The story behind the story: Shipmaster’s scalp

In this week’s Futures, Jeremy Szal returns with his mind-bending story Shipmaster’s scalp. Jeremy is, of course, no stranger to Futures (you can see a list of his other pieces at the foot of this post), and you can catch up with his work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the genesis of his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Shipmaster’s scalp

Being able to access anything, from anywhere, at anytime, via the Internet, is a great thing. The only catch is that someone, somewhere, at anytime, can access you back.

I’m talking about the usual suspects: Google, Apple, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter: and hundreds of other apps, services and browsers that we happily feed our personal data, credit-card information, passwords, search results and more, into on a daily basis. It may seem innocent at first, but when we start seeing ads targeted towards something we’ve said in passing conversation on the phone, then things get frightening. Even more when the videos we watch, the places we’ve been, and the things we’ve purchased, are used by the Faceless Big Corporations to paint an online picture of us, selling that data onwards to third-party marketers for profit.

Such was the inspiration for Shipmaster’s scalp. A future where privacy has become a luxury only the rich can afford, and anyone has else has everything about them and everything they do, stored online for anyone, usually people with nefarious purposes, to eyeball and exploit for their own gain. In our world, we have ad blockers and proxies to combat this. In Kharrus’ world, an entire network of smugglers exists to get around this act of perverse intrusion of privacy. Because, regardless of the terms of use, sneaking around in the personal data of others is an act of privacy violation, and can be (and is) frequently exploited. It’s why I had Kharrus be tortured with a virus that violates the uttermost private and personal place imaginable: his mind. For months and months and months.

Seems ludicrous? And yet, that’s almost exactly what these corporations and tech companies are doing when they track, quite literally, every step you take, every word you speak, everything you purchase, and sell it on to appropriate people, or utilize for themselves. Who’s to say they won’t corporate with the authorities, or individuals with even worse intentions, if the opportunities calls for it? What if they see you purchasing something suspicious? Or frequenting a seedy place? Or communicating with people with criminal records? It’s the reason I deliberately made Kharrus’ captors more evil than he is: he’s defending the lives of the people he cares about. Their own goal is to root out a bad blip to society. Because, on the Internet, that’s exactly what you are: a faceless, soulless, blip, nothing more than a fistful of megabytes, a handful of search results and a potential for exploitation and profit.

More Futures stories by Jeremy Szal

Daega’s test | System reboot | Walls of Nigeria | When there’s only dust left | Traumahead | Tomorrow, the sunset will be blue

The story behind the story: Faulty machines

This week, Futures welcomes back Gretchen Tessmer with her conflict-weary story Faulty machines. Gretchen has previously introduced us to a hive mind and revealed how it feels to be swallowed by a black hole. You can find out more about her work by following her on Twitter. Here she reveals the inspiration behind her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Faulty machines

This story is what happens when you’re casually watching a random online argument flame itself into a raging wildfire of petty nonsense (i.e. why is a raven like a writing desk? — but with more politics) … while simultaneously half-listening to the random Transformers movie that’s playing on the television in the background.

Which Transformers movie, you ask? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. There’s a lot of them. I remember Michael-Bay-grade explosions and Optimus Prime definitely showed up to save the day at some point. But that’s all I know.

So anyway, I started scribbling about battle robots and this story just kind of fell onto the page fully formed. It’s not a new idea obviously (“an eye for an eye and the whole world is blind”) but it’s one that I’ve explored a few times in other stories/poems and will probably continue exploring.

Logic, plans and good intentions — I love how we try to order the world into nice, clean patterns. But then feelings step in and everything starts to melt, or go sideways, or burn the place down. Or turn numb in grief, in Lucy’s case.

Feelings are faulty and unpredictable. But hey, it keeps the story interesting.

The story behind the story: Water seekers

In this week’s Futures, Kurt Pankau returns to give us a taste of a post-apocalyptic world in Water seekers. Based in St Louis, Missouri, Kurt has already written two other stories for Futures in the shape of Papa Bear and Please [redacted] my last e-mail. You can find out more about his work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here he offers a glimpse into the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Water seekers

In recent business/tech news I’ve heard more than one story about start-up companies selling survival bunkers to the wealthy. I’m not overly fond of the romantic portrayal of the apocalypse as viewed through the eyes of a lone-wolf survivor who gets back to nature once the distractions of the modernity are destroyed. I can see how that sort of a life might be tempting, but humanity doesn’t really work that way. We are a social species. We depend on our communities. Now that we’re staring down the barrel of climate change — as terrifying an existential threat as nuclear proliferation was decades ago — I get a little contemptuous of people who have means and power but would rather hide from this problem than make any good-faith attempt to solve it. And one can’t help but detect a little classism in that mentality. That’s where the idea for this story came from. Here’s a man who has been hoarding resources in order to keep himself safe and protected, not just from the elements but from the ‘rabble’ as well. He has gone to great lengths to ensure that his needs will be met while the masses struggle. And he dies of loneliness. When our protagonists discover him, they’re faced with the choice to view him as an opportunity or a warning.

The matter that apparently doesn’t matter

Guest post by David Schilter, Senior Editor Nature Reviews Chemistry

Artist’s impression of the expected dark matter distribution around the Milky Way

ESO/L. Calçada [CC BY 4.0 (]

We interact with ordinary matter all the time. It is the bed in which you wake up in the morning and the food that you eat for breakfast. It is the people we love and the pets we often love even more. It is us. Being fairly prominent stuff, ordinary matter is often referred to as ‘the matter that matters’ and without doubt deserves our attention. But we should not forget that it only makes up 5% of our Universe, the remainder of which is dark matter. Indeed, dark matter crosses paths with all of us but unless you’re a physicist it is unlikely to have crossed your mind. This prompted The Science Gallery London to present Dark Matter (free admission, June 6 – August 26), an exhibition that finally brings this ubiquitous yet elusive subject to the masses. “95% of the Universe is missing”, the Gallery asserts, so they commissioned collaborative works from teams of artists and scientists to show us what and where this mass–energy really is.

For laypersons, the thought of dark matter is more likely to cue spooky music than to evoke thoughts about baryons (or the lack thereof). Dark Matter depicts the eponymous concept in an approachable way by using everything from music and mirrors to maps and movies. To be sure, the exhibition is not only a feast for the mind but also for the senses, which is ironic because none of our five senses can detect dark matter (perhaps we really do need that sixth sense…). Although we can’t see dark matter, perhaps, like false-colour imaging, we can guess how it would look like if we could see it. Similarly, we can’t hear, touch, taste or smell dark matter, but what if we could?

The mystery associated with dark matter is not limited to laypersons. Among physicists, the subject remains controversial because much of our knowledge comes only from indirect observations that implicate the existence of matter beyond the ordinary. For example, the velocities, X-ray spectra and gravitational lensing from galactic bodies are explicable in terms of an ‘invisible’ mass. Our poor understanding of the spacetime-bending dark matter concept isn’t for lack of trying, and this exhibition highlights the sophisticated experiments carried out by great consortia seeking to fill our knowledge gap. The scale of these mammoth efforts is conveyed to us in HIGGS, In Search of the Anti-Motti, a video in which artist Gianni Motti does his best proton impersonation and circumnavigates the Large Hadron Collider. Walking 27 km in less than 6 hours isn’t bad, although a proton does do it a hundred millions times faster. Efforts to spectroscopically detect dark matter have been likened to tuning a radio in search of a station that might not even exist. In Dark Matter Radio, an installation with a circular array of audio speakers playing sounds at different frequencies, and as we walk around we experience strange interferences and beats that Aura Satz uses to depict this tuning.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain dark matter is in terms of something invisible, this being despite most visitors to Dark Matter knowing full well that there’s plenty of ordinary matter we can’t see either. Nevertheless, artists Carey Young, Nina Canell and Robin Watkins present us apparently empty vessels that, statistically speaking, contain a lot of dark matter (not being under vacuum, they also contain plenty of normal matter, but that’s not the point). Much like our knowledge of Earth’s geography evolved into what it is today (The Maps of Phantom Islands by Agnieszka Kurant is a must-see), our knowledge of dark matter will surely develop commensurate with our technologies. The artist Satz is frank in her admission that these developments are unlikely to come from a fertilization of breakthroughs in these artist–scientist collaborations. But if the only breakthrough these collaborations achieve is to take the most esoteric topic and pique the attention of the general public then that will be breakthrough enough.

SciArt scribbles: Science, history and comics

Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?

Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles.

Argha Manna, a cancer researcher-turned-science comics artist, tells us how he blended his passion for science, history and comics to carve a unique genre for himself.

Argha Manna

Seven years ago, as a PhD student in cancer biology at Bose Institute in Kolkata, I was sitting at my desk reading a research paper. The paper was about how ‘cortical actin remodeling can influence spatio-temporal organization of cell surface receptors’. Although it was not directly related to my research, I wanted to read it as one of my friends was on the author list. While the paper featured a beautiful graphical abstract and excellent schematics, I was still having trouble understanding what it was about. The moment I started to think in visual sequences, however, the story opened up for me. Unknowingly, I had created a comic narrative in my mind on the cellular events, and the paper made sense.

Making science accessible through comics is not a new concept. According to Will Eisner, considered the father of the graphic novel, and eminent comics artist and scholar, Scott McCloud, comics is a sequential art form. The practice of using sequential art to explain scientific findings was common during the early days of modern science — Galileo made a series of sunspot drawings from his own observations. After the advent of time-lapse imaging and video-micrography, sequential art has been restricted to either the discussion section of academic journals or in science-themed comic books.

Visual metaphors to tell science stories

My first encounter with such books was Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe series. I was amazed by the use of visual metaphors. Later, I came across several books that used comics to communicate science such as Jay Hosler’s Optical Allusions, Neurocomic by Matteo Farinella and Hana Ros, and Mysteries of the Quantum Universe by Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat. I also found comics in academic journals like Science (General Relativity by Adrian Cho, Science, 2015). In all of these comics, metaphors were used to explain complicated scientific concepts in an accessible manner. Jorge Cham’s PhD comics and Randal Munroe’s xkcd are great examples of this.

Reading Nick Sousanis and Richard Monastersky’s The fragile framework (Nature, 2015) was a kind of ‘aha moment’ for me. I had found my calling – communicating science through comics. I dropped out of my PhD and joined a local newspaper in culturally-rich Kolkata, the West Bengal capital. In the first few months I created a series of articles for school children on the advent of modern science. I was fascinated by the history of science, so I started researching Robert Hooke and the early days of the Royal Society. A few months later I started to convert the articles into a comic form — and my first newspaper comic was born (Image 1). It has been appearing every week in ‘The Telegraph in School’ supplement.

Image 1: A page from the comics ‘Welcome to the Hookes’ lab’

I didn’t want to restrict myself to just explaining scientific concepts, to make science truly come alive I also included elements such as socio-political context, the people behind the science, technological development, social network of scientists and micro-histories.

Such an approach is essential in communicating the full flavour of the history of science, according to Harvard-based physicist and historian Peter Galison (Ten problems in History and Philosophy of Science, ISIS, 2008). History of science practitioners — as historians, scientists, librarians, cataloguists and archivists — collect these elements in the form of oral histories, newspaper clippings, artwork, diaries and memoirs, photographs and podcasts.  A complete story can then be formed by adding these elements together — and may be more easily digested as a comic, rather than as a long form text.

As popular history of science stories tend to focus on Europe and North America, I created a free-to-access blog ‘Drawing History of Science‘ to tell stories about Indian science through illustration. At the beginning it was a lone venture. Then Sci-Illustrate, a Munich-based group, came forward as a collaborator in my journey. I found their goal – to revive the stories of women scientists from India – important. Together we have been retelling stories of Indian Women in Science (Image 2 and 3).

Image 2: Rajeswari Chatterjee (1922-2010), former professor and chairperson of the department of electro-communication engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. This and the following artwork were created in collaboration with the Sci-Illustrate group in their ‘Indian Women in Science’ series.


Image 3: Clockwise from top left: JANAKI AMMAL, Indian botanist and cytogeneticist, credited with putting sweetness in Indian Sugarcane varieties; ASIMA CHATTERJEE, one of the first women in India to earn a doctorate in science; IRAWATI KARVE, India’s first woman anthropologist; BIBHA CHOWDHURY, India’s first female particle physicist.

Later, ClubSciWri, the science communication platform of ‘PhD Career Support Group’ or STEMPeersTM approached me to create more comics about the history of science. In collaboration with them, I am telling stories from a global perspective, through comics and art (Image 5).

Image 5: A page from the essay ‘Waging war on the microbes’. The text of the essay was originally written by Ananya Sen for Club Sci Wri.

My future plan is to narrate natural history research in colonial India through comics and interactive art. Right now I am cataloguing the artwork (drawings, engravings etc) published in Asiatic Society journals and other media. I wish to redraw the old colonial artworks, to make them more interactive and then add the context and other elements in the form of sequential illustrations. It is still a lonely walk but I feel the future is bright.

[Argha Manna can be contacted at]

Suggested reading:

SciArt scribbles: Crowdsourcing oral history of India’s science 

SciArt scribbles:CRISPR and the smell of rain

SciArt scribbles: Bringing art and science together for greater good

SciArt scribbles: The mellifluous gene editor

SciArt scribbles: The molecule painter

SciArt scribbles: Coupling creation and analysis with collages

SciArt scribbles: Technology to aid dance

SciArt scribbles: Music to tackle PhD blues

SciArt scribbles: Playing science out

Artists on science: scientists on art

Nature India 2018 annual volume is out

The Nature India annual volume 2018 is out now.

The past couple of years have seen some interesting trends in India’s science. There has been a surge in the number of innovation-driven start-ups, and in the use of artificial intelligence in fields as diverse as health and aerospace. What has been most noteworthy, however, is the social aspect of science. More than ever before, the scientific community is standing up against pseudoscience, be it by contesting an unsubstantiated remark by a politician, calling out scientific misconduct, or helping weed out fake and predatory journals published from India.

Another positive social drift slowly gaining ground is the citizen science movement. In this annual issue, we focus attention on the tangible results of some crowd-sourced projects. For a country with more than 1.3 billion people, citizen science may turn out to be an effective tool to connect science with people, appraising them of the rigours of gathering and verifying evidence, and in turn, building a scientific mindset. Used intelligently, citizen science could help find answers to some pressing sustainable development challenges faced by India and much of south Asia.

The other big story that we looked at in 2018 was how Indian scientists have quickly embraced the use of CRISPR Cas-9, the gene splicing tool that became the reason for celebrations and controversies around the world. We report on some key Indian scientific missions that are editing genes related to diseases, especially blood anomalies, unique to the developing world.

On the other side of the disease spectrum, some new red flags were waved in the form of the first report of artemisinin-resistant malaria in India and the ‘good’ microbe bifidobacteria harbouring genes that make it resistant to anti-TB drugs.
Our 2018 photo contest took a comprehensive look at vector-borne diseases. The winning pictures that present a stinging story are featured in the photo section.

Climate is a burning issue for south Asia, quite literally. We analyze how the urban poor will suffer the most in an imminent climate crisis facing most big cities of south Asia. In a series of investigations, we reported how rice farming is impacting the climate more than ever before, why cloning hybrid seeds could benefit rice farmers, how increased dependence on nitrogen fertilizers has made India a nitrogen emission hotspot, and why crop stubble burning is national menace.

A lot has been happening around India’s holy river Ganga (also known as Ganges). Scientists are putting together a 3D map of the mighty river clogged with waste, and its fertile basin, where groundwater is depleting at an alarming rate. Part of our coverage is dedicated to the scientific solutions to these huge challenges faced by India’s largest river.

Nature India annual volumes curate research highlights, news, features, commentaries and opinion pieces published through the year. They are a thoughtful selection designed to give our readers an accessible reference to the latest in India’s science.

As always, we welcome your feedback.

You will find more on our our archival annual issues here: 201720152014 and 2007-2013.  And some more about the content and subscription of these issues here.

The story behind the story: Trading in futures

This week, Futures welcomes back S. R. Algernon with his cautionary tale Trading in futures. Regular readers will undoubtedly have read some of S. R. Algernon’s other pieces for Futures (there’s a full list at the foot of this post). You can catch up with his latest work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Trading in futures

I wrote a story several years ago with the same elements of Trading in futures, in which an unscrupulous trader lures colonists to a bad end at the behest of an extraterrestrial species. With recent events – Brexit, climate change, human migration and other crises – in mind, I wanted to revisit the theme, make it more personal and give it a bit more historical context. It is easy for demagogues to promise simple solutions for political problems if they have a narrow base of support and don’t care about or understand the long-term consequences of their actions. In films and history, we often see tyrants from the outside perspective, as maniacal and histrionic in their cruelty – the abusive face that strong leaders use to cow their opposition. I think it bears noting that dystopian futures sometimes arise in quiet, comfortable offices and conference rooms, where people find reasons to take the path of least resistance knowing that their personal future, at least, is secure. I changed the viewpoint in this story to second person to put the reader in the role of a collaborator.

If we view unjust power structures from the outside, we sometimes underestimate how compelling their offer can be. You matter, the people in power assure you. Your needs come first. We won’t let anyone else take them away. The wants and desires of the main character aren’t invalid, any more than Jae’s or Tabby’s. They deserve to self-actualize as much as anyone else. The system itself, including the contract that the main character files away at the end, channels those ambitions to predatory ends. In the protagonist’s case, there is a conscious moral (or immoral) choice, but Jae and Tabby are complicit out of ignorance. That point is a political bone of contention today. How do we judge privileged people who participate in an unjust system without malicious intent? Is it right to claw back the things they have gained through participation in that system? What about their privileged descendants? What about the future victims of oppression not yet born at the time the bargain was struck. Agreements, bargains and conspiracies have far-reaching effects.

I thought about the Hobbesian view of the role of government and the social contract. A social contract is a better alternative to anarchy, but contracts can be unequal, fraudulent and predatory. Is a contract that secures power for a privileged few – signed only by those deemed worthy of a seat at the table – better than no contract at all? A robust democracy is supposed to prevent us from having to make that choice. It is supposed to allow us to preserve our social contract while amending its flaws and constraining leaders who violate its spirit. I hope that the democratic structures around the world today are up to the task.

As I rewrote this story, I recalled the imagery of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. It struck me that the story wasn’t about time travel but about that timeless tendency of humans to settle into roles and identities and lose track of their overarching humanity. We sacrifice others or let ourselves be sacrificed for a system that can turn self-destructive. New advances in politics, technology and cultural exchange will change us, but human drives will find avenues for expression. It is our responsibility to channel them towards a greater good without turning a blind eye to lesser evils.

If we seek a future only for people like us and only in the short term, we diminish that future. If we seek a future big enough for all of us – for rich and poor, for migrants and longstanding members of the community, for sick and healthy, and for the widest scope of humanity and beyond – we will be stronger as a species and less encumbered by the failings of human nature.

Other Futures stories by S. R. Algernon

A time for peace | Planetary defences | Cargo cult | A pocket full of phlogiston | The chains of plenty | Asymmetrical warfare | In a new light | One slow step for man | Genius loci | Legacy admissions | In Cygnus and in Hell | The palimpsest planet | e-PLURIBUS | Home Cygnus | VTE

There was nothing sane about Chernobyl

Guest post by Christine Horejs, Senior Editor Nature Reviews Materials

The new British-American miniseries ‘Chernobyl’, aired on HBO and Sky in May and June 2019, takes you on a dark ride through the insanity that accompanied the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. Five haunting episodes depict the night and aftermath of the explosion of reactor 4, using the style of disaster films to vividly show how the combination of bad nuclear reactor design, irresponsible scientists, a totalitarian system and human error led to one of the biggest nuclear disasters, with devastating consequences within and outside the Iron Curtain.  

In Eastern Austria, where I grew up, the weather was rather bad in the last days of April 1986. We children did not know at that time that the rain that fell on our sandbox in the garden carried radioactive waste.

On 26th April 1986, reactor 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine had exploded. Once the news of the catastrophic nuclear accident spread across the Iron Curtain – on 28th April – we lost our sandbox for good, were fed iodine tablets by our parents and stopped drinking milk and eating berries or mushrooms. Many of the children growing up in Eastern Austria in the 1980s had thyroid problems later in their lives. I had to get my thyroid removed a few years ago – whether this is related to Iodine 131 released in Chernobyl and absorbed by my thyroid remains unclear. Indeed, many facts about Chernobyl have long remained in the dark, as neither the Americans (or Europeans) nor the Russians had an interest in telling the truth about nuclear disasters and the consequences of radiation for human health.

Three important books1,2,3, published over the last year, and a new HBO TV drama, now dissect every minute and (known) consequence of the Chernobyl accident. Being slightly obsessed with this topic, I read them all and I certainly could not wait to watch the HBO series. And, yes, ‘Chernobyl’ drags you right into the agonizing hours after the disaster and creates this feeling of horrifying fascination that often accompanies apocalyptic movies – but this time it is real (most of it)!

Many people are familiar with the ever reoccurring stories about Chernobyl – the spreading wildlife in the exclusion zone, the awkward selfies taken in front of deserted Pripyat or the liquidators as heroes of the Soviet Union. But this series is definitely something else. It not only shows how an RBMK reactor (like the one in Chernobyl) works or does not work and how high doses of radiation literally dissolve the human body, but also how totalitarianism and secrecy provided the basis for what happened at Chernobyl. In particular, the complete refusal of the scientists and politicians in charge to acknowledge the fact that the graphite core of reactor 4 had exploded and that high doses of radiation had been released, despite overwhelming evidence. Highly radioactive graphite pieces from the reactor core lying on the ground outside the reactor and nuclear engineers disbelievingly staring into the remains of the reactor core from the roof while their skins turn red. And yet, Nikolai Fomin, the chief engineer who approved the safety test that ultimately caused the explosion, constantly repeats that the “the core of an RBMK reactor cannot explode,” – like a prayer. Meanwhile, invisible radioactive particles fall on the town and people of Pripyat (the Atomgrad —atomic city – located 2km from the power plant) and accumulate high up in the clouds to make their way across Europe. It is this invisibility that creates the true horror of ‘Chernobyl’. You, the viewer, know, but the children playing in the radioactive dust and their parents gathering on a railway bridge in Pripyat to check out the burning reactor don’t. In the credits at the end of the series, we learn that none of the people on the railway bridge in Pripyat survived.

In ‘Chernobyl’, we experience the actual explosion from the window of the wife of the firefighter Vasily Ignatenko. At 01:23 on 26th April 1986, a bright light appears in the distance, followed by a massive thud leaving behind a bright blue flash in the night sky above the Chernobyl power plant (caused by radiation ionizing air). The few nuclear engineers present in the control room of the power plant anxiously look at each other. “What just happened,” asks Anatoly Dyatlov, deputy chief-engineer of the power plant and supervisor of the fatal safety test. The scene perfectly captures the essence of what went wrong during and after the Chernobyl disaster. The nuclear engineers remain paralysed after the accident, not comprehending its magnitude or cause. Similarly, the director of Chernobyl, Viktor Bryukhanov, who is brought in after the accident, wastes crucial time by convincing local politicians that the accident is under control and that he cannot be held responsible for any damage. Outside, one of the firefighters, who were called to Chernobyl right after the explosion, grabs a piece of the graphite core. What happens to his hand in an instant after he touched the piece of graphite is the stuff of zombie movies.

‘Chernobyl’ is mesmerizing owing to the sheer drama of actual facts. For example, biorobots (that is, human beings) have to clean up the roof of reactor 3 to make room for the concrete wall, which will become famous as the sarcophagus shielding the world from reactor 4. Even a rover designed to work on the moon failed in this radioactive environment. Each liquidator has only 90 seconds to shovel graphite pieces back into the open core of reactor 4. The graphite is so radioactive that exposure for longer would be fatal. Ninety seconds never felt so long.

Liquidators (biorobots).

IAEA Imagebank [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

The reality of ‘Chernobyl’ could have maybe been even more emphasized by using Russian-speaking actors, as, sometimes, hearing a Russian nuclear engineer speaking English with a British accent seems slightly inappropriate for a historical drama set in Soviet Ukraine in the 1980s.

And then there is the very last episode – the trial. Valery Alekseyevich Legasov, a chemist, who, together with Boris Yevdokimovich Shcherbina, vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers, investigated the Chernobyl disaster, explains what went wrong during the safety test. Legasov theatrically illustrates the combination of errors that caused the explosion of reactor 4 using red and blue panels on a wooden board, to depict the factors that can speed up or slow down the nuclear reaction. He also explains two crucial design flaws of RBMK reactors: the dangerously high ‘positive void coefficient’ and the graphite tips of the control rods, which together make this reactor type inherently difficult to control. Cooling water absorbs neutrons, but once steam is generated, a bubble is created that does not absorb neutrons. This bubble void leads to a reduction in moderation, that is, neutrons are not slowed down, which can cause a runaway condition. RBMK reactors have the highest positive void coefficient of any commercial reactor ever designed. In addition, the ultimate stop button (AZ-5), which should theoretically shut down a reactor as all control rods are inserted at once, can – for a short time – increase the reactor power output, as in RBMK reactors, the rods initially displace coolant with their graphite tips before the neutron-absorbing boron is inserted. Thus, when the nuclear engineers in the control room of reactor 4 pressed the AZ-5 button to shut down a reactor out of control, they ultimately caused the explosion. If only the engineers operating the nuclear power plant would have known about this fatal flaw of the AZ-5 button – but they didn’t as this would have compromised the reputation of Soviet nuclear physics. These construction errors in combination with all the errors previously made during the safety test led to the nightmare that followed.

The episode perfectly rounds up the story, showing what actually happened in the control room before and after the accident (which is well in line with what has been reported in recent books1,2). But in reality, Legasov was not present at the Chernobyl show trial, and even if he had been there, I doubt that he would have openly criticised Soviet science. At an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in August 1986 Vienna, he had reported that it was only human error that caused the explosion. One wonders why there is the need to introduce fiction in a story that certainly does not lack dramatic historical figures and facts. Especially, because this might open up the room for criticism – as it already happened in the Russian media. Despite these flaws, ‘Chernobyl’ is definitely worth watching and forces you to comprehend the destructive combination of nuclear power going out of control and an authoritarian system – not only for Chernobyl-obsessed people like me, but for all present and future children of the nuclear age.

1 Serhii Plokhy. Chernobyl, the history of a nuclear catastrophe. 2018

2 Adam Higginbotham. Midnight in Chernobyl. 2019

3 Kate Brown. Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. 2019

Watch the Chernobyl miniseries here.

The story behind the story: The memory lanterns of Loi Krathong

In this week’s Futures, Preston Grassmann returns with a story about the importance of memories: The memory lanterns of Loi Krathong. Regular readers will remember Preston’s previous pieces for Futures (there’s a list at the foot of this post if you’ve missed them). Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The memory lanterns of Loi Krathong

A few years ago, I went to the Yi Ping Festival in Chiang Mai (often considered part of Loi Khratong — a festival of candle-lit baskets placed in rivers), where thousands gather to release lanterns into the skies of northern Thailand. When I heard of how this festival symbolizes the release of misfortunes and the painful moments of one’s life, I imagined a sky filled with purged memories – pain and personal trauma floating away in the flaming perch of a paper lantern. A short time ago, I had faced moments of deep sorrow and despair — losing my mother to cancer. Would I have let go of the painful memories if I could, erased the trauma from my mind? As I began to write The memory lanterns of Loi Khrathong, words bearing their own kind of sharing light, I knew the answer would come in the form of a story.

Read other Futures stories by Preston:

Midnight in the cathedral of timeThe vermilion marketBroken maps of the seaVenice, Version 9.0Clocking out

The story behind the story: Into darkness

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome Anike Kirsten with her story Into darkness. Anike is based in South Africa, and you can find out more about her writing by visiting her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration behind her first tale for Futures — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Into darkness

What really goes on in a singularity? Sure, if we happen to get into one, there’d be the spaghettification problem to contend with, but what if the gravitation wasn’t that strong? Perhaps, in some way we’ve yet to discover through a soon-to-be developed theory of everything, controlled micro black holes could be made to exist for exploration purposes? For science. What would we see? These questions, and many other, wilder ones, set the foundation for Into darkness.

If lights bends at the event horizon and time becomes space inside the black hole, would we be doomed to seeing ourselves repeat a grave mistake over and again with no way of changing the outcome?

The physics and speculations aside, the story was also influenced by Dante’s Inferno, in a contemporary subject to create a new form of imagined Hell. While not relateable, at least not directly, I thought such a micro black hole as an excellent metaphor for the problems of living within the Information Age. What better way to highlight that than to focus on the event and object where information is greatly lost? And as the protagonist finds out, the cost may be too obscure to realize until it’s time to pay.