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Greater Minds: Hilary Mantel on the life and project

Shortly before her death, Susan Sontag said ‘that somewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project’. Hilary Mantel quoted her in the third of this year’s Reith lectures, while she was talking about the

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

Greater Minds: Hilary Mantel on adapting the past

The Reith Lectures are an annual pleasure from the BBC to the world. Every year, a prominent speaker gives a series of lectures on a subject close to their heart, followed by questions from an audience that usually includes some

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

Fiction Review: Blindsight by Peter Watts

A laser is asked to find darkness in a dark room. This will be easy, thinks the laser, how hard can it be to find what I’m surrounded by? Yet wherever the laser looks, all it sees is light. The

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Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Non-fiction Review: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

Long before I knew who he was, Alexander von Humboldt had exercised a major influence over me. I first encountered his name in an undergraduate oceanography lecture, when I learned about the Humboldt current that flows northward along the Pacific

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Inspirations: Living in a nuclear-armed world

There have been many false alarms that could have led to nuclear retaliation. A chance of large-scale disarmament was missed in the mid-1990s, when US-Russia relations were good. Former US Defence Secretary William J Perry thinks nuclear catastrophe is likelier

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

The pontifications go irregular

  On the high note of the squabble over the morality of coffee in Restoration-era England, I now declare that I will no longer be pontificating to a weekly schedule. They’re a lot of fun to research and write, but

Posted in Notification, Wednesday Pontification

Inspirations: The gendered war on coffee

In 1674, a ‘women’s petition’ denounced the craze for coffee in England. It claimed that it lured Englishmen away from ale and rendered them impotent and effeminate. The men’s response declared that Englishmen were so virile that they all had

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

Non-fiction Review: The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carré

I discovered John Le Carré in Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market. I picked out a battered paperback Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from a tiny used book stall. It looked as though it had been round Southeast Asia in a few backpacks, but

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Inspirations: Riding the bomb to Saturn

The nuclear pulse drive would power a spacecraft with a series of nuclear explosions. Project Orion, led by Freeman Dyson, planned a four-year round trip to the moons of Saturn. After Orion was abandoned, pulse drive has led to several

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

Greater Minds: Richard Feynman on the value of doubt

Richard Feynman’s essay, The Value of Science, described a philosophy of ignorance. The scientific mindset is excited by ignorance as an opportunity for discovery. The opposing demagogic mindset denies the existence of ignorance and claims certainty. We all use the

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification
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