Francis Gooding

Francis Gooding is a contributing editor at Critical Quarterly, and a regular columnist at the Wire.

From Its Myriad Tips: Mushroom Brain

Francis Gooding, 20 May 2021

Fungal mycelium is very good at finding the most economical route between points of interest. The mycologist Lynne Boddy once made a scale model of Britain out of soil, placing blocks of fungus-colonised wood at the points of the major cities; the blocks were sized proportionately to the places they represented. Mycelial networks quickly grew between the blocks: the web they created reproduced the pattern of the UK’s motorways (‘You could see the M5, M4, M1, M6’). Other researchers have set slime mould loose on tiny scale-models of Tokyo with food placed at the major hubs (in a single day they reproduced the form of the subway system) and on maps of Ikea (they found the exit, more efficiently than the scientists who set the task). Slime moulds are so good at this kind of puzzle that researchers are now using them to plan urban transport networks and fire-escape routes for large buildings.

G&Ts on the Veranda: The Science of Man

Francis Gooding, 4 March 2021

Franz Boas wasn’t in the least woolly-minded or anti-scientific. On the contrary, he was committed to the scientific meth­ods in which he had been trained, and dedicated to the clear-eyed analysis of data. But what he had found was that the rigorous application of these principles to anthropological material proved, again and again, that history and culture were the final, critical variable when it came to human behaviour.

Hell Pigs: Before there was Europe

Francis Gooding, 2 January 2020

Deep inside​ the Bruniquel Cave, in southwestern France, there are a number of mysterious assemblages. Built out of broken and stacked stalactites, they form two circles, and half a dozen ‘raised structures’. Nearly four hundred stalactites, carefully snapped off, were used in making them. Uranium-series dating, which measures the decay of uranium isotopes, has established that...

All the News Is Bad: Our Alien Planet

Francis Gooding, 1 August 2019

David Wallace-Wells opens his book with a short, sharp reality check: ‘It’s worse, much worse, than you think.’ All the news is bad. Marshalling research from across the sprawling field of climate studies, he paints a picture of disastrous change on an incomprehensible scale. Transformations that will have consequences for thousands of years to come are already being expressed in sudden crises that spring up overnight. The changes are at once planetary and minute, affecting everything from the earth’s variable ability to reflect light from the sun to the microbes inside your body. Everything, it seems, is dissolving.

Nice Thoughts: Beaks and Talons

Francis Gooding, 21 February 2019

If​ you are at all familiar with bird guides, examining a first edition of The Ornithology of Francis Willughby is a strange experience. Despite its great age and large size, the many defunct names and the variable accuracy of the images, it is recognisably a bird guide, and in essence similar to those you will have stuffed into an anorak pocket while trudging round a disused reservoir in...

‘It was​ a bad time to be alive,’ Steve Brusatte tells us. A comet or asteroid about six miles across had just collided with the Earth, in the area we know as the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The speed of its arrival compressed the atmosphere ahead of it with such force that air temperatures became hotter than the surface of the sun; the energy released on impact was...

What colour was a Tyrannosaurus rex? How did an Archaeopteryx court a mate? And how do you paint the visual likeness of something no human eye will ever see? Far from bedevilling the artists who wanted to depict prehistoric creatures and their lost worlds, such conundrums have in fact been invitations to glorious freedom. For nearly two hundred years the resulting genre – now known as palaeoart – has been a playground wherein tyrannosaurids, plesiosaurs and their fellows have not only illustrated scientific knowledge, but acted as scaled and feathered proxies for the anxieties of contemporary life. None of us has ever seen one, but who doesn’t know what a dinosaur looks like?

Why​ should we try to understand the lives of animals? The English moral philosopher Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man (1978) ended with a succinct answer: humankind ‘can neither be understood nor saved alone’. No philosophy can hope to understand ‘human nature’, Midgley argued, without acknowledging our integration into incomparably larger and older natural...

Auctions in the Forest: Mushrooms

Francis Gooding, 6 October 2016

‘As​ a land-user thinketh, so is he,’ the American conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in his essay ‘The Land Ethic’ in 1948. People needed to ‘quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem’; he wanted to transform our vision of humankind’s place in the natural world from ‘conqueror of the land-community to plain member and...

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