderson to finish it off using Jordan’s notes), but also because the series seemed to get a bit out of control in the middle (books 8-10 in my opinion). But here it is, book 14 and The End. And Sanderson has done a bloody good job of writing 3 books by Robert Jordan (if that makes sense).

The first few paragraphs of this post are looking back over the series as a whole and are spoiler free, later there are massive spoilers for book 14 so read past the spoiler warning at your own risk.

The overall plot of the series is the quintessential epic fantasy plot – farmboy discovers he’s the chosen one who will save the world from evil. And Jordan takes that simple structure and makes something more complex and more real feeling out of it. For instance there are prophecies, as you’d expect, but some of them are wrong. Some of them are twisted by repetition through history into something that no longer resembles the truth, even tho they were true prophecy. Some of them are true, but not how you’d expect. Some of them are prophecies for the other side’s victory. None of them are intuitively obvious and true at first glance.

Another example is magic use – and obviously our farmboy is capable of using it and needs to use it, but the source of power for men is tainted by the evil he’s going to fight and will send him mad. And that doesn’t just have implications for him personally, it’s been like that for over three thousand years and the societies of the world are shaped by the knowledge that eventually a male channeller will go mad and will be capable of unleashing unspeakable destruction when he does.

Something Jordan does well is creating an actual world for this all to take place in. The area the action takes place in (the Westlands) is vaguely Renaissance Europe in culture – a patchwork of kingdoms and city states of various sizes, mostly but not all monarchies. All with superficially the same culture, but with differences. The various leaders bicker & posture & argue about relatively petty details – the world might be ending but it’s still politics as usual. It’s not even like most people believe the world is about to end until it gets pretty late on in the story. This area isn’t the whole world, either – there are other cultures like the Aiel (a desert warrior culture who regard wetlanders as weak) or the Seanchan who invade from over the sea because they believe themselves to be the true rulers of the Westlands due to descent from a colony sent out by a King who ruled a thousand years ago. And their prophecies back that up.

Having all these different cultures and factions within them means that nothing ever goes smoothly – even when everyone’s trying to communicate there are misunderstandings because of alien viewpoints. And just about everyone thinks that their place of origin does things right and everyone else is misguided at best and should be educated in the proper way of doing things, which obviously causes friction. Even within a culture people bring their own history and experience along with them, and their own blindspots. It feels real, even though (because?) it also occasionally makes you want to shake people and tell them to stop being so stupid. The Aes Sedai (the organised female magic users) in particular fall into this category – they are generally arrogantly sure they know exactly how things should be done and sometimes their manipulations just make things worse.

It’s not just the characters on the side of the Light who argue amongst themselves and find it hard to agree on a common goal let alone focus on it. The characters on the side of the Dark are even worse – as you’d expect, really. I think a large part of the characterisation of evil in the story is that it’s a desire for personal power. The characters of the Light might want power but those that do generally want to use it to do good or to shape society in a way they think will be good for people (although frequently the theory & practice of what is good don’t match up terribly well). But the major players on the side of the Dark, the Forsaken, want power to make their own lives better and revel in the idea that this is at the cost of other people’s lives & happiness.

It’s certainly not without it’s flaws. As I said above the story gets somewhat carried away with itself in the middle. Part of this is down to point-of-view creep. The series starts off with a few people whose eyes we see through, and gradually more & more are added as events take place in different places. If I was asked to name the primary characters of the series as a whole I’d list half a dozen immediately and then there’s another half a dozen or so to consider if they’re primary or not, and several more who’re definitely not primary characters but are still pretty important. And the net result feels like Jordan ended up with too many balls to juggle, and too many things he thought were too important to skip over. But in book 11 (the last one Jordan wrote) he pulls it back together and re-focuses the story, and from there on they feel big because there’s a lot of story rather than a lot of padding.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

I’m not kidding, if you haven’t read the whole series don’t read any further – there’s stuff that happens in book 14 that’s worth coming to unspoilt. The rest of this is going to be a bit more stream of consciousness reactions to the book itself.

I liked the way that the last battle both was & wasn’t important in terms of the actual conflict with the Dark One. I mean, really what was important was Rand & the Dark One outside the Pattern with their almost philosophical debate creating visions (proof-of-concept models) of the way the world would be afterwards. And then Rand managing to use the One Power & the True Power to remake the Pattern to seal in the Dark One rather than just patch it up. But if there had been no battle going on, then the Dark forces could’ve interrupted that conflict, so the battle had its purpose.

I was a bit confused by the body switch at the end, but I think from reading other commentary (in particular posts associated with Leigh Butler’s re-read of the whole series on that I’ve mostly suffered from having not re-read everything just before reading this book as well as just reading this one too fast. Basically I think the mingling between Moridin & Rand was starting to happen already. Moridin is by this stage practically an avatar of the Dark One and he is killed as (or before?) the Dark One is sealed up, and Rand’s soul is pretty much in both bodies by that point. And his original body is more damaged, so that dies & he remains in Moridin’s body.

I liked how Rand pretty much becomes an avatar of the Creator in the conflict at the end, and that this stays in some ways once he is back in the Pattern. And it’s good that he “dies” as far as the general population is concerned, much more chance of him enjoying life – he’s done his bit, he should be able to retire in peace. Rather tough for people like his father though.

It was a bit of a surprise that Demandred really had been off somewhere on his “own” for the last 13 books, but once he appears to lead the Dark forces in the last battle I liked the way his desire not to play second fiddle to the Dragon again has warped his plans. I also liked the fact that he really is as badass as he thinks he is – Gawyn goes to duel him, and loses, Galad ditto. And then Lan, and Lan only wins by the one move Demandred wouldn’t’ve anticipated because Demandred wouldn’t conceive of winning a fight at the expense of one’s own life. (Well, Lan survives, but only barely.)

I spent a chunk of the first half of the book thinking “it’s all going awfully smoothly … this can’t be right”, but I still didn’t anticipate the generals being under a subtle Compulsion to just make lots of sub-optimal decisions. Now that was an insidious and sneaky plan. And in retrospect I can see the signs were there through the bit where I was wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.

One thing that the cast of hundreds turned out to be good for is that once the last battle got under way and people started dying they were people I cared about rather than just Footsoldier A or a high level view of Army A taking losses. In terms of main character death the body count isn’t all that large, but I thought those that happened were well done. After Gawyn dies I wasn’t too surprised that Egwene also died. And she went out in a blaze of glory, doing as much as she could without worrying about the price she would pay. And that just fits so well with her character & her story through the whole series. And you could see in the scenes with the treaty how Egwene & Rand between them were the centres of the forces & peoples on the side of the Light – balanced and needing to work together despite their differences. Which ties into one of the major themes of the series, after all, so it also seems fitting (from a story telling perspective) that as far as the world is concerned they both died saving the world.

I’m looking forward to re-reading this once I get to it in my giant re-read of all the fiction. And by then the paperback should be out so I’ll have my own copy not just a library book.

“Nemesis” Isaac Asimov

Nemesis is a book by Asimov written late in his career, published only a few years before his death. I think I might’ve bought it new (the edition I have says published in 1990, originally published 1989), and I’m not sure if I ever read it more than once. Certainly I had only the haziest recollection of the plot when I started reading it this time round – “something about a star on the way to the solar system”, which is about as much as the blurb on the back says.

It opens with a slightly bizarre author’s note, bizarre because I don’t know why Asimov felt it necessary to explain the two points he makes. Firstly it’s not part of one of his other series, and is an independent story. Secondly it’s not entirely linear, with two narrative strands one in the “present” of the story and one starting the story-past and advancing to meet the first. And really, couldn’t he have trusted the reader to figure that out? Neither are exactly strange things for a book to do.

Our first protagonist, whose story takes place in the story-present is Marlene Fisher a 15 year old girl who is both extremely plain and extremely intelligent. She’s gifted with an ability to read body language that goes far beyond the human norm (and there are hints here of a “supermen among us” type plot, but much more subtly done than the 1948 stories I’ve just recently re-read (post)). And our second protagonist is her father, Crile Fisher who split up with her mother when Marlene was still an infant. He doesn’t share her plain looks or her body-language reading skills, but she’s very like his long dead sister.

The story is set in a future where Earth is ruled by a single government and is fairly over populated, and there are self-sufficient space station colonies called Settlements orbiting the Earth. For all that this is a standalone universe it reminds me of the later books in the Robots series – where Earth is a dirty crowded place with people of all sorts living cheek by jowl and having to make the most of it, but the colonies (planets in the Robots series) are cleaner and have more living space, and are more homogeneous. And are rather smug about their superiority to Earth people. In this book Asimov is pretty pessimistic about humanity’s ability to get beyond racism. On Earth it’s socially unacceptable, and officially frowned upon, but the text makes the point explicitly that even despite this the Settlements have tended to segregate themselves into sorts. Rotor (the Settlement that Marlene lives on) is all white, all Euro in the parlance of the book. Not by fiat or anything, just that if you manage to get permission to move to a Settlement and you’re not the same as the other people there then you are just made to feel unwelcome and eventually you move out to somewhere more “friendly”. I guess Asimov felt (or rather, wrote into this book) that even if you try and move beyond racism in a society once you get back to a situation where there can be small self-contained groups then people will inevitably tend towards xenophobia.

The plot starts with Rotor using new tech to travel at lightspeed to a nearby star. This star, Nemesis, is actually closer to Earth than Alpha Centauri – Marlene’s mother (an astronomer) discovers it, and its proximity wasn’t discovered before because it’s behind a dust cloud when viewing from Earth. Marlene’s story takes place 14 years later when they’ve been in Nemesis’s solar system for about 12 years. Marlene has become fascinated with Erythro, a planet-sized moon around a gas giant in the system. A moon that they are trying to colonise, but there have been some curious effects on people’s minds. Crile’s story starts from his leaving his wife & child & returning to Earth when Rotor leaves and moves forwards till it meets up with Marlene’s storyline at the end. He didn’t meet Marlene’s mother by chance, he’s actually a spy for the Earth government detailed to figure out what Rotor’s new tech is. He’s then assigned to a new project, persuading another Settlement physicist to come to Earth to help them develop better tech than Rotor has.

I enjoyed reading the book, but it felt just on the edge of being dated. It also felt curiously like a YA book, although I don’t think it was marketed as such. Perhaps that was just because Marlene is a teenager, but also her arc seemed to me to be a coming of age story. Her mother is over-protective & treats her like a child, and Marlene is flexing her wings and taking her first steps as an adult. Marlene is the key to the end of the story, and it’s not just because of what she is but also because of her actions, and because she takes responsibility and does things.

The antagonist is interesting in the light of Asimov’s other work. Janus Pitt, who is the leader of the community that lives in Rotor, is fixated on the idea of isolating them from other human societies and engineering some sort of better society. So he’s picked Nemesis for them to go to hoping that no-one else will realise and follow. His obsession isn’t presented sympathetically, and he’s clearly depicted as not really treating other people as people – they’re game pieces for him to manipulate or get rid of (mostly by exile) as he sees fit. Which I found an interesting contrast to the Foundation books where the engineering of the future of a society & of the future of humanity is something shown as a good thing (I’ve not read the Foundation series for years, I may regret saying this when I get there in my re-read!).

Having read so much 1930s & 1940s fiction over the last two or three months it really jumped out at me that the two foregrounded brilliant scientists are both women (which includes Marlene’s mother who is very much characterised as astronomer who happens to also be a mother, rather than the other way round). And the people who are good with people (including Crile) are men. But having said that, the people who are actually in charge are all men, on Earth, on Rotor & on Erythro. I think that’s actually part of what makes it feel a bit dated – I think a more modern story would’ve had a woman as one of the people in charge given the rest of the society. Personally I’d like to swap out the man in charge of the Terrestrial Board of Inquiry (which is effectively in charge of the Earth, in a power behind the throne style) for a woman, I think. One other nice touch was that Marlene is frustrated about people judging her on her looks (not that great) rather than her personality or intelligence – so far so stereotypical, but the person who sympathises the most is the administrator on Erythro because that’s how he felt treated as a teenager too.

While I was reading the book it seemed a bit slight, but thinking about it afterwards to write about it I think there’s more depth there than first meets the eye. I’m still going to put it away in a box rather than leave it on the shelf, tho. I’ve not read it in over 20 years, and I don’t think I’ll want to re-read it in the next 10 years.