How quantum theory is helping to explain the mysteries of life science

Quantum biology
Nature, the physicist

How quantum theory is helping to explain the mysteries of life science
Nov 22nd 2014 | From the print edition

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. By Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden. Bantam Press; 355 pages; £20. Buy from;

LIFE science still hides a few mysteries. How do migratory birds sense direction? How are molecules in the air perceived as a smell? How, precisely, do tadpoles lose their tails? For years, scattered views from the fringes have attempted to explain such phenomena using quantum mechanics, a weird bit of physics that predicts oddities such as particles being in multiple places at once, eerily connected across vast distances or tunnelling through seemingly insuperable barriers.

Yet a growing body of experimental evidence suggests that quantum oddities may really be responsible for many of life’s engineering successes. Quantum biology, the name given to the nascent field that draws these diverse data together, is moving in from the fringes and becoming established. “Life on the Edge” is the first popular science book to outline it.

Quantum mechanics is one of science’s most successful theories, superseding Sir Isaac Newton’s “classical” physics, the workaday version taught at school. The theory’s weirder predictions—spooky connections, tunnelling and the like—are not part of people’s everyday experience. They happen at a microscopic level and, it was thought, only under precisely controlled conditions. Experiments were done by the steadiest hands in the darkest labs at the lowest achievable temperatures.

But life is nothing like that. Plants and animals are warmed and lit by the sun, mostly, and tend to be squidgy, moving and watery. It had long been assumed that a living being is a poor laboratory in which to carry out quantum experiments. But in 2007 scientists who were trying to understand how plants gather the sun’s energy so efficiently stumbled across something strange: that energy was sloshing around in what are called quantum coherences. In effect, the energy is in multiple places at the same time and “finds” the most efficient route from where it is collected to where it is put to use.

This first credible example inspired other scientists to follow similarly bold avenues of enquiry. To grasp these new threads in quantum biology is to grasp a quantity of quantum theory; the coherence is just one of the complex phenomena that Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden set out to teach the reader. They succeed by using delightfully revealing analogies and similes, some borrowed from their prior work, that make slippery concepts sit still for study.

The notion of “quantum entanglement” makes more sense when depicted as a pair of loaded dice. Molecules with left- and right-handed forms that vibrate in identical ways become left-handed Jimi Hendrix and right-handed Eric Clapton playing the same tune.

Once the quantum genie is out of the bottle, it is tempting to use it to explain all manner of phenomena. The book suggests that a molecule in birds’ eyes might be the site of a quantum effect that permits them to “see” a magnetic field and thereby to navigate. Subatomic particles tunnelling across gaps in the nose when aroma molecules are around may be the first step in how animals sense scent. This same tunnelling is presumed to be at work in the action of enzymes, those proteins that shuffle chemical reactions along in living things (among them, the breakdown of tadpoles’ tails as they become frogs).

Some of the ideas presented are quite speculative. Quantum weirdness, after all, has long been used to excuse all sorts of questionable science. In 1989 Roger Penrose, an Oxford mathematician, proposed a quantum mechanism for consciousness that was met with deep scepticism. Yet Messrs Al-Khalili and McFadden go on to revise Mr Penrose’s theory in light of more recent experiments. Where doubt remains, work continues. The authors themselves are leading the search for a quantum mechanism in genetic mutations, which might be giving evolution itself a helping hand.

That quantum effects are an incontrovertible part of some of life’s machinery is reason enough to go looking for more examples. The ideas in “Life on the Edge” may be dead ends, or they may be just the beginning. Either way, the quantum telescope is set on far horizons.

From the print edition: Books and arts

Reviewing the Polaris Slingshot

Low to the Ground and Out of This World

Reviewing the Polaris Slingshot SL
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Living in the same home for nearly 30 years, I am accustomed to the neighborhood teenagers asking, “What kind of car is that?” when a new model to be reviewed arrives in my driveway.

But on the morning last month that a Polaris Slingshot appeared, those gawkers weren’t sure how to classify a vehicle that looked freshly ripped from the pages of a superhero comic book.

“What is that thing?” they wanted to know. A fair question, really.

To these predrivers, dawdling on their way to junior-high classes, the Slingshot seemed a come-to-life vision of a sci-fi fantasy, a “Star Wars” runabout with an ominous snarl and a brilliant red glow. The stealth-fighter face, all angles and edges stacked on multiple levels, is but the first feature to rivet the gaze, foretelling the disconcerting details beyond: The front tires are in full view. There are no doors. And there’s only one wheel in the back.

This one, the styling promises, is going to be some fun.

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The 2015 Can-Am Spyder F3.Suddenly, a 3-Wheel Traffic Jam NOV. 14, 2014
Polaris, the Minnesota-based maker of motorcycles, A.T.V.s, snowmobiles and all sorts of off-road utility buggies, has conjured up an alternative form of transportation — or recreation — that’s not readily defined. Like a car, it has a steering wheel. The gearshift and clutch pedal poke up from the floor. You sit in conventional-looking seats with three-point safety belts.

But don’t jump to conclusions yet: The Slingshot has no top, folding or otherwise, and no windows to roll up. Its single rear wheel is driven by a belt.

Three-wheelers are hardly revolutionary; Karl Benz chose this layout 130 years ago, though his creation had a single wheel in front, tricycle-style. Still, a resurgence of interest in recent years has resulted in entries that include clean-sheet designs like the Can-Am Spyder and nostalgia-infused revivals like the Morgan 3 Wheeler and the Harley-Davidson Trike. Some are clearly variations on a motorcycle theme, while others attempt to fill in as minimalist automobiles.

There is solid logic behind the investment Polaris has made in producing something unlike anything else in its portfolio. The ever-present risks of the road are a strong incentive for prospective riders to seek more stable platforms, particularly as their families grow and their reflexes slow.

Many of Polaris’s customers are part of this aging demographic, given that the company’s motorcycle brands — Victory and Indian — make larger-displacement, higher-end bikes. The company is betting that the right sort of 3-wheeler might appeal to those enthusiasts, whose muscles are protesting or knee joints are wearing out. That would let riders like my family doctor, who sold his Harley only when knee problems forced the issue, continue to do weekend treks with his gang of surgeons and specialists.

While trying to place the Slingshot in a single category is destined to be a frustrating exercise, Polaris is very clear on the matter: The Slingshot is a motorcycle and will be registered accordingly. In states that require such things, the person in control must have a motorcycle license and all aboard should be wearing helmets. There are no airbags.

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Even so, the Slingshot has many things you won’t normally find on a motorcycle: A reverse gear, for instance, and on my Slingshot SL test vehicle, a reverse camera. Also, a Bosch electronic stability control and forged aluminum roll bars.

Polaris builds two levels of its 3-wheeler. The base Slingshot, finished in metallic gray, costs $20,959 including the delivery charge. The pearl red Slingshot SL is $24,959 and adds larger wheels, a weatherproof audio system and a low windscreen.

The simplest description of the Slingshot would say that it has a steel tubing space frame enclosing a General Motors Ecotec powertrain, all wrapped in plastic body panels. Despite the otherworldly visage, much of what bystanders cannot see is actually familiar. The 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, which produces 173 horsepower and spins to 7,000 r.p.m., is essentially the engine that served in the Pontiac Solstice.

The front suspension design uses conventional automotive control arms (though done in forged aluminum rather than stamped steel). The rear, appropriately, uses a motorcycle swingarm layout, its motions controlled by a hefty coil-over-shock unit.

Whatever the Slingshot should be called is less important than how it delivers on the promise of its appearance. Preparing for the first drive may be more disruptive than an attempt to define the Slingshot.

Putting on a helmet, but sitting in a chairlike seat rather than straddling an engine, reminded me more of driving a racecar than being on a bike. The visible frame tubes and low seat, barely off the ground, only reinforced the impression.

I quickly came to terms with that and soon dismissed my initial concerns over whether tall S.U.V.s and 18-wheelers would see me on the Interstate. (The Slingshot’s large blind zones are more worrisome.) Its wide stance — the front track spans 69.1 inches — takes longer to reconcile, and there’s a soundtrack of mechanical noises not heard on motorcycles or in cars.

All of that fades quickly, though, once you’re moving down the road. The engine is willing, and the 5-speed manual transmission shifts effortlessly; enthusiastic use of both kept mileage in the mid-30s.

Compared with a top-level sportbike, the Slingshot is hardly fast, having roughly the same horsepower but, at 1,740 pounds, more than three times the weight. The same math applies to the brakes: They are competent, but do not have the arresting-hook immediacy of a sport motorcycle.

A low seat and wide-open cockpit make for a purist, and somewhat throwback, driving experience that typical convertibles just don’t provide. The ride is delightfully compliant, and the Slingshot corners swiftly and accurately. More important, I detected none of the handling quirks, driving by myself or with a passenger, that are unavoidable in machines configured with a single wheel in front.

I would say that the Slingshot I drove — a preproduction example — had some room to grow. The exhaust exits under the front floor, making ear plugs, which I always wear on a motorcycle, a necessity. The bar-type gas gauge is so tiny that it went unnoticed for miles, and the accelerator pedal was too stiff. All are small, easily corrected niggles.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
If one must parse the terminology, the Slingshot is much closer to being a car than to its official designation of motorcycle. Beyond the obvious, there are other minor reminders: a parking brake between the seats, an ignition lock and turn signal stalk on the steering column.

Texas seems to have its own point of view, last week notifying Polaris that the Slingshot could not be registered there as a motorcycle for road use because the operator sits in a seat rather than straddling the machine’s backbone.

Polaris told dealers that the Slingshot had been approved by the state’s motor vehicle department, which then changed its policy. Shipments to Texas have been stopped, and the company is working to resolve the matter. When that happens, Texans will be able to join the fun.

Whatever unfinished business there is in the Slingshot’s first release will, I’m certain, be resolved by devoted owners who assemble in online forums to work out turbocharger kits and a thousand other upgrades. It has that degree of cult appeal.

As a tweener, the Slingshot runs the risk of meeting the wants of no one. Polaris has smartly avoided that fate, devising a roadster that is attention-getting, responsive on the road and thoroughly entertaining.

The SL version costs about as much as a base Mazda Miata or any number of decked-out large-displacement motorcycles, but that’s no measure of what an altogether different breed of machine it is. It stands alone as a recreational diversion that doesn’t need justification.

If only it leaned to turn corners.

A Somber Anniversary


Battle of Belleau Wood WW1, Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Me
It is 100 years since the first world war broke out. Brian Harris’s photo essay marks the anniversary by capturing the stillness and symbolism of the battlefields. He talks to Simon Willis

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2014

One evening last March, Brian Harris stopped his car at the side of the road near Douaumont in north-eastern France and walked into the forest. After about 50 yards he came to a trench winding its way through the trees. He’d been there earlier in the day, but the light had been too sharp, the shadows cast by the trees too deep, and children from a school party had been running up and down the trench, their picnic laid out nearby. But now the light was softer, and the woods were gloomy and quiet. “I wanted to photograph the darkness where that trench went,” he says. “I knew that if you dug down into that ground you would find bits of body. In that forest there are the remains of men. Those roots are feeding off men.”

He was standing on the Verdun battlefield, one of the bloodiest of the first world war, which began 100 years ago this July. During ten months of fighting in 1916, up to 976,000 French and German soldiers were killed or wounded at Verdun. Many of the dead were never found. “To stand in a wood and listen to the quiet,” Harris says, “and realise that 100 years ago, where you’re standing, was carnage—that’s chilling.” The trench he photographed led from Belleville to the front line and the fort at Douaumont. “It was a pathway to death.” His image—haunted, sombre, terrifyingly tranquil—is his elegy.

Although most of the pictures here were taken last winter, they are the result of a 45-year fascination. In 1969, when he was 16 and living in Romford in Essex, Harris went on a school trip to Belgium. “We stayed in Blankenberge, played on the beach, got drunk on Stella Artois. And we went to Tyne Cot cemetery on the battlefields of Passchendaele. None of us had a clue. I was utterly taken by what I saw. I just couldn’t believe that each headstone represented a life.”

Two weeks later, he joined a Fleet Street picture agency as a messenger boy. He went on to become a photographer at the Times and then the chief photographer at the Independent in its early days, when it was bringing a new elegance and soulfulness to newspaper pictures. As well as covering famines, presidential campaigns and the fall of the Berlin Wall—a subject he returned to for Intelligent Life in 2009—Harris’s interest in the war kept taking him back to those battlefields and cemeteries. “I did little stories about the re-carving of headstones, or the burial of bodies.” In 2007 he collaborated with the writer Julie Summers on a book called “Remembered”, a photographic history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. “I see myself as a historian with a camera,” he says.

The photographs here are the culmination of this work, and his most personal yet. He chose to travel in February and March, when the forests and fields would be free of undergrowth and crops, the trenches and shell-craters well defined, and the light muted. His picture of a line of trees stretching to the horizon on the Somme would have been impossible to take in the summer, when the trees coalesce in a mass of cheerful greenery. And the form of the photograph—the trees as a bare column heading to the ridge, a dark contrast against the sky—is integral to its power. “As soon as I saw the trees I said, ‘Soldiers going into battle, look at them’. The line of trees follows the route of the advancing British troops. That horizon is the German defence line. Men died in that field, attacking that ridge.”

The placid surfaces of these photographs tremble with this mixture of stark fact and strong feeling. Harris knew the history of his locations, and would then sink into their atmospheres. “I have to honour those who fought and died with my time,” he says. “Sometimes I would walk for an hour in a wood or field before taking a photograph.” His knowledge carried him beyond the obvious. Behind him on the Somme was the stately red-brick memorial at Thiepval, but it was the trees that shook him, none of them more than 95 years old. At the Lochnagar crater at La Boiselle—one of the largest on the Western Front—he was walking the rim when he saw a wreath hanging from a fragile branch, intimate and easily missed. “The crown of thorns. That’s what I felt when I took that picture.”

Looking at his images now, Harris thinks of a painting, “Menin Gate at Midnight” (1927) by William Longstaff. It shows ghosts rising from the ground on the plains outside Ypres. “I think you could superimpose those ghosts onto my pictures. I was photographing a ghost story.”

Top Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, Belleau, France

Simon Willis is digital editor of Intelligent Life

Photograph Brian Harris

Sonic Architecture


~ Posted by Charlie McCann, November 6th 2014

When the Australian composer and producer Ben Frost released his fifth album, “A U R O R A”, earlier this year the reviews were rapturous. Rolling Stone called it “unrelentingly menacing”, Drowned in Sound said it was a piece of “aural suffocation” (in a good way), and both picked it as “Best Album of the Year So Far”. Frost, though, is more low-key. His albums, he has said, are “over-glorified business cards”—adverts which get him well-paid commissions (he has written music for ballet, opera and film) and bring audiences to his live shows. He has been touring “A U R O R A” since April, and is playing six nights in Britain next week. It’s only live that you hear the album’s terrifying architecture. Listening to it on headphones is like reading a book about brutalism: it doesn’t do justice to its scale and weight.

An architect is certainly what Frost sounds like when you talk to him. When I spoke to him recently, he referred to sounds as “objects that have texture and shape”, and composing as “an arrangement of space”—which suggests his music is meant to be felt as much as heard. In August in a small south-London club, he played “A U R O R A” so loud and so deep that the audience couldn’t help but feel it. He has likened the pounding of the kick drum to “the externalisation of the human heart”. Shake your head all you like—as the drums thundered my heart hammered, and I began to wonder if it might leap out altogether. Some of the people pressed in close around me looked ecstatic, but plenty looked uneasy: the room cracked with the synthy snap of chain against metal; the air around us walloped with what felt like the weight of concrete slabs. On the small, dim stage, Frost was bent over his equipment, carefully adjusting knobs and dials—though he may as well have been operating a forklift.

In contrast to his previous albums, “A U R O R A” is more militant and synthetic-sounding: there are no guitars, piano or stringed instruments. Instead, he uses heavy percussion, synths and lots of distortion, and he processes the sounds through his computer. The result is a portentous mass of noise undergirded by simple rhythms and melodies that emerge occasionally from the aural chaos. These primarily recall the rhythms and melodies of techno, trance and industrial music, although, with a recurring bell motif and occasional brass burps, there are some classical flourishes. But this kind of music—the kind that hits you in the solar plexus—isn’t produced by simply turning up the volume. It also involves playing sub-bass sounds: frequencies so low they’re not so much sounds as they are thrums, of the kind you’ll feel if you place your hand on a subwoofer.

As PA systems grow in sophistication, musicians and sound designers are exploiting a wider range of sonic frequencies—ones that steal ever further into the realm of the physical. A range of artists—from the Seattle drone-metal band Sunn O))) to the Portland noise artist Pete Swanson and the London DJ duo Raime—have, in the last few years, been experimenting with low-end music that gets at the gut. The music magazine the Wire has called it “a live performance trend”.

But Frost thinks technology will take us further still. As absorbed as he is by music’s effects on the senses, whether aural or tactile, he’s intrigued by how advances in medical technology might improve upon our limitations. “Twenty years from now, I think we’re very likely to be able to have our ears upgraded so that we can perceive a wider range of frequencies—or by-pass the ear entirely,” he says. “I’m personally really excited about that. Every time the fucking jack cable rips out of my headphones when I stand up too quickly and I have to put it back in, there’s always this little moment where I want to jam it straight into my skull.”

Frost might be looking to the future, but he should just look at what’s right in front of him: the people at his gigs, forced to listen with their whole bodies, already have their skulls full of his music.

Ben Frost The Haunt, Brighton, Nov 10th; Thekla, Bristol, Nov 11th; Capsule, Birmingham, Nov 12th; St John at Hackney Church, London, Nov 13th; Gorilla, Manchester, Nov 14th; Howard Assembly Room at Opera North, Leeds, Nov 15th

Charlie McCann is editorial assistant at Intelligent Life

Bob Dylan’s 6KG of Lyrics



~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, November 5th 2014


It’s a good week for Bob Dylan completists. On Tuesday, volume 11 of the bootleg series was released, comprising a six-disc collection of the so-called “Basement Tapes”, recorded during Dylan’s 1967 sessions with The Band in upstate New York. This Friday, a hardback collection called “The Lyrics” is published. For the princely sum of £125, collectors can get hold of one of only 3,000 copies of this 6kg, gold-embossed treasure, which has been compiled by Sir Christopher Ricks, a former professor of poetry at Oxford whose 2003 book “Dylan’s Visions of Sin” examined the lyrics with the same critical eye he’s applied to Keats and T.S. Eliot. The publishers, Simon & Schuster, were not sending out review copies, so I had to go and visit the book at their office. One of the publishers told me they thought the 500 copies that will make it across the Atlantic to Britain might be gone on presales alone.

It was a joy to get an hour or so leafing through the mammoth book’s thick cream pages, which document Dylan’s recorded lyrics and live variations from “Bob Dylan” (1962) to “Tempest” (2012). The publishers have dared to call the book “definitive” in the press release, but it won’t be definitive for long: Dylan already has a new album in the works for next year, announced to buyers of the latest bootleg by a pamphlet that wafted out from between the record sleeves. Ricks—now a professor at Boston University who spent years piecing this collection together with help from Dylan himself—knows better. He spends a large part of the book’s introduction talking about the impossibility of such a task, concluding “there is no such thing as a definitive setting down”. But he isn’t the first to do his best: a “complete” collection of lyrics was published in 1985, detailing everything up to that point. It was updated in 2001.

Ricks knows that nothing about Dylan is definitive—even Dylan’s own thoughts about Dylan. He notes the conflicting views on the importance of words versus music. “It’s the music that the words are sung to that’s important”, goes one Dylan quote from the Sixties or Seventies. Another: “It ain’t the music that’s important, man, it’s the words.” Leafing through the book, you realise both are true.

Dylan uses lyrics to tell stories. Often these were fantastical, sometimes nonsensical stories of discovery, like “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, a Kubla Khan-like voyage in America, or “Gates of Eden”, a mysterious fable that features lamp-posts with crossed arms, and deaf shoeless hunters. He also used lyrics to diarise his life in songs where the music seems dispensable. “Talkin’ New York”, from the “Bob Dylan” album in 1962, describes his first experience of playing the Greenwich Village clubs in New York, which includes some early disillusionment with the cut-throat music industry: “A lot of people don’t have much food on their table/But they got a lot of forks ’n’ knives/And they gotta cut somethin’”. Decades later, on “Time Out of Mind” (1997), Dylan used the same style of humour to depict an encounter with a Scottish waitress in “Highlands”: “She says, ‘What’ll it be?’/I say, ‘I don’t know, you got any soft boiled eggs?’/She looks at me, says, ‘I’d bring you some/But we’re out of ’em, you picked the wrong time to come’.”

But when Dylan needed them to, the lyrics served the music. The book records a minor change to the syntax in “Rolling Stone”, from “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), in the line: “You better take your diamond ring down/And you better pawn it babe”. In a neat footnote beside the original line, Ricks notes that at a concert at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 the lyrics changed to “Take your diamond ring down/And pawn it babe”. It doesn’t look much on paper, but listen to the recording and you can hear Dylan hurling the last line at the crowd, stretching out the word “pawn” with no small amount of bile. In fact, this was the infamously mistitled “Royal Albert Hall” concert, captured on the D.A. Pennebaker documentary “Don’t Look Back”, where Dylan was accused of being Judas by a member of the crowd for abandoning acoustic performances in favour of plugged-in sets with his band. He cut some words because, at that moment, conveying his new sound mattered more.

“The Lyrics” records these changes for posterity like so many butterfly specimens pinned to a cork board, but it can never capture the surprising, chaotic way they came to be. Rather it is another facet of Dylan’s legacy that, the moment someone says they have it fixed, he demands they take another look.

Hazel Sheffield is a regular contributor to NME, a reporter for Global Capital, and a former assistant editor of the Columbia Journalism Review

Illustration Kathryn Rathke

When Photography Became Fine Art


~ Posted by George Pendle, October 27th 2014

Discovering a new exhibition of platinum photographs tucked away in the sprawling National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is akin to discovering tiny deposits of the precious metal itself in the alluvial sands of some jungle river—it’s small but valuable.


“A Subtle Beauty” consists of barely two dozen portrait, landscape and architectural photographs from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. What unites them is their printing technique. Platinum prints, or platinotypes, were created by using photographic paper with very fine platinum crystals embedded in the uppermost fibres. This was in contrast to the more popular albumen or gelatin prints of the time, in which silver salts were suspended in an emulsion that was then coated onto the paper. A technicality, you may well think, but the platinum process not only gave photographs a luminosity and a wide tonal scale that other methods couldn’t match (as well as a slight three-dimensional appearance), but it was also responsible for establishing photography as a fine art.

In the late-19th century photography was extremely popular but it had yet to be accepted as a serious art form. Most photographs were garishly hand-tinted and the use of photographic emulsion gave them a brash and glossy look. By contrast the platinum prints afforded a wealth of tasteful neutral colours, a delicate matte finish and a textured surface. In short, it made photographs look more like paintings, particularly the flat canvases being created by the Impressionist painters at the time.

Two of the leading proponents of the platinum print technique were the British photographer Frederick H. Evans and the American Alfred Stieglitz. Evans found that the platinotype was perfectly suited to capturing the play of light on the stone of French and English cathedrals. But it was also superb in delineating the lines and creases of the human face. Evans’ 1894 portrait of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, his slender fingers wrapped around his sallow cheeks, his aquiline nose splintering the light, makes him look like a contemptuous gargoyle from one of Evans’ beloved churches.

Stieglitz’s “The Last Joke—Bellagio” (1887) is as full of rambunctious life as a Goya etching. A group of children, some in bare feet, some in sailor suits, are joined together in laughter, their faces creased with smiles that match the folds of their clothes. It is a small photograph but within its frame is an incredible spectrum of cool blacks, neutral greys and rich sepia browns.

However, the show’s greatest revelation is the work of the remarkable American photographer Gertrude Käsebier, most notably her 1902 portrait of Stieglitz himself (above). Käsebier was a brilliant manipulator of tones and by masking sections of the negative and selectively brushing on developing solution to the platinum paper, she brought into play a veritable rainbow of blacks. In this photograph Stieglitz resembles a demon carved out of shadow, his eyes barely visible, his hair and walrus-like moustache masking his face. The only light that exists is reflected off one side of his nose, the rest of him recedes into abstraction. It is as masterly a disquisition on shade and light as any painting by Zurbarán or Velázquez. Ironic that such a shimmering, precious metal should have allowed photographers access to the very heart of darkness.

A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Photographs from the Collection is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC until January 4th 2015

George Pendle is the author of “Death: A Life”, a satire, and “Happy Failure”, a collection of essays

Image “Alfred Stieglitz” by Gertrude Käsebier (R. K. Mellon Family Foundation, Diana and Mallory Walker Fund, and Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel)

OPEC Losing Leverage?

Why OPEC’s losing its ability to set oil prices

CNBC By Hailey Lee

Why OPEC’s losing its ability to set oil prices
Eddie Seal | Bloomberg | Getty Images

OPEC ‘s glory days of steering global oil prices may be at an end.

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U.S. shale oil will replace the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries as the first-mover “swing producer,” according to a Goldman Sachs report from the weekend-meaning OPEC is losing its power to set global prices for crude.

Read More Oil could slide further, but where’s the bottom?

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, no longer has “the ability to push prices lower than the production costs of U.S. shale” because any cuts from the kingdom would “accommodate the further expansion of U.S. shale, as well as reduce Saudi profits,” Goldman said.

The shift in pricing power became apparent to Goldman when U.S. shale’s spare capacity, at around 5 million barrels per day, exceeded Saudi Arabia ‘s spare capacity of 1.5 million. Spare capacity refers to the amount of crude a country is able to produce in 30 days in case of an emergency.

Read More ‘Bipolar’ markets lose the fear; are they ready to relax?

This trend has been a long time coming, but the tipping point started this year with significant cuts in West African oil exports to the U.S., said John Kilduff, energy analyst and founding partner of commodities investment firm Again Capital. U.S. shale oil has replaced West African imports, which have been redirected to Asia.

The balance was further tipped toward the U.S. when production rebounded in Libya and Iraq despite political instability, adding to an already oversupplied market, Kilduff added.

OPEC pumped 30.6 million barrels of crude oil per day in September, a jump of 400,000 barrels from August that was driven by the Libyan output rebound, found Platts, a global energy information service.

Read More Despite washout, hedge funds not bailing on energy

OPEC’s loss in pricing power is a consequence of not taking U.S. producers more seriously and cutting prices earlier for clients, said Phil Flynn, senior energy market analyst at Price Futures Group.

“Only a year ago, OPEC was still in denial, but with the slowing global economy, they can’t laugh off U.S. production anymore,” Flynn said.

By 2019, U.S. shale oil production will jump to 9.6 million barrles per day, from 8 million now, according to forecasts from the Energy Information Administration. In comparison, Saudi Arabia currently produces 9.6 million barrels of crude oil a day.

All that said, market watchers across the board expect OPEC to remain highly influential when it comes to the price of oil.

The group will likely cut production when the core countries meet in Vienna on Nov. 27, according to Kilduff. “OPEC is in the process of playing chicken with the market,” he said. “But their hand will be forced and they will eventually cut, with the Saudis taking on the bulk of it.”

OPEC has absorbed lower oil prices up until this point, declining to cut output in a bid to maintain market share.

Read More How the US shale boom will be felt around the world

“The main reason why OPEC is not cutting production is they realize that U.S. shale is a serious threat to their global oil space,” Flynn said.

The cyclical nature of the oil industry makes it unlikely that OPEC has lost its price-setting power permanently, Kilduff said: “There’s a boom, bust and a new era upon us all the time. So, the jury’s still out on the long-term sustainability of U.S. shale production.”


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