The fastest supercomputer in the world - 2000. Your toaster probably has more computing power now. Photo: Getty
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Reviewed: At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise

Ian Steadman reviews Michael Brooks’s book on scientific discovery.

At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise 
Michael Brooks

When the Higgs boson was detected by the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, it was something of a bitter-sweet moment for many scientists. The way it provided a neat resolution to the final outstanding problem with the structure of fundamental particles was just too tidy for many. It was the last chapter of 20th-century particle physics but it did little to bring to light any new mysteries that would need solving.

Science, after all, needs mysteries and surprises, as the subtitle of Michael Brooks’s latest book, At the Edge of Uncertainty, makes clear. If you feel that we have not only picked the low-hanging fruit but also shaken the tree naked, then this journey through 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise will thoroughly disavow you of that notion.

Starting breezily and ending profoundly, it’s a look at the current state of several major scientific disciplines – from research into consciousness and computer science to epigenetics and studies in animal culture – with Brooks (who writes a weekly column for the New Statesman) communicating difficult stuff in a typically amiable and lucid manner. He doesn’t get into hard data but rather takes the reader on quick tours through the history of a science, picking up on relevant or remarkable anecdotes along the way.

One highlight is the tale of Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, a Russian veterinarian to the tsars whose job artificially inseminating racehorses evolved in the early 20th century into an obsession with trying to breed a human/ape hybrid. This horror story was later suppressed by the Soviet Union but Brooks points out that stem-cell research necessarily requires experimenting with human/animal chimeras in the laboratory. A human embryo could accidentally form inside a mouse and, he writes, there is “the other nightmare” of “the pig – or monkey or mouse – with a human brain”.

A recurring theme is the idea that scientists often push forward with research faster than they can understand its moral or political consequences, even if it is rarely out of malice. By definition scientists need to “push at the door of what is possible” and: “The reactions of the society around them are what keep them in check.” Yet there’s a metaphysical note to these 11 topics, too. We find many of these things strange or surprising because they expose how limited our perspective, as clever apes, can be.

Supercomputers, for example, work in binary – but the universe doesn’t. Imaginations and learning are features of non-binary organisms (such as us) but our ability to create machines that can understand more than binary is stymied by “our picture of reality, [which] tends to be constrained by our conception of time and sits within just a few dimensions of space”.

In another chapter, time is revealed to be an illusion – as proven by Buddhist monks or volunteers high on magic mushrooms, observed using magnetic resonance imaging machines. It appears that we perceive it as we do only because this is the most effective survival strategy for the world in which we find ourselves.

Later, Brooks writes about quantum uncertainty and how the act of observing something on the quantum level causes it to change – but astonishingly it seems that the universe might be best understood as a computer simulation (running on God-knows-what) and that quantum uncertainty reflects our ability to “reprogramme” the world as we see it. “We become participators in the processes of the universe . . . We are in a paper-scissors-stone situation where we cannot find the logic to disentangle ourselves from the universe.”

From this perspective, consciousness is the inevitable result of a computer the size of the universe running for billions of years; Carl Sagan’s observation that “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” was more true than he ever realised.

“The edge of uncertainty,” writes Brooks, “is not a static line, but a dynamic, ever-changing set of answers. What other way is there for humans to behave than to push at the boundaries of our knowledge and our existence – even if the act of pushing exposes our ignorance?” A curious result of reading At the Edge of Uncertainty is to come away with a net total of new ignorance, not new knowledge – but also a sense of excitement at the inevitable success of science to remedy it. 

Ian Steadman is a staff writer on science and technology at the New Statesman

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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The second coming of Gordon Ramsay

A star is reborn. 

It would be a lie to say that Gordon Ramsay ever disappeared. The celebrity chef made his television debut in 1997 and went on to star in shows in 1998, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. There hasn’t been a lull in Ramsay’s career, which has arguably gone from strength to strength. In 2000, he was cooking for Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair – in 2008, he ate the raw heart of a dead puffin.

Left: Gordon Ramsay shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. Right: Gordon Ramsay hugging a puffin (different from the one he ate).

Yet we are, undeniably, in the middle of a Ramsay renaissance. How? How could a man that conquered the last twenty years of cookery-based television have an upsurge in popularity? There are only so many television channels – so many amateur donkey chefs. Wrong. The internet has enabled a Ramsay resurgence, the second act of a play overflowing with blood, sweat, and French onion soup.

Wow.

We all, of course, know about Gordon’s Twitter account. Although started in 2010, the social media profile hit the headlines in February this year when Ramsay began rating food cooked by the world’s amateur-amateur chefs. But other elements of Ramsay’s internet celebrity are more miraculous and mysterious.

His official YouTube channel uploads, on average, three videos a week. Decades old clips from Kitchen Nightmares accumulate over three million views in as many days. A 15,000 follower-strong Facebook fan page for the show – which premiered in 2007 and ended in 2014 – was set up on 19 June 2017.

Wow, wow, wow, wow. Wow.       

A Google Trends graph showing an April 2017 surge in Ramsay's popularity, after a decline in 2014.                                      

What makes a meme dank? Academics don’t know. What is apparent is that a meme parodying Gordon Ramsay’s fury over missing lamb sauce (first aired on Hell’s Kitchen in 2006) had a dramatic upsurge in popularity in December 2016. This is far from Gordon’s only meme. Image macros featuring the star are captioned with fictitious tirades from the chef, for example: “This fish is so raw… it’s still trying to find Nemo”. A parody clip from The Late Late Show with James Cordon in which Ramsay calls a woman an “idiot sandwich” has been watched nearly five million times on YouTube.

And it is on YouTube where Ramsay memes most thrive. The commenters happily parrot the chef’s most memable moments, from “IT’S RAW” to the more forlorn “fuck me” after the news something is frozen. “HELLO MY NAME IS NINOOOOO!” is an astonishingly popular comment, copied from a clip in which a Kitchen Nightmares participant mocks his brother. If you have not seen it – you should.

But what does all this mean for Ramsay’s career? His YouTube channel and Facebook page are clearly meticulously managed by his team – who respond to popular memes by clipping and cutting new videos of classic Ramsay shows. Although this undoubtedly earns a fortune in ad revenue, Ramsay’s brand has capitalised on his internet fame in more concrete ways. The chef recently voiced Gordon Ramsay Dash, a mobile game by Glu Games Inc in which you can cook with the star and he will berate or praise you for your efforts. Ten bars of gold – which are required to get upgrades and advance in the game – cost 99p.

Can other celebrity chefs learn from Ramsay? A generation will never forgive that twisted, golden piece of meat, Jamie Oliver, for robbing them of their lunch time Turkey Twizzlers. But beyond this, the internet’s love is impossible to game. Any celebrity who tried to generate an online following similar to Ramsay’s would instantly fail. Ramsay’s second coming is so prolific and powerful because it is completely organic. In many ways, the chef is not resposible for it. 

In truth, the Ramsay renaissance only worked because it was - though the chef himself would not want to admit it - completely raw.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.