The abstract beauty of maths

I was delighted to contribute an essay to the New Humanist, which discusses the concept of ‘abstract beauty’ and the way mathematicians can perceive certain formulae to be aesthetically pleasing.

“Euler’s identity, for example—e + 1 = 0, an equation that combines five of the most important numbers in mathematics—is often cited, both by individual academics and in wider polls, as the most beautiful equation of all time. Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin, for example, has likened it to “a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep.”

There’s a technical barrier to appreciating the beauty of maths, that does not exist to the same extent in art, or music. “I doubt you can appreciate it the way mathematicians do,” Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics at Warwick University, told me. “But by reading the right books and articles, a layperson might get a sense of what’s involved. It’s a bit like reading poetry in a language you don’t speak: someone has to translate it for you.”

Full text is not yet online—and the New Humanist is still on newsstands for another few weeks. But I’ll post the full article online after that.

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Across Scotland on horseback

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My friend Iona Scobie, who runs East Rhidorroch Estate near Ullapool, rides her four Highland ponies cross-country twice a year, east coast to west coast and vice versa, between their summer and winter grazing. It’s a journey of about 70 miles, and usually takes around three days—via road, forestry track, sheep path and peat bog, roughly in that order.

This year, me and my partner Rich joined her for the journey, riding three horses and having the fourth—a youngster called Boo—follow on behind. We slept in a hayloft and an abandoned cottage, and stopped off at the Glenbeg bothy too on the very, very wet last day on the hill.

Usually we’d keep at least one of the horses contained, but on the last night, we let them loose on the hill to let them relax and crossed our fingers they’d stick close by. Luckily they did. Or, not lucky exactly: after several days on the move together, the horses come to perceive our group as their ‘herd’ and like to stay in eyeshot of all its members.

I’ll write about the trip in more depth for the next issue of EQY, but in the meantime, here’s a brief postcard from the peatbogs written for the Guardian’s Country Diary section. Full text after the fold.  Continue reading

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Finding beauty in post-industrial landscapes

I was pleased to contribute to issue five of Avaunt magazine, an award-winning journal which is “dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavour, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.” It runs excellent new writing on adventure, science, technology, style and culture.

I visited the Slate Islands, off the coast of Argyll, for an essay on the surprising beauty that can be found in man-made, post-industrial, landscapes. It has been beautifully illustrated by images of the Isle of Easdale by Jon Tonks.

Anywhere would be pretty in summer, maybe: when brambles and rioting wildflowers – harebells, montbretia, thrift, golden rods, spotted orchids – are there to soften the edges. In January, when I return, the look is more austere. Easdale is stripped right back to its bone structure: hollow-cheeked, quarries sunk into its skull like eye-sockets, staring… All around come great chutes of broken slate – the spoiled by-products of the quarrying, undersized or tinged with impurities. Their edges bristle, like iron filings teased with a magnet. But here and there, order rises amid the chaos: tightly stacked embankments and walls form safe passages; drystone dykes outline monotone blocks of vegetation (the rust of thick-packed reeds, the sickly green of winter grass, the brown and tattered heather) in bold, abstract patterns.

Even now, in its off-season, this is a remarkable place. But how is one to explain its appeal? From where arises the strange beauty of the desolation and the ruin? To admire an attractive landscape is usually to marvel at its innocence, its untouched nature, whereas here, the hand of man is omnipresent. Easdale is a terraformed island cast aside.

I find parallels in the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, famous for his beautiful, abstract images of open-cut mines, motorway intersections and nickel tailings, or land artists like Robert Smithson, who was pre-occupied with collapsed mines, abandoned buildings and a more generalised sense of disintegration.

Standing here in the brutalist sculpture of Easdale and surrounds, I can’t help recalling the words of the critic Barbara Reise, who dryly commented upon viewing Smithson’s show in 1969 that his works were “consistently less interesting than rock quarries themselves.” For if the work of Smithson, Richard Long and others can be seen as meditations upon man’s relationship to land, then aren’t post-industrial landscapes like Easdale and the remnants of the lost Eilean nam Beitheach the ultimate objets trouvé?

The magazine is biannual, so I’ll post the full text online come autumn when it’s off newstands. Until then, the latest issue is available here.

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Book interviews and country diary

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I’ve still got my head down working on a longer term project, but in the mean time I continue to conduct interviews and edit for the literary site Five Books, which you should visit and follow if, like me, you like to keep a to-be-read pile larger than your bedside table or to hear authors/academics/public figures talking about their areas of expertise in depth. Recently I’ve spoken to author Matthew Green about post-traumatic stress, journalist and memoirist Bryony Gordon about depression, and academic Philippa Levine about eugenics.

I also contributed another short entry to the Guardian’s Country Diary, this time about horse-riding in the Black Isle during pheasant shooting season. Text at the Guardian website here, or after the fold.  Continue reading

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Paperback edition of Thicker Than Water

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I love the new paperback covers. Available from 23 February, 2017.

I’ll also be appearing alongside the historian Jim Hunter at the Aye Write! book festival in Glasgow, at the Mitchell Library on Wednesday 15th March at 6.30pm. We’ll be discussing the impact of the Highland Clearances – in Scotland and beyond. Hope to see you there. Tickets.

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TTW picked as one of The Times’ Books of the Year

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I somehow managed to miss this when it first came out, but a friend has very kindly drawn my attention to Thicker Than Water‘s inclusion among The Times’ Books of the Year 2016.

It was picked by reviewer and columnist Melanie Reid, who also wrote the lovely  review that will feature on the new paperback cover (out February 23rd). I’m delighted and extremely grateful.

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Recently

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Just a quick note about recent work—I was delighted to hear earlier this month that I’d been shortlisted for feature writer of the year at the Scottish Magazine Awards for my work on the equestrian magazine EQY. It was a wonderful evening, and although in the end the title went to the very deserving Pennie Taylor, a former BBC health correspondent, I was pleased to see my writing on the shortlist.

Elsewhere, I’ve written another dispatch for the Guardian’s Country Diary, this time from the far northeastern corner of the country, at Duncansby Head near John O’Groats, where I was lucky to come across a seal colony during the pupping season and hear their haunting siren song. (Full text can be found on the Guardian website).

I was fortunate enough to be commissioned to do a series of reviews of some of Scotland’s top hotels, in remote and beautiful areas of the country, for the Telegraph. Our stay at Arisaig House was blissful—helped no doubt by an invigorating swim at the silver sands at Camusdarach, in the clear winter sun—while Torridon House offered ultra-luxe accommodation in a most perfect location down by the lochside. Ardanaiseig House, near Oban, was a perfect romantic getaway (in a secluded country house decorated in flamboyant style by a noted antiques dealer), while Natural Retreats in John O’Groats was a bastion of Copenhagen cool in a part of the country that, to put it kindly, is not well known for its style. Continue reading

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Australian coverage of McMillan name change

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-20-49-11Australia’s national public broadcasting network SBS ran a segment about the ongoing campaign to change the name of the McMillan Electorate in Victoria, now that McMillan’s role in the brutal massacres of the Gippsland ‘black war’ has become more widely known and accepted. Historian Peter Gardner, Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, Koorie heritage consultant (and Gunaikurnai man) Russell Mullett and myself were all interviewed by SBS reporter Sacha Payne. Watch it and read the accompanying article here.

 

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The trouble with lichen

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I had another short article in the Guardian’s lovely Country Diary section a few days ago, about lichen land grabs and the slow wars waged over centuries.

Find the full text here, or after the break.

Continue reading

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Islands and otters in the Guardian

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I was delighted to contribute a piece to the Guardian’s lovely Country Diary section, about a close encounter with three juvenile otters while camping on the beach on Gigha, a small island off Argyll. Find the article online here, or after the fold. Amusingly it was featured on the Guardian’s homepage under the heading ‘breaking news’. This is the sort of news I like to break best. Continue reading

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