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Horizontal Transmission (2011) at A Theory of Everything

In the culmination of a busy few weeks, I have another new digital installation opening this Friday. Horizontal Transmission is a semi-interactive sonic ecosystem based on bacterial dynamics, somewhere between a VR game and in silico systems biology simulation. It's an extension of research that I've recently been involved with in conjunction with the pioneering Division of Mathematical Biology at the National Institute for Medical Research.

preview screenshot

It's a part of A Theory of Everything, at Deptford's Core Gallery from 24 June to 10 July, alongside a number of other works based on physical patterns and the empirical search for unifying scientific laws.

More on the piece:

Bacterial organisms exhibit a trait that is unique within the living world. As well as inheriting genetic properties from parent to child, bacteria are able to exchange genetic information with their neighbours, via packets of DNA known as 'plasmids'. This enables bacteria to temporarily adopt characteristics which may give them a competitive advantage in a hostile environment. Plasmids can be seen as semi-beneficial parasites which hop from bacterial host to host, giving rise to complex evolutionary patterns.

"Horizontal Transmission" (2011) simulates these dynamics in a 3D space, representing populations of cells both visually and sonically. When sound is detected from the gallery space by the attached microphone, it is transformed into a plasmid and deposited in the virtual space. This can then be assimilated by the bacterial population, who then mimic these sounds in their inter-cellular communications. The bacterial world can be explored using a 3D control interface, with which an observer can navigate through the population, observing cellular dynamics and communication patterns.

There are subsequently a number of informal salons featuring the artists and scientists involved. Find out more on the A Theory of Everything blog.

Tomorrow's World Looks To The Eighties: An Illustrated Guide

The close of the decade is almost upon us, and so it is time for us to join Tomorrow's World, the British Broadcasting Corporations's flagship documentary programme, and look to the future of science and technology.

Tomorrow's World cover

We'll be taking you through each of the gloriously illustrated sections of this period-defining book, checking out the advances that are predicted for the 1980s and seeing how they tally up with the miserable hindsight of three decades.

Without further ado...


The boundless optimism of the early silicon age shines through in Tomorrow's World's lookahead to how daily life will be transformed by the nascent technologies of integrated circuits and networked telecommunications:

"You will awaken some morning five years hence, speak a few simple words from your bed to your toaster, coffee pot and frying pan, and walk into the kitchen fifteen minutes later to a fully prepared breakfast.

"The same computer that is wired into the walls of your house and built to recognise your voice will turn on lights when you walk into the kitchen and turn them off when you leave."

Sounds idyllic. Sadly, as the authors themselves observe, such predictions are made on a regular basis. Thirty years later, countless automated housing schemes have appeared and often subsequently vanished: the Xanadu Houses (1979-2005), Japan's TRON House (1989-1992), and Honeywell's TotalHome (1992-). Integrating automation into an existing structure is difficult and expensive, and the TRON commentary describes early journalistic objections to intelligent homes, describing the experience as "like a haunted house".

However, miniaturization has today progressed and stabilized to the point where realizing many of these technologies is relatively straightforward. Smart homes and automation (under the sometime-aegis of "domics") are pushing forward, with open-source software making implementation possible for eager hackers. Even Microsoft are chasing the action.

In the living room, Tomorrow's World report on the imminent rollout of interactive television in the form of QUBE. Linking viewers to the TV stations, these home controllers allowed for live interaction for applications such as quiz shows and Comedy Store-style popularity metres. A noble idea, but a false start in this case: seven years later, the Qube network was axed in a cost-cutting exercise, and it took another decade to catch on once again. Today, we have TiVo and countless other interactive TV endeavours (including, of course, the UK's freeview monstrosity that is Rabbit Chat And Date), though it's still hardly commonplace.

Cookery's salvation is on the horizon in the form of "microwaves"; despite resulting in "sausages which are both limp and colourless" and "chicken which looks, and tastes, slightly parched", they're on the money here. However, a bleak warning is given:

The beam is inherently dangerous. Subject your hand, or worse still, your brain, to that agitation and it will be comprehensively addled.

Be careful, readers.

These's also some coverage of infra-red ovens, which it seems are currently returning to fashion.

Finally, the office has the prospect of electronic word-processing systems, capable of digitally storing text before it is printed to paper, saving on materials and obsoleting the typing pool in one fell swoop. Can't really fault this prediction.


Written shortly after the last Concorde was born, the Tomorrow's World team are a little more cautious in their transport forecasts: removable, high-capacity batteries may begin to give us electric vehicles (well, nearly), and the prototypal Advanced Passenger Train promises high-speed rail travel at over 100mph (which we finally got, two decades later, with the Pendolino, bringing us almost to where the French have been for aeons.

More exciting is their account of an in-car auto-navigation system, using induction loops laid along the length of the road system and bleeping when a turn should be taken. Being then trialled in Germany, such a system could also warn of impending fog, ice or traffic, but must first be "programmed by a traffic policeman".

Natural Power

"What will happen when the oil runs out?", asks Tomorrow's World. Thirty years later, it's still unclear. This chapter is dedicated to renewable power sources, yet it's clear to see that its optimism has thus far failed: at the turn of the millennium, only 3% of UK electricity came from renewable sources, and it's only a couple of percent higher today.

One radical idea, illustrated by this lovely diagram (above), is farming seaweed for biofuel: offshore kelp plants produce micro-organisms on a huge scale, which are then dried and fermented to produce methane. It's still being investigated today.

Inner Space

Slightly out of left-field, a whole chapter dedicated to deep-sea exploration. Perhaps it was popular at the time. First up is several pages dedicated to dredging for "nodules", accumulated nuggets of manganese, nickel, iron, and other valuable minerals which lie on the sea floor. It seems that these were a great hope at the time, but, according to Wikipedia, the prohibitive expense and proliferation of terrestrial resources caused interest in nodule extraction to wane. Shame.

We've also got the prospect of deep-sea rescue missions and the WASP submersible, for a single diver to explore the untapped wealth of the ocean. It seems it was successful in its goals, and one-man submersibles continue to look cooler and cooler.

Media and Telecoms

"One day we all may find it useful to have a facility for sending documents, writing and pictures across the telephone lines". The breathless coverage of the future of telecoms is a winner, particularly the up-and-coming Prestel technology, rolled out by the UK Post Office to provide interactive data through our television sets via telephone lines. The author describes using Prestel for such purposes as to determine whether to adopt a child, as well as for informing your wife that you are not coming home.

We are introduced to technologies such as LaserDisc, home video and the digital audio revolution. There is also a sombre page-long description of the "knuckle-whitening" thrills of the new new loop-the-loop rollercoasters.

Outer Space

Another advance which today remains in the eternal "forthcoming" pipeline is the Powersat, or space-based solar power. Collecting solar energy with satellites from outside the atmosphere and beaming it to earth via non-ionizing EM waves, the theory remains sound; earlier this year, PowerSat corp filed a new patent for space-solar tech.

Likewise the space colony (below), home to the first galactic settlers, estimated to be "well under way within fifteen years". We've had a good shot with Mir, but it's a far cry from the colonies of 10,000 described here.

Whatever Happened To..?

What really brought Tomorrow's World into its own is its championing the off-kilter and quintessentially British inventions which were to define our future age. As a rather sad closer to this look to the future, we hear back from two inventions prototyped earlier in the 1970s.

The 360 Degree Scissors, from Devonshire designer Richard Hawkins, are an ingeniusly simple (if faintly hazardous) concept: with double-sided blades, they can spin round fully to be operated equally effectively by right- or left-handed users. Hawkins took his idea to the show, making repeated journeys to the scissor-forgers of Sheffield to gather support. However, a manufacturing deal with Wilkinson Sword was thwarted at the last minute: it turns out that his idea had been patented over 50 years earlier, through a now-dormant patent, meaning that it could be freely manufactured to a US market and bypassing Hawkins.

The last news is that Hawkins was investing £5,000 of his own capital to manufacture a limited run in the UK. I can't track down any further trace; Richard Hawkins, if you're out there, I'd love to hear from you.

And finally, the Moulton Coach (above). There's no designing the streamlined elegance of this vehicle, constructed from parts in DIY assembly kits and using a simple, rigid frame. Yet, despite passing its wind-tunnel tests and being described by William Woollard as possessing "remarkable" braking power, the coach was deemed to not be cost-effective. The Moulton Coach never went into production.

Emergence ch15: Is Anything Ever New?

in project: emergence-advent

James P. Crutchfield - Is Anything Ever New? Considering Emergence (1999)

James Crutchfield is a veteran of the Santa Fe institute and director of UC's Complexity Sciences Center. From an information-theoretic standpoint, he here considers the optimal approach for an observer to explain the behaviours emerging from a black-box natural system. The solution put forward here is to attempt to built a machine which generates a corresponding output, minimising:

  • the model size, and
  • the error margin between our model and the observed data

From the complexity of this model (which here takes the form of an FSA-like ε-machine), we can deduce the structural complexity of the underlying natural system. These ideas form the core of the computational mechanics field, behind which lie Crutchfield, Shalizi and others.

It's an incredibly dense yet engaging paper, itself a reduction of The Calculi of Emergence (pdf), probably the most essential piece of work on quantifying emergence and effective complexity.

Emergence ch14: The Theory of Everything

in project: emergence-advent

Robert Laughlin and David Pines - The Theory of Everything (1999)

Read as PDF

In which Laughlin and Pines continue the many-body physics discussion of Anderson, arguing that the "more is different" tenet holds so strongly in certain contexts that the idea of a reductive Theory Of Everything is effectively impossible.

The objective of a Theory Of Everything is a set of base-level equations which underpin all activity in the universe, from which the phenomena of higher levels can be constructed. Evidently, this is quickly computationally unfeasible for (say) a biosystem. Laughlin and Pines' position is stronger than this, however, citing principles such as Laughlin's fractional quantum Hall effect as transcendent "higher organizing principles", in that:

"..they would continue to be true and lead to exact results even if the Theory of Everything were changed. Thus the existence of these effects is profoundly important, for it shows us that for at least some fundamental things in nature the Theory of Everything is irrelevant."

The effects in question relate to their notion of a "quantum protectorate", key to the FQHE, in which the effects of macroscopic principles eclipse those on the microscopic level, to the point that the latter becomes negligible. The consequence is that strongly emergent laws do exist, structurally independent of the underlying equations that govern single-particle interactions.

My flimsy understanding of theoretical physics forbids me from attempting any further analysis of this paper. Interested readers can find it here; Laughlin's A Different Universe expands his ideas into book form, most notably the view that emergent processes should be the central focus of theoretical physics.

Emergence ch13: Alternative Views of Complexity

in project: emergence-advent

Herbert Simon - Alternative Views of Complexity (1996)

Another all-too-brief excerpt, this chapter is best treated as a trailer for Herbert Simon's The Sciences of the Artificial, his canonical ode to design and structural organisation. It's a bite-sized tour of the fashions in complexity theory since WW2:

Worth a read for some context - though note that this chapter was written in 1981, so many more recent models (neural nets, self-organized criticality, agent-based models) have since had their time in the complexity limelight.

Emergence ch10: More Is Different

in project: emergence-advent

P.W. Anderson - More Is Different (1972)

Read as PDF

Progressing into the second part of the collection, we now switch perspectives to those from the scientific community. Nobel laureate PW Anderson writes from his work within condensed matter physics; this paper addresses the ways in which structures of increasing size and complexity begin to shift further from the symmetry we expect from particle physics, giving rise to quasi-stable far-from-equilibrium states which escape the pull of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

It's a nice insight into how complexity emerges at the most fundamental level, filling out the justifications demanded by those who claim that special sciences of level X are "nothing but" an applied form of level Y: it's clear that new (constructive) causal explanations are needed as we shift from the point of view of electrodynamic equilibrium to the information-processing work of biology. This doesn't detract from the acceptance that level X can still be ontologically reduced to level Y.

Amusingly, I read this in the wake of skimming the "doctoral" dissertation of creationist Kent Hovind (which is quite a piece of work; it begins with the word "Hello", for god's sake). Hovind's opening argument, based on a fallacious extrapolation of thermodynamics, is essentially as follows: anything in the universe, if left to itself, will tend towards maximal entropy and go to shit (and thus, "This clearly indicates a a Creator"). Yes, this is true for a closed system, but it's hardly true that the aquatic wetlabs which first spawned life on earth were isolated from the immense energy of the sun or the environment beyond.

Emergence ch1: The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism

in project: emergence-advent

Brian McLaughlin - The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism (1992)

The first and longest of the papers published in Emergence, McLaughlin's Rise and Fall puts the collection in context by providing an overview of the first major, sustained philosophical discussion of emergence: between a series of British thinkers, from JS Mill's System of Logic (1843) to the scientific advances of the 1920s onwards.

First, as the opening of this series, an overview of what's at stake. "Emergence" is the phenomenon of macro-level properties or behaviours that are a product of an aggregate of micro-level parts. Popular examples include nature's synchronised swarming behaviours, physical phase transitions (say, from solid to liquid) at a critical temperature, consciousness and thought, the phenomenological experience of colour, etc. The Stanford Encyclopaedia provides a potted overview.

Emergentism is a strong philosophical brand of belief in emergence, which states that there are emergent phenomenon which can in no way, ontologically or epistemologically, be fully explained from their lower-level constituents. Working from the assumptions that:

  • everything can be reduced to matter, with some underlying level of elementary particles; and
  • there is a hierarchy of levels above this; from bottom up: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology… (cf xkcd)

..the British Emergentists claim that, though the matter of a level B may be comprised of the same stuff as its underlying A, it may be able to exhibit special "configurational forces" which cannot be explained or deduced from the forces of A. The motivation for such thinking was the current interest in chemical reactions, and the unexplainability of (say) the dissolution of salt in water from elementary particles.

Unfortunately, as McLaughlin observes, although this form of emergence may be logically coherent, it only remains empirically viable so long as we have no scientific way of understanding how such laws can emerge without resorting to some mystical forces; this is a God of the Gaps scenario. McLaughlin refers repeatedly to the "natural piety" that Alexander recommends we adopt for such faith-reliant situations. And, as Schrödinger and Einstein's leaps in quantum mechanics provided explanations of chemical bonding which did, indeed, bridge between levels, the a posteriori basis of British Emergentism collapsed.

The punchline of the chapter is that, today, we must accept with "natural piety" the difficult fact that high-level concepts such as production do indeed supervene on the same minimal set of forces as electromagnetic bonds.

Bird migrations tracked over 5,000mi with 1.5g sensors

Read a couple of weeks ago but forgotten until now: the IHT reports on a Science article [subscription required] in which Toronto researchers track the migration patterns of birds over thousands of miles, using tiny backpacks that are light enough for songbirds to carry but still accurate enough to track movement remotely within a few miles.

One of their key novel findings is the distance that such birds can travel in one day: up to 370 miles, much larger than previously thought.

One boggles at the potential future uses of such technologies.

Mosquito buzz harmonised in mating practices

K http://scienceblogs.com/.../...

mosquito Research from Cornell University, and published in this month's Science (requires subscription), indicates that there is purpose behind the mosquito's buzz besides keeping its human neighbours awake at night: male and female mosquitoes induce harmonic convergence within the frequency spectra of their hums as part of their mating practice. Contradicting earlier research which suggests that males have a highly limited hearing range whilst females are entirely deaf, both sexes were shown to modulate their buzzing frequencies to enter into harmonic love-making.

More info, and video, on Wired's Not Rocket Science.