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Posts Tagged ‘bioengineering’

restless-creatures-by-matt-wilkinsonRestless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements, Matt Wilkinson (Icon 2016)

A fascinating book about a fascinating thing: the movement of plants and animals. It’s also a very familiar thing, but it’s far more complex than we often realize. Human beings have been watching horses gallop for thousands of years, but until the nineteenth century no-one was sure what was happening:

The man usually credited for ushering in the modern study of locomotion is the brilliant photographer Eadweard Muybridge. […] His locomotory calling came in 1872, when railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford invited him to his stock farm in Palo Alto, supposedly to settle a $25,000 bet that a horse periodically becomes airborne when galloping. (ch. 1, “Just Put One Foot in Front of Another”, pg. 16)

To answer the question, Muybridge used a series of still cameras triggered by trip-wires. And yes, galloping horses do become airborne: “not when the legs were at full stretch, as many had supposed, but when the forelimbs and hindlimbs were at their closest approach.” However, Matt Wilkinson calls another man “the true founding father of the science of locomotion”: the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, who had been investigating movement using a stylograph. In fact, it was Marey who first proved that galloping horses become airborne (ch. 1, pg. 19). Muybridge’s photographs were dramatic confirmation and the two men began to collaborate.

Marey also pioneered electromyography, or the recording of the electrical impulses generated by moving muscles. Like the rest of modern science, biokinesiology, as the study of animal movement might be called, depends on instruments that supplement or enhance our fallible senses. It also depends on mathematics: there is a lot of physics in this book. You can’t understand walking, flying or swimming without it. Walking is the most mundane, but also in some ways the most interesting, at least in its human form. Bipedalism isn’t an everyday word, but it’s an everyday sight.

What does it involve? How did it evolve? And how important was it in making us human? Wilkinson looks at all these questions and you’ll suddenly start seeing your legs and feet in a different way. What wonders of bioengineering they are! And what a lot of things happen in the simple process of “just putting one foot in front of another”. Scientists still don’t understand these things properly: for example, they can’t say whether or not sport shoes are dangerous, “lulling us into a false sense of security, causing us to pass dreadful shocks up our legs and spine without our being aware of them” (ch. 1, pg. 29).

But there’s much more here than horse and human locomotion: Wilkinson discusses everything from eels, whales, pterodactyls, bats and cheetahs to amoebas, annelid worms, fruit-flies, zombified ants and the “gliding seed of the Javan cucumber Alsomitra macrocarpa”. He also discusses the nervous systems, genes and evolution behind all those different kinds of movement. This book is both fascinating and fun, but I have one criticism: its prose doesn’t always move as lightly and gracefully as some of its subjects do. Wilkinson mentions both Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. I wish he’d written more like the latter and less like the former. If he had, a good book would have become even better.

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Football’s Great Heroes and Entertainers, Jimmy Greaves with Norman Giller (Hodder & Stoughton 2007)

Like Tony Iommi, Jimmy Greaves has put his name on an entertaining book that he didn’t write. And like Iommi, Greaves has earned the right to do that. He entertained millions as a player, then entertained millions more as a broadcaster and football pundit, but he never made a lot of money. I assume he’s not written this book, at least. It would be unusual if a good player from a humble background were also a good writer, because this is an easy and entertaining read.

And Greaves was a good player – very good, in fact. He scored 44 goals in 57 England games, which isn’t far behind Bobby Charlton’s record 49 goals for England. But Charlton took 106 games to score that many. If Greaves had played so long and scored at the same rate, he’d’ve had about 80 goals for England. But he retired early and was never the kind of conformist to win so many caps.

He missed out on the World Cup Final in 1966 too, but he says here that he agrees with Alf Ramsey’s decision not to play him. Booby Moore and Gordon Banks did play and both are included here. Moore was Greaves’ “best mate in football” and asterisks appear as Greaves says what he thinks of the way Moore was treated by “the f****** FA” after he retired and had to scrabble for money. Even mediocre players can become millionaires today, but Greaves’ generation often fell into poverty after they retired.

In one of the generations before that, Tom Finney was “never ever a full-time professional”, which is why he earned the nickname of “The Preston Plumber”. Finney is #2 in this book, after Stanley Matthews, but the book is written in order of birth, not by how highly Greaves rates them as players. In that case, however, birth-order and Greaves’ rating coincide, because only Matthews makes the “All-Star XI” that Greaves picks at the end. Playing 4-2-4, the XI goes like this:

Lev Yashin; Franz Beckenbauer, John Charles, Bobby Moore (capt.), Duncan Edwards; Alfredo di Stefano, Dave Mackay; Stanley Matthews, Pelé, Maradona, George Best.

I don’t know enough about football to disagree, but Johan Cruyff seems like an obvious omission. He’s #28 in the book proper. And where is Lionel Messi? Nowhere, because this book was first published in 2007, so he doesn’t appear at all. Footballers are like flowers: they flourish briefly, then fade. The big young names here, like Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, are senior players now, approaching the end of their careers, not burning at the zenith as they were in 2007.

And I don’t think there are many generations of footballer to come. This book is about the winners of genetic and environmental lotteries, but new technology means that we’re on the verge of being able to rig the game. When bioengineering and eugenics can produce super-athletes to order, how much value will sporting prowess retain? In crude, one-dimensional sports like athletics, rugby and American football, it’s already possible to inject your way to excellence, which is one reason I’m not interested in those sports.

Football has stayed interesting longer because it’s intellectually and psychologically demanding too. Big muscles and speed don’t automatically translate into dominance on the football pitch. Lightly built men like George Best and Denis Law could excel even in the days of brutal tackles and lenient refereeing. Like everyone else in this book, they must have had special brains, able to process visual information at high speed and perform very some complicated combinatorics. They were born with that ability, I’d say, but they had to polish it by practice. Footballing skill has to become automatic, operating below the level of consciousness, as the German great Gerd Müller explained:

Asked about his gift for goals, Muller said, “I have this instinct for knowing when a defence is going to relax, or when a defender is going to make a mistake. Something inside me says, ‘Gerd, go this way; Gerd, go that way.’ I don’t know what it is.” (Gerd Muller, #26, pg. 135)

It’s no coincidence that the human beings who play football best are male or that eleven is roughly the size of a hunting-party. Long-distance running and spatial intelligence were once essential for hunting: chasing prey down, throwing spears, firing arrows, and so on. A game of football is like a ritual hunt.

So Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter had an even better name than was apparent as the time. He isn’t one of Greaves’ heroes, but he’s mentioned by George Best as one of the hard men who once tried to kick him out of games. Best mentions Ron “Chopper” Harris and Tommy “Iron” Smith too, then says:

But the hardest of them all was Peter “Cold Eyes” Storey at Arsenal. He seemed a real psycho to me. He used to prowl around the pitch almost grunting as he waited to chop anybody trying to get past him. (George Best, #27, pg. 144)

I hadn’t heard of Storey before, but I’d heard of nearly all of Greaves’ heroes. The exceptions were the Italian Gianni Rivera, AC Milan’s European Footballer of the Year in 1969; the Spaniard Francisco Gento López, Real Madrid’s fleet-footed left-winger for a remarkable 761 league and Cup games, from 1953 to 1971; and the Scot Jim Baxter, a skilful midfielder for Rangers, Sunderland and Nottingham Forest.

Otherwise I already knew the names and was happy to learn more about the players, from Alfredo di Stéfano to Zinedine Zidane, from Len Shackleton to Lev Yashin. Most of the men here are still alive, but football is in its dying days. Advancing technology will see to that, but as it does so it will also answer some interesting questions. It won’t be long before we can run computer-models of retired players and see how they might have performed in different eras and using different tactics. Was Pelé really the best of them all? I think he probably was, but that doesn’t mean he would be in history’s strongest team. The whole of a team can sometimes be more than the sum of the parts and managers are obviously crucial too.

Greaves chooses ten managers in the epilogue, then settles on Sir Alex Ferguson to manage his All-Star XI. But managing is something else that will be changed by technology. Will great managers emerge in the future among computer-gamers who have never played professional football? And when virtual football is fully realized, will people lose interest in the real thing? Probably not, because virtual football will derive its power from the real thing and its history. Bioengineering and eugenics will be the “Chopper” Harris of history, carrying out a crunching tackle from behind that ends the world’s greatest and most beautiful sport.

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