Brain Reel #19

Science & art collide, PRE-ORDERS ARE LIVE, and leading a life of the mind

Hey pals,

I’m writing this from beautiful, nay, STUNNING, Portugal. We’re somewhere in the hills, about an hour and a half’s drive from Porto, staying at a mate’s family’s place. I’m here with 3 pals, 2 of whom are also writing (the other subjected me to the most horrific HIIT session yesterday and has given me a million book recommendations), and - yet again - I’m reminded of how bloody lucky I am.

I find being surrounded by other people writing not only super inspiring, but very helpful in feeling understood. We can all sit together and break down our chapters, our characters (in the case of the pal writing this insane fantasy series), our work-writing-balance woes, both our big and our small plans…all without worrying that we’re ‘going on a bit’ or boring people or talking far too ‘ether-ally’ or whatever.

Hope you’re feeling fab today too pals.

🔬 Science Reel 🔬

I was super lucky to get a curator’s tour of The Barbican’s AI: More Than Human exhibition last week and pals I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I must admit I was skeptical. I feel for those of us who work in tech and science, AI is given so much airtime that I wasn’t sure if an exhibition aimed at a more general audience was going to add much to what I already knew. While this was true to a large degree at the exhibition, what was so powerful for me was actually the way it was explored from an entirely different, deeper perspective. I won’t ruin it for you if you fancy going (it shuts 26th Aug so be quick!), other than saying that I was really taken by the story the exhibition weaves through it, and the sheer amount of live and/or original research that was conducted especially for the exhibition.

It got me thinking about the role of art in science. Most of the time, art is considered a means of communicating science. Of ‘bringing it to life’, of questioning its implications, of visualising what can’t be seen. More and more, though, I’m seeing efforts coming from the art world where research and direct contribution to the development of the science or technology is happening in the pieces themselves. For example, one of the exhibits explores bias in facial recognition, and the fact that many systems don’t recognise black faces. So the artist photographed thousands of black people all over the world, and created a whole new dataset of their faces, upon which algorithms can now be trained to. For the exhibit, privacy rules meant that the actual photographs couldn’t be shown, so instead the artist trained a generation algorithm to create black faces from scratch, based on the dataset, and so the photos on show are entirely computer generated, prompting questions about deep fakes and all sorts.

I also think a lot about the fashion industry and its links to biotech. The spider silk dresses, the mushroom leather bags…the ‘normalisation’ of these new materials, through Paris fashion week and making them trendy. Driving demand, to eventually lower costs.

Art and its associated industries has much to offer science. But the ivory tower of science doesn’t always see or appreciate that. There’s more to art than communication and ethics-questioning, and our science and tech world would do well to open its eyes to this in a whole new way.

📖 Book Reel 📖

So this last fortnight there have been lots of exciting moving parts with the book which I’m delighted about. Firstly, it’s now into the next round of edits, which is going to be a thorough read-through but not yet copy-editing. I’ll probably take a bit of time off to go through them when they come back as this is the first extensive edit and I’m under no illusion it’ll be light feedback! Second, book cover ideas are coming back in the next two weeks! EEK! Super excited for this. Third, I’ve now been assigned a publicist, so I’ll be meeting up with her soon to start chatting through how on Earth we’re going to sell this thing…

And fourth, most exciting of all, the book is now officially out for pre-orders!! As in, people can go onto Amazon or Waterstones or Foyles or Wordery wherever they like to buy books from and actually go and order it, like, right now..! It’s been live for the last few days and it’s still not really sunk in to be honest. People are sending me screenshots of their receipts and I’m like HOW?!

The cover and the blurb / copy is placeholder for now, which is maybe why it still doesn’t really feel real to some degree. But it’s there, and it’s real, and now an entirely new challenge begins in terms of convincing people to part with their pennies for my words and thoughts and pages.

I’ve had many different kinds of ups and downs with confidence throughout this whole process. From feeling like I ‘shouldn’t’ be writing the book as I’m not expert enough; or feeling like I ‘shouldn’t’ email that person for an interview as they’re too important for me; to feeling like I ‘shouldn’t’ be talking about the book yet as it’s not fully formed and finished; or feeling like I ‘shouldn’t’ be doing any of this as I’m not a trained writer …and so on.

The book going out to pre-order is extremely exciting and terrifying in equal measure. Not just in the sense of ‘oh will people like it’ but in the sense of, simply, what if it just fades into insignificance. What if now it’s out there, my hunch about people finding this topic interesting just wasn’t correct? I’m sure the confidence will continue to fluctuate and most likely be in over- and under-drive even more so as the release date approaches, but for now, I’m just trying my best to enjoy the feeling of this whole thing slowly but surely becoming more real.

(If you want to go pre-order yourself, you can do so on Amazon or Foyles or Waterstones, or Blackwells or Wordery or Book Depository..! HOW WILD!!)

🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

While I’ve been here in Portugal, I’ve been thinking about how much time I spend on my own.

I’m here with 3 other fabulous women - old friends and new - and I’m having an absolutely glorious time.

Yesterday, I had a few hours to myself when I wasn’t writing and wasn’t with the others (as they were in the sun and I needed to be in the shade #scottishskin), so I took myself off to read. And while I was reading, my mind wandered, and my thoughts starting whizzing.

It felt like that moment: putting your headphones in first thing in the morning, and the music is the first proper sound you’ve heard that day. Or when the audiobook narrator or the podcast host has suddenly re-entered your life after you’ve been asleep. It’s like the world has switched back on.

And so I realised that I hadn’t really ‘thought’ while I’d been here.

Yes while I’m writing I’m thinking, and yes we’re not all speaking to each other every minute of every day here in Portugal, and yes, many of our conversations have been thought-provoking and fascinating and meaningful.

But those few hours felt different. It felt more like what I’m used to. Which is being alone, and spending a lot of time in my own head. Whilst not working or meeting or speaking or ticking things off my to-do list.

Don’t get me wrong - I love being on my own. I travel alone a lot, and I love it. I work alone most of the time, and I love it. And I hadn’t realised how much thinking and pondering and self-reflection and coming-up-with-new-ideas I do.

It made me think about that recent Guardian article about women not feeling or being able to have time to themselves. It made me think about when I had a full-time job full of meetings and open plan offices and social events almost every evening. It made me think about when I lived with 3 other people as flatmates, and how I was rarely in the flat by myself. It made me think of how before I started travelling alone with work, I would have balked at the idea of a solo restaurant trip, a solo hike, a solo museum trip, a solo anything really.

There was a line in this piece about motherhood and writing I read last week that really stuck with me. She’s talking about why she’s finding it hard to be her full creative self while she has kids, and says:

The problem is not in what I am doing. The problem is in what I am not doing, which is writing every day, but which is also leading a life of the mind.

What a privilege it is, in this moment in my own wee life, to lead a life of the mind.

📌 Tip Reel 📌

Books I’m reading right now:

  • The Great American Sports Page (“Spanning nearly a century, The Great American Sports Page presents essential columns from more than three dozen masters of the press-box craft. These unforgettable dispatches from World Series, Super Bowls, and title bouts for the ages were written on deadline with passion, spontaneity, humour, and a gift for the memorable phrase.”)

  • Tyrant: Shakespeare On Power (“How does a truly disastrous leader – a sociopath, a demagogue, a tyrant – come to power? How, and why, does a tyrant hold on to power? And what goes on in the hidden recesses of the tyrant's soul? For help in understanding our most urgent contemporary dilemmas, William Shakespeare has no peer.”)

  • Frankissstein (“What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet? Jeanette Winterson shows us how much closer we are to that future than we realise. Funny and furious, bold and clear-sighted, Frankissstein is a love story about life itself.”)

Podcasts I think you’ll love:

  • The Sport of Kings (Human/Ordinary): Incredible dive into Melbourne’s amateur wrestling scene, which ends with WWE coming to town. I don’t know how else to sell this episode to you than to just simply tell you that I have no interest in wrestling but this little sojourn into that world - particularly the amateur one - was fascinating, poignant and well worth the listen.

  • The Clearing: This is on *right now* - latest episode went out yesterday - and I’m HOOKED: When April Balascio was 40 years old, something she’d feared for decades was finally proven true. Her father, Edward Wayne Edwards, really was a murderer. The Clearing is about what came after April called a detective in 2009 to tell him about her suspicions — a call that led to her father’s arrest and eventual conviction on multiple murders — and tracks the emotional journey as she and host Josh Dean dig back into her childhood, unravel the truth of her father’s life, and overturn a viral online narrative that had turned Edward Wayne Edwards into a kind of serial killer caricature.”

➡️ Next Reel ➡️

✍️ Work Reel ✍️

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Until next time,
Gemma 🚀

Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, currently writing a book about hype and idealism in science and tech, is Co-Founder of Science: Disrupt, and loves a bit of public speaking.