Books

The modern world is a fascinating study in innovation and unseen mechanics—millions of micro processes underpinning the structure and function of a city go largely un-noticed by many of us.

Science is secretly at work behind the scenes of major cities of the world and will continue to be so. Technological advances in fields as diverse as quantum mechanics, electronics, and nanotechnology are proving increasingly important to city life, and the urban world will turn to science to deliver solutions to the problems of the future; more than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, and that proportion is growing fast. Can engineering provide the answer to a viable megacity future?

Physicist and sci-comm consultant, Laurie Winkless, translates science and engineering to the digestible joy of every person in her first book ‘Science and the City’.

Science and the City starts at your front door and guides you through the technology of everyday city life: how new approaches to building materials help to construct the tallest skyscrapers in Dubai, how New Yorkers use light to treat their drinking water, how Tokyo commuters’ footsteps power gates in train stations. Uncovering the science and engineering that shapes our cities, Laurie reveals how technology will help us meet the challenges of a soaring world population—from an ever-increasing demand for power, water, and internet access, to simply how to get about in a megacity of tens of millions of people.

Q/A with Laurie

Which innovations driving our cities have the greatest impact on our future?

For me, I think the way we manage ‘waste’ will have the greatest impact on our future. Technologies like greywater recycling and vehicle fuel from organic waste (e.g. faeces, cow dung) are already established in many cities, but we’ll see many more adopting them in future. Our obsession with plastic is causing huge issues for our environment, both in therms of landfills and the cleanliness of the oceans. But cities like Bogota are using waste plastic as the main ingredient for a new building material, while engineers in India use it to build better roads. Other waste streams too are finding uses—for example, scientists in the UK are using chicken feathers to produce insulation panels for homes. We (as a society) need to over the idea that we can throw stuff away—there is no ‘away’, everything we discard ends up somewhere, and if we want our cities to be more sustainable, we need to redefine the waste cycle.

Another thing that will have a huge impact on our cities will be the removal of fuel-belching vehicles from our roads. Poor air quality kills millions of city-dwellers, and the most dangerous components of air pollution (e.g. particulate matter) come from the exhaust pipes of vehicles. There are some technologies that can help ‘clean’ the air, but the easiest solution is to move away from the burning of fossil fuels.

There are many other innovations that might have a role to play—self-healing materials that increases the lifetime of infrastructure (e.g. roads, water pipes), a wholesale move towards renewable energy (e.g wind turbines, solar panels and tidal energy), urban farms, etc!

Where can we explore science in the city?

Trees and parks: add colour and interest, offering us health benefits via science—they remove some of the CO2 in the air, and they help cool cities, which reduces their otherwise considerable energy footprint.

Walkability: shops close to home and business offer a more ‘European’ scale to cities that make it easy to get around on foot or by bike. Thoughtful infrastructure which provides accessibility and supports expansion.

Buildings: from many different eras give urban explorers the chance to see their city as a living, changing thing. In London, you can see structures that date from the Medieval era, right up to the sleekest, tallest skyscraper currently under construction. This reminds us that cities are in a constant state of flux, and that new modes of engineering, new materials, and changing tastes have a significant impact on the landscape.

Traffic lights: traffic is a constant in the life of a city-dweller, and as a pedestrian trying to cross the road, it can be a frustrating experience. But the science and maths behind managing traffic is fascinating, and the road network is a central artery of a city. If we get to a stage that all cars are driverless, street infrastructure (like traffic lights) may well disappear.

Metro: tunnels and the machines that dig them, are an engineering marvel, and in many cases they’re being constructed while the city above ground just keeps moving. Their construction can also uncover secrets of the city that existed in the ancient past—when we dig underground, we dig through history. Watch Laurie’s video on floating track slabs.

Laurie insists, science is not just for scientists! Through her book ‘Science and the City’ unlocks this branch of knowledge giving us all the tools and sight for science.

Visit Laurie @ www.lauriewinkless.com

Words when chosen wisely, have profound impact and can lead to authentic insights—yet prose just as easily lends itself to pointless rant and even diatribe should we write without restraint. Of course, the extreme opposite of this is also subject to imprecise drivel—texting with auto-correct for one, and writing with emoji’s rather than letters for another. But like an athlete, writers can sharpen their skills and transform their words into lean, mean(ingful) tools of exploration, expression and even persuasion. We asked locution expert and author of ‘The Writer’s Diet’, Helen Sword, to reveal how.

Like any guide to diet and fitness, The Writer’s Diet offers advice and exercises designed to help you become stronger and leaner without sacrificing your pleasure and well-being. Here, however, the focus is on your sentences, not your body. Just as athletes build up their strength and agility by eating nutritious food and performing targeted exercises, good writers build strong sentences by nourishing them with high-quality ingredients and then putting them through a workout.

A core feature of the book is the WritersDiet Test, a diagnostic exercise that you can perform manually using paper and coloured pencils or electronically via the Writer’s Diet website (www.writersdiet.com). Simply cut and paste a passage of between 100 and 1,000 words into the online text box, click the Run the Test button and find out whether your writing sample is ‘flabby or fit’. Whatever your diagnosis, I advise you take the test with a sense of humour and a grain of salt: it offers recommendations, not a prescription; a set of core principles, not a one-size-fits-all formula. Remember, too, that the online test is intended to supplement the book, not to replace it. The book explores all the stylistic subtleties and exceptions that the test cannot.

Chapter One, ‘Verbal verve’, focuses on verbs, which power our sentences as surely as muscles propel our bodies. Robust action verbs infuse your writing with vigour and metaphorical zing; they put legs on your prose. As a rule of thumb, I like to make sure that every paragraph I write contains at least two or three vivid verbs (here, I’ve used power, propel and infuse) to move things along.

If verbs function as the muscles of language, nouns are its bones. Chapter Two, ‘Noun density’, teaches you to anchor complex ideas in concrete nouns. Sentences with ‘strong bones’ convey meaning and emotion through objects that we can visualise: muscles and bones. Sentences with ‘weak bones’ rely mostly on abstract nouns, which express intangible ideas remote from the world of the human senses. In particular, I caution readers against lumbering multi-syllabic monsters that I call ‘zombie nouns’, which can suck the life-blood and energy from your prose.

The remaining chapters of the book explore how other types of words can help or hinder clear communication. For example, prepositions supply our sentences with directional thrust; when used in excess, however, they can slow things down instead. Adjectives and adverbs lend colour and flavour to our writing, but they may also end up sugar-coating weak sentences that would benefit from more active verbs and concrete nouns. And the four little inkblots that I call the ‘waste words’—it, this, that and there—can clog up your prose as surely as cholesterol clogs your arteries.

I wrote The Writer’s Diet because I got tired of reading long-winded, stodgy sentences that I had to work hard to decipher. Whether you write for a general audience or a highly specialised one, this book can help you do so more clearly, energetically and persuasively—with sleek prose your readers will remember.

Kate Forsyth explores the visual language of fairy-tales from art to architecture—storytelling is a medium for innovation and imagination.

Fairy-tales are as old as language itself.

Indeed, many linguistic scholars believe that language was invented simply so that humans could tell each other stories. Non-verbal communication is surprisingly effective, as anyone who has observed chimpanzees at the zoo can confirm. However, for humans to express more sophisticated ideas they needed a more subtle and complex form of communication. And so, about sixty thousand years ago, humans began telling each other stories.

‘‘With the invention of narrative, planning, storytelling … and the cultural transmission of knowledge all became possible,’ Professor Arnold Lewis Glass writes in Cognition: A Neuroscience Approach. 

The purpose of these stories was manifold. On the one hand, they amused and entertained and brought comfort and consolation. On the other, they warned and enlightened and taught what was needed to be known.

In the beginning, the tales were told by a storyteller to an audience of listeners crouched around a campfire in the dark of the night. Then our ancestors began to document the stories by drawing on the walls of their caves, or by carving their images in stone. Later, they scratched shapes on to the skin of animals with styluses, or drew on paper made from leaves with ink made from oak galls.

So the visual language of fairy-tales is as deeply embedded into our collective unconscious as the tales themselves. Often we do not need to know the tale to recognise the trope. Some recent examples include an advertisement for Chanel No 5 that shows a young woman heading out into Paris at night in a red hood, while her dog howls for her to come home safe.¹

A political cartoon that features the President of the United States standing naked before a crowd that loudly admires his new clothes.²

And a famous shoe designer who creates a high-heeled slipper embedded with sparkling crystals.³

Each of the creators of these artefacts expected its audience to recognise the fairy-tale it references. Yet the ways that a fairy-tale can be used in a visual medium can be astonishingly different.

For example, the French-British artist Alice Anderson draws upon the ‘Rapunzel’ tale with her strange, unsettling work with masses of red dolls’ hair. Her installations choke whole buildings with waterfalls of hair cascading down walls and out windows, or vast shrouds of hair that threaten to choke the delicate human spun within.⁴

GHD, the popular hair-straightening brand, ran a very successful advertising campaign a few years ago in which they subverted the expected outcome of the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy-tale – at the end of the clip, Rapunzel shears off her hair and escapes on the prince’s motorbike.⁵

Annie Liebovitz took a more conventional approach with her portrait of Taylor Swift as Rapunzel (thought as she was commissioned to do the shoot by Disney Studios that is not, perhaps, surprising).⁶

While the London-based photographer Sarah Ann Wright looks at the darker aspects of the fairy-tale for inspiration.⁷

Fairy-tales do not just inspire artists, photographers and advertising companies. The New-York-based architects Guy Nordenson & Associates were more interested in the challenge of building a tower without any doors or stairs.

Invited to submit a design for “Fairy Tale Architecture”, a series in Places Journal which celebrates the intersection between design and imagination, the architects chose ‘Rapunzel’ as their inspiration, writing, ‘We were able to meet the Grimms’ strict design requirements by employing a slender tower design of vertical cylindrical stems that are joined by intermittent outrigger beams with a reinforced space at the very top for Rapunzel’s long captivity.’⁸

This design was meant to be whimsical and humourous, yet the work of some architects directly engages with fairy-tale motifs in a far more serious manner.

At nearly 180 meters tall, the Tour Triangle – designed by Herzog & De Meuron—will be the third tallest building in Paris. To me, it has echoes of the famous fairy tale ‘The Glass Mountain’. It is meant to have that fairy-tale feel of wonder and peril, what Tolkien called a quality of ‘arresting strangeness’.⁹

Many of the gravity-defying skyscrapers being built all over the world share this wondrous sense of magical beauty.

The Mode-Gakuen Spiral Towers in Nagoya, Japan, were designed by architectural group Nikken Sekkei and seem to contain numerous fairy-tale motifs—the use of the number three, for example, and the sense of spiral staircases leading upwards into impossibly high towers.¹⁰

It is not just buildings that can draw upon the visual tropes of fairy-tales. Gardens have long been filled with magical and whimsical designs that create an otherworldly place for dreaming and imagining, such as these massive plant sculpture at the Montréal Botanic Gardens.

Finally, fashion has long drawn its inspiration from fairy-tales, which are filled with descriptions of glass slippers, dresses that burn as bright as the sun, and magical cloaks that conceal.

Most of us have grown up with these stories ‘as old as time’, and their strong, dramatic motifs and metaphors feed our dreams and our imaginations. Sigmund Freud called such images the ‘archaic remnants’ of primordial experience. Heavily freighted with symbolic meaning, they help us grapple with, and express, some of our most universal fears and desires.

About the Author: Kate Forsyth has been called ‘one of the finest writers of this generation’. She has a BA in literature, a MA in creative writing and a doctorate in fairy tale studies, and is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers. Read more about her at www.kateforsyth.com.au

On 3rd of July, Penguin Random House will release Kate’s latest book Beauty in Thorns, a spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the passions and tragedies of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and poets. RRP: $32.99 AU

References
¹ CHANEL N°5 advertising film from 1998 
”Le loup,” by Luc Besson, with Estella Warren
² Cartoon by Steven Sack in The Star Tribune, May 17, 2016
³ Jimmy Choo’s ‘Cinderella’ show – http://row.jimmychoo.com/en/choo-world-news/cinderella.html
http://www.riflemaker.org/s-alice-anderson
⁵ The Print Ad titled RAPUNZEL was done by Y&R London advertising agency for product: GHD HAIR STRAIGHTENERS (brand: Ghd) in United Kingdom. It was released in Oct 2009.
http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/taylor-swift-poses-as-rapunzel-in-new-disney-ad-by-annie-leibovitz-picture-2013231
⁷ ‘Rapunzel Forgotten’, Sarah Ann Wright https://www.flickr.com/photos/schloo/3430177470
⁸ Kate and Andrew Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale Architecture: Rapunzel,” Places Journal, December 2011. Accessed 07 Jun 2017. https://doi.org/10.22269/111222
http://weburbanist.com/2015/07/02/tour-triangle-first-new-paris-skyscraper-approved-in-42-years/ 
¹⁰ http://inhabitat.com/mode-gakuen-spiral-towers-by-nikken-sekkei/

As we mitigate the external demands of modern life, our internal dialogue determines how we experience life and the extent to which we challenge ourselves. Bridging fear to find meaning in life is an eternal quest of daily presence and practise, but there are resources to fortify, and insights to empower our journey of discovery. Researching a breadth of historic wisdom in self discovery and service, author Emily Esfahani Smith, illuminates tangible, everyday opportunities for enrichment. Seeking happiness and enlightenment in the present is far more empowering and immediate than embarking on a pilgrimage or austere spiritual endeavour—investments of time and dedication not practical to all. A life of meaning is—as Emily reveals—less elusive, and far more obtainable than we realise.

The following is a guest piece by Emily Esfahani Smith.

Bridging Fear to Find Meaning in Life

Most people want to lead meaningful lives. And yet, there are many obstacles that get in the way of this goal. Technology, our addiction to success and prestige, and the fast pace of daily life can prevent us from honing in on what really matters. But one of the biggest obstacles of all to meaningful living is fear.

Over the last few years, I’ve interviewed dozens of people about what makes their lives meaningful for my new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. One of the themes to emerge from my research was that leading a meaningful life can sometimes be stressful, difficult, and even frightening. Fortunately, though, there are ways we can overcome the anxiety and fear to find fulfillment.

The key is setting our sights on something bigger than ourselves—and bigger than our fear—to propel us forward.

Before going any further, it’s first important to know what the building blocks of a meaningful life are. In my research, I discovered four “pillars” of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. When you ask people what makes their lives meaningful and consult the social science research on meaning, these themes emerge again and again. Those leading meaningful lives feel valued and cared for in their relationships, and they value and care for others; they have goals they’re working toward that involve contributing to others; they are weaving their experiences into a coherent whole, or narrative, that explains who they are; and they have experiences of self-loss and awe from time to time. We can all build up these four pillars to lead lives of depth and significance.

But sometimes fear prevents us from cultivating these pillars of meaning. Let’s look more closely at the pillars of belonging and purpose, by way of example.

Belonging requires vulnerability. In order to form a bond with another person, we have to put ourselves out there to let the other person know that he is valued. That other person can be a stranger standing near us at a party or a loved one lying next to us in bed. Reaching out can be scary because the other person could always reject us or respond to our bid for affection coolly.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reach out. Rather, we should overcome our fear to strengthen the relationship. One way to ease into this is to remember that the other person is likely feeling vulnerable, too, and therefore is afraid to initiate the connection himself. Realizing that he is just afraid as you are can give you the courage to initiate a meaningful bond. Most people enjoy feeling like they belong, so chances are that this person will welcome your gesture. Even if he acts aloof, he will likely feel relieved that someone is treating him like he matters—which is a gift you are giving him, even if he doesn’t return the gift.

Keeping your sights set on others can help you build the pillar of purpose in the face of fear, as well. Identifying and pursuing a purpose requires venturing into an unknown future, like when we start a new job or have children for the first time. It also takes work. We have to sacrifice our immediate desires for the sake of some long-term goal. We don’t know what will happen as we head down this new path or even if we’re going down the correct one. But the one thing that can keep us going is remembering that we have a contribution to make to the world. When we set our sights on that higher goal, our fear doesn’t disappear but it becomes manageable and surmountable. We realize that everything we’re doing and feeling lies in the service of a larger cause, to help others, which is a worthy goal to work toward.

Living a meaningful life is not always easy or comfortable. It takes work and requires us to sometimes sacrifice feeling good in the moment to achieve something higher. But ultimately, overcoming our fear pays dividends. Not only will our life feel more meaningful when we build up the pillars in our lives, but we’ll also be making the world a slightly gentler and better place through our vulnerability and contributions.

About the Book

In a culture obsessed with happiness, this wise, stirring book points the way toward a richer, more satisfying life.

Too many of us believe that the search for meaning is an esoteric pursuit—that you have to travel to a distant monastery or page through dusty volumes to discover life’s secrets. The truth is, there are untapped sources of meaning all around us—right here, right now.

To explore how we can craft lives of meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith synthesizes a kaleidoscopic array of sources—from psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists to figures in literature and history such as George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle, and the Buddha. Drawing on this research, Smith shows us how cultivating connections to others, identifying and working toward a purpose, telling stories about our place in the world, and seeking out mystery can immeasurably deepen our lives.

To bring what she calls the four pillars of meaning to life, Smith visits a tight-knit fishing village in the Chesapeake Bay, stargazes in West Texas, attends a dinner where young people gather to share their experiences of profound loss, and more. She also introduces us to compelling seekers of meaning—from the drug kingpin who finds his purpose in helping people get fit to the artist who draws on her Hindu upbringing to create arresting photographs. And she explores how we might begin to build a culture that leaves space for introspection and awe, cultivates a sense of community, and imbues our lives with meaning.

Inspiring and story-driven, The Power of Meaning will strike a profound chord in anyone seeking a life that matters.

About the Author

Emily Esfahani Smith writes about culture, psychology, and relationships. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She is also a columnist for The New Criterion and an editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles project, a collaboration with the 92nd Street Y and Citizen University to build community and purpose across the country. She studied philosophy at Dartmouth College and has a master’s in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives with her husband in Washington, DC.

Connect with Emily Online: Website | Twitter | Take the Quiz

The more we learn about nature the more we come to realise just how little we understand about our world. Science has revealed some fascinating things about animal behaviour—from the intelligence of dogs to the ingenuity of birds, but what about…what a fish knows?

Do fishes think?

Do they really have three-second memories?

And can they recognize the humans who peer back at them from above the surface?

In What A Fish Knows, the myth-busting ethologist Jonathan Balcombe addresses these questions and more, taking us under the sea, through streams and estuaries, and to the other side of the aquarium glass to reveal the surprising capabilities of fishes. Although there are more than thirty thousand species of fish―more than all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined―we rarely consider how individual fishes think, feel, and behave. Balcombe upends our assumptions about fishes, portraying them not as unfeeling, dead-eyed feeding machines but as sentient, aware, social, and even Machiavellian―in other words, much like us.

What a Fish Knows draws on the latest science to present a fresh look at these remarkable creatures in all their breathtaking diversity and beauty. Fishes conduct elaborate courtship rituals and develop lifelong bonds with shoalmates. They also plan, hunt cooperatively, use tools, curry favor, deceive one another, and punish wrongdoers. We may imagine that fishes lead simple, fleeting lives―a mode of existence that boils down to a place on the food chain, rote spawning, and lots of aimless swimming. But, as Balcombe demonstrates, the truth is far richer and more complex, worthy of the grandest social novel.

Highlighting breakthrough discoveries from fish enthusiasts and scientists around the world and pondering his own encounters with fishes, Balcombe examines the fascinating means by which fishes gain knowledge of the places they inhabit, from shallow tide pools to the deepest reaches of the ocean.

Teeming with insights and exciting discoveries, What a Fish Knows offers a thoughtful appraisal of our relationships with fishes and inspires us to take a more enlightened view of the planet’s increasingly imperiled marine life. What a Fish Knows will forever change how we see our aquatic cousins―the pet goldfish included.

Jonathan Balcombe on What A Fish Knows (Interview by Inga Yandell)

In this discussion with the author we dive deeper into the research and reveal both the inspiration and some of the curious insights from this pioneering publication.

How did fish become the subject of your new book?

As a scientist working on animal sentience, I was often encountering new studies of fishes showing that they have rich, interesting lives. But most of this information was buried away in scholarly journals that most folks never read. Translating science into something lay-readers find engaging is something I find challenging and enjoyable. And with fishes being the most exploited group of vertebrates on Earth, there was also a strong ethical motive to write a book of popular science about fishes.

Why are the insights of the ocean so vital to our future?

Few of us realize it, but we are totally dependent on healthy oceans for our own survival. The blue-green algae that inhabit ocean habitats produce most of the world’s oxygen. Marine life, including of course the fishes, are a critical part of aquatic ecosystems. As they go, so go their ecosystems (and vice versa), and ultimately, so go us. In 2015, the World Wildlife Fund reported that today there is only about half as much marine life in the oceans as there was in 1970. So we have lost half of all fishes and other sea creatures in less than fifty years. It is a sobering reminder that we need to cultivate a more respectful relationship to the oceans.

How are fish innovating science and what are the primary areas benefiting from this?

It appears that fishes have become the most commonly used vertebrate animals in scientific experiments. However, I do not focus on this in my book “What a Fish Knows,” and I am not enthusiastic about the use of sentient animals in research that causes animals to suffer and die, as much of this research does. Instead, I focus mostly on research into how fishes live their lives—such as how they think and feel, how they interact and communicate with each other, how they find mates and raise their young, how they play, deceive, and cooperate.

How curious and creative is the scope of the studies you researched?

Scientists have been remarkably creative and innovative in coming up with ways to explore the inner worlds of fishes. Some have accumulated hundreds of hours of SCUBA time watching fishes interact and painstakingly measuring their behaviors. Others have created artificial habitats to better understand how fishes respond to different environments. Because fishes can be trained to indicate their preference for one of a pair or group of stimuli, we can determine, for instance, that fishes can recognize each other as individuals, they can recognize human faces, and that they “fall” for optical illusions as we do.

Who are the pioneers, what are the species and where are the locations?

In the 1930’s, the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch made two important discoveries about fishes. He demonstrated fish hearing by training a blind catfish to come for food at the sound of a whistle. He also described an alarm chemical, which he termed “schreckstoff” (translation: scary stuff), that many fish species produce when they become scared. Schreckstoff serves a useful social function by warning nearby fishes that danger, such as a predator, may be lurking.

In a series of captive studies conducted between the 1940s and the 1970s, American scientist Lester Aronson showed that a little fish of the intertidal zone called the frillfin goby, was able to leap accurately to neighboring tide-pools thanks to the uncanny ability to memorize the topography of their habitat by swimming over it at high tide. Not only that, but the gobies were able to memorize the tide-pool layout in just one go and they could remember it 40 days later.

Is the science applicable to people now, or are the revelations subject to further investigation and development?

It is one of the paradoxes of knowledge that the more we know, the more there is to discover. For example, until it was discovered that frillfin gobies could jump to a neighboring tide-pool without ending up stranded on the rocks, nobody was asking how they did this. And now that we know how, we may ask questions like what part of the brain performs this feat, do they enjoy learning it, and can these gobies perform other memory feats unrelated to tide-pools, etc.

What are three things a fish knows that will surprise and inspire readers?

There are so many, but here are three.

Grouper fishes perform a head-shaking gesture to invite moray eels to hunt with them as a team, and both fishes are more successful when they hunt cooperatively than when they hunt alone.

Sharks will swim up to trusted divers who stroke their heads and bellies, sending the sharks into a state of extreme relaxation, in which they will allow the divers to remove fishing hooks imbedded in their mouths.

A tiny male pufferfish from Japan spends hours carefully constructing an exquisite, six-foot-wide circular nest in the sand, with concentric rings of fingerprint-like ridges, into which he hopes to attract a female. He decorates his artwork with pieces of crushed shells, which help cover and protect the female’s fertilized eggs.

Events and other info: www.jonathan-balcombe.com

What A Fish Knows is available on Amazon.