An artist's impression of a family of mammoths in the Arctic

Book Reviews

New books look forward to a connected world where extinct species make a return and back to the golden age of rail travel.

Princeton University Press

How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

By Beth Shapiro, £16.95, ISBN 9780691157054

The release of the movie ‘Jurassic World’ this summer has brought the science of bringing extinct species back to life firmly into the mainstream of public consciousness once more.
Beth Shapiro, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, aims to capitalise on that revived interest with her new book ‘How to Clone a Mammoth’, in which she separates the science from the fiction.

Like the fictional world of ‘Jurassic Park’, research has moved on from the objective of cloning copies of extinct species from ancient DNA to the more feasible technique of using genome editing to insert their genetic traits into living animals. Several projects are under way involving cells collected and frozen before a species went extinct, and the similarity of the mammoths of Shapiro’s title to living elephants makes them a likely candidate for resurrection.
The potential risks aren’t as dramatic as dinosaurs escaping and wreaking havoc, but unintended environmental consequences could be more significant. Careful planning will be needed, and ‘How to Clone a Mammoth’ aims to provide a road map for de-extinction, from how we decide which species to bring back to how populations could be managed.

Shapiro’s concerns are evident from the opening dedication of the book to her children “who will inherit whatever mess we make”. One factor, she points out, is that there’s no consensus among scientists about what the goal of de-extinction should be.

Back with the mammoths, one strong argument is that reintroducing species to barren regions could help turn them back into viable habitats. Sergey Zimov of the Russian Academy of Science’s North East Science Station “worries less about how mammoths will be brought back than about what to do with them when it happens”. The ‘Pleistocene Park’ Zimov set up near his home in Siberia back in 1977 has become one of the world’s largest Arctic research centres and is home to attempts to restore the steppe ecosystem that was dominant in the region in the late Pleistocene. Bison, musk ox, moose, horses and reindeer have already been reintroduced, but adding mammoths, the theory goes, will help transform the existing tundra into something that would be a better home for both living and endangered species.

Of course, there’s vocal opposition to the whole concept of ‘playing God’, but it’s clear from this book that, while it’s a good idea to start talking about the long-term implications of de-extinction, it doesn’t make it a done deal. If the process of creating live young is difficult, the second part - getting them to breed successfully - is just as challenging.

It’s easy to forget when talking about endangered species and the finality of extinction that more than 99 per cent of species that have ever lived are now gone forever. Is it this fact, and the fear that humankind may one day join them, which in part motivates work on de-extinction?

Guilt could play a part too. As Shapiro points out, it’s not just in recent history that we’ve been responsible for wiping out entire species. There’s strong evidence that while dinosaurs may have been the victim of a single cataclysmic event, others like mammoths which had managed to adapt to long-term swings in climate just couldn’t cope with the the arrival of a new predator in the shape of modern humans. So is it fitting that we should be responsible for bringing them back?

Dominic Lenton

MIT Press

The Internet of Things

By Samuel Greengard, £8.95, ISBN 9780262527736

Cast your mind back a couple of decades to the first time you heard someone talk about a new thing called ‘the Internet’. It was probably simple enough to grasp the concept of any computer in the world being able to talk to any other, and to see how that would let you get hold of information, find and chat to people with similar interests.

If you’d been asked what difference it would make to your everyday life in 10 or 20 years’ time though, it’s unlikely that you would have come anywhere near to describing the impact it has had all over the world. The Internet of Things is at a similar point today. We can comprehend how machines will all be networked, but any attempt to visualise how that will change life has to be informed guesswork.

In this primer, Samuel Greengard does at least attempt to paint a picture of a world where the IoT is part of everyday life.

His description of the daily life of the Smith family in 2025 suggests the world of 1950s science fiction is nearly with us, consisting largely of things that we do already like having coffee in the morning or driving to work made easier with the help of intelligent networked devices.

It’s a little underwhelming when the promise of the Internet fridge has been around almost as long as the Internet itself, but perhaps that’s precisely the point. Whatever Greengard or any other forecaster predicts the IoT will bring us is likely to be only accurate in parts.

That said, this rough guide is a perfect way of making sure that your guess is as well-informed as it can be. It describes the technology that underlies the IoT, from its Internet backbone to the impact of mobility and cloud computing, applications in industry and consumer devices. On a practical level there’s a look at the hardware, software and sensors it relies on, and the need for standards. And on a more speculative note, a summary of the concerns and potential risks that are starting to emerge as the IoT becomes a ‘thing’ in the public consciousness.

Historically, Greengard posits the launch of the iPhone in 2007 as the ‘crystalising event’ which, by putting smartphones in the hands of masses, made real-time communication with a hand-held portable device possible. Start listing what a smartphone can do just a few years later, accept that it’s the tip of a technological iceberg, and you get some idea of the potential of the IoT.

The overall message is that we’re just at the start of a particular technological revolution whose main impact will be to make possible things that we don’t even know we might want to be able to do. More than just fridges that order a new pot of yoghurt when you take the last one, this is on a par with the wheel, the light bulb, the car and computer. It’s technology that doesn’t just change the way we act but rewires the way people approach countless tasks and redefines how we interact.

Greengard warns that there will be losers as well as winners in the IoT future. Not just the people whose jobs are eliminated by connected machines, but also the victims of new types of crime. As he concludes: “The Internet of Things will touch almost every part of our lives in the years ahead... It’s not a question of whether the IoT will take place, it’s a matter of how exactly it will happen and how much it will change the world.”

Dominic Lenton

Random House

Three Men and a Bradshaw

by John Freeman (Edited by Ronnie Scott), £16.99, ISBN 9781847947444

Compare the following extracts, both opening paragraphs of Victorian travel books.

“There were four of us - George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were...”

“Time: 8.35 pm The scene: the platform of Waterloo Station. Principal persons thereon - … Edwards Falkner Esq., the noted Camberwell draper, Charles Freeman of the ‘Lane’, and his fraternal relative John, all resolved to have a holiday and enjoy it, or know the reason why not.”

No one can deny the similarities - in style, in contents and, in spirit. And whereas you might have recognised where the first extract comes from - Jerome K Jerome’s Victorian classic ‘Three Men in a Boat to Say Nothing of the Dog’; the origins of the second are much less obvious: it is taken from the totally obscure (until very recently) Victorian travel diary of John Freeman, never intended for publication and saved from oblivion by Sean Sewell, a Northumberland-based antique dealer and social historian, in 2012, when he acquired the leather-bound handwritten journal at an auction.

The story of its acquisition, which Sewell himself recounts in his foreword, is an adventure in itself, but it’s important to bear in mind that the diary’s multiple similarities with ‘Three Men in a Boat’ are purely coincidental and can be explained by the spirit of the times rather than any mutual influence. In fact, even if such an influence did take place, it must have affected Jerome K Jerome rather than John Freeman, for ‘Three Men in a Boat’ was published 15 years after the Diary was written and went on to become of of the 19th century’s top best-sellers, having sold, according to the writer himself, over a million and a half copies “of the English editions in their various forms”. Yet, if to exclude miraculous coincidences, the writer could not have possibly laid his hands on Freeman’s manuscript, published for the first time in 2015.

The result of the efforts of John Freeman, the diarist, Dr Ronnie Scott, the book’s editor, and the above-mentioned Shaun Sewell (to say nothing of George Bradshaw, with whose ‘Descriptive Railway Hand-Book’ the three brothers travelled to Jersey in 1873) are astounding. Speaking personally, they have produced one of my favourite books of all time... to say nothing of (sorry again, Victorian humour can be infectious) one of the funniest ones: “Arriving at the summit, I breathed again - in fact I often do so from force of habit...” It could have been Jerome K Jerome, couldn’t it? But it was John Freeman!

As for technology, it is on every page of this book. No wonder: the brothers travelled to Jersey by train (and then by boat of course), so the diary is full of fascinating detail about Britain’s Victorian railways, made affordable even for drapers by the Railway Regulation Act of 1844.

Vitali Vitaliev

JonGlez

Secret Washington DC

by Sharon Pendana, £13.99, ISBN 9782361950965

The places we think we know best often turn out to be the most mysterious and obscure. It’s therefore not by chance that the latest addition to JonGlez's award-winning series of ‘Secret...’ city and country guides features Washington DC, a seemingly well-known capital of the (no-less-seemingly) best-known country on earth. Yet in reality, Washington DC - where I spent many weeks reporting for the Daily Telegraph in 1999-2001 - is probably one of the world's most secretive and secret-ridden cities.

Its mysteries go back to the late 18th century, when the would-be capital of the United States was little more than “the Indian swamp in the wilderness,” according to Thomas Jefferson. The key word here is the ‘swamp’ on which Washington DC used to stand (and still does), with the resulting wild extremes of climate. Not many people know that right up to the invention of air-conditioning, the city on the Potomac River was officially a hardship post for foreign diplomats where many of them died prematurely – unable to cope with its bitterly cold winters and suffocatingly humid summers.

The other – more modern - secret reality of the place is that it combines within a couple of square miles the world's poshest and safest downtown neighbourhoods with a number of inner-city deprived suburbs, notorious for having the country's highest crime and homicide rate. There are no visible borders between the two, which makes straying from one into another an extremely easy, if not always welcome, experience.

Conclusion: the better you know Washington DC, with all its hidden nooks and crannies, the safer and more revealing your visit will be. Pick up JonGlez's latest guide before you travel and you'll find out some fascinating facts, many of them technology-related, about this truly American city “of Southern efficiency and Northern charm” (pace JFK).

For example, despite all my days spent in Washington DC, I was unaware until now that it is home to the world's oldest continuously operating airport, which has been functioning since 1909 in College Park, now the site of the College Park Aviation Museum. Likewise, despite being a long-time fan of Washington's spectacularly efficient Metro system, which I believe is the world's best, I didn't know that it boasts the longest single-span escalator in Western Hemisphere. The station in the commuter suburb of Wheaton, Maryland, is equipped with a 230ft-long escalator that travels at 90 feet per minute at a 30-degree angle.

The journey, which takes 2 minutes and 45 seconds leaves ample time to open JonGlez's compact volume and look up a couple of other technological attractions. The National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville preserves the region’s rich streetcar heritage; the DC Fire and Emergency Services Museum inside an active station of the DC Fire Department in New Jersey Avenue, not far from Union Station; and the historic Greyhound Super Terminal at 1100 New York Avenue, also known as “the Grand Central of the Motor Bus World”, are just a few.

If you carry this helpful little book in your hand luggage, you cannot avoid uncovering secrets – technological and other - from the moment you arrive in Washington DC right until the time you leave it.

Vitali Vitaliev

Allen Lane

Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings

by Owen Hatherley

To me, this fascinating book is, among other things, a bitter-sweet (if not always nostalgic) vicarious journey through my own Soviet past. Having opened it at random, I was confronted with a painfully familiar photographic view of Derzhprom/Gasprom building in my native city of Kharkiv - one of the first constructivist “skyscrapers” put together by American builders in the 1920s, when Kharkiv was briefly the capital of Soviet Ukraine.

The university, where I studied was next door, and the windows of our department were facing that low-built “skyscraper”, which, in Hatherley's own words, “doesn't really pass the test of being visible for miles”, for “it barely surpasses the height of the city's main Orthodox cathedral”. Bored stiff during some particularly tedious lectures in “Scientific Communism”, I would stare for hours at Derzhprom's peculiar outlines, which to me came to symbolized a kind of architectural escapism, a temporary reprieve – if not from the all-permeating “socialist realism” of our lives, then at least from “Scientific Communism” as a mandatory subject on the curriculum.

In the company of his Polish girlfriend Agata, Hatherley, an acclaimed writer and a grandson of the “Communists of Hampshire”, criss-crossed the former Communist block, having visited some of its most obscure and little-known corners (my native city being one of them) to produce a beautifully written, thoroughly researched and genuinely unputdownable lyrical obituary to the by-gone epoch and its unique built environment.

With the ongoing epidemics of demolishing the monuments of totalitarianism all over the former Communist block, “Landscape of Communism”, with its plethora of black-and-while photos of some of the “gems” of “socialist” architecture, can also serve as a compendium of the now-defunct urban development trend – something that I would call “urbanization by deceit”, or “chicanery architecture”.

Indeed, first we shape the buildings, and then the building shape us, as Churchill once famously observed. In the former Communist countries, that unspoken principle – like so many other general concepts of human development – was taken to the absurd. Suffice it is to remember the so-called “Stalin Gothic” - a handful of high-rise wedding-cake buildings, with starred spires at the top, that used to dominate the skylines of Moscow, Warsaw and many other “socialist” cities, including my native Kharkiv. They were all about making an impression, and like totalitarian societies themselves, made you feel small and insignificant under the constant pressure of all those heavy turrets, topped with red stars.

Inside, however, they were often but crammed and messy human beehives – with Le Corbusier-inspired (yet much less comfortable) cabin-like flats and puny public areas. It was only the facade, not the interior, that mattered – hence all those neo-classical railway stations (like in Ruse, Bulgaria, and, again, in Kharkiv, the latter being specially commissioned by Stalin himself), with marble pseudo-Corinthian columns, frescoes depicting muscular workers and peasants under the high dome-shaped ceilings, yet with small and permanently crowded waiting rooms and dark stinking toilets for the real-life, as opposed to the ones on the frescoes, peasants and proletarians.

The overabundance of disproportionately huge and largely disfunctional public spaces: squares, parks (Europe's largest public square and one of the largest 'parks of culture and rest' were – and still are - in Kharkiv) and 'Soviet Baroque' exhibition grounds, propagating the non-existent socialist achievements (a classic example is Moscow's VDNKh, which Hatherley aptly describes as 'a city within a city', 'the Soviet Union as it wanted to be seen') was meant to symbolize the centralised iron grip on everything: not just on dwellings but on spaces between them, too.

Not all of the 'socialist' architecture, however, was disfunctional and ugly. Suffice it is to remember Moscow Metro and other big cities' underground transport networks, including the Kharkiv one. Among other features of the latter, Hatherley admires the engineering and craftsmanship that went into the elaborate lighting arrangements of the relatively young Kharkiv Metro (which had been constructed for almost as long as I could remember myself). Yet – in a highly symbolic twist that sums up the book's whole concept - Hatherley finds it an operational disaster, with unclean stations, trains which are rare and seldom on time, and half of the artistically designed chandeliers inside the stations permanently switched off or out of order.

To quote “Landscapes of Communism”, “The paradoxical nature of architecture in the Soviet block, with its sharp sudden zigzags of official style – from Modernism to classicism to Baroque to a bizarre despotic Rococo to Modernism to Brutalism and back – long puzzled historians... This is a profoundly uneven landscape, full of holes into which you can easily fall, full of paradoxes, where nothing is what it seems.”


Vitali Vitaliev

Picture credits: Corbis

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