The Current Issue

April 2021, Issue 495 Munro Price on Napoleon & Pope Pius VII * Timothy Brook on the Mongols * Howard Davies on Mark Carney * Steve Richards on prime ministers * Mathew Lyons on the origins of music * David Keenan on Bob Dylan * Emma Larkin on catching snakes in Bangkok * Leo Robson on Philip Roth * Frances Spalding on Clive Bell * Helen Bynum on human reproductivity * Will Wiles on the joy of wastelands * Anna Reid on the Volga * Andrew Crumey on Yuri Gagarin * James Womack on Laurent Binet * N J Stallard on Gwendoline Riley * Sara Wheeler on Carson McCullers * Joanna Kavenna on Charlotte Mew *  and much, much more…

Mathew Lyons

A Natural History of Music

The first note known to have sounded on earth was an E natural. It was produced some 165 million years ago by a katydid (a kind of cricket) rubbing its wings together, a fact deduced by scientists from the remains of one of these insects, preserved in amber. Consider, too, the love life of the mosquito. When a male mosquito wishes to attract a mate, his wings buzz at a frequency of 600Hz, which is the equivalent of D natural. The normal pitch of the female’s wings is 400Hz, or G natural. Just prior to sex, however, male and female harmonise at 1200Hz, which is, as Michael Spitzer notes in his extraordinary new book, The Musical Human, ‘an ecstatic octave above the male’s D’. ‘Everything we sing’, Spitzer adds, ‘is just a footnote to that.’ Humans may be the supremely musical animal, but, with or without us, this is a musical planet. What makes us special? The answer is complex. It is partly down to physiological factors, such as ... read more

More Articles from this Issue

Munro Price

To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

By Ambrogio A Caiani

This 5 May will mark the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death on St Helena. The occasion will no doubt be marked, as was the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo six years ago, by a flood of new books about the emperor, adding yet more to the estimated 200,000 already written. Given this saturation, one wonders if there is anything left to say. This fascinating book proves that there is. It does so by focusing on... read more

Andrew Crumey

Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space

By Stephen Walker

On the morning of 12 April 1961, an orange dot appeared in the sky over the Russian village of Smelovka, growing as it fell. A government official reported what he witnessed: ‘A spaceship-sputnik landed with cosmonaut Gagarin Yuri Alekseyevich.’ The official was lying – in fact Gagarin was never there. Villagers arriving at the scene found no one inside... read more

Helen Bynum

The End of Babies?

There were times while reading Count Down that I felt I was going to skip to the final part. Not because I wasn’t gripped – I was – but because I needed a dose of the optimism Shanna Swan wisely promises her readers will be coming at the end. For this is a story of potential apocalypse: the demise of human fertility at worst, the emergence of an unsustainable society of oldies at best. We assume procreation is a choice. We rest easy, believing we can utilise this natural ... read more

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