Category Archives: Features

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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Third issue of Equestrian Year out now

The third issue of Equestrian Year (EQy) is out now. Horses have always been a passion of mine, so I love contributing to this annual glossy magazine—through which I have met many of my sporting heroes (such as Ian Stark and Zara Philips).

This issue I spoke to two rising stars in the showjumping and eventing worlds: Douglas Duffin and Wills Oakden, both of whom recently made their debuts on the national squads at the very highest levels.

I also interviewed Jo Barry: one of Britain’s best dressage riders who, in 2014, suffered a life-changing brain injury in a freak accident while schooling a trusted veteran horse at home. Having seriously damaged the pons (the nerve-dense junction box between brain and spine), she had to learn to walk, talk and ride again—but through an incredible work ethic and the support from family, friends and sponsors has returned to the very top of her game. I was very moved by her remarkable story and strength of character.

The magazine is still out on newstands, but I’ll post the full text of my features online in a few months.

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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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Cover story: who wants to live forever?

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I was delighted to contribute the cover story of the latest (summer) edition of the New Humanist magazine, an article about efforts to transcend death via cryonics, gene therapy and artificial intelligence. During my research I shadowed a training day run by Cryonics UK and interviewed several who have signed up to be ‘frozen’ after their death, in the hope of revival, plus the leader of a Mormon association who plans a mass-sign up of Mormons and Christians so that they might be reborn in accordance with scripture.

 

It can be found in full on the New Humanist website here, or after the fold.

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On the cover of Equestrian Year

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It’s been an exciting week, what with the launch of Thicker Than Water, and the first, great review in The Times, so it was an extra bonus to find myself on the cover of the Scottish magazine EQy (Equestrian Year), interviewing Game of Thrones actor Clive Russell on horseback on the beach at St Andrews.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing Olympian and cross-country course designer Ian Stark — from his hospital bed! — for the same issue. It’s on newstands until the new year, but I’ll post the text online after that.

Last year, I interviewed Zara Phillips for the same magazine at Blair Castle ahead of the European Championships.

 

UPDATE: full text follows after the break Continue reading

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Jenni Fagan and the Sunlight Pilgrims

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I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet the brilliant Scottish author Jenni Fagan for an interview for The Sunday Times. She was recovering from having launched two books (a new novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, and a book of poetry, The Dead Queen of Bohemia) within the space of a week.

Text of the interview can be found below, or a slightly shorter version is on the Sunday Times website here.

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The tree graveyards of the Flow Country

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I was excited to contribute an essay to Granta: a long piece of reportage in which I travelled to the far north of Scotland to wander in the vast peatlands of the Flow Country.

North of Helmsdale, the land opens up. It is a rare and unusual landscape, stripped back and open to the sky … what strikes you first is the utter absence of the picturesque. A single sweeping line demarcates the heavens and the earth: God’s rough draft, the Earth formless and empty still. The cow-brown flats tussocked and pockmarked by puddles and pools. Slow gradients slope off in every direction; in the distance a few low hills poke their noses into the air.

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At home in the Highlands with Michel Faber

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I had an interview in this weekend’s Sunday Times with Michel Faber, the author of Under The Skin, The Crimson Petal and the White, and the recently announced Saltire book of the year The Book of Strange New Things.

We spoke about the grieving process after the death of his wife Eva last year, his pacifist beliefs and his growing sense of belonging in Scotland thanks to the Saltire win. Not before time – he has lived in the Highlands, near Tain, for more than 20 years, but has always felt something of an “alien” he says, and has never really integrated.

The Sunday Times piece can be found here, or a slightly longer version is also available after the fold.

It didn’t make the piece, but he also spoke very interestingly on the writing process – particularly the no-nonsense approach he took to his first book The Crimson Petal and the White (he wrote the first version as a student, although it was not published until after his critically-acclaimed ‘debut’ with Under The Skin). Having started, but not completed, many novels, he decided to very carefully structure his next attempt, taking inspiration from the Victorian novels he was studying for his literature degree (particularly, Middlemarch) – down to the paragraph, even. After which he could work through the plan very diligently, marking off his progress as he went.

The book went through two or three redrafts, but the back of the work had been broken. It was published in 2002 and received rave reviews, later being adapted as a TV series for the BBC starring Romola Garai. He has retained this highly structured process through his later books, although he has spoken elsewhere of making efforts to allow his latest novel more space to grow “organically”.

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Country diary: sunlight on snowfall

adrian hopkins - view from Sgurr MorI wrote a short entry for the Guardian’s Country Diary section this week following a fantastic hillwalking trip to the west coast, on the edge of Knoydart, stopping off at the Kinbreak bothy.

Full text can be found here, or after the break

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