The draw of disaster and post apocalyptic media

The history of humanity is littered with a perverse fascination of catastrophe on a global scale. Is this pessimistic or could the disaster genre be the last remnants of a utopian vision? – The disintegration of our current man-made systems, making way for a  rebuild…

FalloutFallout 3, 2008

Mass immigration has dominated the headlines this year, and the forecast for the future looks to further displacement as sea levels rise. In August 2015 NASA announced that by the year 2100 sea levels will rise by approximately three feet – this is now locked-in, our current technology can’t prevent this. Certainly for my generation the future looks fairly bleak: no pension, a salary disproportionate to inflation rates, an education and health care system only available to the wealthy once the NHS is abolished. Our country’s assets are likely to turn into commodities for a few, following the privatisation of schools, libraries, security services, fire brigade, health care, planning departments, transport… just wait until the House of Lords and Parliament are sponsored by Coca-cola, oil and arms dealers (yeah…just imaging). Many of our systems aren’t working in a sustainable manner for the majority of the population or the environment.

Why turn to movies and computer games for a digital dress-rehearsal? These ‘assets’ allow your mind to work through survivalist scenarios – to build upon skills, be resourceful and negotiate zombies and gangsters. In the same way a person’s subconscious may repeatedly play out scenarios of missing trains and falling buildings in dreams, first-player games allow a process of thought to be exercised. Their popularity shows that there are a lot of frustrated people out there.

A Boy and His Dog, 1975A Boy and His Dog, 1975

In October 2014 a document housed by the National Archive – previously classified – was released for public consumption. The document, produced in 1982, described the Home Office’s plans for the UK in the event of a nuclear attack. The public, for the first time, had access to the worst laid plans imaginable. Jane Hogg, a scientific officer in the Home Office suggested putting psychopaths in charge because “They are very good in crises, as they have no feelings for others, no moral code, and tend to be very intelligent and logical.” Thankfully the HBO series The Walking Dead has shown the public that psychopaths do not make good leaders or companions. I do not believe that Hogg’s idea to bring back the death penalty is going to bring about a better day for survivors.

Around the same time the document was produced the BBC aired a drama called Threads. Mick Jackson’s post-nuclear apocalypse movie, scripted by Barry Hines, followed the formula of many in this genre – disaster, followed by wide spread horror, anarchy and martial law. Are these fantasies in anyway a realistic portrayal of what would befall our population?

Threads, 1984

When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, similar patterns were exposed by those on the ground. The governments were slow to react (but quick to gain PR shots and interviews to exhibit their concern), while aid workers and people within the communities did what they could with limited resources. Looting followed as desperation set in. After the initial media coverage, outsiders quickly forgot and focused their attention on the next headline. Spike Lee’s incredible four-part documentary film, When the Levees Broke, released in 2006, captured the events in terrifying detail. It was horrifying to see the point at which starving and scared crowds tried to cross a bridge to safety and were met by a wall of armed guards offering no aid. Our advanced civilizations are not so civilized.

When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee, 2006When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee, 2006

During the London riots in 2011, the city’s fragility was exposed with the speed chaos spread. There have been riots before, but improved communication through social media seemed to escalate this one on an unprecedented scale. The emergency services and government seemed powerless as many small businesses saw their livelihoods destroyed. As with many uprisings in the past, an incident between a couple of individuals can be enough to trigger and influence disorder, and permanently alter the public’s confidence in society’s systems.

With these cases in mind, it is worth taking a first aid class, reading, watching and playing a marathon of appropriately morbid titles and being prepared to receive minimal support from the government in the future.

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CERN visitor experience

The week the Large Hadron Collider was switched back on following a period of upgrade, I flew out to Geneva to try out CERN’s visitor experience.

Globe of Science and InnovationGlobe of Science and Innovation, 2015

The Universe of Particles exhibition is housed in the Globe of Science and Innovation. The site that was popularised by the Dan Brown book – Angels & Demons. Despite the building not actually being part of the organisation at the time, the government gifted it to improve CERN’s outreach programme, to provide a refuge for members of the public in search of answers relating to the ‘God Particle’.

The exhibition allows the public to explore the world of particles through an immersive AV show that divulged details about the past, present and future aspirations of the organisation, offering philosophical, technical and scientific perspectives.

CERN CERNUniverse of Particles, 2015

It took around an hour to sit in the audio pods and absorb brief overviews of some of the experiments, visions, hopes and dreams of CERN scientists. For the button pressers, a series of encased items and screens introduced  elements of the organisation’s history, structures and apparatus. The most intriguing of which was a spark chamber that illustrated, in real time, cosmic rays from outer space traveling to Earth through our atmosphere and creating new particles – their tracks made visible by the detector. A central display presented real events from proton-proton collisions recorded by the LHC experiments. Exhibition spaces like this need constant maintenance, items were broken and it felt worn in places –  I bet when the normal lights go on it has the same feeling of a nightclub in the daytime. Hopefully, this is a reflection of how interested people are in cutting edge science.

CERNInteractive display mapping the LHC

The tour was led by an enthusiastic software engineer who worked at CERN and was hoping to study the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College – I meet a lot of people who want to do this course! He answered all questions in depth, in an accessible manner, no matter how ‘out there’ they seemed to be – which was a challenge as the crowd was a mix including: scientists, engineers, teachers, and those without any scientific background who had just found themselves there. This is the type of Q&A session where the crowd’s questions rapidly become statements by sci-fi fanatics and I imagine there is always an ‘expert’ in the room.

Lego AtlasLego model of ATLAS

The tour was an introduction to CERN’s history and the latest scientific developments. It consisted of a visit to the historic area of the site and the operations centre of one of the experiments (although having met with one of the many particle physicists working at CERN the previous day, I was informed that this was in fact a facade for the visitors). The tour continued past a Lego version of ATLAS and into a large scale exhibit that gave details about its founders and post WW2 beginnings.

…plus I got a T-shirt.

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Destruction and world heritage

I troop off to the British Museum shows like I’m dutifully returning to my own mecca. With a world class permanent collection, and the pull of large scale, incredible international shows, how can they get it wrong?

When the exhibitions feel as if the spoon wont stop feeding, and my own imagination ends up being shrouded in an eruption of fake peeling paint and audio effects, the irony of overkill whilst stooping over a human carcass incarcerated doesn’t go amiss.*

*I am referring to the Pompeii show.

However, the Babylon exhibition was a feat of genius…

BabylonTerracotta cylinder documents King Nabopolassar’s
reconstructive work on Babylon’s city wall c.625-605 BCE

Babylon tilesDragon of the Ishtar Gate c. 575 BCE

As you walked among the artifacts, a contemporary mind can recognise the tools and systems that we have built upon and benefited from, throughout most of the worlds cultures, nations and communities. Their legacy is our everyday, from the calendars we keep, the time we run our lives by, to the science and mathematics that all modern methods of understanding stem from. This was delicately stipulated in a practical and exploratory manner that expressed their ingenuity and creativity. It was a reminder that the modern mind may not have changed much over the centuries, we have just had the ability to learn and build upon their work, en masse, in order to further advance our civilizations. For better, or for worse.

The most poignant reflection of this came at the end of the exhibition, when the viewer was confronted with the recent footage of the Babylonian ruins – the epicenter for this outburst of knowledge that we take for granted today, being used as target practice by American soldiers. This seemed to symbolise the desperate ignorance that is spurred on by war. I don’t think Iraq’s many archaeological sites benefited from being converted into a temporary firing range. The ‘us and them’ culture bred in these environments seems to run in the veins of humanity, as such events seem to occur throughout history. The perpetrators should have been given an invitation to the British Museum’s private view. Areas of the World Heritage site are 2,600-year-old, it would be the equivalent of 2000 soldiers using Stone Henge in the UK.

pic.phpAmerican soldier at the Babylonian site

This week when I saw the footage from the ISIS attack on the archaeological sites in Iraq’s ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, I was reminded of the Babylon show. It also reminded me of the feeling upon leaving the British Museum, that the riches and the privilege of experiencing the artifacts within the museum, is the spawn of the plunder and destruction of countries and ancient cultures. Maybe one day in the future, our world heritage sites will all be reconstructed using 3D printing and the mystery and magic of our past will be swallowed up by politics.

PalmyraAncient Assyrian city of Nimrud up in smoke

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Revelations in photography

Revelations in PhotographyÉtienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904),
Air currents revealed by streams of smoke
broken by a solid object, 1901

An exhibition featuring some of the rarest images from the pioneers of early scientific photography and the influence on modern and contemporary art.

The show walks you through examples of how the ability to capture and measure phenomena which lay outside of the human vision has changed our understanding of the world around us.

Amongst the exhibits you can see an original photographic print of X-Ray, the earliest recorded images of the moon from 1874 and photographs capturing electrical discharges in 1892. A personal favourite was an early photograph from 1899 of a lightning storm in Kent, UK, revealing how lightning forks down.

lightning postcard

Lightning Strike, Kent, 1899

Revelations: Experiments in Photography
Media Space, Science Museum, London
Until 13 September 2015

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On the same day the BBC announced that Twitter is losing followers, the CEO has stepped down and the rumour mill has begun to sew the seed of its demise – it is not commercially successful, Twitter has been at its very best.

Following the comments by UCL professor, Tim Hunt, on women in the lab at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea;

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

I don’t like a witch hunt – BUT – this reaction was pure magic, and exactly why Twitter is an important political tool in an era where the media outlets are owned by a few. If you missed it – female scientists from all over the world (the men pitched in too) donned their most sexy lab coats, biohazard outfits and dredging outfits, to pose and post to the hashtag ‘distractinglysexy’. And it was incredibly distracting! Oh the irony.

I would also like to say at this point that humour is important. I was disheartened by the bad press that Matt Taylor recieved for his shirt. Have a heart, spend your time on more important agendas. I don’t know the guy, but can we focus on the science? I wish the offended viewers would have protested in a similar manner, in a much more entertaining way, put the pitch forks away, refrain from personal attacks, and don your most lively and vulgar shirts of naked men…or naked alien shirts? At least he didn’t feel the need to resign!

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 15.53.42Matt Taylor in his distractingly sexy shirt

Here is one for the female scientists out in the world, getting on with important work and discovering incredible things…

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, 1968

A Scottish female scientists with balls of steel. Having crafted an esteemed education, in a male dominated subject, I am eternally grateful for such women putting up with the stamping feet and jeering whilst entering the lecture theaters in the 1960s. Many would run a mile, in fact many wouldn’t have even imagined a career in physics. She went on to discover pulsars whilst studying her PhD at Cambridge, much to the disbelieve of her peers. Perseverance allowed her to abolish the alien rumours and the derogatory, sexist comments.

Who needs a Nobel Prize anyway?

pulsarArtist’s impression of a Pulsar

It was hard who to choose who to feature in this post with so many incredible female scientists from history. However, is seemed fitting to pick one who is still going strong. Close contenders: Marie Curie – physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity, Valentina Tereshkova – first woman in space in 1963, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – another role model for any woman wanted to study astrophysics, Caroline Herschel – an astronomer, helped her brother to discover Uranus, discovered comets, Emmy Noether – known for her contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics …

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Thomas More

moreholbeinThomas More by Hans Holbein, 1520s

His life spanned between 7 February 1478 – 6 July 1535. He was a lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and Renaissance humanist. Before he was beheaded for not condoning Henry VIII’s bigamy, he wrote and got published a book by the name of Utopia.

I’m interested in More’s honest, ambitious writings in Utopia, where he described problems with society during his time, and best practice for reform – he spread the word through his peers and, in turn, published the manifesto for everyone to learn from for centuries to come. The work of political philosophy was done, as many manifestos have been, in the guise of a fiction. It is a shame that England did not adopt some of these ideas, as we may have avoided many past and present scandals and errors of judgement (banking crash, MPs fiddling expenses, riots…).

The book is about understanding an individual’s responsibility to make decisions independently, whilst having the primary focus on the good of, and sustainability of a community. Ideas stem from curing the rot from the root of the problem rather than lead by patching up the problems using blame, seduction and deception.

Some chapters are especially poignant; the chapter describing the ways in which a king can raise income from the state (taxes, fines, causing confusing through disrupting the legal system to fit his benefit), the chapter of integrating homeless, unemployed, criminals back into society and creating a sense of belonging in every citizen. And, how a kings’ mind and energies should be channeled into generating a positive community for all citizens, instead of expanding his empire and spreading ill received legislation and laws further afield.

It has the same level of ambition in the 1500s as I imagine Jaque Fresco and many other living futurists have now. There is constant unrest when there is not equality. The blame culture needs to be abolished and we need to take genuine interests in our neighbors.

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Ruth Maclennen – We Saw it–Like a Flash

BBC footageWe Saw it – Like a Flash, Ruth Maclennen, 2003-2006

We Saw it–Like a Flash journeys through 50 years of biotechnology, our history as seen on TV. The BBC archives have been rearranged and entangled to uncover forgotten narratives about our past developments and future concerns. Topics touched upon include paralleling histories of genetics and society. The footage debates cloning, genetically modified food and other topics in this realm. You also get a glimpse of the BBC’s changing demographic, aging (male) presenters and the power of editing.

Showing at the Wellcome Collection

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