I create audio for young and curious minds including multi-award-winning podcasts Mysteries of Science, The Week Junior Show, The National Trust Kids’ Podcast, and Activity Quest. Recognised as the most creative radio moment of the year, I made history by sending the first radio broadcast to space as featured in the 2023 Guinness World Records book. I write for Science+Nature magazine and freelance for Boom Radio, RadioDNS, and more.
Music by Blue Dot Sessions.
I’d be lying if I said that this affected me in quite the same way as this makes it sound but also it must have affected me in some way because I’m making an entire podcast about it.
A few months ago, you might remember that I went on morning walks and whilst I was on these morning walks, I saw some deer.
The story basically was that the deer, whenever I looked for them, weren’t there. When I stopped looking, they sort of appeared every time.
I’ve just come back from a walk…
I saw one of the deer on the side of the road this morning.
It’s eyes, eyes that had once sniped me from ferns on the hillside, were glazed over.
It’s autumn now and those ferns are dying too.
I guess the deer is a symbol. It’s fragility. It’s us encroaching on their home. We continue to push the limits. This estate continues to grow. We continue to force creatures like these into ever shrinking habitats where encounters with humans, with me, with cars, become increasingly perilous.
There’s a second deer.
As I walked, the remaining deer watched me from the woods. It was a silent exchange. The deer didn’t move.
Startled, maybe… Used to me, maybe.
Am I to blame? Am I the reason the other one got so close to a car?
Bit of a weird one for you. I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
Clock of the Long Now
It’s August 31st 8023 – six thousand years in the future – and you are in a mountain in Nevada.
It has taken you several days to get here. You’ve had to hike, you’ve had to endure the harsh heat – the thorns – and you’ve stumbled upon a set of metal doors. This is what you’ve been looking for. The doors are a kind of crude airlock, keeping out dust and animals.
You head into the darkness of a long tunnel. There’s the mildest hint of light ahead that you slowly find your way to.
You look up.
A faint light filtering down now through giant gears, illuminating the beginning of a spiral staircase. You start climbing. It winds up the outer rim of the tunnel, rising towards the gears and faint light overhead. The stairs are carved out of the rock.
After climbing about 100 feet you encounter a large bronze egg filled with concrete. It’s about the size of a small car and weighs 5,000 kilograms. After you pass the weights you keep climbing, pass more giant gears, some over 8 feet in diameter – and then you find it. The world’s slowest computer. And it plays a chime for you. Simple bells, but a unique combination nobody in living memory has ever heard, nor will ever hear again.
This is a clock.
I started just thinking about, just as a project for myself, the idea of building a very slow clock that would last for 10,000 years. Sometime in the 1990s, I started noticing the year 2000 was kind of a mental barrier for people. It was hard for them to think past it. And so I started just thinking about, just as a project for myself, the idea of building a very slow clock. And 10,000 years being a kind of nice number because our history is kind of 10,000 years old. So we ought to have a future that’s as big as our history.
It’s not a work of science fiction. It’s real.
Danny wanted to design a symbol of the future in the same way the Pyramids of Giza are a symbol of the past. If you go to the pyramids in Egypt and you touch those stones, I mean those are stones that human hands touched thousands of years ago. Is there anything we can put into the world where you would be touching this thing and this thing would endure and you would know that people in the year 7000 or something might also touch that same thing and think about you and does that build some kind of a connection across time?
The 10,000 Year Clock, or the Clock of the Long Now, is the work of the Long Now Foundation.
The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit here in San Francisco that’s trying to help people think about the next 10,000 years. And the way we want to do that is by also helping them think about the last 10,000 years. When we’re thinking about the future, there’s so many organisations or cultural narratives that want to convince people or talk about how we’re at the end of the civilisational narrative. That’s the idea is that you’re really looking out at a multi-thousand year time horizon. You’re thinking about how the decisions that you’re making today affect people in 400 human generations. You’re going to do things a little bit differently. And that might actually be really important.
This clock really encapsulates everything that I love.
It’s oddly obsessive about something that’s impossible to predict. It’s incredibly philosophical and I think it’s really important. It’s all about fostering long-term thinking. It’s all about projecting further into the future than the financial year or your five-year plan or dare I say it – you. It’s all about hope and about the possibility that that there might be a future and that’s so refreshing in a world where we’re constantly told that the clock is ticking…
Sea Monkeys are brine shrimp.
They’re tiny – about half a centimetre wide and about the same length as your small fingernail – but the magic comes from a state of suspended animation known as cryptobiosis.
The inventor, a chap named Harold von Braunhut.
He was trying to come up with some sort of pet that he could sell through the mail and he was at a pet store and he saw some brine shrimp that were in an aquarium or a bucket or something. But he thought that that might be the perfect pet because their eggs or cysts are dry and they don’t become activated, they don’t hatch until they’re wet.
This is bonkers, right? You can hatch a living animal from a packet that’s been sat on the shelf for months…
Harold packaged these eggs into kits. You get a plastic tank and several different packets.
Packet one is labeled as water purifier and it’s mostly salts. So you’re supposed to put that in, wait 24 hours, then you put in packet number two and packet number two is labeled instant live eggs and through the science you see Sea Monkeys hatch instantly before your eyes.
There’s a little more happening here than you might realise and it’s a bit of a sleight of hand.
Part of the marketing genius behind this is there’s actually a lot of eggs in packet number one as well they’re in both packets so by waiting that 24 hours after you put in packet number one the eggs it’s giving the eggs time to hatch and the little babies time to grow a tiny bit.
You think package one is just salt. It’s not. When you add packet two, which contains dye, you see what’s already hatched from packet one, giving the illusion of instant life.
It’s also what’s now called cognitive priming, that is the deep cerebral desire we all have to see what we expect to see.
There was this huge lawsuit about licensing; Harold’s widow, supposedly held the Sea Monkey secret formula in a vault in Manhattan, there was an argument over who owned the company, and values in the tens of millions being thrown around
Harold von Braunhut was an entrepreneur but he was also a con artist.
His previous inventions include Invisible Goldfish and X-Ray Specs. He also had associations with white supremacy.
And this is really uncomfortable.
The marketing is genius. It’s also based on lies. The product has entertained millions of people over the world for nearly 70 years. It’s also made by a man who supplied firearms to the Ku Klux Klan.
I’m not sure how to reconcile those things, I don’t think you can. But they’re also kind of what the story is about: a dark history that you might not associate with a children’s toy.
Sea Monkeys pretty much went the same way that most crazes do, they fidget-spun out of the limelight.
But these creatures, the animals themselves, are fascinating (and entirely oblivious to the drama surrounding them).
Dried to this day, in packets on shelves across the world, waiting for some curious kid to return them to life. And that, I think, is the real magic.
Do you remember last week when one war criminal tried to march to Moscow to kill – or chat to, I don’t really know – the other war criminal?
What a bonkers Saturday that was!
I spent the whole day, a beautiful summer’s day, in front of the telly – and BBC were bloody brilliant, delivering half hourly updates of how far down the road the Wagner forces were… And then, by 7pm here in the UK, the entire thing was over.
The events of last weekend just left me with this horrid, empty feeling…
The most important stories in the world are non-stories because they happen over a period of time that most of us can’t comprehend. They’re slow, powerful movements.
The real news isn’t that somebody decided to bum rush the Russian capital one day in June. It’s a tale of private military companies like Wagner and their dramatic rise all over world right after the Cold War. It’s a tale of mercenary groups, of guns for hire and renegade soldiers. It’s the story of secret government funding, of switching allegiances and of the tensions that brings to foreign policy.
Sure, it might have bubbled to the surface for 24 hours last weekend, but it’s a story that’s 30 years in the making.
The real stories take decades or more to be told.
The world and what happens in it is not just a series of attention-grabbing headlines. It’s a huge tapestry of things that are deeply interconnected. These long-term stories are the ones that truly shape our world. They’re the threads that create the fabric of society. But by focusing solely on the immediate, rolling news headlines, we miss the bigger picture. We fail to see underlying patterns and deep-rooted issues that shape our world.
It’s like watching the two minute highlights of a football match without understanding the tens of thousands of hours of coaching, training and history that led up to those few goals or even the other 88 minutes where both teams try and fail time and time again to score.
And it leaves me feeling empty.
In a recent study with over 600 respondents, only 8% of people thought that following the news had no impact on their mental health. Most thought the effect was negative and I think this is the crux of why last weekend felt so bad.
I was caught in a vicious cycle, perpetually chasing the latest updates without ever gaining a true understanding of what was actually happening and why. It’s a situation I find myself in time and time again, this relentless focus on the immediate, an inability to see the bigger picture and the disregard for those deeper threads leaves me regretting – regretting the loss of my time, regretting the nice summer day I wasted in front of the telly watching BBC News.
Over four-fifths of respondents to that study that I mentioned just now had actively switched off from the news in order to protect their headspace.
And I’m one of them.
I’ve not read or watched the news all week.
I have no idea what’s going on.
And I like that!
It’s not ignorance or apathy.
It’s seeking a more considered approach. It’s hunting the long-term narratives and appreciating the gradual transformations that shape our society.
See news is to the brain what sugar is to the body. You can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, tidbits like jelly beans, but these jelly beans don’t nourish you. They don’t give you understanding. Events, news events are just things happening flickering on the world surface. But to make better decisions you want to understand what drives these events, what generates these events. And news stories don’t tell you that. News give you the illusion of understanding and that illusion is dangerous. I came to realise, the more news you consume, the less you understand the world.
I turn 28 today.
I always get really weird around my birthday. I think it’s because I am acutely aware of time passing in a very personal way. Like, New Years and Christmas and all of that, they’re all shared holidays – a birthday is quite isolating, isn’t it?
I’ve been going for morning walks every day. They’re about 5k. They start just around the corner from where I live, in a little forest and when I exit that forest, I end up in a clearing, on the side of a hill… The very first day I did this walk, there were two little deer on the side of the hill.
I wandered out the next day and there they were again!
I started calling them my ‘deer friends’ – I don’t know if that’s weird or not – but on day three, they didn’t show up.
I turn 28 today.
Every year I do one of these little introspective calling cards; this is my third.
The first was at 26 – I basically retreated back into myself.
The second, at 27, was all about getting out there and experiencing this wonderful world we live in – I feel like I’ve certainly made good strides in that direction; every day I’m filled with awe.
Now, at 28; it’s to stop looking.
The second I stopped looking for the deer and stopped expecting them to be there was the same second they showed up again. It’s not just my deer friends. There are so many things in life like this.
We embark on journeys and traverse paths and delve into the realms of possibility, all in search of that which we seek but – like deer darting through the forest the second they hear me – our aspirations can elude us the more we chase them.
When we settle down, when we cease the hunt, in a weird way the world around us takes notice – I guess it’s a kind of surrender – and with a gentle gesture, it unveils its hidden treasures.
Opportunities that once evaded our grasp now find their way to us.
Every year I think about what I’ve learned the last and what I yearn for the next…
I want serendipity. I want to feel like the universe conspires in my favour.
It sounds so woo-woo – and I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I am not a religious or spiritual person. But I do love when the daunting labyrinth reveals a path illuminated by surprise.
I turn 28 today.
Fun Kids Mission Transmission wins at the ARIAS 2023
A story that I have been working on for years has finally come to an end.
In 2021, I came up with the idea of sending a radio programme to space.
In 2022, we did it. It was called Mission Transmission.
Two nights ago, in 2023, at what is known as the ‘Oscars of the radio industry’ – the ARIAS awards – I picked up not just one but two awards for it…
One was Silver for ‘Moment of The Year’ making Mission Transmission the second best radio moment last year –– and the other was Gold for ‘Creative Innovation’.
And with that, this beautiful project I spent months developing and years talking about is complete. The story is over.
There are more people to say thank you to – KIDZ BOP and the team at Universal Music, DevaWeb – specifically Chris Stevens, the team at Carver PR, astronaut Tim Peake, Jon Lomberg, Peter Beery, everyone at the Royal Observatory Greenwich in London but specifically Victoria, the very talented people at Create Productions, the tens and tens of people that came onto the radio and podcasts to talk about the project, the lovely people at The Week Junior and Science and Nature magazine for talking about it so much, and obviously my close personal circle of partners and family and friends too.
You and I will never know the destiny of that radio programme – we’ll never know whether it manages to reach alien life or whether it’s defined forever to float between the stars – but I think it says a huge amount about humankind that we dared to send it in the first place.
And you – whether you were here from the start or are only just finding out about it – thank you for being a part of it too.