Shock leads to Myths

The popular support for Trump and Brexit may be explained in an unexpected space in Chichester, The Pallant House Gallery (22 October – 15 February).

Painted after the trauma of the First World War, Morning is by D Proctor (1929) and shows a girl alone, at the brink of waking.



The exhibition compares this to a classical statue of Ariadne in Phrygian marble. The curator’s thesis is that the artists exhibited are engaged in a project that has some kind of parallel with Ulysses.  They are using myth, or classicism more generally, to give a shape to the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” of the postwar world. And it is science that is ultimately  responsible for this trauma of the modern catastrophe.



Titian’s Danae is compared to M Frampton’s portrait of Marguerite Kelsey.

3237.jpgThis way of co-opting the classics is through clean lines and ordered compositions. After catastrophe there is order, after war the people are cold and tired.

Natural Music


Most musicologists think that music began within a human culture. Another idea is that our love of music has biological roots, perhaps mimicking the sound of heartbeats in the mother’s womb. Now there is scientific evidence to support a cultural origin, though the biological influences are not entirely discounted.

Deep in the Bolivian Amazon, the Tsimane Tribe make their own kind of music. It has a strong contrast between consonance and dissonance, sounds that have interested musicologists since the culture of ancient Greece.

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JH McDermott et al write in today’s Nature (July 28) that the Tsimane perceive consonance and dissonance differently to westerners. Their harmonies are simple, only played one at a time, while there is an indifference to dissonance. In the west this is used for background texture or to express tension: not so in Bolivia.


This is distinctive cultural variation in music perception. Some observers also say that the new conclusions are confirmed by the observation that the Tsimane prefer laughter to unpleasant gasps.

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The late American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a lot about passive strategies within evolution. He used the architectural term “spandrel” to refer to a byproduct of adaptation that is not necessarily adaptive in itself.

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Spandrel characters appear subsequently as co-opted by-products. An example is in the extinct Irish Elk. It had a hump at its shoulders, seen in cave-paintings and interpreted from fossils. The hump had no known function, like the vestigial appendix –

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Also in Ireland many bare walls of houses are used for political paintings. Such space assumes the character of a spandrel.


It is an art-form that has evolved its own genre:

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A New Science, A New Art

Complex networks are created by social media on the World Wide Web.

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They hinge on the spread of information from very small nodes to the whole network when activated. This is what can happen when you tweet.

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The studies of how activation happens, what it means to be such an ‘influencer’ and whether similar interactions happen in nature, are rapidly establishing new science and art forms.

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Just one recent study is by F Morone & HA Makse, Nature 524, 65-68, August 6 2015.

The Bird from Hell

In the latest edition of the journal Scientific Reports, S Brusatte, Edinburgh and zoologists from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences have published details of a recently discovered winged dinosaur 125 million years old.


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It was 2m in length and is thought to have been too heavy to fly. It is named Zhenyuanlong. It had short arms, and wings with quill-pen feathers. They may have been used to protect eggs in the nest, or for sexual display, or to glide down from the trees.160715_winged_dinosaur_1024_635x250_1437055342.   4857
Dr Brusatte told the BBC: “China is the epicentre of palaeontology right now.” They have “storerooms full of new dinosaur fossils that have never been studied before.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian newspaper has published Ralph Steadman’s Dwarf Olive Ibis, one of many modern bird species facing extinction in their own modern hell.

Los and Orc

William Blake: apprentice and master, is an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until the end of February. One of the central exhibits is a small watercolour of ‘Los and Orc’ thought to have been painted around the time of the French Revolution,


Los is the father, a political figure full of imagination and energy. On the left of the picture, the sun shines on the yellow foreground. Behind is repression, darkness and an oily sea.

But his son, Orc, is manacled to the rocks, expected to gain from the political changes.

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Orc is an anagram of cor, or heart. He is the source of mechanical energy, developing science to rescue his father’s world of nature.

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The exhibition quotes from Blake’s The Book of Urizen.

‘Compell [sic] the poor to live upon a Crust of bread, by soft mild arts.

Smile when they frown, frown when they smile, & when a man looks pale

With labour and abstinence say he looks healthy and happy;

And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough

Born, even too many, & our Earth will be overrun

Without these arts.’

Erasmus Darwin and the Rev Robert Malthus were close to Blake’s understanding of Nature, but the great importance of their insight was lost until recently.

Read more in TJ Clarke: A Snake, a Flame, London Review of Books, 5th February 2015

Dreadnought Dinosaur

Vertebrate palaeontologists rely on artists to help test their sometimes hypothetical reconstructions. The latest example is of a well-preserved and complete Titanosaurian Sauropod Dinosaur from Southern Patagonia, Argentina.

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KJ Lacovara et al publish details in Nature Scientific Reports, 4 September 2014

The nearly complete specimen is from the most diverse and abundant large-bodied herbivore known from in the southern continents, and lived there 95 to 65 million years ago.

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It is named Dreadnoughtus schrani and weighed about 59.3 metric tons (though the bone histology of the specimen studied suggests it was still growing at the time of death). One of the authors of the report and a plastic bucket give scale to pictures of the in situ specimen.

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As well as artists’ reconstructions the authors use comparisons to familiar objects to describe its length – they have named it after the First World War series of battleships Dreadnought, and compare its length to that of two London buses:


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