Wednesday, 25 January 2012


Meet my granddaughter.  Here she is, aged eleven months, holding a copy of the esteemed journal New Scientist with a totally appropriate cover story.  She is certainly supercharging her brain.  Everyone who spends more than a passing moment with her says how clever/bright/intelligent (delete as appropriate) she is.

But how intelligent is she?  According to at age 24 months she should be able to do the following verbal things:

  • Can name a number of objects common to his surroundings
  • Is able to use at least two prepositions, usually chosen from the following: in, on, under
  • Combines words into a short sentence-largely noun-verb combinations (mean) length of sentences is given as 1.2 words
  • Approximately 2/3 of what child says should be intelligible
    Vocabulary of approximately 150-300 words
  • Rhythm and fluency often poor
  • Volume and pitch of voice not yet well-controlled
  • Can use two pronouns correctly: I, me, you, although me and I are often confused
  • My and mine are beginning to emerge
  • Responds to such commands as “show me your eyes (nose, mouth, hair)”
Well, she certainly names common objects and she understands prepositions but doesn't necessarily say them.  She has used 3 word sentences ("See you later") and her babble is becoming more and more intelligible.  Her rhythm and fluency are getting pretty good but she is loud.  I haven't heard her use pronouns but the word "mine" has been part of her vocabulary for about ten months (and is going out of use now at 26 months).  And she's been responding to commands for a long time too.  If she drops something, and she is told to put it in the bin, she will pick it up and do just that.  In my house we have two bins - one for general rubbish and one for recyclables - and she can tell the difference.

My granddaughter has an impressive sponge like capacity to fit in with her surroundings.  At 20 months, she went to Florida for a fortnight.  During that fortnight she barely uttered the word "hello", preferring to use "Hi".  And she loves to talk, to anyone, family or stranger.

The point here is, we reckon that she's an intelligent little girl but how can we tell.  How do you measure intelligence?  It's not about language entirely, is it?  Parrots are reckoned intelligent, as are certain cephalopods, and certainly dolphins. But how can we really tell?
One way is problem solving.  Toddlers are very keen on solving little puzzles that they set themselves.  Here's the granddaughter working the clip on my camera bag.  Once she had worked out how to open it, the bag became a receptacle for one of her stuffed toys.

One of the best ideas on intelligence I have ever come across is in “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel T. Willingham (2009): intelligence is the ability to make connections.  This is why knowledge is important.  Without the knowledge, it is impossible to connect two things. And we don't do learning like we used to.  I remember having to learn thirty words of French vocabulary a week, with a test of twenty of them and a pass mark of fifteen.  Without the vocabulary, you couldn't understand the language.  So you had to learn it.

Such a simple definition means you can discard those ideas of multiple intelligences.  All that you require is knowledge (or experience) in certain fields.  I love music, for instance, and know a bit more about it than my wife, so I can appear more intelligent on musical matters even though I have a tin ear and the the dexterity of someone knitting spaghetti with their fingers when it comes to playing the guitar.  My point is simple: if I can make the connections, I appear intelligent.

So, how intelligent are, for example, my granddaughter who can make rudimentary connections, and Stephen Fry, who undoubtedly knows just about everything.  Well, as evidence for the intelligence of my granddaughter I adduce these instances.  Last week, I went round to collect my step-daughter and her offspring.  I told them we were going shopping.  The granddaughter replied "Tesco".   And a few days before that, when I went round, I said "Hello trouble" to her.  She replied "Hello trouble.  Susie's trouble." Susie is her cat.  Connections.  That's the key.

Sunday, 22 January 2012


I once tried some homeopathic pills for hay fever.  I was still at university, the grant (yes, those were the days) had reached single figures and the hay fever season was in full swing.  I needed something and the chemist I happened into had some homeopathic remedies on the shelf and they were promising two things.  Firstly they said they were cheaper.  Secondly they said they would not induce the narcoleptic state that my then current tablets would induce.  So I bought them.
A bottle rather like the one I bought but not actually the one (ask the solicitor if this is enough to avoid a lawsuit)

Guess what.  They were useless.

I still had runny eyes, itchy roof of the mouth, sneezing bouts and the rest, in the same quantities as before and, so far as I could see, there was no improvement.  So, chalk that up as one failure for the homeopathic pills.

Now, I realise, before any supporters of homeopathy get angry, that this is one anecdote. I took these things in good faith, not understanding at the time what they really were, and I had not benefit.  About the only positive was that I was not drowsy, but then my remedy for the itchy roof of the mouth (a Mars bar) also left me alert rather than sleepy. What, however, would getting a bunch of anecdotes like this together tell me about the effectiveness of these pills?

The answer is nothing.  Anecdotes are rather self selecting - those that can be bothered tell their story.  You can see this effect on websites that ask for feedback and reviews of their products.  Lots of five out of fives, lots of one out of fives, but unlikely to get that many threes.  People who are really happy (and can be bothered) and those that are really grumpy (and can be bothered) give their opinions.  The rest, they don't bother.

To ensure that you know if the treatment is effective, you have to carry out a properly controlled study, double blinded so that neither the patient nor the person measuring the effectiveness of the treatment knows who is taking the treatment or the placebo (or in some cases the current champion remedy).  You see, humans are terribly biased.  They stick up for their favourites, be they football teams, singers or politicians. Currently we are reminded of the polarisation of opinions brought by Mrs Thatcher thirty years ago, by the film The Iron Lady.  Evidence is unlikely to sway those with firm and extreme opinions one way or the other. 

Look at it another way.  My sport is cricket.  On some apparently objective measure, the England national team is the best at playing Test matches at the moment.  The fact they got soundly thrashed by Pakistan (apparently fifth best) won't alter the ratings yet.  But currently, and it pains me to say so, Australia or South Africa could be the best.  After all, their most recent results are superior to England's dismal effort this week.  But I will root for England, cheer for England and get behind them, whatever that means, when they are playing because my emotional investment in Team England is greater than my understanding of the evidence.

Or another way.  A few years back I had the chance to watch the Olympic Games from the comfort of an arm chair in North Carolina.  It was rather hard to find out how British competitors were doing because the American TV didn't want to know.  Instead, there was a heavy concentration on the men's gymnastics because a couple of US gymnasts were in with a good chance of winning.  One did, in controversial circumstances because a mistake seemed to be punished lightly by the judges.  Not that you'd realise from the commentary, because it was so blinkered in favour of the American competitor that there was no balance in the words used on screen. 

Anyway, subjective evidence is a long way down the science totem pole.  Science prefers not to use it - hopefully if a number can be measured for something then that is best of all.  Complementary medicine (CAM) often uses anecdotes, which is why people use it.  I bet most of you look at those reviews online for washing machines and new CDs and are swayed by a handful of comments.  Perhaps you should do as I do.  Read all the three star reviews - why were they so ambivalent about their goods.  After all, they paid for them.

People are quite often paying for complementary medicine so they have a vested interest in it.  My step daughter had some Chinese herbal treatment for a skin condition ten years ago.  What she got was several expensive packets of dried leaves that tasted (and smelled) awful.  She gave up after three rounds of treatment, each more expensive than the last and each containing a different set of leaves.  Her review would have been one star.  In my opinion (though I wasn't leading this expedition down the wrong road) she was ripped off.  After all, isn't the name for complementary medicine that works "medicine".
Not the mixture my step daughter took - just for illustration purposes only (check that one with the lawyers please)

There are good studies for complementary medicine, with good methodologies, good statistics and the like and generally the answer is there is no effect.  Just like my anecdote at the start.  No benefit at all.  Money down the drain.  Could have been better spent on other things.  The emotional ties (be it anti-pharmaceutical companies or pro-folk remedies) will always be strong, and there will be those that are strongly swayed by anecdotes.  But there is scientific evidence and I know which I prefer.

Finally, how could those dessicated pills have worked.  As I understand homeopathy, the "active" ingredient is diluted so strongly that it is the equivalent of about one molecule per Atlantic Ocean, or something like that.  One drop of this "solution" on an inert pill will contain no active ingredient (unless, of course, I am extremely fortunate).  But then the pill dries out.  If, as is claimed, water has a memory (evidence = nil), then how can the evaporated water leave behind its memory on the inert, mostly mineral, pill?  It can't, can it. 

Oh well.  If anyone can explain how homeopathic pills can beat the laws of physics then I would be grateful to hear those explanations.  As they say, over to you.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Planets everywhere

There is an assumption, sort of, made by those searching for extra terrestrial life that planets must be common.  It's just that they are fiendishly difficult to find.  After all, imaging the discs of stars is hard work, because they are so incredibly far away.  In Douglas Adams's famous passage: Space is big.  Really big.  You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is (The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy: The Original Radio Scripts, Douglas Adams, Pan, 1985). 

Well, since the first exoplanet was discovered in 1988, there have been a total of 721 confirmed discoveries as of 12 January 2012.  That's quite a few, but peanuts compared to the number of stars there are in our galaxy (billions), or even compared to the number of stars that we might reasonably expect to detect these planets around.  At least 385 stars have confirmed planets around them, beyond our own, homely Sun that is.  So it is beginning to look promising that our SETI friends have places to look, rather than just scanning the inky blackness of space in hope rather than expectation.

Now comes more exciting news indeed.  Possibly all stars have planets.  Perhaps, but it would be impossible, at least on a practical level, to prove, but a survey of the sky using gravitational lensing techniques (using one massive body closer to Earth to bend the light of those objects further away but close to the line of sight) has proposed just such a conclusion.  Planets might be everywhere.

This result is interesting because it is one of the few parts of the famous Drake Equation that can be tested and measured: what proportion of stars have planets.  The equation (lifted from is:

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L

  • N = The number of communicative civilizations
  • R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars (stars such as our Sun)
  • fp = The fraction of those stars with planets. (Current evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the Sun.)
  • ne = The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system
  • fl = The fraction of those Earth-like planets where life actually develops
  • fi = The fraction of life sites where intelligence develops
  • fc = The fraction of communicative planets (those on which electromagnetic communications technology develops)
  • L = The "lifetime" of communicating civilizations 
Plug some numbers into the terms and you can come up with some idea of how many "communicating civilisations" there might be out there.  As you can see quite easily, the Drake Equation, named for Frank Drake who coined it in 1960, is not about a definitive answer but about narrowing down the field.  And we have narrowed it down considerably since 1960.  And it is the second and third terms on the right side of the equation that exoplanet research can really answer.
Artist's impression of Gliese 581 c

So it looks as if fp is 100%.  And that Gliese 581 c is rather important.  It is a claimed Earth like planet, the first such to stand up to the full scrutiny, and could well be the key to solving the equation. 

Or perhaps not.  The parts of the equation dealing with life are all based on a data set of 1, which isn't any good, and leave it all open to guesswork.  I would love to have the answer to the existence or not of life elsewhere in the galaxy in my lifetime.  I don't expect it to be answered but you never know.

We've had a decent look at Mars and the answers are tantalisingly ambiguous.  Where does the methane detected in the Martian atmosphere come from?  How do we explain those strange Viking biochemistry results from the 1970s?  Food for thought, even ignoring the microfossils/natural inclusions in the meteorite they examined back in the 90s.  And the moon of Jupiter, Europa, looks a promising place to look, although technically a lot harder to have a crack at.  One day a probe will land there and it could be a very exciting day.

Back in the day, before Viking put its landing pads on the rusty dusty surface of Mars, Carl Sagan presented a programme about the possibility of Martian life.  It was pretty fanciful but fascinating none the less.  It turned out to be fantasy but that doesn't mean we should stop looking.  As we discover more and more exoplanets, the chances of life existing out there increase.  And chances are that some of those life forms, should they exist, have risen to the level that we might call intelligent.  But if they are like parrots, dolphins or octopuses, intelligent beings all, they are hardly going to be making radio telescopes and beaming their TV programmes across the cosmos.  Chances are, however, that life rarely gets beyond the level of bacteria.  But happy hunting.

One of the saddest things I have ever read is a paper in the proceedings of the first lunar science conference in 1970, the conference at which the first results of the Apollo 11 samples were discussed.  Naturally the question of life occurred to NASA and naturally they asked scientists to have a look.  Amongst all the papers on the selenochemistry of the Moon (or should it still be geochemistry), there is a short paper (the title of which I cannot at the moment find) in which you can taste the disappointment of the team given the task of looking for bacteria and other micro-organisms in the dust and pebbles.  They didn't find any.  Waved goodbye to their Nobel prizes and got on with their careers.  Well done to them for being professional.  They just couldn't quite hide it in their paper.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

We all want to change the world

When I was 9, I saw something amazing on the TV. I wasn't alone as millions saw what I saw and a good proportion had their mouths open in amazement. The occasion was the appearance of David Bowie on Top Of The Pops singing "Starman". It was unlike anything else I had ever seen and much stranger than T Rex or The Osmonds. Much weirder than The Osmonds. It was mybrother who came back with Bowie LPs but I sneaked a listen.

Bowie is 65 today and sort of resting on his laurels. He changed the world his way nearly forty years ago and his alien spawn still pop up from time to time. Could Lady Gaga be taken seriously without the precedent of the Thin White Duke?
Elvis (left) in an early recording studio

Bowie himself could not have done what he did without Elvis Presley, also born this day. I go with John Lennon's summation: Presley died when he went in the army, or at least his radical rock n roll did. 1956 Presley is a bit like 1976-7 punk/new wave, the impact must have been shocking.
Stephen Hawking in 1963

Shock does not belong entirely to the arts world. In 1988 a science book tipped the cosy world of arts and humanities on its head for a while because it became fashionable. Plenty claimed to have begun A Brief History Of Time even if many said they never finished it. They should have persisted because the book had an inspirational core: we can understand the strangeness that is the Universe.
If you haven't read it yet, do so

The book's authour turned 70 today although he missed the celebration through ill health. Then again, ill health is something that envelopes everything Stephen Hawking does. His dgenerative nerve disease has left him remarkably psychologically unscarred but robbed him of so much that the rest of us take for granted. But we should be thankful that the disease, and the oothers that have afflicted him throughout his life, have spared him and his mind to allow him to be iconoclastic enough to bring us his vibrant and wonderful ideas. Where is his Nobel Prize? So happy birthday to Bowie and Hawking - both happily still with us. And raise a glass to Elvis, though steer clear of the cheeseburgers. Not so healthy.

PS. And happy birthday to Dr Oliver Cheesman. Anyone working on insect population dynamics must be a genius,

Friday, 6 January 2012

Kennedy Space Center - another essential visit

More on the travelogue trail, the Kennedy Space Center is my most visited overseas location.  I first went there in 2003 and in all I've been there something like ten times.  Being the rocket enthusiast, being the one inspired to go into science by the Apollo programme, it's like my kind of pilgrimage.  Anyway, here are some of my holiday photos:
The launch of a Delta II rocket in August 2009.  I got up at 2.30am to travel across Florida for the 6.30 launch.  Very glad I did.
And here am I with my video camera catching the launch - the booster is now far over the Atlantic.

Luckily, my wife's sister lives in Florida although on the Gulf coast, so any trip to see my sister and brother in law comes with a built in trip to the Kennedy Space Center.  I have to go.  I've been a dozen times now and if we go out again this summer, I shall be going again.  My pilgrimage is to the altar of the great Saturn V building.  When the doors open from the Apollo 8 countdown simulation, I am a little boy again, and looking up at the rocket's immense first stage all I can be is tiny.  I can't believe I can get this close to one of those rockets, the very thing that sparked my interest in all things scientific.  I can't quite reach out and touch it although I must admit to the laying on of hands in the rocket garden.

If you want to go, log on to which will give you as much information as you could possibly want.  There are three tours you can go on.  The standard one takes you past the Vehicle Assembly Building (a gigantic 500 foot tall shed where the Saturn V and the Shuttles were put together), a viewing platform a mile from pad 38 (where the Moon missions and the shuttles launched) and the Saturn V centre, another giant shed keeping the refurbished rocket in good shape.

But there are two other, add on tours.  The Up Close tour takes you onto the edge of pad 38, almost, and up against the fence around the VAB.  It is good but not as good as the Then And Now tour, the history tour that takes you out to the old pads where the pioneering manned missions of Mercury and Gemini took off and where Apollo 1 met its fiery end.  It is a nostalgia trip even for those who didn't live that era. 

So forget Disney and Sea World and Orlando's tourist traps for a day and drive the hour or so out to Cape Canaveral.  Better still, do what my wife and I do.  Book a hotel and take two days to do KSC - your ticket entitles you to free entry on a second day if you get it stamped on the way out.  Two days means you are not pushed to get into the IMAX films and out to the sites - you can relax and take your time.  Oh, take some water too.  It can get very hot.

Places to visit before you die #1

I am not a great traveller.  I never left England until I was 21 when I went on a field trip to Swansea, and never ventured overseas until a day trip to Calais in 2000.  But ever since then I've been going abroad most summers and usually to Florida since my sister in law lives there.

In 2009, we went from Florida to Utah to visit Zion Canyon National Park.  It is nowhere near the most famous of the national parks in the USA but it is one that I say everyone should visit.  And, no, I'm not in the pay of the US National Parks service.  I hadn't even known it existed until my brother in law suggested it but I'm definitely glad that he did.

We flew from Tampa International to Las Vegas and took a hire car from there to the small town of Springdale which sits at the south west entrance to Zion Park.  We stayed in a nice Best Western, walked along the main street and in and out of the fossil shops.  For a long time fossil collector like me, it was heaven.  There was too much choice but I came away with a few nice pieces including an example of my all time favourites, a trilobite.
A map cannot do justice to the park.  For a start, reality is in 3D and Zion is in abundant 3D.  The slow moving Virgin River has cut a deep and beautiful scar in the Earth's surface here, slicing through the rocks and laying them out on display.  It is truly breathtaking.
Thanks to digital photography, I took hundreds of images of which the above are some of the best.  The second last shows some spectacular cross bedding which shows the environment in which those layers were deposited was a desert with lots of dunes.  These photos don't do the place true justice - you have to go there.

And you can do some hiking while there.  We took some of the less strenuous trails which took us some way into the less civilised, more wild areas.  We could have gone further.  One trail ended up on top of one of the peaks, looking back down.  No thanks.  I learned afterwards that, only a couple of days before our arrival, a tourist had fallen to her death from that trail.  But you don't need to put yourself in any danger to appreciate the park.  Just stick to the central road, hop on and off the bus and look around you.  Oh, and you'll need water because, (1) it was hot, and (2) your mouth is open most of the time in awe.

Finally, here are some professional photos that will give you jaw ache:

Thursday, 5 January 2012

New Scientist - Old Disease

I first came across New Scientist magazine in 1976.  I was in W H Smith in Colchester High Street (shows how long ago it was - Smith's moved to the new Red Lion Shopping Precinct a few weeks later) and saw a picture of the surface of Mars on the cover.  It was what I had been looking for - something that would tell me what the newly landed Viking probes had found.  So I picked it up, checked the price, then joined the queue to pay for it.  Took it home and made an effort to read it.

In those days, New Scientist was quite a dry, scientific journal.  Articles were aimed at the moderately well educated and the professional scientist.  Well, I wanted to be both and made a concerted effort to read it from cover to cover.  It was not a great success because I didn't realise at the time just how much science I didn't know, but I was learning.  Over the next couple of years, I bought another handful of issues before starting to read the magazine regularly in 1978.  I haven't stopped since (the other magazine I have been reading for that long is Private Eye - I used to read Punch as well in those days but that folded twenty years ago).

This week's New Scientist has a small feature on vitamin D deficiency.  It's something we teach occasionally in science lessons when we mention vitamins and minerals.  Yes, we teach scurvy and its cure and mention rickets but... Perhaps we should mention it a bit more loudly.  Vitamin D deficiency is on the rise.
Vitamin D is made in the skin using sunlight as an energy source and is readily available in many foods, including eggs, meat and fish.  It is essential to get enough because the body needs it in an important way.

One of the compounds that vitamin D is converted to is calcitrol.  Depending on where in the body the conversion takes place calcitrol can have two effects.  In macrophage cells it acts to help prevent infection.  If it is converted in the kidneys, it becomes a hormone.  It is this latter use that is the most important as far as we are concerned because the hormone controls the levels of calcium and phosphate in the blood.  It also has a neuromuscular effect, controlling cell proliferation and differentiation.  In short, it is an important hormone.

So what do you get if you don't get enough?  The most famous is rickets, a commonplace of biology textbooks, in which the bones do not form correctly because the tissue is soft and weak.  Long bones, especially those in the legs, become bowed.
Other diseases associated with vitamin D deficiency are osteoporosis, hyperparathyroidism, obesity and chronic backache.  One disease perhaps less often associated with it in the minds of the public is depression.  Vitamin D is believed to stimulate serotonin and that hormone is associated with mood.  Furthermore, D is also linked to MS and asthma.

There were 762  cases of childhood rickets in the UK in 2010. This compares with 1550 or so cases of childhood cancer per year.  Cancer clearly kills.  Rickets is less obviously harmful but of course rickets is an extreme case and the incidence of vitamin D deficiency is probably far, far higher.  The cause is perhaps trickier still to uncover, but lack of sunlight is surely one factor.  Children are much more likely to be protected from sunshine than they were when I was young.  1976 was one long, hot summer.  My grandmother told me the story of 1921, when she was thirty, and the drought went on seemingly forever.  But in 1976, when I was not inside reading New Scientist, I was outside, playing football in the winter, cricket in the summer, and never once was my mum telling me to wear a hat or put on suncream.

Now, I don't advocate just letting your baby sit out in the sun all day, every day.  Sunlight does cause skin cancer, but I am sure a little more sun and a little less suncream won't raise the incidence of skin cancers by more than an imperceptible jot.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Francis Bacon - inventor of science

I mentioned Francis Bacon in my post on the Shakespeare authorship question, mostly in passing.  Bacon (1561-1626) probably didn't have the time to write the works of Shakespeare because he was far too busy being just about everything else.  Wikipedia describes him thus: "an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of the scientific method."  He was certainly the sort of Renaissance Man that the term was invented for. 

Bacon's scientific claim to fame is his codification of the scientific method as a form of induction.   The weight of evidence forces scientists into their conclusions.  This idea was very powerful, persists in many minds today (and in TV programmes galore), even though it is obvious, as Darwin pointed out, that observation and evidence are all weighed in the light of the theory being pursued.  GCSE science certainly had an inductive method in mind in the good old days of planning-observing-analysing-evaluating.  Lo, those days are back, more or less.

Back in Bacon's day, however, science was new.  Experiments were, on the whole, simple because the basic laws of nature were just becoming apparent.  And that's how scientists like Galileo and Gilberd saw themselves working.  Galileo especially was making important discoveries in the field of dynamics which, when taken aboard by Newton, turned into the three laws of motion.  They look like a good example of Bacon's inductive approach to science: the evidence impelled Newton to come up with those laws.

Trying to replicate the process in the classroom uncovers the counter-intuitive nature of this approach to science.  A body in motion usually slows down on Earth because of the invisible forces of friction.  Demonstrating to students that a force is needed to slow something down is not so easy.  Not all students get it.  Newton needed to make a leap that Bacon doesn't allow.  He had to see a force that wasn't at all obvious, friction.

Francis Bacon died a scientist.  Killed by science, according to John Aubrey.  On his way to Highgate, then a village outside London, Bacon determined to test his idea that keeping a chicken cold would slow down its decay.  Jumping out of his carriage, he stuffed a chicken with snow, in the process achieving two things: firstly showing that cold conditions do slow down decay (but not why) and secondly contracting the pneumonia that would bring his demise (and hasten his own decay, as it were).  Hubris, perhaps.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Lawrence Durrell - novelist of science

Back in the days following my graduation, when I was exploring the avenues cut off by my formal study, I remembered an English lesson when, in the midst of studying (in the most loose of senses) My Family And Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, the teacher, Mrs Went, mentioned the more arty brother had a new novel out.  It was called Livia and the fifteen year old me stored the information against the day when he might read it.

That day came six years later when I came upon it in the local library, the one full of anti-Shakespeare books.  It took me the entire fortnight to get through, mostly because I didn't really concentrate on it, but partly because it is a novel full of weird ideas of self, consciousness and the artistic experience.  That and the fact that the novel was the second in a series of five.

Well, I say series but that's not strictly correct because it was five novels arranged more like the spots on a die: four towards the corners and one in the centre, a quincunx, I am told.  And the plot, such as it was, did not follow anything approaching a linear path, and some characters were imagined by other characters, so some were real and some fiction, and so on. 

Anyway, over the next year or so I read avidly the works of Lawrence Durrell, appreciating his skill as a prose writer, even if he was too often stuck in a treacly passage more purple than the most purple thing you could ever think of.  By this time, Durrell's five volume novel, collectively called The Avignon Quintet of which Livia was a part, was nearing completion, and, I suspect, Durrell was running out of energy.  He was no longer a well man, suffering from emphysema and the final book in the sequence, Quinx (1985), doesn't match the invention and liveliness of the earlier volumes.

One thing I appreciated in Lawrence Durrell's novels was the science.  Or at least, his use of science as a metaphor, more than the science itself.  Durrell's most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60), is inspired in part by Einstein's theory of relativity, the first three novels in the sequence tell the story from different viewpoints with the fourth telling the same story with the dimension of time.  Of course, this is Galileo's theory of relativity, that the position of the observer makes a difference.  Einstein's is wholly more involved than that.

The Avignon Quintet uses Freud's ideas of mind as a launchpad.  It's all about consciousness and self.  But the problem in the end is that Durrell was not a scientist and though he used these ideas, he didn't really seem to get them.  His best books in the end are not his novels, bowed down by the weight of ideas, but his travel books in which his powers of description and poet's eye could come to the fore. 

This year is the centenary of Lawrence Durrell.  He died in 1990 and is partially forgotten in spite of being one of the most famous British novelists of the last century.  I don't find his books on the shelves of my local Waterstones.  His younger brother, Gerald, is the more famous, the more readable and the one whose legacy is likely to remain longest, for Gerald transformed the idea of the zoo from a place where animals were exhibited to a place where animals were saved from the evils that humans can bring upon them because they are not always safe in the wild.  Few serious zoos around the world remain as places of freak-show zoology.  The public's attitudes have changed too much to allow that.

My Lawrence Durrell reading list would include Bitter Lemons Of Cyprus (1957), Constance (1982) and Spirits Of Place (1970).  The remainder, I think, one can take or leave now.