About a year ago, there was some sensational science news: the approximate time of year that the big dinosaur killing cataclysm occurred was determined. It was in the Northern hemisphere spring. That’s kind of cool.

Paleontologist Robert DePalma speaks about the fossil evidence discovered which support the impact event believed to have wiped out most of the dinosaurs almost 66 million years ago at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Bldg 28.

Now a small scandal has sprung up, one that doesn’t change the conclusion at all, but does highlight the fact that some scientists can be colossal jerks. It seems that one paleontologist, Melanie During, came up with the evidence to support that conclusion, and talked about it with a colleague, Robert DePalma, who quickly threw together a sloppy paper to scoop her.

In June 2021, paleontologist Melanie During submitted a manuscript to Nature that she suspected might create a minor scientific sensation. Based on the chemical isotope signatures and bone growth patterns found in fossilized fish collected at Tanis, a renowned fossil site in North Dakota, During had concluded the asteroid that ended the dinosaur era 65 million years ago struck Earth when it was spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

But During, a Ph.D. candidate at Uppsala University (UU), received a shock of her own in December 2021, while her paper was still under review. Her former collaborator Robert DePalma, whom she had listed as second author on the study, published a paper of his own in Scientific Reports reaching essentially the same conclusion, based on an entirely separate data set. During, whose paper was accepted by Nature shortly afterward and published in February, suspects that DePalma, eager to claim credit for the finding, wanted to scoop her—and made up the data to stake his claim.

Well, yuck…but on the bright side, independent corroboration of the conclusion is a good thing, right? Not so fast.

After trying to discuss the matter with editors at Scientific Reports for nearly a year, During recently decided to make her suspicions public. She and her supervisor, UU paleontologist Per Ahlberg, have shared their concerns with Science, and on 3 December, During posted a statement on the journal feedback website PubPeer claiming, “we are compelled to ask whether the data [in the DePalma et al. paper] may be fabricated, created to fit an already known conclusion.” (She also posted the statement on the OSF Preprints server today.)

The plotted line graphs and figures in DePalma’s paper contain numerous irregularities, During and Ahlberg claim—including missing and duplicated data points and nonsensical error bars—suggesting they were manually constructed, rather than produced by data analysis software. DePalma has not made public the raw, machine-produced data underlying his analyses. During and Ahlberg, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, question whether they exist.

DePalma refuses to release the raw data, which is a big red flag. Also another big problem: DePalma literally owns the site with all the fossil data!

DePalma holds the lease to the Tanis site, which sits on private land, and controls access to it.

I find that disturbing. He bought up the lease and controls who has access to the specimens and data? I can’t be the only one who finds that troubling. Maybe he’s a hero who snatched it up to protect it, and lets anyone who asks do research there, but then…uh-oh, another ugly revelation. Someone who knew him well for many years has come out to say that he’s a creep.

DePalma has a different perspective on the whole affair, but the timing of publication and the fact that the paper has many errors and that the raw data is hidden away leaves me suspicious. Also that he is trying to turn the tables and claim that During stole his ideas.

DePalma characterizes their interactions differently. He says his team came up with the idea of using fossils’ isotopic signals to hunt for evidence of the asteroid impact’s season long ago, and During adopted it after learning about it during her Tanis visit—a notion During rejects. After his team learned about During’s plan to submit a paper, DePalma says, one of his colleagues “strongly advised” During that the paper must “at minimum” acknowledge the team’s earlier work and include DePalma’s name as a co-author. DePalma says his team also invited During’s team to join DePalma’s ongoing study. “During the long process of discussing these options … they decided to submit their paper,” he says.

Collaboration and open communication are an essential part of the scientific process. This whole conflict would go away if the data, and the field site, were shared openly, but someone seems to be hoarding all that. It’s a shame, too, that such interesting work and such a spectacular fossil site are being tainted by this ugly possessiveness and grubbing for priority.

Twenty five German conspirators have been arrested for plotting to overthrow the government.

The plotters are said to include members of the extremist Reichsbürger [Citizens of the Reich] movement, which has long been in the sights of German police over violent attacks and racist conspiracy theories. They also refuse to recognise the modern German state.

An estimated 50 men and women are alleged to have been part of the group, said to have plotted to overthrow the republic and replace it with a new state modelled on the Germany of 1871 – an empire called the Second Reich.

So they want to return to the glory days of Otto von Bismarck and the Franco-Prussian War? That’s weird. Is this a big thing in Deutschland?

One of the ringleaders was an old aristocrat, which I find mildly amusing. At least we don’t have those around here.

Heinrich XIII comes from an old noble family known as the House of Reuss, which ruled over parts of the modern eastern state of Thuringia until 1918. All the male members of the family were given the name Heinrich as well as a number.

Naming your member Heinrich is an odd European custom.

What isn’t funny is their violent plans.

They had already established plans to rule Germany with departments covering health, justice and foreign affairs, the prosecutor said. Members understood they could only realise their goals by “military means and violence against state representatives” which included carrying out killings.

As well as a shadow government, the plotters allegedly had plans for a military arm, with active and former members of the military a significant part of the coup plot, according to reports. They included ex-elite soldiers from special units. The aim of military arm was to eliminate democratic bodies at local level, prosecutors said.

I commend the German state in so thoroughly and effectively crushing an insurrection. Hint, hint, US Attorney General.

Although I do worry that every local race all across the country will now start dunning me for donations. There ought to be a rule that you only get to harass your electorate for money.

I’m glad Warnock won, but look at the numbers: 48.6% of Georgians voted for the blithering idiot, it’s no wonder he had to beg for help. Imagine if the Republicans had nominated a marginally competent candidate, or if the Republican governor of the state had actively tried to promote their party’s candidate — we’d be in trouble. I don’t see much cause to celebrate squeaking by in a race that should have been a cakewalk.

The coronation of King Charles will take place in May. Some grifters see the teeming crowds going to the event as an opportunity, and are planning to attend. Now I have zero interest in royal shenanigans, but I think it’s fine if the people of England have a big party, and I certainly wouldn’t dream of disrupting it, so I don’t want us Americans to get the blame for a particular stupid bunch of party-crashers.

Ken Ham (Australian) and Ray Comfort (New Zealand) are teaming up to print these One Million Pound fake banknotes — they’ve printed 3 million of them — for evangelists to hand out at the coronation.

This is a tired old Ray Comfort schtick. The notes are worth nothing, less than nothing since they’re garbage, and are tedious old gospel tracts. For years, you’ve been able to buy these worthless tracts from Living Waters — here’s an American version.

Servers will be able to tell you that some Christians love to leave these as tips at their restaurant table. You can imagine how galling that would be.

Now these obnoxious twits are going to London with a gigantic pile of tracts to scatter. They are practically salivating at the opportunity — in this video, they are first excited about the size of the crowds at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, and then cut to scenes from Elizabeth’s coronation. It’s a religious ceremony! It’s in a church! There are jewels and gold and pageantry!

Ray and Ken imagine that their cheap-ass cheesy old-timey tent-revival act will blend right in, and they’ll be welcomed by the crowds attending an Anglican ceremony, and that they’ll get hordes of converts by passing out pieces of paper with inane conservative Christian apologetics printed on them.

I think that at best what they’ll get is some deeply annoyed people offended by this foreign intrusion on their reverently observed historical tradition, and at worst they’re going to meet some hooligans who will make a strong response to their efforts. It could get ugly. I don’t think they’ll get to meet any royalty, but maybe a truncheon or Piers Morgan.

Hey, if anyone should get one of these, send it to me!

This is great. Watch the recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal, all cops in the capitol police, refuse to shake hands with McConnell and McCarthy. Ol’ Turtlehead is left standing there with his hand held out.

Everyone should do this. Refuse any contact from those guys.

Martin Rowson cartoon on the origins of life in deep sea vents

The origin of life is such a fabled event (more than 4 billion years ago) that searching for clues on the Earth today might seem a fool’s errand. But, piece by piece, a wonderfully interlocking skein of evidence is emerging. It began with a chance encounter in the deep ocean.

In 1977, the deep-sea submersible research vessel Alvin discovered hot upwelling mineral vents – black smokers – in the deep Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California. Such upwellings occur near the boundaries of the Earth’s tectonic plates where there is volcanic activity. The streams that pour out are hot water laced with minerals that then accumulate and grow into rocky towers. The interest of biologists and biochemists was piqued by the constant flow of hot, chemically rich effluents, which suggested that this might be life’s birthplace.

The energetic chemistry discovered in the black smokers bore some resemblance to the energy metabolism of modern cells, especially in the presence of iron-sulphur clusters. These clusters lie at the heart of many of life’s nanomachines – large protein complexes, often with moving parts – that perform life’s key functions (see my article “Nature’s Nanomachines” in the Spring 2021 edition of New Humanist).

Black smokers proved to be a dead end: they were too hot and unstable to have been a source of early life. However, the idea that deep sea vents might point to the secret of the origin of life was taken up by other researchers.

In 1988, the geochemist Mike Russell, at Glasgow University, predicted the existence of another kind of hydrothermal vent: alkaline, and much cooler. This vent, he hypothesised, could have used hydrogen spewing from the effluents to react with dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) in the ocean waters, creating the precursor chemicals of life. In fact, Russell made the claim: “The purpose of life is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide”.

This may sound grandiose – but as it turned out, Russell was correct. In December 2000, mysterious white chimney structures, now dubbed the Lost City, were found by chance by the same submersible vessel on the mid-Atlantic seafloor. (The very best science is done like this: a prediction – often seemingly improbable – followed by the clinching discovery.)

The most exciting revelation of the calcium carbonate chimneys, which are up to 60m tall, was their porous structure. Each has many tiny holes like a mineralised sponge, through which, as Russell predicted, alkaline fluids rich in hydrogen and minerals really do pour into an acidic ocean which contains dissolved CO2 (the ocean is mildly acidic now, but it was much more so 4 billion years ago). In primeval conditions, these vents could have spawned and harboured the necessary ingredients and the right conditions to promote the growth of biomass. It seems that we might have finally found the birthplace of life on Earth.

"Life is a river that never stalls"

Over the last two decades, much work has been done on deep-sea vents. There is a striking similarity between their chemistry and the biochemistry of primitive bacteria which still exist today and can live on purely chemical substances. As a result, we now have a detailed and highly plausible account of how life probably arose. These are exciting times, but the science is complex and difficult to explain to the general public.

Thankfully, one of the researchers working on the origin of life is also an excellent communicator. Nick Lane, professor of evolutionary biochemistry at University College London, has been working on the question of what life is, and how it began, for more than a decade. Most biologists see life in terms of information encoded by DNA, but Lane focuses on the flow of energy through living things. In his latest book, Transformer, which came out in May 2022, he writes that his aim is to “explain how the flow of energy and matter structures the evolution of life and even genetic information. I want to turn the standard view upside down.”

An analogy for Lane’s view of life can be found in rivers. A river is only a river if it is in motion, and that motion requires energy. Rivers are not only water, just as living things are not only the chemicals that comprise them. In every living cell, chemical matter is incessantly in motion to a frantic degree. Humans die very quickly if oxygen is withdrawn, but what kills us is not suffocation but a collapse of the energy flow through every cell.
Living things need fuel to power the metabolism of life. They get this by trading gases with the environment: for plants in today’s world, that means CO2 in, oxygen out, and the reverse for animals. Life is reproduced through DNA. But the puzzle has always been to discover how primitive chemistry could have led to intricate biochemistry in the first place. Darwin memorably mused on the subject of the origin of life:

“But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etcetera present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes.”

This seemed unlikely, because in open water any interesting chemistry would quickly be dispersed – a drop in the ocean is more than a metaphor here. However, we can now hypothesise that this is where the deep-sea vents came into play. They could have provided a shelter in their pores in which useful molecules could accumulate in the unceasing flow. Over millions of years, the constancy of the same upwellings satisfies the “life is a river that never stalls” requirement.

But what on the primeval Earth could have enabled the vital reaction between CO2 and hydrogen? This is the problem that Lane’s lab and others have been working on. In 2020, a research team led by Lane’s former student Victor Sojo, with Reuben Hudson, managed to mimic conditions in the primordial vents. They demonstrated that an energy gradient that exists in the vents between the alkaline effluents and the acid ocean was indeed capable of hydrogenating CO2. Other labs are producing similar results, confirming what was long suspected but difficult to prove. Lane says: “I take my hat off to them”.

The beginning of natural selection

If the first requirement of life is the hydrogenation of CO2, what is needed next? All life today is composed of cells and new life can now only come into being through the division of living cells. Cells are cells because they are bounded by a membrane – a barrier between the non-living outside world and the living interior (or between one cell and another).

Cell membranes are made from fatty acids which behave like detergents in that one end of the molecule is water repellent and one end is water loving. In the reactions that occur in the vents, long-chain fatty acids would have formed easily. It’s a simple lab demonstration to show that these fatty acids will self-assemble into bilayer spheres in water, with the fatty ends butting together, separating the watery world inside from the watery world outside.

So the idea is that the pores in the chimneys were a template for protocells with this bilayer structure. This was the beginning of the metabolism that powers all cells today. The minerals that pour out of the vents have catalytic properties and would have created a positive feedback loop in which the protocells that could fix more carbon would come to dominate the vents. This was the beginning of natural selection.

In Transformer, Lane demonstrates the centrality of this metabolism to all life in a suite of reactions that goes by the name of the Krebs Cycle, after the great biochemist Hans Krebs (1900-1981). The textbook Krebs Cycle describes oxygen “burning” glucose to provide energy and to create the basic biomass of life, whilst emitting CO2 in the process. It is at the heart of the way that animals like us live and move and exist. Ironically, Lane’s first encounter with learning about the cycle was unpropitious. “I did biology and chemistry at school and loved them both and thought that combination was perfect but I did biochemistry at university and hated it,” he told me, “hated it because I was told to memorise pathways off by heart.”

It turned out that this rote learning was not only tedious and unhelpful. It also sold the Krebs Cycle short. The cycle had already been revealed, back in 1966, to be more complicated than the textbook version. It was capable of working backwards, starting with CO2 and creating biomass from the products of that first reaction with hydrogen. As is often the way, however, this concept was resisted by the research community for more than 20 years.

The reverse Krebs Cycle is now fully recognised and is vital to the hypothesis that life may have emerged from the deep-sea vents, long before the existence of DNA or its cousin RNA.

This is highly promising, but as Lane himself admits in Transformer, “many a beautiful idea has been killed by ugly facts”. The search for life’s greatest prizes has always been tortuous, but many teams of researchers are working to confirm Lane’s ideas experimentally. He makes sure, in the book, to fully acknowledge the work of his PhD students and post-doctoral researchers. Great strides are being made, but more hard evidence is needed.

The overriding idea of the vent hypothesis is that the chemistry that existed in the pores of the vents was eventually interiorised by the protocells that nestled within them. In a thrilling recent experiment in Lane’s lab, Sean Jordan and Hanadi Rammu discovered that protocells form particularly readily in simulated vent conditions. The amino acid cysteine, mixed with iron and sulphides found in the vents, produced exactly the kind of iron-sulphur clusters at the heart of modern protein enzymes.

Did the origins of life involve DNA?

One area of research is revealing how the deep-sea vents might have produced the molecule ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the universal fuel of life, powering every move we make and every internal process in all living things. Lane’s PhD researcher Silvana Pinna is investigating how this vital molecule might have originated in the hydrothermal vents.

In the very early stages of the vents, the chemicals formed would have been tiny molecules with only a handful of atoms. Life in its developed form uses giant molecules – long chains wound into a double helix in DNA or folded into intricate structures in proteins. Pinna has shown that the simple molecule acetyl phosphate can catalyse the formation of ATP from ADP (adenosine diphosphate) and that this reaction is chemically favoured under hydrothermal conditions. The paper by Pinna and her colleagues, recently published by the journal PLOS Biology, concludes:

“This implies that ATP could have become the universal energy currency of life not as the endpoint of genetic selection or as a frozen accident, but for fundamental chemical reasons.”

Other researchers, such as Markus Ralser, the Einstein professor of biochemistry at the Einstein Foundation in Berlin, are producing similar results in finding purely chemical routes to the basic building blocks of life. Lane told me: “What’s great about Markus’s work is that he’s brought attention to something that he calls the ‘end product problem’.” This poses the apparently awkward fact that the intermediate stages of the Krebs cycle only make sense when they are all in place. Both Ralser’s and Lane’s labs have found that Krebs and other key intermediates occur in sequence by simple chemistry alone, as opposed to the chemistry that can only be performed in living things today by the complex protein enzymes in every living cell.

Such chemistry, with that river metaphor in mind, is as natural as water flowing downstream. It’s the chemistry of reactions that happen by necessity, as when hydrogen reacts with oxygen to form water, or sodium with chlorine to form sodium chloride. The success of work like this leads Lane to suggest: “I’m coming to believe that the whole of biochemistry up to nucleotide synthesis just happens spontaneously . . . It’s just built into the chemistry of CO2”.

This is a remarkable conclusion, overturning the generally held assumption that the origin of life must have had something to do with DNA or its cousin RNA.

"Tornado in the junkyard"

Life originating by purely chemical means was once considered so far-fetched that the astronomer Fred Hoyle compared it, in 1983, to “the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747”. But it seems that the currents that flow though the hydrothermal vents really are the “tornado in the junkyard”, able to create some of life’s early metabolism.

This theory could also solve the problem of how DNA originated. Today, new life is produced by coding from DNA, but a code can’t predate the thing coded for. How did it emerge in the first place? The genetic code by which DNA spells out the composition of proteins is regarded by some as a frozen accident – there seems no rhyme or reason to it, like the Morse code, which could just as well have a completely different pattern of dots and dashes. But a recent paper published in the journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta – Bioenergetics by Lane’s PhD students – Stuart Harrison, Raquel Nunes Palmeira and Aaron Halpern – shows how the genetic code most likely evolved.

They have discovered that the nucleotide bases that form DNA and its more primordial cousin RNA actually have a direct chemical affinity for particular amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The early little strings of nucleotides – forerunners of the great chains of RNA and DNA – had no coding function: in the first instance, they were catalysts, just like the iron-sulphur clusters before them and the protein enzymes that succeeded them. But then, depending on their position in the reverse Krebs cycle, particular amino acids became associated with one or other of the four RNA bases.

The authors of the paper conclude by noting that coding – biological information encoded in genes – thus emerged by chemical necessity. The genetic code wasn’t imposed on life, but evolved alongside it. The theory “offers a framework that enables the transition from deterministic chemistry to genetic information at the origin of life” [my italics]. This is a conclusion as dramatic as that of Watson and Crick’s iconic 1953 paper, in which they posited that DNA was the means through which life was reproduced.

Since the discovery of DNA, inquiries into the origin of life have tended to focus on how DNA replication and the genetic code originated. How could complex life have begun to develop without such a code? We may now be opening a new chapter in biology that turns our assumptions upside down. The work of Lane and his colleagues shows that the complex lifeforms that exist on Earth today may have evolved from simple beginnings. The systems that power these lifeforms may seem bafflingly sophisticated, but they could have evolved by purely chemical means. Now, we see how, from the ever-pulsing currents on the primeval ocean floor, life could have booted itself up.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2022 edition. Subscribe here.

GotaGoGama protest site, Sri Lanka

On 9 April, people from across Sri Lanka converged on Galle Face, a 12-acre seafront stretch of green in front of the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo. They set up a tented protest site called GotaGoGama, or Gota Go Village. The protesters called for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and for a wider system change in Sri Lanka – an end to the culture of impunity, nepotism, racism and injustice. They did so in a remarkably peaceful and creative way, for three long months, and successfully toppled one of Asia’s most powerful strongmen.

The protests were driven by an unprecedented economic crisis caused by a perfect storm of economic mismanagement, corruption and the impact of both the Ukraine war and the global pandemic. When Sri Lanka reneged on its foreign exchange debt of $51 billion, the crisis assumed devastating proportions: daily power cuts, businesses and schools closed, inflation at 60 per cent, food inflation at 90 per cent. People died of heat exhaustion while queuing for fuel, or quietly at home, in the absence of essential drugs.

Opposition to the government grew, especially to the president and his clan. The Rajapaksa family had dominated politics in Sri Lanka for 20 years and the people decided they’d had enough. GotaGoGama became the epicentre of the resistance, an imaginative expression of a growing hope for constructive and meaningful change.

The village drew thousands of people: medics and lawyers, students and teachers, journalists and artists, trade unionists and Indigenous people of the forest, bus drivers and businessmen, environmentalists and engineers, Catholic nuns and Buddhist clergy. Under the gusts of monsoon rain, the village not only provided food, water, medical and legal aid, with the support of 50 organisations, it also hosted lectures and musical performances, street theatre and art shows, under banners that called in loud letters to the president, “Gota Go Home” and “Give Our Stolen Money Back”.

Then on 9 May, the site was broken into by government-backed thugs. Tear gas and water cannon added to the force of an attack that injured over 100 protesters. In retaliation for that evening, dozens of houses belonging to MPs were burned down across the island, including the ancestral home of the Rajapaksas. Although the arsonists may have acted in support of GotaGoGama, no direct link has been made between the fires and the protest village. Indeed, some of the protesters left the GotaGoGama village as a result. Soon afterwards, the prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who allegedly instigated the attack on the village, resigned.

Although diminished, the GotaGoGama protests carried on, ebbing and swelling in waves, until 9 July when they rose dramatically. State buildings were occupied by hundreds of protesters and members of the public. The president fled to the Maldives and on to Singapore where he resigned. The photos of ordinary people swimming in the president’s pool or taking selfies on his bed made headlines around the world. The protesters had achieved one of their main objectives: Gota was gone.

Yet there was little time for celebration. Later that month, a new president and prime minister were installed – both linked to the political old guard – and a state of emergency declared. It would be easy to conclude that the protests had failed. But the GotaGoGama village achieved what no government had ever done. It united the country, crossing barriers of ethnicity and religion, culture and class.

I first visited the village in April when it was, in the words of the Indian journalist Rohini Mohan, “a carnival of hope”, and went there regularly till late May. My hotel room directly overlooked the site. I have decided to write of the village as I found it, in the present tense, to call back a time that needs to be remembered if the values the protesters stood for – unity, democracy, justice and human rights – are ever to take hold in Sri Lanka.

A carnival of hope

In the midst of a row of large tents by the bustling thoroughfare, I find a white tent covered with signs that call for justice in three tongues. It is occupied by the Families for the Disappeared. Inside, Jennifer Weerasinghe sits quietly with her husband and a friend. Jennifer has taken her case to the press many times to no avail. But here, in GotaGoGama, she feels she has finally been heard. Above the din of electricity generators, she tells me it is the first time she has been able to talk about the abduction of her son in such a large public space.

“I have been lucky, I know what happened to my son,” she says. He disappeared, she tells me, after attending a farewell party for a friend who was heading to study medicine in the UK. She thinks she knows the identity of one of the people responsible for kidnapping her son and his five friends; the students’ vehicle was later found with false numberplates in the possession of a former Navy captain. The abduction appears to have been part of a series of kidnaps carried out by Navy personnel, a case known as the “Navy 11”. While it happened during the civil war, the motive seems to have been purely the extraction of money from the families.

Tens of thousands of people were disappeared during the civil war in Sri Lanka between the state and the separatist Tamil Tigers. It lasted almost 30 years, ending brutally in May 2009 after the intensification of military conflict led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was then defence secretary. After the war ended, the families of the disappeared urgently needed answers. Gotabaya’s reponse was cruel and dismissive. He simply told them that their missing loved ones were “actually dead”.

Yet Jennifer’s quest for justice continues, emboldened by GotaGoGama. “There are many people who are scared to speak out,” she says. “I used to feel afraid but I am without fear now because of the strength of the youth. We speak out, letting our blood boil, while our throats turn dry. The government has to listen.”

The village is a communal space of mixed voices – punctuated by the blare of music, the drill of generators and the sound of electronically amplified calls and chants. Stepping from the tent, I come across Andi Schubert, a language lecturer, and Harinda, founder of a social enterprise focused on community service, speaking animatedly in English. They tell me that the site has generated new conversations across communities and class.

Andi has just given a talk on ethnic identity at the People’s University that his friends set up on the site. The People’s University is “a great place”, he says, for “rethinking what a university can be at a time when the university itself is becoming a more repressive and conservative space – not just in Sri Lanka but globally”. Harinda describes a scene of open contestation where those from a lower socio-economic background felt free to challenge those higher up. It was a scene, he says, “that melted my heart”.

When I return to the site after the government’s attack on 9 May, the mood has changed and conversations are more focused. Plainclothes police are moving through the crowds to collect witness reports. Some protesters are not sure if they should assist with this. People are climbing the steps to a platform where lawyers dispense advice on their rights.

Close by, I find Priyantha Vishvajith, a filmmaker, who sports the flowing locks and beard common to many of the young men here. “We are in an economic, social and political crisis which is creating a struggle for all communities, so we want unity to fight the government to create a new society,” he tells me. “Even newborn babies are bearing the burden of the country’s debt . . . We are like refugees in our native country. We are suffering like them.”

Like so many of the protesters, Priyantha tells me he has no party-political line and no personal grudges, but simply wants a country free from corruption. “They are robbing us and filling up their stomachs,” he says. “One or two families are doing this, including eight members of the Rajapaksa family.” As we talk, someone comes up and embraces him. It is only now that he tells me that he was one of those assaulted by government-backed thugs in the attack on 9 May. They beat him over the head and back, and dragged him through the streets. He was carrying his phone and managed to film the assault. The film went viral and was picked up globally. “How are you now?” I ask. He doesn’t answer, just lifts his white T-shirt and shows me the wounds that still blotch his body six days later. No action has been taken against those who assaulted him.

Later, I meet a painter, Malinda Bulathsinhala, working on a five-foot-high canvas depicting the Buddha seated in a grove surrounded by a circle of saffron-robed monks: a wash of sunset colours. He tells me it is a satirical take on a scene depicted in a mural at the Kelaniya temple.

“My painting depicts extremist monks who divide people up. Those who are corrupt and have worked with politicians,” he says. “Politics corrupts Buddhism as politicians are only interested in power and money and use Buddhism for their own gain.” He emphasises that the protest is non-violent and began “through art and music”.

Nevertheless, the protesters were confronted with state violence. I meet Rakshida, a 17-year-old who was being trained in first aid when the tear gas came rolling in on 9 May. “Mobs came and broke all of the tents but did not touch the Red Cross tent, which is clearly marked,” she tells me. “If I saw what was happening outside, I would have been scared. I was too busy. One of the victims had a dislocated jaw and cried a lot. Another person had his head cracked open into two pieces.”

She recalls that they helped a pregnant Rajapaksa supporter who had come with the mob and been injured. “The nurse who treated her said if she wasn’t pregnant, she would have slapped her,” she laughs. “We gave help to all the people who came in.”

The 9 May attack was only the first wave of violence against the protesters at GotaGoGama. Within 24 hours of the appointment of the new president on 21 July, masked military came under cover of darkness. Protesters were beaten, phones and film confiscated, several journalists attacked. And the site that had drawn so many for over 100 days was dismantled, leaving a smattering of tents behind.

Transforming Sri Lanka

Today, there is no physical trace of the protest village at Galle Face. Meanwhile, the ousted president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has returned to Sri Lanka. Protesters are being abducted in broad daylight; more than 4,000 have been arrested to date. Unidentified bodies wash up on the beach. The struggle is being criminalised. Protesters are “fascists”, according to the president, “terrorists” according to the prime minister, and “drug addicts” according to the chief whip. And some commentators who once praised the protesters have started to echo this line.

Yet it is hard to imagine that the energy unleashed by the protest will simply disappear. All popular protests are underscored by idealism. GotaGoGama enacted its vision of Sri Lanka as a united community of equals. This quest to change society has a particular urgency now.

Sri Lanka today is a country where survival is at risk: survival of body and being, of democracy and rights, as the economic crisis deepens with no end in sight. Without the foreign exchange for essential imports, food costs have spiralled and a third of the population is now food insecure. Medicine continues to be restricted to the point where life-saving drugs are scarce; pregnant women and children are most at risk. And while International Monetary Fund aid may be brought in, the anticipated fiscal reforms and the likely terms of debt restructuring, combined with the ongoing crackdown on dissent, mean a deepening of divisions that will likely fracture the nation along new lines.

Sri Lanka’s peaceful protests invented a new space of unity: a utopian site born out of “the pure urge for survival”, in the words of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. They drew attention to the precarity that lies at the heart of human rights, in the injunction to protect “life, liberty and security of person” and the intimate connection between survival, bodily integrity and social values. The significance of the protests lies in both the way they embodied their political objectives and the way they exposed this link between political and human needs.

The village also matters, not only because of what protesters fought for, but because it marks a place and time when once-terrorised people lost their fear. The physical site may now be gone, but the dream village where people dared to unite and build a community of care – a village of diverse voices arguing, debating, interjecting and calling out – cannot be dismantled as easily. The myth of the invincibility of the government has been shattered in Sri Lanka. The dream village, meanwhile, remains – marking the potentiality of a people’s power.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2022 edition. Subscribe here.

This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …
From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! It’s been an eventful few weeks since our last update; weeks that have seen both remarkable highs and terrible lows. It’s been, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, both the best and worst of times. We closed October with CSICon 2022, which returned to being in-person for the first …

Victoria Amelina is a writer from Lviv, Ukraine. She is the author of the novels “Fall Syndrome” and “Dom’s Dream Kingdom”. The latter book, published in 2017, won the Best Book of the Year award at the Zaporizhzhya Book Fair, and was shortlisted for numerous awards, including: LitAkcent Book of the Year, Lviv City of UNESCO Literary Award and the European Union Prize for Literature.

Is Russia aiming to destroy Ukrainian culture?

Everyone was shocked when the Russians at the beginning of this war bombed the museum in Ivankiv, an urban settlement in the Kyiv Oblast. It contained the paintings of many famous artists, including the work of Maria Prymachenko. This is one of our worst fears. It’s very painful to lose people in war, of course. But losing culture and history is a tragedy too. Russians keep trying to punish us for having this history, and for being Europeans.

There was a poignant photo that emerged in the media after Russian troops left the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, back in late March. It showed a dead woman’s hand, with a key chain next to it, which displayed a symbol of the European Union . . . She thought that the European Union was her home. But Europe did not save her.

What is behind the efforts to undermine a distinct Ukrainian identity?

The Russian Federation hates Ukraine because the country has managed to become democratic. We have true elections. We are, you could say, obsessed about our freedom, and we’re ready to die for it. Russians cannot forgive us for that.

We now have a very black joke here in Ukraine that if we don’t like some building, we should just write the word “children” on the building, because we know the Russians will destroy it. They act like terrorists. Russian officials keep warning Ukrainians that cities that do not surrender, like Kyiv and Lviv, will be completely destroyed, like Mariupol was. I’m sure Russia will attempt to keep bombing our historical and cultural sites.

Is there a historic precedent for this?

In the 1920s there was a renaissance of Ukrainian culture, which for some time the Soviet regime allowed to flourish. Ukrainians were able to publish texts, and plays were allowed to run in theatres. There was an apartment building where some of the best writers in Ukraine all lived: the Slovo building in Kharkiv. Most of its inhabitants have since become known as “the Executed Renaissance”. They were arrested by [the Soviet secret police] and executed. That wiped out about 90 per cent of the best writers in Ukraine.

Has the Russian government acknowledged these past abuses?

[After the fall of the Soviet Union] there was no attempt to understand what went wrong in their history. On the contrary, the Russian government has prosecuted the few individuals who were brave enough to talk about shameful episodes of their history. Take, for example, the graves [of the executed Ukrainian writers]. A historian named Yury Dmitriev, who took care of these graves, was arrested. He is, I believe, currently still in prison in Russia.

Why do so many Russians appear to believe the government’s propaganda on Ukraine and its past?

The propaganda the Russian government uses is not even consistent. But Russians want to believe these lies. Unfortunately, the roots of it are very deep. They have an imperial mindset. This insinuates that it could not possibly be true that Ukrainians could have built a democratic state, or that they could have visa-free travel to Europe, or that Ukrainians are flourishing, and they are ready to be with Europe. It just doesn’t fit into the picture of the world the Russians have. This is cognitive dissonance. They want to keep believing that they are saving the world. They believed they saved Georgia, after the 2008 invasion.
They did the same in Chechnya [with two wars there from 1994 to 2000], where Russia committed a genocide. Russians are proud of that. They cannot see what is wrong with
this history.

Ukraine became part of the USSR in 1922 and independent in 1991. Meanwhile, its borders changed multiple times during Soviet rule. How do Ukrainians deal with that complicated history?

Under any [totalitarian] regime you get used to it, and you more than cooperate. You become part of this regime. In my novel Dom’s Dream Kingdom, I used the story of my grandfather. He was a Soviet military pilot. He became part of the Soviet regime. But he was from the east of Ukraine, where the Holodomor [now recognised in Ukraine as an act of genocide] occurred. His family were victims of the that man-made famine, and he had terrible memories about that. I also remember my grandfather explaining to me the fear he felt if the Soviet army could potentially send him to Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But regimes force people to do terrible things. As a Ukrainian I felt there was something wrong with that, and I should be somehow even ashamed. This is not what is happening in Russia today. There is no shame. They are proud of their victories, and they believe they’re the
saviours of Europe.

“Dom’s Dream Kingdom” is set in Lviv, in the childhood home of science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. Why did you choose this setting?

It’s important to talk first about the history of Lviv, after the Second World War, when the population changed drastically. In 1939 we had more than [150,000] Jews living in Lviv [then known by its Polish name, Lwów]. After the war less than [one percent] of Jews survived. Stanislav Lem was a Polish author of Jewish origin. He suffered under Nazi occupation [and later went to Krakow in Poland]. He had survivor’s guilt there for all his life.

Researchers in Poland and Ukraine now point out that novels like Solaris, and other books written by Lem, were not just random fictional stories. They were, in a way, his attempt to understand what happened to him during those years of occupations. Because the Lviv Lem lived under had three occupations. The Soviet Union occupied Lviv in 1939. Then the Nazis occupied the city in [June 1941]. Then the Soviets once again [in 1944].

The 2014 Euromaidan revolution was a turning point for Ukraine, and your novel “Fall Syndrome” explores the lead-up to it. What changed?

In 2014 we stopped having doubts about ourselves as Ukrainians. I was born in 1986, the year Chernobyl happened. As a child I witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was one thing in 1991, when the majority of Ukrainians voted for being independent. But it was drastically different when we were ready to fight for it in 2014. When Russia then started a war immediately after that [in eastern Ukraine] we showed that we would not support a puppet government in Kyiv.

But what’s happening now is the Russians showing their true face. They show they are ready to kill women and children, and then pretend afterwards that it didn’t happen. It’s yet another level. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

You work closely with PEN Ukraine. What does your work involve?

Right now, PEN Ukraine is helping to evacuate writers from certain parts of Ukraine, where their lives are in danger. I am part of the so-called PEN security initiative that is helping with this. I have been reiterating the same point since the war began, when talking to an international
audience:

I know you support us in Ukraine now, but please, stay with us – not for a day, not for a week, not for a month, stay with us until victory, or until we are all dead, because this is what is at stake, I’m afraid.

Kamila Shamsie's 'Best of Friends'

Best of Friends (Bloomsbury) by Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie’s blazing 2017 novel Home Fire, winner of the Woman’s Prize and longlisted for the Booker, is a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ play Antigone; an account of radicalisation and Islamophobia from the perspective of a Muslim family navigating life in Britain.

Best of Friends is a more introspective work, looking at the decades-long friendship of two women who move from Karachi to London. In terms of tension, it’s a slow burn. The book is divided into two parts. The first depicts their adolescence at a prestigious school in Karachi in the 1980s where their attachment is first cemented and tested. Their school years are set against the backdrop of President Zia’s dictatorship and abrupt death and the rise of Benazir Bhutto, who becomes the country’s first female prime minister in 1988.

While Maryam is nonchalant about her studies, Zahra is bookish and works hard. Maryam’s family is well-off and she has the self-assurance of the entitled, safe in the knowledge that she will inherit the family business from her grandfather one day (she doesn’t). Zahra’s family are not as affluent or well-connected. Shamsie focuses on a single defining experience: the “girlfear” the friends feel as teenagers when they are taken on a dangerous joy ride by two young men.

Thirty years later, Shamsie uses the device of a Guardian feature and a media profile to demonstrate the friends’ successful integration in London. Zahra has become the director of a well-known civil liberties group and Maryam is a top venture capitalist. Maryam swiftly recognises: “England taught you the subtleties of language – ‘When did you arrive here?’ was something you never wanted to hear; ‘When did you move here?’ was fine. The movers had options, the arrivers simply followed a trajectory out of a hellhole and washed up on some better shore.” Maryam and Zahra clearly represent the immigrants Britain welcomes. It’s a subject Shamsie knows well (she moved to London in 2007 and is now a dual national) and pertinent observations like these are threaded through the novel.

Maryam courts the British government for her own ends, whereas Zahra tries to expose its shortcomings. Their different moral outlooks are spotlit when Zahra tries to help someone legitimately obtain leave to remain. She is horrified by the conditions of the deportation centre she visits. By contrast, Maryam pulls strings to gets an enemy from their past deported.

Shamsie’s exposure of the UK’s immigration system is as acute and damning as her exploration of counter-terrorism policies in Home Fire. She highlights the government’s hypocritical acceptance of successful migrants, and disdain for those who are of no financial value. Pakistan and Britain may be worlds apart politically but, as Shamsie slyly suggests, when the ruling class let inequality, cronyism and corruption take root, these divisions narrow.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2022 edition. Subscribe here.

The Prince of Wales and the Queen, 1975

If the establishment of the Church is not often on display to the British public, it certainly was during the accession of King Charles III. Around the country, as public authorities proclaimed the King’s accession, God and the Church of England have been not just prominent, but very often presiding. Charles was proclaimed king “by the Grace of God”, and after much speculation, it has been confirmed that he will bear the title “Defender of the Faith”, rather than “Defender of Faith” as some (though not him) had suggested. Like almost all English monarchs in the 500 years since it was first awarded, he will bear the traditional title of the supreme governor of the Church of England.

But for the first time in recent history, the Church of which the new monarch is the supreme governor is not the Church of their subjects. Most of those subjects don’t even believe in God. Putting aside doctrine and practice (which has never been a majority activity), when Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, most of her subjects in Britain probably at least identified as Anglicans and certainly looked to that Church for life events such as weddings and funerals.

In 2022, only 12 per cent of the new king’s British subjects say they are Anglicans, most funerals are non-religious, and only 10 per cent of weddings are Anglican. Being a committed Anglican no longer makes a monarch of like mind and habit with their people; it sets them apart.

Does this matter? Those from the “No God, No Master” school of the humanist tradition will give a resounding “No!” – down with the whole lot and a secular republic yesterday, please! But there is an arguable rational basis for a constitutional monarchy, and so there are others who would like a monarchy they can support with a clear conscience and which can play a unifying role.

In any case, whether you have a rational preference for continued monarchy or not, all but the most optimistic republican must admit that we are likely to live within a constitutional monarchy for the foreseeable future. So the question is relevant: can a monarch coming to the throne today plausibly be a national figurehead at the same time as being entangled by law with a religious institution which is alien to nearly 9 in 10 of their people? Is this compatible with our diverse and mostly non-religious society?

First of all, we should distinguish the personal religious commitments of the monarch from their institutional role. Obviously it is true that a man of personal religious convictions can be head of state and protect freedom of belief for all. At an international conference on global freedom of religion or belief, when still Prince of Wales, King Charles gave one of the most humanistic speeches I have heard at such an event in nearly 20 years. He said:

. . . a diversity of voices and interests is absolutely essential, if we are to achieve our shared goal of ensuring that everyone everywhere is able to follow their chosen religion or belief in peace and safety. Freedom of conscience, of thought and of belief is central to any truly flourishing society. It allows people to contribute to their communities without fear of exclusion, to exchange ideas without fear of prejudice and to build relationships without fear of rejection. A society where difference is respected, where it is accepted that all need not think alike, will benefit from the talents of all its members. Where there is discrimination, we know only too well, there is disempowerment, darkness and division.

I spoke in the same opening session of that conference and said practically the same thing. So it is clear that people of good will can speak the same language in respect of human rights and freedom of belief. We are not asking if a Christian in public life can defend and guarantee freedom of belief for all. What we are really asking is whether a monarch who must also be the supreme governor, defender and promoter of the Church of England can.

The King clearly believes these two roles are compatible. In a speech to selected religious leaders shortly after his accession, he affirmed that his oath to maintain the Church of England existed for him alongside the “duty to protect the diversity of our country”. He vowed to “respect those who follow other spiritual paths as well as those who live their lives in accordance with secular ideals”. Like his speech to the international ministerial, his words were ones to gladden any humanist:

The beliefs that flourish in, and contribute to, our richly diverse society differ. They, and our society, can only thrive through a clear collective commitment to those vital principles of freedom of conscience, generosity of spirit and care for others which are, to me, the essence of our nationhood. I am determined, as King, to preserve and promote those principles across all communities, and for all beliefs, with all my heart.

These words must be the most progressive and inclusive ever voiced by a British monarch. In contrast, at her jubilee in 2012, Queen Elizabeth II spoke of “the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life”:

The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country . . . gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely.

This was clearly an attempt to depict a “hospitable” establishment, and to say that a liberal state Church can mediate the diversity of contemporary society. But are such statements enough? Can freedom of religion or belief truly exist in a society with an established state religion – even if that religion purports to be a protector of all religions or beliefs? Even historians friendly to the Church have analysed its actions in past years as attempts to preserve its own power. The King’s inclusion of “secular ideals” in his remarks following his accession was welcome, but no one with these ideals was invited to hear them – only religious representatives were.

Power and exclusion

Of course, today’s Church of England is not the wannabe theocracy of previous centuries. From the late 17th to late 19th centuries, other groups gradually acquired equality before the law with Anglicans: first all non-Anglican Protestants, then Roman Catholics, Jews and the non-religious. In the 21st century, equality laws deriving from Europe have been incorporated into UK law in a way that has reduced and in some cases outlawed discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. In 1998, the Human Rights Act gave us all the statutory right to freedom of religion or belief for the first time.

But the established status of the Church still exerts a pernicious effect in the UK. One in five schools in England and Wales is run by the Church of England, allowed to legally discriminate against children on the basis of beliefs they are too young to hold for themselves. Twenty-six unelected bishops sit in our legislature, able to vote on legislation. This globally egregious set-up has a negative influence on British politics. The Church is a fierce lobbyist for religious privilege, from laws allowing religious parents priority access to certain state-funded schools, and laws mandating Christian worship in all state schools, to laws allowing religious discrimination in the provision of public services. The UN and other human rights bodies have highlighted these features of the UK as incompatible with freedom of religion or belief.

Can a head of state uphold one while still defending the other? On a symbolic level, the idea of a “hospitable establishment” sets up unpleasant dynamics of power and exclusion. In this context, we non-Anglicans are guests, not homeowners. “Toleration” is not the same as inclusion and empowerment. This is most uncomfortable at moments of national or public ceremony, which are routinely presided over by the priests of the Church. One litmus test for the extent to which the monarchy will be serious about reflecting today’s Britain or not would of course be the coronation, which – it has already been confirmed – will be an Anglican ceremony.

In 2015, I was a member of the Commission of Religion and Belief in British Public Life, which made the recommendation that “All those responsible for national and civic events, whether in the public sphere or in Church, including the Coronation, should ensure that the pluralist character of modern society is reflected.” This was a mild recommendation from my point of view. In 2018 Bob Morris of the UCL constitution unit recommended a secular ceremony in Westminster Hall as part of the coronation. That seems to me a minimum requirement. The 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was widely seen as a successful modern ceremony that modelled the diversity of society as well as the core values that unite us. Ceremonies around the commencement of a new reign – a much more significant moment in our national life – are surely an opportunity for new symbolism, making a statement about inclusion and the importance of freedom of religion or belief for all.

An opportunity for change

The House of Windsor is the last European royal family to practise coronations. The others have either replaced them with simpler ceremonies or never practised them in the first place. Most monarchies today only require a simple oath to be taken in the presence of the country’s legislature.
In the Netherlands, which has a secular state with clear separation of religious and political authorities, King Willem-Alexander, personally a Protestant, was sworn in at a ceremony in 2013 in the Nieuwe Kerk, a decommissioned church. The ceremony took place in a joint session of the two Houses of Parliament. The King was confirmed in office and swore to be faithful to the Constitution and to discharge the duties of his office. In Belgium, King Philippe’s ceremony involved only a solemn oath to “abide by the constitution and the laws of the Belgian people, maintain the country’s independence and preserve its territory” before members of the two Houses of Parliament.

Even states with established Churches don’t involve elaborate religious rituals. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, whose established Church is almost as entangled with the constitution as that of England, was proclaimed Queen from the balcony of Christiansborg Palace in 1972 by the Prime Minister with no formal enthronement. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden chose not to be crowned in 1973, but simply took office during a meeting of the cabinet and, afterwards, was enthroned in a simple ceremony in the Royal Palace.

Change is possible, and has occurred in recent eras. Charles III’s great-grandfather presided over the end of the established Church in Wales; his great-great-great-grandmother was the last monarch of an established Church in Ireland; even his late mother was only “Defender of the Faith” in Australia until the 1970s when the title was abolished there. Being supreme governor of the Church has not always required committed Anglicanism. Lutherans, Catholics and monarchs whose private commitments we shall never know have all held the title. There is enough flexibility in principle for a new coronation and a new reign to herald a larger vision.

You might not think this matters much. I said earlier that there was a rational case for monarchy – but I think it is fair to say that most people’s support for the institution is emotional. Most people don’t concern themselves with academic questions of constitutional nicety or with religious questions. Why not just keep them all in a box marked “tradition”?

But this misses an opportunity to say something genuinely meaningful to the people of this country. We are undoubtedly a largely pro-monarchy country. But the British public don’t value monarchy because the monarch is Defender of the Faith. They value it because they see it as a stabiliser and unifier during difficult times. Its symbolic events provide an opportunity to come together and express national identity in the 21st century. If that role is to continue, those opportunities need to change just as much as our identity has.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2022 edition. Subscribe here.

Dear friend, When we look at how far we’ve come in bettering human health, lengthening lifespans, and increasing prosperity, one thing stands out: science saves.  Lifespans have doubled, modern medicine makes us healthier, and most of us have the food and basic comforts we need to do better than survive—to thrive. And it’s all due …
This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …
From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! This is the time of year when many people are getting ready for Halloween. You may be getting ready for a costume party or stocking up on candy in anticipation of trick-or-treaters at your door. Most of our team is currently in Las Vegas getting ready for …

matterswebI am delighted to announce that I have a new book out! This one is written for psychologists and students, and is the book that I wished I had read when I was an undergraduate. It examines why psychologists do what they do and aims to inspire the next generation of researchers.  It’s a personal journey into my favourite aspects of psychology, exploring how research can reveal the hidden workings of the mind, boost critical thinking, debunk myths, and improve lives. Along the way, I explain how to think like a psychologist, spot a liar, uncover the truth about happiness, and much more.  Several colleagues have been very kind about it and I hope that you enjoy it too!

“This engaging yet scrupulous introduction is ideal for those who wonder what psychology is really about.”
Uta Frith, University College London

“Reading this one-of-a-kind book, you feel as if you’re in a personal conversation with Richard Wiseman, one of the world’s most creative psychologists. He beautifully explains how psychologists gain insight into the human mind, expertly regales you with findings that are fascinating and surprising, and uncovers some of the many ways in which psychology improves lives. Perfect for students and professionals alike.”
Elizabeth Loftus, Past President, Association for Psychological Science

“A fantastic book. No one is better than Richard Wiseman to write about what psychology does and doesn’t offer. The quality of the writing and research reported is excellent.”
Cara Flanagan, top-selling author of A level psychology textbooks

“This wonderfully entertaining book celebrates why psychology really matters, calls for even more meaningful research, and presents a manifesto for change. A thought-provoking text that is deserving of serious consideration by both students and professional psychologists.”
Adrian Owen, OBE, neuroscientist and author, Western University

The book is available in the UK here

coverlevHi, a quick update about two projects that have just magically appeared!

First, I have co-authored (with Prof Caroline Watt) an article in PeerJ about the psychology of the impossible. It takes a look at research into impossible experiences across many different areas (including magic, dreaming, children’s play, and science fiction), examining how these experiences inspire creativity and have changed the world. It is free and can be be seen by clicking here.

Second, the fifth and final issue of our Hocus Pocus comic has landed! This comic celebrates magic, mystery and the mind, and this issue is all about levitation. It has stories about stage magic, the Indian rope trick and seance room trickery. It has been enormous fun working with the creative team of Jordan Collver, Rik Worth and Owen Watts. The comic has been selling out fast and this issue is available now at Propdog.

Do you know how best to cut your carbon footprint?

I recently invited people to take an online survey about sustainable lifestyle changes and over 800 people kindly responded. The work was conducted with Prof Mike Page from the University of Hertfordshire and Edinburgh Science, and the results are now in!

Everyone were asked to estimate how many kilograms of carbon dioxide would be saved by taking a range of actions. Many of the ratings were hugely inaccurate, with people generally overestimating the effects of less impactful changes, such as unplugging appliances, but underestimating the contribution of larger lifestyle changes such as following a vegetarian diet. For example

….unplugging a mobile phone charger saves around 2kg of CO2 emissions per year; yet one third of respondents thought that it saved five times that (100kg or more).

….leaving a television on standby emits around 15kg of CO2 per year, but a third of respondents estimated that it was far more significant (125 kg or more).

….becoming a vegetarian can save over 600kg, yet half of the respondents thought that it only saved 300kg or less.

…buying a blue jumper rather than a red one has no impact at all, but, on average, people thought that it would save 37kg.

The good news is that other estimates about, for example, the impact of flying, were more accurate. Every little helps, and people should consider doing whatever they can to cut emissions. However, these results suggest that there are many widely believed myths about sustainable behaviour. There’s a real appetite to make changes, which is great, but many of us may need clearer information on how make the biggest impact.

Many thanks to everyone who was kind enough to take part.

I have teamed up with Edinburgh Science to conduct a short survey into your thoughts about climate change and sustainability. It only takes a few minutes and it would be lovely if you could take part. All you need to do is click here. Thank you!

IMG_1433I have been interested in magic since I was 8 years old.  Early on, I became fascinated with the history of this strange performing art, and when I was 13 years old I wrote a school project entitled ‘The Art And History Of Conjuring’.

One section of this 34-page extravaganza was devoted to contemporary magicians and included the cover of a magic magazine featuring the legendary David Copperfield.

A few years ago, I was in Las Vegas with my friend and fellow magician, Massimo Polidoro. We went to see David Copperfield’s amazing show and he kindly invited us to his secret museum of magic. This stunning collection is housed is a large building on the outskirts of Vegas and contains a jaw dropping collection of apparatus, posters and books. It is the Smithsonian of magic and explores how magic shapes society, inspires technology, and creates a sense of wonder.

IMG_1435Due to the nature of the exhibits, David is only able to show a few people around the museum at any one time. Afterwards, David and I spoke about producing a book that provides readers with a personal tour of this magical space. Excited by the idea, we enlisted the help of brilliant magician David Britland and amazing photographer (and co-director of David Copperfield’s shows) Homer Liwag. Together, we put together a pitch document and were delighted when Simon and Schuster agreed to publish the book. Not only that, but the wonderful Priscilla Painton agreed to act as our editor.

IMG_1409Three years on and our vision has become a reality. This 270-page glossy book is our love letter to magic. Filled with Homer’s stunning photographs, it celebrates a group of outsiders who bring a much-needed sense of magic into the world, including the man who fooled Houdini, the woman who caught bullets in her bare hands, and the illusionist who made himself vanish. Along the way we encounter a sixteenth-century manual on sleight of hand, stunning French automata, and even some coins that are said to have magically passed through the hands of Abraham Lincoln.

Over forty years ago, 13 year-old Wiseman write a school project on magic and referenced David Copperfield. Today, I am honoured to have worked with this legendary performer and co-authored a beautiful book on the topic. To me, that feels like real magic.

For information on how to purchase in the USA, click here and for the UK, click here.

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Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
Here’s a paper, and associated website, that we launch today: we have assessed, and then ranked, all the biggest drug companies in the world, to compare their public commitments on trials transparency. Regular readers will be familiar with this ongoing battle. In medicine we use the results of clinical trials to make informed treatments about […]
By now I hope you all know about the ongoing global scandal of clinical trial results being left unpublished, and of course our AllTrials campaign. Doctors, researchers, and patients cannot make truly informed choices about which treatments work best if they don’t have access to all the trial results. Earlier this year, I helped out […]
Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]
Someone contacted me hoping to find young atheists who might be interested in being part of a new series. I’m not particularly interested in having my mug on TV, but I would love to have some great personalities represent atheism on the show, so I offered to repost his email on my blog: My name […]
All throughout my youth, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wrote all the time, about everything. I watched TV shows and ranted along with the curmudgeons on Television Without Pity about what each show did wrong, convincing myself that I could do a better job. I flew to America with a dream in my […]
A friend linked me to this. I was a sobbing mess within the first minute. I sometimes wonder why I feel such a strong kinship to the LGBT community, and I think it’s because I’ve been through the same thing that many of them have. So I watched this video and I cried, because, as […]
UPDATE #1: I got my domain back! Many thanks to Kurtis for the pleasant surprise: So I stumbled upon your blog, really liked what I saw, read that you had drama with the domain name owner, bought it, and forwarded it here. It should work again in a matter of seconds. I am an atheist […]
Chadwell writes: I’m a 16 year old in highschool and I guess my natural cynicism lead me to question the dogma and ignorance of religion. I was a christian but I just figured that why would god send the only salvation to man kind to a single area and practically turn his all-mighty back on […]
@davorg / Thursday 08 December 2022 10:31 UTC