Aesop’s Animals: Truth, Science, and Fable with Jo Wimpenny

What scientific truths lie behind the millennia-old collection of moral tales we know as Aesop’s Fables? Do the stories tell us something about real-life animal behaviour? How do our myths and metaphors match up to the realities of the natural world?

Zoologist Dr. Jo Wimpenny‘s new book Aesop’s Animals explores all of these questions, linking ancient stories to the latest research into animal behaviour, and challenging our assumptions about the animal kingdom.

Jo and I spoke on the eve of the book’s launch.

We might think we know what Aesop’s Fables are, but was there even really a historical Aesop? What do we mean when we talk about “Aesop’s Fables”?

An exact answer isn’t possible: Aesop’s Fables stretch back to something like two thousand five hundred years ago, which we know because certain ancient scholars of the time mentioned the fables in their writing. Those scholars certainly thought there was an Aesop, though it’s a disputed point; a lot of modern historians point to inaccuracies in descriptions of him, which suggest there may not have been a single author who bore that name. Today there are hundreds of fables attributed to Aesop, but some of these may have been created later, building on the existing tales.

The standard view is that Aesop was a slave, who might have been Greek, Turkish or Ethiopian, who created little moral fables, moral messages. They weren’t about animal behaviour, and they weren’t based on science, because science as we know it didn’t exist at that point. They used animal and mythological characters to communicate moral teachings.

The story goes that Aesop won his freedom by being a master storyteller – that he used his wit and intelligence to entertain and educate people, impressing those in power into granting him his freedom.

The basis for my book is less about whether Aesop was a real person, and more about this very real collection of stories which verifiably does date back to the ancient world.

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I’m Your Man: Memory, Desire, Artificial Life

I just caught up with Maria Schrader’s excellent new movie I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch), which came out in the UK last month.

Archaeological researcher Alma (Maren Eggert) is cajoled by her boss into serving as a participant in a scientific trial. Using interviews, studies, and brain-scans, a team of designers will create a lifelike robot intended to be her perfect companion. The result is Tom (Dan Stevens), an English-accented android programmed to meet her every emotional and physical need. Tom will live with Alma for three weeks, at the end of which she’ll write a report informing the decision on whether androids like him are allowed out into German society.

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Reimagining the future of urban-rural balance

How will Europe’s urban-rural balance shift in years to come? In times of uncertainty, when tomorrow may not look like today, how can researchers and decision-makers best explore future relationships and dynamics between regions? In addition, how can such speculations be related back to pressing questions in the here and now?

In the new issue of the Regional Studies Association’s online magazine, IMAJINE‘s Marie Mahon and I share our experiences using scenario planning to explore the future of regional development in Europe, and answer the question: why are serious researchers spending time dreaming of futures which may never happen?

Read more in our article, “Reimagining the future of urban-rural balance: using scenarios to explore territorial inequality”.

Learning from futures you didn’t see coming? Scenario planning, education and the (post)pandemic world at CO:RE

It was my privilege to join the University of Oslo’s Niamh Ní Broin and Steffen Krueger at the website of CO:RE, the Children Online: Research and Evidence project funded by the European Commission, to write about last year’s scenarios for the future of Norwegian schools.

These explored different contexts for the digitalisation of education in Norway, considering how the relationship between learners, digital devices, and educational institutions might shift in times to come.

You can read our piece, “Learning from futures you didn’t see coming? Scenario planning, education and the (post)pandemic world”, here.

Informatics of the Oppressed? Interview with Rodrigo Ochigame

For the latest edition of Information Professional magazine, I interviewed MIT’s Rodrigo Ochigame about researching and building alternative systems to search, index, and filter the information we want, need, or require.

From social media protests over Brazilian land rights disputes to liberation theology, information technology in socialist Cuba and contemporary attempts to produce “alternative metadata”, you can read about Rodrigo’s work in the latest edition of my column “Scripturient”, here.

Tales of the times to come: the humanities and scenario planning

“What do the humanities have to offer strategists, policymakers, and decision-takers in the age of the algorithm? As machine intelligence and computational power increase, as we gather ever more data from ever more sources, do the humanities still offer a valuable perspective on times yet to come?”

Over at the website of the Irish Humanities Alliance, Marie Mahon and I have a piece on what our training in the humanities has brought to our work on the IMAJINE project for the future of European regional inequality.

SHAPE Education: Schooling, Skills, and the Future of Work

I’ll be speaking at the SHAPE Education 2021 conference on Wednesday 14th July, joining the panel “What will individuals need to learn for success in work and life in the future?” alongside Heather E. McGowan and Silvana Richardson.

We’ll be asking, what skills, knowledge and characteristics will employers need and be looking for in future? How will education systems help people develop these within and beyond schools? And will relationships between schools and employers change?

You can join our panel, and other sessions from the week-long SHAPE event, for free.

RCOT 2021: Scenarios, foresight, and occupational therapy

Next week, Griffith University’s Professor Matthew Molineux and I present on scenario planning for the 2021 conference of the Royal College of Occupational Therapists.

In advance of the conference, we got together for an informal chat covering five years of work pushing the boundaries of occupational therapy education, exploring what futures & foresight work can do for occupational therapists, and how learning from the futures which challenge our assumptions can complement the practical experience which comes from student placements.

“Why would you write it if you’ve already solved it?”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 3

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

You can read the first part and second part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about loss, change, her goals as a writer, and the histories of secret writing in her own family.

M: The book is so steeped in grief, and it’s a theme we see elsewhere in your writing; the play Phantasmagoria has this question, for example, “Do the dead truly leave us?”

How did grief come to the forefront in this particular novel?

C: Don’t you think that ageing is a kind of grief? We betray our younger selves, our ideas of who we were or what we wanted, as we move on in time. I’ve lost some dear people who are close to me, people who died suddenly and young, so I have a little more of that shock of grief than some — but I think that in any kind of long-term relationship, what people don’t tell you about marriage is that there is a slow betrayal of whoever you were on your wedding day. I think that if there’s not, you’re doing it wrong! 

You need to become another person when you make this commitment, and you’re very lucky if you can change alongside your partner in a way that you get to rediscover one another. I don’t really know how we manage to promise anyone else anything, except to be clear, and true, and kind.

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