Friday, 21 October 2016

The Kanneh-Mason Family - Videos

This is Sheku, he is the third of seven Kanneh-Mason children.  This year Sheku was crowned BBC Young Musician and the Year (2016).
Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing the Cello
Following his success Sheku was invited to perform at two BBC Prom concerts and has signed a contract to make CDs with Decca.  Sheku has a distinctive mop of hair and is cool.

Sheku Rees Kanneh-Mason

Sheku has a beautiful elder sister who has a huge smile and wears her plaited hair as a mantle threaded with gold.  Isata (pronounced Ice-i-ta), reached the piano finals in BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 and was awarded The Walter Todds Bursary for the most promising musician not to reach the Grand Final (she was unlucky to come up against the overall winner in the finals of the piano section).  Isata studies at the Royal Academy of Music and is well on the way to becoming a concert pianist. I always think she plays from the heart and looks like an Egyptian queen.

Isata Megan Kanneh-Mason
This is a picture of the the seven children:

The Kanneh-Mason children have exotic Sierra Leonian names; Sheku (cello, 17), Isata (pianist, 20), Braimah (violinist, 18), Mariatu (cello and piano 7), Konya (piano and violin 15), Jeneba (piano and cello 13), and Aminata (Violin and Piano 11).

Kadiatu (Kadie) and Stuart Kanneh Mason with Sheku and Braimah (2015 Nottingham Post)

The Nottingham family are a rich cultural mix; Kadiatu's mother is Welsh and married to a man from Sierra Leone, their English father Stuart has parents who immigrated from Antigua.  The family rejoice in their cultural diversity, they all have Welsh names and continue their close ties with Wales, the Caribbean and Sierra Leone.  Both of their parents have always loved classical music and learnt to play the piano as children, so it was a natural decision for them to buy a piano after their first child was born; Kadiatu also played the clarinet as a child and is an academic whilst Stuart has a physics degree and masters degree in maths.  Stuart commutes to work in London from Nottingham, instead of buying smart cars and other luxuries every penny the family earns has been channelled into giving their children the best opportunities in life.  Isata chose the piano which seems to have influenced the other children to follow her into musical careers.

When we met the Kanneh-Masons at the Tenby Arts Festival in 2015 we were blown away and became instant fans.  We have got to know this lovely family better after they gave a concert at Lampeter House in the Spring 2016.  A few weeks ago they came and recorded You Tube videos in our home, these are the results (it is essential to listen through good speakers):

Personally I find it most moving to see the whole family playing together

The Kanneh-Masons Six - Medley

but they are all virtuosic and play solos or together in smaller groups.  In these two videos Sheku plays duets with his elder brother Braimah who is studying the violin at Royal Academy of Music.  

Braimah and Sheku - Bloch Prayer from Jewish life

Braimah and Sheku - Ajde Jano

When the three eldest perform together they call themselves "The Kanneh-Mason Trio".  It is worth looking up you tube videos of their performances of Shostakovitch.  For us they played Rachmaninov Trio élégiaque No.1

 The Kanneh-Mason Trio
Rachmaninov Trio élégiaque No.1

Shekus' younger sisters, Konya and Jeneba, are both accomplished pianists.  Konya was not satisfied with her recording of Debussy, it sounded ravishing but she insists it was flawed.  This is Jeneba (13) playing a Chopin's Etude Op.10, No.4

Jeneba Kannah Mason - Chopin Etude Op.10, No.4

We also made videos of  Isata and Sheku playing a duet

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Masons - Gaspo Cassadó - Requiebros

 and two pieces of Isata playing solo

Isata Kanneh-Masons - Rossini/Ginzburg Cavatina of Figaro 

Isata Kanneh-Mason - Liszt Les jeux d'eau à la villa d'este

The Kanneh-Masons have an official website: BBC have made a documentary about the Kanneh-Masons that is called Young, Gifted and Classical to be screened on November 20 on BBC4

We could not have made these videos without the help of Alberto Bona of Arepo Productions and Nick Swannell (sound engineer)


I am not particularly knowledgeable about music, often I have to work harder than others to track the melodies, rhythms and musical structures in complex classical pieces, but the emotional rewards are always worth it. From the moment I first saw this family I was a fan, this is why:

Music is found in all cultures however primitive or isolated.  It is as if nature has encoded Music into our DNA and it is as essential to humanity as language and speech.     Some years ago I read a book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body" by Prof Steven Mithen, in which he posited that music and singing were precursors to language.  He painted an  image of groups of Neanderthals without language abilities dancing, grunting and warbling around their hearths for tens of thousands of years until the language speaking Homo sapiens arrived to Southern Europe with cave painting and sculpture.   He suggested that musical activity in our hominid ancestors generated empathy and set off a chain of brain development that in Homo sapiens mutated into our abilities for "theory of mind", intensely complex self knowledge, social and cultural cohesion, and that from these musical beginnings language was born.  Music led to the development of language followed by the big bang of creativity that led to agriculture and civilisation.

Mithen was speculating and maybe he is wrong, but his point is a good one; music  harmonises emotions across audiences in extremely powerful ways.  This trait was well known to ancient generals who marched their armies to music in the safe knowledge that this will make their soldiers more comradely and willing to sacrifice their lives for each other and their tribes, in our present day society music still has a strong place in rituals that bring marriages, families, tribes and nations together; what would the Olympics be like without the collective playing of each other's national anthems from around the world?
In my quest to improve my drawing I had an idealistic view that art has a good purpose, as I have grown older I have come to see that  purpose to be about reaching inside each other's minds and sharing qualia in a mingling of spirits, but I have never been so naive as to believe that producing or loving good art automatically equates with having a well developed sense of humanity.  Tyrants like Stalin loved the ballet and Hitler loved watercolours and architectures, but the humanising effects of art were not enough to stop them being responsible for the deaths of millions of there fellow citizens.  This is a sad fact;  Art's power to bring us together in a mingling of our spirits can be embraced, ignored, subverted and misused.  My conclusion has been that art, like speech, comes with responsibility. I have always questioned goodness and badness in art and often asked myself if there is such a thing as purity in art?

The Kanneh Masons are fascinating to know.  The family seem to be bonded in a warm glow of empathy and cooperation.  The eldest sister started the process, but now they are all in it together, sharing tunes, unifying melodies and harmonies within their family.  In the little time I have been with them I have witnessed this depth of communication and extreme closeness.  They are not unique, they are ordinary people, but it has been wonderful to watch what has happened inside their family which seems to me to be one of the purest expressions of "good art" I have ever experienced.  In this troubled world we need more families like the Kanneh-Masons and more "good art".


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Best of this Summers Drawings.

I have not been abroad this summer, but at weekends and on sunny evenings I have been out drawing  at Wiseman's Bridge where the beach was often crowded with families and holiday makers.

Many say hello because they already know me from previous years.  This sketch brings back vivid memories of little Ava and Lola walking on the beach with their father and dog
Ava, Lola and her father 7 June  2015
but I cannot remember which was Ava and which was Lola.

These children are Emelia and Harrison Frost

Emelia and Harrison
I think their father is an engineer and their mother Nicki is a primary school teacher in Sheffield

Nicki Frost with her Children

Drawing in public spaces is social, very often when I arrive children will greet me and sit in a crowd around me, others times I am left alone. When I am being watched it is a bit like reading out loud in a classroom, they expect me to put on a show, work fast, pay attention and not make mistakes, but  I do not meet all the people I draw.   Such was the case with this drawing, one of the best of the season, it evokes memories of a moment alone after the crowds had dispersed for supper.  In the crisp twilight air excited chattering and laughter travelled towards me, down the way a little girl in a blue polka dot dress was patting her grandfather's head and giggling, they were looking across the sea towards a distance horizon that was the lit with the dying embers of reflected sunlight in clouds. 

My other favourite haunt is Manor House Wildlife Park where the children interact with the animals 

This year I have been studying how the form of the body changes as we grow.  I have made images of babies with their mothers

and toddlers

making their first wobbly steps

A toddler called Mali

and I have been trying to capture how very small children walk and run,

which is different from the older children like this boy

and  these two sisters from Pakistan with flowers in their hair.   Sanzay (7) and Lalina's family have come to Pembrokeshire because their father is a doctor in Haverfordwest.   Sanzay's dress was embroidered with flowers too and they had one more even younger sibling who I did not manage to draw.

Most of all I have been working on my portraiture.  For many years, almost every evening between 9.30pm to 2.00am, I have been making scribbled drawings of moving faces from television. The scribblings are a technical learning excises to help my subconscious brain build a detailed and structured virtual model of the head and face.   Making the mental construction feels like putting together a three dimensional virtual jigsaw puzzle with movement, the learning involves developing the shape of the pieces as well as fitting them together.  After these sessions I sometimes have very vivid hallucinatory dreams of the shapes and relationships of the pieces I am trying to grasp and assemble, as these elements have coalesced my drawings of faces have become easier to make and more of a likeness.

This is an image drawn whilst watching a television costume drama (I think Wolf House).  A drawing like this represents the present state of my virtual model with some added embellishments. 

The long summer's evenings have been an opportunity to make drawings from real people and to check how well my portraiture has developed since last summer.  This image of  a teenage girl at Wiseman's Bridge demonstrates how my models are transposed into idealised portraits of  real people:

A Teenage girl with flowers in her hair June 2016

But the teenage girl is a drawing about classic idealised beauty, it is not about personality. It represents the first stage in learning to draw and make art.  Only recently did I understand how closely my drawing technique mirrors the way the subconscious mind creates that glorious technicolour cinema experience we call sight.  In the centre of the brain, sitting above the tip of the Brain Stem, is an organ called the Thalamus. It is comparable in size to the two halves of an unshelled walnut, with the nut-shell joining in the horizontal plane.

The  Thalamus (Wikipedia)
Brain scientists sometimes call the thalamus the brain's relay station, this is because all the raw sensory data (except smell) from the eyes, ears, tongue and skin is transmitted through the thalamus to specialised areas for further analysis and processing.  For instance visual data is collected at the retina and sent along the optic nerves to the thalamus before being relayed on to Visual Cortex in the Occipital Lobe at the back of the skull.

Eye : Thalamus : Visual cortex

But the thalamus is much more than just a relay and distribution station, it also recognises patterns,  analyses and processes the data. It was recently discovered that when we are looking at an object six times more visual information is travelling from the cortex to the thalamus than from the thalamus to the visual cortex. This is counter intuitive, how is it that sight is using more information coming from inside the brain than from the eyes that are looking at the outside world? 

Eye : Thalamus : Visual Cortex : Internal model

There is a theory that the thalamus is supplementing incoming sensory data with virtual images generated by the cortex: Suppose you are looking at a set of traffic lights, analysing all the raw visual data sent from the eyes will tell your brain that the lights are in a black box on top of  pole.  The brain has seen the black box and pole many times before and expects it to be there, what it really wants to know is when will the lights change from red to green?  The brain already has a virtual model for the traffic lights in its mental vocabulary, so instead of wasting energy analysing the raw visual data to produce a new virtual pole, it reuses the one it has pre-made in it library of experiences. The mind confines its collection of the raw visual data from the outside world to the one piece of information it wants to know about above all others; when will the lights change from red to green?  As a system this method makes perfect evolutionary sense because it is so energy efficient, it also has the benefit of being a top down system that provides the rational sentient brain, through its control of the eyes, free will to spotlight which news is being brought into the visual arena.  In contrast when we are dreaming and consciousness is absent, the technicolour screen is lit up with hallucinations that have been entirely created from our mind's visual libraries.

The other thing to note is that this energy efficient system does not waste time analysing the raw data for information that is unimportant to the job at hand.  Less analysis makes sight faster, faster sight gives faster decision making, faster decisions make us more adept at taking advantage of situations and faster to escape from danger.  When the lights change from red to green we have an opportunity to move forward at once, when they turn back to red we stop at once. If we dithered we would get killed.

One of the commonest remarks from onlookers watching me draw is "you draw so fast, how do you do that?".   If I observe myself whilst I am drawing I can see how I am generating pictures on paper. It appears that I am using the same method as sight, my hands make marks within the context of ghostlike virtual images held in my mind's eye. These ghosts are gently modified by my sentient mind as the drawing  develops on the paper.  Whilst I am drawing my eyes spotlight the area where new marks are to be made.  For instance when drawing a cheek bone the sentient mind directs the eyes to look at the cheekbones and my mind becomes interested in just two things

1.  Placing the marks in the right position relative the ghost and/or modified image of the virtual model on the paper.
2.  The shape of  the cheek bone I am drawing is made by comparing virtual cheekbones generated in my mind against the unique shape of the cheek bone of the subject.

Similarly when I am drawing someone catching a ball I do not waste time and energy wondering which side of the hand the thumb goes, without thinking I can see where the thumb belongs on my virtual model, but when I come to draw the hands my sentient mind does look at my subject's thumb to find out if I should modify the virtual thumb to be a fat or thin thumb, with or without nail varnish?.

The answer to the onlookers is that if I were to slow down and start measuring the size and positions of objects I would lose sight of the virtual model, my system would fall apart. The speed that my drawings take place is a function of the efficiency of the system (an extension of sight).  A few years ago I went to drawing classes where the models sat in static positions for hours, my drawings that took hours were often structurally weaker and less of a likeness than the drawings that were made in seconds from fleeting memories.

Having learnt how to create an image of an idealised face with unique features I want to take my drawing processes one stage further.  I now want to breath life into the drawing and add personality, perhaps by choosing heads with a lot of structural individuality

Man at Wiseman's Bridge, Aug 2016
  or opening the jaw as if the subject has just moved and taken an inward breath.

or using gesture and body language

Little Boy on a Bench
or by adding interesting hairstyles, possessions and gait

Lady at Heathrow airport 2016

But the most important way to add personality is through facial expressions.  Adding facial expression is the hardest thing to do well because they are movements of the eyes and soft tissue that float over the immoveable bone structure. For these images the artist has to use complex multidimensional virtual models which combine knowledge of static bone under-structures with knowledge of how the soft parts move over the bones.  I have not done nearly enough studying in this area, it is the work for the remainder of my life, at present my mental representation is not up to making convincing drawings of symmetrical smiles.

Ironically strong structural individuality together with slight lob-sided facial expressions are quite easy to do.

A policeman at the Millennium Centre April 2016
Another big subject I am always attempting to draw are relationships, such as images of parents holding children.  In Western art we have many images of mothers with children, Madonnas.  There are less images of fathers with their children.  At Wiseman's Bridge it is very often the fathers that are playing most intimately with their children, perhaps the summer holidays are the only opportunity that they get to spend whole days with their families.  I find the father-child relationships very appealing to draw

This image is statuesque

and this one has warmth

and of course  there are the young mothers too

and finally there are the pets they bring to the beach, dogs with tongues that hang out and run over the sand and play in the surf and are constant companions to their owners

I have also been working on plants, but those can wait for further posts.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Intelligence of Grass: Part 1 A review of Human Creativity

The Church of La Sainte Chapelle

If you ever visit Paris you should take a trip to the light-filled church of La Sainte Chapelle which is a marvel of the Rayonnant (flamboyant)  style of  Gothic architecture.  The Master Builder in charge of the construction probably relied on simple plans that were perhaps as much held in his head as on paper.  His team were made up of illiterate carpenters, stone masons, crafts people. The church was completed in 1248
La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris

La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris      photo Francois Didier

When you stand in the nave of the church you will experience a sense height, weightlessness and colour.  It is extraordinary to think that we are essentially standing inside a very carefully shaped pile of stones, this is a pile where each and every stone has been eternally trapped by the compression of the stones above, below and to the side of it.  The weight of the vaulted roof is channelled along graceful chains of stones (ribs) to the heads of slim pillars, from here the gravitational thrust of the roof is turned and runs down the load bearing columns.  There are no cross beams to brace the walls from splaying apart, instead the master builder relied on the inward leaning pressure from the weight of external flying buttresses.

The collective aspiration amongst medieval Christians was to fill their churches with ever more natural light.  The confluence of the Christian theology of light with Roman architecture is a story worth telling.

In the old testament God reveals himself to Moses as a burning bush but it is in the New Testament that the notion that "God is Light" becomes of central importance to Christianity.  In the Gospel according to St John Jesus tells us that "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." John 8:12. American Standard Bible. 

Chapel of Saint Ananias, Damascus, Syria, 1st century

From the beginning the Early Church found itself in conflict with the Roman and Jewish authorities, their beliefs were seen as subversive and threatening. In a moment of ruthless panic Pontius Pilate crucified their founder, but he failed to quench the flames of early Christian belief, instead he succeeded in driving his followers into a spooky underworld of windowless basement churches.  One of the ten commandments of the Judaic God that early Christians believed in was thou shalt not worship false gods, for this reason the Early Christians rejected the pagan custom of worshipping candlelight, for them the light of God was celestial and could only come from the light of the fiery sun.  Being forced to worship light in darkness tortured the religion and made the faithful bitter, even so Christianity went on spreading across the Empire, even to Rome.  Just thirty years after the crucifixion, in 64 CE, the Emperor Nero was blaming the burning of his capital city on the proscribed virulent cult that were living in the Jewish Quarter of the city.  Tacitus reports how he rounded up the Christians and "an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired."    For the next three hundred year Christians hid amongst the vermin in the catacombs Rome.

 Christian symbols from the catacombs in Rome :

No amount of persecution stopped the growth of Christianity which even became popular amongst the Roman Soldiers, and in 312 CE a Roman general called Constantine seized control of the Roman Empire under the Christian banner of Chi Rho at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.  Emperor Constantine I was an ambitious and pragmatic man who brought Christianity out of the basements and transformed the faith from being a marginalised, disparate and sometimes fractious underground sect into one of the official religions of Empire.

The spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire

The Church's new status as an official religion of State enabled Christians to take over the old temples of Mithras and move above ground.  Some of today's churches, like the Basilica of San Clement (rebuilt 1100), still have foundations that sit on the remains of Mithric Temples.
The Basilica of San Clement, Rome (rebuilt in 1100)
Remains of Mithric temple under St Clements

A short time after Constantine's death there lived a scholarly monk called Jerome (347-420), he mentions knowing the Church of St Clements on which the Basilica of San Clement (above) was later built.  He movingly describes the relief he felt of moving out of the basements into the day light:

St Jerome, Painting by Niccolò Antonio Colantonio.

(St Jerome  translated the bible from Hebrew into Latin)

" Often I would find myself entering those crypts, deep dug in the earth, with the walls on either side lined with the bodies of the dead....Here and there the light, not entering the windows, but filtering down through shafts, relieved the horror of the night closed around and there came to mind the line of Vergil " Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silenta terrent" (everywhere horror seizes the soul and the very silence is dreadful).

The trauma of worshipping in darkness left the early Christians with an insatiable thirst for light that continued to define their priorities and worship for the next thousands years.   The style of architecture inherited by the early church was called Romanesque, an architectural era that spans from the decline of the Roman empire to the beginnings of the medieval Gothic traditions.  Romanesque churches have rounded Roman (Norman) arches similar to the style the Romans used for their aqueducts.  The churches have tall narrow naves, stocky pillars and thick walls that are supported from the outside by substantial external buttresses.  The narrow distances between pillars and heavily buttressed outside walls leave limited space for windows high up in the clerestory through which limited amounts of natural light of God floods into the place of worship.
Basilica Saint Sernin (Toulouse 12th Century)

The light from the Clerestory windows was not enough, the Christian need for light had become an obsession that led to the development of a new style of architecture that enabled ever larger windows, ever higher ceilings and ever wider naves.  The evolution of Christian architecture can be seen as the end of a thread of continuous development that had passed down the generations from neolithic times.

The development of Stone Piling

Go to any beach and you will find scenes of parents piling stones with their children, it seems to be a creative activity that come naturally to us.


Churches like La Sainte Chapelle are a triumph of the craft of piling stones in ever more delicate ways. The way the craft evolved tells us a lot about how pre-scientific cultures evolved their ideas incrementally in a series of steps determined by culture and accident. Piling stones is created on two contrasting principles about which we have natural understanding;

The first principle is that we will never be able to squash a stone:

and the second is that a stone has very little tensile strength, one sharp hit with a mallet on the same unsquashable slab will crack in half.

this is why a stone beam for a bridge will break under the thumping of quite light traffic.

Neolithic monuments are made by placing short stone lintels on tall unsquashable standing stones.


The elegant architecture of ancient Greece is a development of this principle; they placed short and stubby lintels on top of pillars (sculpted piles of stones). The builders knew that it would be dangerous to have longer lintels, so the space between the pillars was always kept narrow.

Remains of Temple of Olympian Zeus Athens

Today we have materials like steel girders which combine tensile strength with unsquashability, using these materials modern society can make much cross beams to cover wide public spaces, in the ancient world the choice of materials was limited to stone or wood.  Even the linteled doorways of the ancient cites could be very high but never very wide

Arches work on the principle that stone is un-squashable.  All the gravitational pressure and overhead pounding from traffic is converted into harmless stone squashing. In the bronze age the arch had been commonly used in small scale subterranean structures where the lateral forces were contained by the surrounding rock.  There are some rare instances of arches being used in entrances in city walls and for bridges, for example the Arched bridge at Eleutherna.  Arched bridges are extremely strong and durable; the arched bridge at Eleutherna has been in continuous use for over 2000 years.

Eleutherna Bridge with Corbel Arch 3-4th Century BC. Eleutherna, Greece (Wikipedia)
Very big arches can be built into city walls because the lateral forces are absorbed by the buttressing effect of the city walls.

Principle parts of an arch - wikipedia

This unsquashability makes it possible to build huge entrance arches through the city walls which were then ideal for the spectacular victory parades of Roman armies returning home from their campaigns abroad. 

Building free standing Victory Arches became a symbol of imperial majesty and power, but free standing arches are weak structures if they are not buttressed.


The Roman engineers overcame this problem by setting their free standing Victory Arches with a bit of wall on each side.

The Romans punched holes in the side walls which lightens the visual heaviness of the abutment, so a typical free-standing Victory Roman arch was visually pleasing large central doorway with side entrances on each side.


The Roman engineers were the first culture to fully exploit sequences of arches as a way to build bridges and carry aqueducts across ravines. When Arches are strung together the lateral forces can be passed along the line, the last arch at the end of the line has to be buttressed; this aqueduct is buttressed by the cliffs at each end of the chain.

Aqueduct Near Nerja, Spain

Vaulted ceilings are another way of using arches, again vaulted ceilings were a tradition picked up from Bronze age architecture.

The vauted ceiling at Newgrange 3200 BC, Ireland, is older than the great pyramids

but typically the Romans engineers developed new ways of utilising vaults and ribs to create grander complex ceilings in their monumental buildings 

 Roman Groin Vault

Gothic architects worked with these Roman principles, but their architecture plasticised stone structures of Romanesque architecture. A novelty of Gothic architecture was the development of pointed arches; pointed arches turn the lateral forces down and have less sideways thrust at the heads of the supporting pillars. 

Gothic arches could be built taller and wider than rounded arches because have less sideways thrust they, however the tops of the pillars still needed some buttressing. The Gothic master builders arranged that the remaining lateral forces were absorbed through curved half arches called flying buttresses. The Gothic architects also reduced the lateral forces by reducing the weight of the ceiling, they managed this by creating a web of intersecting stone arches called ribs which provided the structural strength of the ceiling, the gaps were then filled with lighter thinner stone.  The nave of York minster is 30 metres wide

King's College Chapel, Cambridge, is amongst the last of the late Gothic churches built  There is no clerestory, the space between the pillars are filled with filigree stonework that support huge stained glass windows that stretch from the ceiling to the lower levels.  During the daytime services "the true light of God" floods into the nave and over the congregation, St Jerome would have loved it.

King's College Chapel Cambridge during the day- no need for artificial light!

Gothic architecture demonstrates how medieval technological evolution responded to narrowly specified cultural demands, the result were structures that were on the one hand fragile and delicate and on the other hand stable and strong  Standing in the naves of these buildings we are struck how the Gothic master craftsmen had placed the stones as carefully as if they were building a house of cards, but in this case the "house of cards" structures are strong enough to stand for thousands of years.  Building like Kings College Chapel are brittle, even a small earthquake would bring everything tumbling down.  In contrast the Buddhist pagoda at Horyu-ji, Nara, which is the oldest wooden building in the world, was evolved to remain stable in the harsher environmental conditions of being on the Japanese earthquake zone.

The Horyu-ji is 34.5m tall, 4 m taller than Kings College Chapel

The ancient Heian culture that made Horyu-ji constructed their pagodas like Christmas Trees, except in this case it is the branches that touch the ground and support the building.   The central pillar, the trunk of the tree, float above the ground supported by rooms attached with flexible pegs. 

Pagoda at Horyu-ji Temple

When an earthquake strikes the central pillar is isolated from the full impact because the destructive forces are absorbed by the attached rooms which move up and down relative to the central structure, a bit like the waving branches.  Horyu-ji, which is is higher than Kings College Chapel and nearly twice as old, demonstrates another paradigm of delicacy and stability that was evolved to fit into a different cultural and environmental narrative.

It is an ideal of our age that children should be nurtured in a culture of free speech, reason and dispassionate debate, we very easily fall into the trap of thinking that our reasoning capacities came naturally with our "big brains".  When looking at magnificent buildings like  Kings College and Horyu-ji, objects that have been created by pushing building materials to the extreme boundaries of what was achievable, we forget that they were made by societies without the accumulated knowledge and data crunching tools of science.   These great buildings grew out of refined natural methodology that are almost organic, and as has been pointed out by Professor Daniel Dennet the cathedrals can almost be seen as metaphors for algorithms already used by nature.

Left Termte Mound, Right La Sagrada Familia Barselona
The algorithms of Nature and the refined structures of pre-science cultures have something in common with each other, both are delicate optimised and stable structures that grew out of lessons of trial and error. Gothic Architecture may well be described as the result of a slow heuristic developmental evolution of ideas through a process that mimics Natural Selection

 The Evolution of Timepieces

If we look at the erratic history of timepieces we find traces of the arrival of new ways of using our brains and the beginnings of culturally developed methods of thinking.  Schooling the mind enabled the production of "blue sky inventions" that leap-froged the traditional heuristic modes of development. (Blue sky inventions is a term I have created for the purposes of this article).

Neolithic people were dependent on the seasons, no doubt some would have counted the passing of the days by cutting notches on tally sticks and using shadows to follow the sun and measure the passing of the hours. At Monuments like Stonehenge (5-2,000 BCE) the alignment of the standing stones identify key moments of the annual calender.

3D rendering of Stonehenge by Joseph Lertola
The oldest surviving sundial comes from Egypt 1,500 BCE but there is evidence that the Chinese had them a thousands years earlier.

The world' oldest surviving sundial 1,500 BCE
It took another thousand years for Sundials to be introduced in about 600BCE to the Greeks through contact with the Babylonians .

Ancient Bronze age cultures also used water clocks for measuring units of time, the simplest were leaking bowls that the Greeks called clepsydra (κλεψύδρα, "water thieves").  Clepsydra were vessels which had a single small hole cut in their base, they were floated in water and allowed to sink, alternatively they were filled with water and allowed to leak.  Either way they measured a unit of time that could be used for limiting the length of speeches in their Senates or time bought at a local brothel.

A Persian Clepsydra (Wikicommons)
The oldest documentation of the clepsydra is mentioned on the 16th century BCE tomb inscription of an Egyptian court official called Amenemhet, he identifies himself as its inventor. These simple time keepers were around for over a millennia before anything better was invented.

So far the development of timepieces was no more than refinement of simple ideas. About 500 BCE blue sky inventions for measuring time began appearing along the coasts of Greece and Turkey by a culture that prized schooled strategies of thinking. The Greek word for their new way of thinking was Philosophy derived from the their word phylos meaning "to love ... knowledge".  The Greek "love of knowledge" required specialised cognitive skills by minds schooled in mathematics, geometry, classification, analysis of empirical data, abstract thinking and historical perspective. The Greeks were also the first people to stand outside themselves and imagine how their minds worked, for instance we learn from Plato (428 - 347 BC) that the Greeks understood that the mind is not a unified thing, it is made up of interlocking facets that have to be orchestrated with each other; conscious and subconscious, pleasures seeking and stoicism, emotions and reason. Plato is credited with the invention of a new concept he called (ψυχή) psyche which we now call Soul.    Plato's Soul was a unifying element that he called psyche and he invented an allegory to explain, he likened psyche to a charioteer who has two unruly winged horses: one an ugly black horse and the other a noble white horse.   In modern terminology the Charioteer might be thought of as free will or a self aware consciousness (λογιστικόν/logistykon, logical) that balances competing personality traits.

In Plato's allegory the ugly black horse represented a myriad of conflicting appetites and desires for various pleasures.   The noble white horse was a spirited hot blooded animal that gets angry when it perceives (for example) an injustice being done and enjoys to face and overcome great challenges. The white horse steels itself to adversity, loves victory, winning, challenge, and honour.  Whilst this allegory is a crude approximation of how our minds work it does illustrate the origin of Greek ideals that a trained mind will have better control over its desires and destiny. This sort of paradigm opened doors to:

Debate which gave us democracy, reasoning, science and modern philosophy
Art which gave us mass communication through theatre, painting and sculpture
History which gave us an objective view of man's place in the world along with notions of ethics, dignity and virtue.

Plato's concept of a charioteer has a lot in common with our modern concepts of how the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) functions.  This region is sometimes called the Executive brain.  The PFC is the frontal lump of our neocortex which sits above the eyes, it is the newest and slowest growing part of our brains that is not fully formed until we reach our early twenties. 

The PFC is the physical place where our working memory consolidates our self aware thoughts which are an essential part of reasoning.  Another unique feature of the frontal lobes are they have direct long range physical connections to all other part of the brain, and perhaps a bit like the reins of the charioteer it uses these connections to monitor and enforce top down control over our bottom up emotional behaviour and subconscious responses.  Modern neuroscience sees our behaviour as being the result of the orchestration between top down and bottom up decision making.

Instead of boasting about how big our big brains are we should really be saying "we are the species with an especially large frontal lobes and an oversized neocortex".  Anatomists identify the neocortex a single folded sheet of grey cells (six layers thick), that surrounds the mid brain and the limbic system.  The enlarged size of the human neocortex is a unique feature of our species, in contrast the size of the of human mid-brains are remarkably similar to other animals.  The desires and appetites of the ugly black horse  are strongly associated with pleasure pathways deep in the mid brain whilst the traits of the noble white horse are generally dispersed between the mid (eg anger-limbic system) and outer brain (empathy / neocortex)

Many human traits are shared with other animals and irrepressible, such things as making and reading body language and showing off to the opposite sex.  Other traits come naturally but are not so much shared with other species; language with syntax, an appreciation of the passage of time, abstract beliefs and artistic traditions like singing a folk melody.  Then there are things that are culturally embedded but not natural; being able to play the piano or chess require learning rules, schooling and a lot of hard practice.  The Greeks isolated and schooled Reason, not a natural process, and having harnessed reason as a tool of advancement their culture invented a string of time keeping contraptions.  Plato  seems to have owned the world's first Heath Robinson alarm clock which he used to wake his students at his academy.  The clock was an empty columnar vessel inside which was placed a wooden cradle containing lead balls, before they went to sleep the students turned on a tap that let water flow into the vessel at a constant rate.  As the hours passed the balls were lifted by the steadily rising water until after a given period of time they reached the top of the column where they spilled over the edge of the vessel and fell on to copper platter with an enormous clang. I have imagined how Plato's Alarm clock worked (I planned to make an animation but with my low animation skills it would take a long time, I hope this diagram helps you visualise how it might have worked).

Plato's Alarm Clock
There are also stories of how Plato had clocks with plungers that turned dials and blew whistles.

About a hundred years later, in 250 BC, a Greek called Ctesibius of Alexandria invented an elaborate water clock with cogs that were driven by a water siphon escapement.  This clock is the first record of a 24 hour clock with an escapement, dial and pointer. (this is a professionally made animation!)

 working model Ctesibius' clepsydra

In about 67 BC a ship was wrecked off the Greek island of Antikythea.  Amongst the wreckage excavated in 1901 was a lump of corroded cogs.  

The Antikythera Mechanism
In 2004, through using modern scanners and clever detective work, archaeologists were at last able to unravel and reconstruct the 37 wheeled mechanism.  In their conclusion they write that the Antikythera Mechanism "was a machine designed to predict celestial phenomena according to the sophisticated astronomical theories current in its day, it is the sole witness to a lost history of brilliant engineering, a conception of pure genius, one of the great wonders of the ancient world—but it didn’t really work very well!"

The development of these timepieces involve more than just heuristic refinement, they are created by minds that could manipulate accumulated knowledge, handle hypothetical abstract models in their imagination and use theory to translate those abstractions of the mind into leaps forward in the physical world.  These blue sky inventions were created by people who knew how to utilise their prefrontal cortexes for very specialised kinds of thinking.  Their methods of thinking contrast sharply against the Gothic ways of thinking.   Maybe there were Gothic geniuses involve in the replacement of the Roman Arch with the pointed Gothic arch, it was surely a breakthrough moment, but the Gothic change was plastic development.  The invention of Cetesibius's clypsidra is a cerebral work by a brain that knows how to use reason to accumulate and utilise the knowledge of the past to produce theories about how to make huge transitional jumps into the future.  

As we know the Hellenic Greeks were superseded by a Roman Empire that dominated all of the Mediterranean, much of the Middle East, North Africa and most of Northern Europe for several hundreds of years.  The Romans certainly respected Greek cultural achievement, but over the centuries of their hegemony they hosted, developed and eventually bequeathed a radical a new way of thinking to their world.  By the end of the Roman period the old pantheons of quarrelsome gods had been replaced with a single universal all knowing God that had created all things through intelligent design. The arrival of monotheism replaced the quest for knowledge (Philosophy) with a quest to understand the workings of God, Theology.  The Christian bible opens with a story that tells believers that Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge.  The founders of Christian Church offered their believers a simple bargain that rewarded subservience to the Church with protection in this world and a blessed afterlife for the soul in Paradise.  Any person living in the dark ages with a question would ask a priest for answers, the priest then looked up the answer in one of the holy books.  If she asked questions to which his holy books had no answers, such as why spiders have eight legs and grasshoppers six, the priest would say because God in his wisdom made them that way.  Christian belief was a reversal of the Greek way of thinking, Christianity sees our minds as inhabited by a single unitary soul that is disconnected from our bodies, a doctrine that suppressed the Hellenic quest to improve our destiny by understanding ourselves and our place in the world.  When we look back at the lack of reasoned inquisitiveness of the people of the Dark and Middle ages we think of them as perhaps being a bit dull in the head, but there was a generous flip side to the loss of disciplined and structured thought; their imagination was set free from domination of thinking through the prefrontal cortex.

The early Christian church saw God as a wise creator that made things for a purpose, all living things are individually designed and each animal was its own creature with its own divine purpose, this way of thinking releases the minds of believers to live in a world of dreams.  Nothing is impossible in a divinely created world, it is a world of God's whim and imaginative plasticity, for instance when God was making whales he was not making a distorted mammal, he was making the worlds biggest fish with lungs.  When he was making bees he was making the smallest birds. If God wanted to put legs on a fish he did just that! This plastic frame of mind comes alive in the doodles on the margins (marginalia) of illuminated manuscripts made by Christian monks.

walking fish as doodled by a monk

We find the same doodling going on amongst the stone masons that built the great cathedrals.

catedral nueva de salamanca dragon

The Dark and then the Medieval ages let loose everything that the Prefrontal Cortex and science tries to suppress as nonsense; stripped from the supervision of the PFC the mind becomes set up to uncritically accept the weird plastic world of our mid brains. A mind without reason is extremely malleable, looked at in this context we see why the medieval master builders turned the heavy stone of Romanesque architecture into Gothic plasticine and explains why their frame of mind was so naturally accepting of an abundance of angels, devils, demons and monstrous sea monsters.  A map of the world in 1265 is a work of fantasy that shows Jerusalem at its centre and purports to know everything without ambiguity.

Map Psalter c.1265 - British Museum
BUT, there a big "but", when you scratch you find most medieval creations have foundations firmly rooted in pagan, pre-Christian and classical Greek traditions.  Classical stories that Christians had twisted and adapted to reaffirm their faith in a universal ordered world created by an all powerful benevolent God. The early Church imposed an Aristotelian (Greek) hierarchy that ascribed each animal with a place and meaning within a world of intelligent design.

Educational books in cathedral schools were not just bibles, they included "bestiaries" that listed the hundreds of beasts of the world and their place within the divine scheme, here are few examples (If you click the links you will find the descriptions and classical origins of the fables that surround these beasts):  

The Amphisbaena a snake with a head at each end; the Asp a serpent Blocks its ear with its tail so as not to hear the charmer.

The Barnacle Goose a bird that initially grows on trees.

The Crocodile a beast that weeps after eating a man.

The Pelican of Piety a bird that revives its dead young with its own blood. 

The Pelican of Piety revives its dead young with its own blood

Ethics too were ordered, as well as the ten commandments there was an order for sinfulness; a list of 7 "deadly" sins, and an order for virtue; a list of four cardinal and three theological virtues.

All this plasticity and order come together in Dante Alighieri's great poem The Divine Comedy (completed in Florence 1320).   Dante's trilogy can be read as an allegory of the medieval mind.  Virgil, a classical pre Christian figure, takes Dante on a descent through the many circles of Hell where every sinner is defined by the deadly sins they indulged in, afterwards Dante climbs up through the circles of purgatory to the outer circles of heaven, from there in the presence of his Christian muse Beatrice, he sees visions of the four cardinal and three theological virtues and experiences the presence being near God himself.  The first stop of Dants's epic journey was the outermost ring of Hell which was called the Limbo, here Dante met virtuous pre-Christian souls, like the ancient philosophers who enjoy a state of peace and natural happiness. Their only sins were not to know God.

Dante meets classical philosophers in the Limbo
For a 1500 years after Ctesibius' let loose his invention an escapement clock nothing much seems to have happened, the pursuit of knowledge had not died it had been suppressed.  Water clocks remained the most accurate way to measure time.  Ctesibius' type contraptions had spread as far as China where Zong's water clock was built in 1088.  Zong's water clock was a 33 foot tower with escapements that wrung a bell every quarter-hour.

Su Zongs water clock 1088 was about 33 feet high

But in Europe, where the medieval mind never forgot that there had been flowering in classical world,  they never fully excluded looking at the Greek ways of thinking.  St Paul was a Greek, the language of the Church was Latin and the learning in the earliest universities was about a legal system that had been inherited from the Roman system.  The arrival of the renaissance was a slow re-awakening of Hellenic values from their slumbers, with the reawakening we see new inventions emerging in what is now loosely described as "Western" culture.  Some  time in the 13th century the first mechanical escapement called the verge escapement was invented for use in church towers. These clocks were powered with weights instead of water.

Verge Escapement (Wikipedia)

The Salisbury Cathedral clock of 1386 is as a complex piece of engineering as the Antikythera Mechanism, it struck a bell on the hour but had no clock face. 

The Salisbury Clock 1386

These church clocks herald the rekindling of the Greek thirst for knowledge and are followed by new period of blue sky invention. A hundred years later a mathematician and astronomer called Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543) formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than the Earth at the centre of the universe, this brought him into direct conflict with Christian teachings. The Church, weakened by scandals of corruption and oppression, no longer had the authority to stop the door opening on new era which did not recognised the Church's monopoly on knowledge.  How different is Edward Wright's 1599 Chart of the World, a work of data collection that leaves blank areas for which he has no knowledge, from the dream world of the Map Psalter of 1265.  Wright's chart begs to viewer to find more out about the world and to complete the map 

16th century Wright–Molyneux Map of the world

The switch in attitude that followed the Renaissance is a complete about turn: Contrast the Church teaching that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of Knowledge with the reaction of Newton (1643 - 1747) in protestant northern Europe to an apple falling from a tree. Newton, who seeing an apple fall to ground, never considers it to be the design of God, instead he uses it as clue to the workings of the planets and an opening for an understanding of all knowledge.

Water clocks remained the most accurate way to measure time and were still in use when Galileo was using them for his experiments in 1600, as an old man Galileo in a breathtaking moment of blue sky invention suggested a swinging weight would make a more accurate time regulator than water (1642).  Galileo's idea was developed after his death by Christiaan Huygens who in  1656 made the worlds first pendulum clock.  

Huygens pendulum clock 1656
It was not the inventions of Western cultures that gave the "West" dominion over the world, the Chinese had invented gun powder a thousand years earlier and had better ships than the West, the difference between West and East was the West's thirst to investigate the unknown and fill the gaps in knowledge.  From the Middle ages onwards the Europeans developed a drive, they looked out across the oceans and mapped the Americas and the Far East, on their ships were artists and naturalists that catalogued the fauna and flora of the world.  They set up trading companies with shareholders to harvest the exotic goods, and the British offered a prize for anyone who could  a invent a clock that would keep accurate time on the decks of their ships.  The competition inspired one of the greatest geniuses of clock making, John Harrison (1693 - 1776), who spent most of his life trying to make accurate sea clocks that would work in the rocking environment of the rolling decks.

Harrison's first sea clock
To solve the problem Harrison produced one blue sky invention after the next.  As time went by he realised that small watches were often more accurate than his larger clocks and the second half of his life was spent experimenting with and inventing new, ever finer escapement mechanisms for pocket sized chronometers, like this elaborate and beautiful. grasshopper escapement.

His last sea watch was accurate to within a third of a second a day and was not affected by the motion of waves.

Harrison's Chronometer H5, Science Museum, London

Harrison's fragile mechanisms are nothing like as small, delicate or accurate as atomic clocks which measure time at an uncertainty of one second in 30 million years.  Today time is measured in microwave-filled cavity that first cools the atoms to near absolute zero temperature.

Goldilocks Cradles

That time has to be measured at absolute zero brings us to a third element in the human evolution of ideas.  There is a ring of space around the Sun which is often laughingly called the Goldilocks Zone because the conditions are neither too hot, or too cold for life.  But no single species lives within the whole spectrum of the Goldilocks Zone, each species has its own limitations, these mini goldilocks zones are called ecological niches.  

The Goldilocks Zone
Human technological evolution mimics the speciation of Nature by creating goldilocks cradles (my terminology) in which our specialised machines are designed to run efficiently and super-smoothly; human transport provides just such an example of refinement through all three methods of development; heuristic, blue thinking and the development of a goldilocks cradle.

“‘The Machine,’ A.D. 1640–1750.” From Sir Walter Gilbey’s Early Carriages and Roads

When we look back at the stage coaches of the 17 - 18th centuries we find that a 65 mile journey from London to Cambridge was an arduous two day bone-shaking trauma along the rutted tracks of drovers lanes.  Over the next century the tracks were improved and in 1830, following modest improvements made to the suspension of the carriages they were making the same journey in one day.

Over the next two hundred years the goldilocks cradle (the roads) were refined and smoothed into the tarmacked runways along which the delicate machinery of modern cars can glide at constant speeds of 80 mph. It is the co-evolution of  the roads with the cars that allows us to drive from London to Cambridge in about an hour whilst listening to Mozart on the radio.  The story of how specialised machinery evolves together with a  goldilocks cradle is a common theme in Darwinian evolution too.  In our daily lives we are familiar that our body temperature is constant, we also know that when our temperature rises by a degree or two we begin feel ill, if it rises by 5 degrees the machinery of life breaks down and we die; our bodies are the goldilocks cradles in which our metabolism runs super smoothly.  Asking our metabolism to run outside the narrow parameters of the sweet zone (which is called homoeostasis and are between 96.5 - 98 c) is a bit like trying to drive a sports car  across a waterlogged field or a caesium regulator in an atomic clock at room temperatures.

The Hubris of Humanity

When we look at the evolving technological achievements of our species it begins to look as if our unique ability to apply science and reason to our development processes surpass the achievements  of Darwinian evolution.  Through Reason our Species makes inspirational jumps, for instance discarding water clocks for blue sky inventions like pendulums and atomic time signatures.  In contrast Nature has no way of replacing legs with the axle and wheel.  Nature is also painfully slow; it has taken natural selection 3.5 billion years to produce flying birds, the mammalian eye and brains.  In stark contrast it has taken a mere 5,000 years for humans to go from inventing the cart wheel in Sumeria to creating civilisations that know how to build Gothic cathedrals, jumbo jets, rockets that fly to Saturn, cameras and computers.

Cart wheels were invented about 5000 years ago 
Onager-drawn cart on the Sumerian 2,500BC (Image Wikipedia)

It is an astonishing calculation that our technological progress has happened five hundred thousand times faster than Nature's methods, and current rates of development are happened tens of millions times faster.  Anyone can see how our buildings are higher and have better air-conditioning than the biggest termite mounds; our aircraft fly faster, higher and further than any bird; our cameras see wider spectrums of light than any eye.

The first attempts at making thinking machines were in 1871 by an English man called Charles Babbage.   He never completed his Difference engine but  they have been made from his designs and would have worked

The computer industry as we know it today was really born during the war when Alan Turin was trying to break the Enigma code.

Intelligence does provide a challenge that we as a species have stepped up to.  The next of this post will be a review of  "Artificial Intelligence" and then there will be follow up post that will review of "How Nature created Intelligence" and why we cannot grasp at sentience.



The Building of Gobekli-Tepe

Light in the Early Church:

St Jerome:

Plant growth:

Mithraic mysteries

Hōryū-ji Temple complex

The Arch in Architectural History

History of timekeeping

The Aberdeen Bestiary


Plato's Charioteer Allegory

Platos Tripartite Theory of the Soul

Galileo and Clocks :

John Harrison :

Goldilocks Zone