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Physicist disappears on holiday without a mobile phone to escape inevitable rush of journalists seeking out prizewinner

The media spotlight has often been too harsh for Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh physicist, who disappeared off on holiday without a mobile phone this week to escape the inevitable rush of journalists that bears down on every winner of a Nobel prize.

The move was carefully calculated and profoundly successful. The Royal Swedish Academy made calls to the scientist’s phone but failed to make contact before – or after – announcing the winners of the 2013 prize in physics on Tuesday morning.

“He didn’t tell even me,” said Alan Walker, a close friend and fellow physicist at Edinburgh University, who was among a crowd of scientists who celebrated at the Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics after watching the announcement from Stockholm online. “He’s not available, and good for him.”

Higgs, 84, shares the 8m Swedish kronor ( 775,000) prize – and no small measure of kudos – with the Belgian theorist, Fran ois Englert. Higgs had been favourite to win the award since researchers at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern near Geneva declared last July that they had discovered the particle he predicted, the elusive Higgs boson.

The particle was the smoking gun that scientists had hunted for decades on both sides of the Atlantic in the hope of proving – or disproving – the theory drawn up by Higgs, Englert and several other physicists in 1964.

Written in pencil on a pad of paper, Higgs’s theory described an invisible field that is all around us – and even within us. The field gives mass to the basic constituents of atoms and, in doing so, ensures that the universe is not an ocean of massless particles hurtling around at the speed of light.

Peter Higgs is portrayed as the reclusive genius but that is as flawed as any stereotype. He can be hard to get hold of, but a busy life and an aversion to modern technology are mostly to blame for that. He has no computer, and no email. He answers the phone only when he knows who is calling. To arrange an interview some years back took a written letter to his apartment in Edinburgh’s New Town followed by a wait of several months, after which a reply arrived – handwritten in ink – in an envelope sporting a stamp of the Crab Nebula.

The traditional mode of communication continued even when larger projects were involved. In the later stages of writing Massive, a book about Higgs and the hunt for his boson, the fact-checking was done by sending every chapter to Higgs – along with a bag of ballpoint pens with which to make corrections. For several months later, at irregular intervals, the chapters came back, each accompanied by an extensive list of comments and amendments. Each package landed heavy on the doormat – thump – and caused a rush of anxiety that would have made Pavlov proud.

Edinburgh University, Higgs’s academic home since 1960, released a statement in which the physicist said he was “overwhelmed” to receive the award. “I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”

Congratulations and praise poured in for a scientist whose humility and reputation for thinking for himself have made him one of the most revered of living physicists. “A huge cheer went up,” said Walker, of the gathering in Edinburgh. “I have tears in my eyes.”

Ken Peach, an Oxford physicist who used to work with Higgs in Edinburgh said: “I am delighted that Peter’s work has been recognised by the Nobel committee and I hope that this goes on to inspire young people to study physics and to be able to appreciate the sheer beauty of what Peter imagined.”

David Cameron took to Twitter to offer his own congratulations.

Immediately after the big bang, the first particles that formed were entirely massless and zipped around the fledgling universe at the speed of light. But a trillionth of a second later, the field switched on and gave mass to scores of particles, including the quarks and electrons that make up atoms. Particles of light – photons – do not feel the field and remain massless.

Without the Higgs field, or something like it, the universe would look very different today. There would be no stars, planets, or life as we know it.

Higgs was at a conference in Sicily last June when he had a tip-off from John Ellis, a Cern veteran, that the discovery of the particle might be announced at a seminar planned for 4 July at the laboratory. Higgs was travelling with Alan Walker. On hearing the news, the two made arrangements to fly to Cern, a decision fraught with concerns over the cost of extending Higgs’s Saga travel insurance and their combined stocks of clean underpants.

The seminar, held on the morning of 4 July, revealed Cern had indeed discovered the Higgs boson. When the audience got to its feet – with thunderous applause – Higgs dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief. Watching a video of the moment weeks later, he explained his reaction. “I was about to burst into tears,” he said. “I was knocked over by the wave of the reaction of the audience. Up until then I was holding back emotionally, but when the audience reacted I couldn’t hold back any more. That’s the only way I can explain it.” He was tearful not because Cern had finally proved his theory right, but for what the discovery meant to those around him.

This year was the earliest the prize could be awarded for the work, though it is exceptional for the honour to be given so swiftly.

Nobel prizes are often criticised for overlooking worthwhile winners and that was the case with the physics prize this year. The problem arises from the rule – regarded as outdated by many scientists – that prevents the prize from going to more than three people. The theory was first described by Fran ois Englert and Robert Brout, but Brout died in 2011. Higgs published second. But less than a month later, another team published the theory independently. Two US physicists, Gerry Guralnik and Dick Hagen, had worked with Tom Kibble at Imperial College, London, but delayed their paper to ensure it was complete.

“Faced with a choice between their rulebook and an even-handed judgment, the Swedes chose the rulebook,” Hagen told the Guardian.

Tom Kibble at Imperial College, said he was happy to see the Swedish academy recognise the work and offered congratulations to Higgs and Englert. “My two collaborators, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Richard Hagen, and I … contributed to that discovery, but our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published. It is therefore no surprise that the Swedish academy felt unable to include us, constrained as they are by a self-imposed rule that the prize cannot be shared by more than three people,” he said.

Ben Allanach, a theoretical physicist at Cambridge University, said: “This is the recognition of a triumph for fundamental physics that will stay in the history books for millennia to come. I am thrilled about the prize, and Englert and Higgs both deserve it well.”

“I cannot over-stress the importance of the discovery. The mass mechanism that the Higgs boson is a signal for has had a huge impact on particle physics over the last 50 years. I think many of us felt that it had to be correct, although we were willing to let data dissuade us,” he said.

Ian Sample, the Guardian’s science correspondent, is the author of Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle

London-based firm set up by chess-prodigy-turned-neuroscientist is Google’s biggest ever European acquisition

A two-year-old British technology company set up by a former child chess prodigy who became a groundbreaking neuroscientist has become Google’s largest European acquisition.

The search giant is spending 400m ($625m) on DeepMind Technologies, a London-based firm set up in 2012, which recently developed a computer system capable of understanding and playing an Atari computer game simply by looking at it on a screen as a human would.

The artificial intelligence (AI) firm was created by Demis Hassabis, 37. Described as “very brilliant” by his peers, he was a chess master by 13, completed his A-levels two years early and at 17 was lead programmer on the classic game Theme Park at the videogames company Bullfrog. In 1999, aged 23, he won the Mind Sports Olympiad – an annual international multi-disciplined competition for games of mental skill. He won it a record five times before retiring in 2003 from competitive play.

Born in north London, Hassabis also carried out research on brain-damaged patients which established that being able to imagine experiences is key to being able to remember past events.

DeepMind reportedly competed with Google and other AI companies for talent, and Google’s chief executive, Larry Page, is said to have led the deal himself after an earlier approach from Facebook was turned down.

Sources close to the purchase indicated that the technology would be built into Google’s search systems, rather than becoming part of its fast-expanding robotics division. Google has bought eight robotics companies, including Bot & Dolly which made the computer-controlled cameras used in the film “Gravity”.

“DeepMind was generally interested in reinforcement learning, and in deep learning, which is very useful in mining so called ‘big data’, something Google has a lot of and is interested in processing,” said Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London.

Google uses AI to understand search queries that have been written as spoken, as well as pattern recognition for image search. Its translation service also relies heavily on AI to understand the context of words and their meaning in different situations and sentences.

The broader question of whether AI technology could be misused or pose a threat to humans has led to the creation of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which notes that “many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole”.

The DeepMind acquisition is conditional on Google setting up an internal ethics board, sources told The Information.

Google confirmed the deal but would not supply any details.

Google’s other recent acquisitions have included the $3.2bn purchase of the smart fire alarm company Nest, described by Google’s Eric Schmidt as “an important bet” which will lead to products that are “infinitely more intelligent”.

Hassabis got a double first in computer science at Cambridge University in 1997, and returned to games as lead AI programmer on the landmark game Black & White. He set up his own games business, Elixir Studios, in 1998, but in 2005 he left for academia, working on cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence, and publishing influential papers on memory and amnesia.

After attaining a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from University College London in 2009, Hassabis returned to business in 2012 to found DeepMind Technologies, alongside Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman.

Google acquired a string of robotics firms in 2013, culminating in the purchase of Boston Dynamics in December, the most high-profile purchase at the time and a company holding contracts with the US military.

Google’s robotics division was put under the leadership of the father of Android, Andy Rubin, in December, combining seven technology companies to foster a self-described “moonshot” robotics vision.

Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, told the Guardian last week that the company was aiming to be the world’s best personal assistant, and said the only limitation was the capability of the technology itself.

“We haven’t held back because people aren’t ready – we have held back because the technology doesn’t work yet,” he said. “It’s very hard to do. But we want it to be the best it can be – with opt in, full permission – to help me get through the day, figure out my questions and suggest questions I should ask people.” He added: “People are doing research into how computers discover knowledge instead of reporting what they figured out – many people are on the edge of that, so it’s maybe five years away.”

Hope is tempered by caution both among Iranians and in the west, where some see an opportunity to repair relations

A young Iranian couple, Masoud Bastani and Mahsa Amr-Abadi, both journalists and both imprisoned on account of their writing, have seen very little of each other for the past four years. Like many Iranian prisoners they were granted occasional temporary releases, but officials always made sure they were not allowed out at the same time.

“The authorities wanted to make life yet more miserable for the two, like an extra punishment,” said one of their friends. Their convictions were for colluding and spreading propaganda against the state, a frequent charge against dissidents and independent journalists. This month, however, Bastani and Amr-Abadi were reunited at their house in Tehran, and pictures on Facebook showing the smiling couple embracing one another delighted their friends and followers.

Their newfound happiness is one of a number of small signs of change after the election in June of President Hassan Rouhani, a veteran pragmatist who ran on an ambitiously reformist platform. With a week until Rouhani’s inauguration, such signs have fuelled hope that a peaceful “Iranian spring” could be on the way, reversing the intensifying repression of the last eight years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yet those hopes are tempered by bitter experience. Green shoots of civic freedoms and human rights were even more apparent under the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and at the peak of the 2009 opposition Green movement, only to be emphatically quashed by conservatives in the regime and security forces.

There is even greater caution in the west about the possibility of a better relationship with Tehran and perhaps even a deal to defuse the long and dangerous standoff over Iran’s nuclear aspirations. National security and the nuclear programme in particular are very much the preserve of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. But optimists hope that the intense economic pressures on Iran – amplified by severe US and European sanctions – that helped carry Rouhani to victory will drive the regime towards a historic compromise.

Rouhani has not yet formed a government, so the hopes and doubts swirling around his presidency are based mostly on speculation. However, Iranians report that since the election there has been a distinct thaw in the air.

Bastani and Amr-Abadi are not alone. More temporary releases have been handed out and a handful of the political prisoners recently granted leave have been told they need not return to jail provided they stay out of trouble. Others have been told they will be released on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday next month marking the end of Ramadan. Those on trial for political offences say they have been promised acquittal or light sentences. One recently released activist said his interrogators had been noticeably more polite, as if sensing the winds of change.

The new mood has been apparent among the police on the street. As millions of jubilant Iranians poured on to the streets to celebrate Iran’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup days after the election, the police tolerated public music, dancing and slogans chanted in favour of imprisoned opposition leaders, which would have been suppressed only days before.

Last week 25 independent Iranian documentary film-makers accused of working clandestinely inside the country for the BBC’s Persian service were all acquitted, even though at least 10 of them had previously been found guilty. The film-makers were alleged to have supplied the BBC with information, footage, news and reports misrepresenting Iran, leading to fears some would be charged with espionage. However, the country’s cinema organisation, affiliated to the powerful ministry for culture and Islamic guidance, surprised many by ruling that “none of the works was found to be propaganda against the ruling system and none contained anti-revolution material”.

At the same time, local media appear to be pushing back previously rigid boundaries. The semi-official Isna news agency broke a taboo by printing the names of opposition leaders under house arrest.

Summing up the popular mood, the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was blocked from standing in the election, said on Thursday: “The election’s result has brought hope, peace and rationality to our country.”

Even as they celebrate, many Iranians acknowledge they may be suffering from over-exuberance in view of the limited real changes to date and their extreme fragility. On Facebook and Twitter, the two-word post-election chant “Rouhani Mochakerim” (Rouhani thank you!), is increasingly used ironically as universal expression of gratitude for everyday occurrences (“My brother just passed his exams – Rouhani thank you!”).

The past few weeks have not just been a series of prisoner releases. There have been occasional political arrests too, such as that of the journalist Fariba Pajouh.

Faraz Sanei, of Human Rights Watch, said it was too early to declare a new Iranian spring on the basis of a few rays of sunshine. “Rouhani’s win was certainly a surprise to most analysts, but it is not an indication that reformists will have the upper hand during the next four years,” he said.

Rouhani’s impact on Iran’s relations with the rest of the world is even harder to predict. Khamenei set the tone for national security and foreign policy in the Ahmadinejad era and made clear during the election campaign that he did not intend to change under the new president.

There are signs that the regime intends to use Rouhani’s softer image to try to win more friends abroad. The government has broken with previous practice to invite foreign leaders – with the exceptions of US and Israel – to the inauguration next Sunday.

The foreign ministry even mounted something of a charm offensive in the direction of the UK, seen in ruling circles as Iran’s third worst adversary. On the occasion of the birth of Prince George, the ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi, a UK-educated fluent English speaker, offered congratulations to the Queen and the Prince of Wales.

The conservative backlash to those comments, however, served to underline the scale of the challenge facing the new government in attempting a rapprochement with the west. Araghchi was fiercely criticised by parliamentary rightwingers, and state TV broadcast a furious diatribe describing the Queen as an “iron-fisted dictator” who chose members of parliament and filled key positions by appointment. “England has one of the most reactionary and medieval forms of governments,” the report from London declared.

Ali Ansari, professor of modern history at Saint Andrews University, said the regime would ultimately have to resolve its contradictory views on dealing with the west. “The conservatives seem to think that Rouhani’s election will change international perceptions overnight,” Ansari said. “But if they think that a smiling Rouhani will get sanctions lifted and everything will be hunky dory without giving something substantial to the west, they may be surprised.”

The mixed messages emanating from Tehran have deepened divisions in the west over how to respond to the dawning of the Rouhani age. The UK government has opted not to send officials to the inauguration, arguing that to do so would be to break with the common EU position that only local ambassadors should attend. (The UK has not had a diplomatic presence in Tehran since its embassy was stormed by a mob in November 2011.)

That decision was quickly condemned by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, as “a misjudgment and a missed opportunity”. Ben Wallace, Conservative chairman of the British-Iran parliamentary group, also voiced concern that western mis-steps could undermine the new president. “Rouhani has a real task ahead. He has to balance the politics inside Iran while at the same time trying to bring Iran into the mainstream of the international community,” Wallace said. “The danger for him and for peace is if the US and the UK move the goalposts

and are seen to be hypocritical in support of repressive Sunni regimes yet tough on the Shia nation of Iran.”

The uncertainty over how to respond to Rouhani’s rise is even more pronounced across the Atlantic. According to the New York Times, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, passed a message purportedly from Rouhani to the White House, saying that the new president was interested in direct negotiations. As an apparent sweetener to encourage such sentiments, Washington has tweaked its draconian sanctions to allow the transfer of more medical equipment. At the same time, however, the Republican-run House of Representatives is preparing to vote on the imposition of even more stringent sanctions before going on its August recess. A joint letter by two retired senior US officers, General Joseph Hoar and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, and Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, published on The Hill’s congressional blog said: “Rouhani’s election represents what could be the last best hope for serious negotiations with Iran to produce a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute. . “The House must not snuff out hopes for Iranian moderation before Rouhani even gets a chance.”

LGBT activists target brands including Stolichnaya and Russian Standard in response to ban on ‘gay propaganda’

There’s nothing more Russian than vodka, so when gay and lesbian activists decided to protest against the country’s persecution of homosexuals it made sense to target its most famous drink.

The US sex writer Dan Savage, famous for his online campaign against the homophobic senator Rick Santorum, called for a vodka boycott to draw attention to new laws allowing police officers to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual or “pro-gay”.

“To show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and straight allies in Vladimir Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: dump Russian vodka,” Savage wrote on his blog, He singled out the brands Stolichnaya and Russian Standard, coining the hashtag #DumpStoli for the campaign, which has been backed by Queer Nation and the Russian-American group Rusa LGBT.

Savage said attacks on LGBT people in Russia were escalating, and criticised the state for banning gay pride marches in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Six bars in Chicago announced they would stop selling Russian products, and a seventh bar said it had withdrawn Stolichnaya, according to Windy City Times, a Chicago LGBT newspaper.

The campaign seemed to have an instant success when the manufacturers of Stolichnaya criticised Russia’s record on lesbian and gay rights.

In an open letter published this week, Val Mendeleev, the head of the SPI group, condemned the Russian government for “limiting the rights of the LGBT community” and noted that the Russian state has no ownership or control of the brand, which is produced in Latvia.

On its Facebook page, the company posted a multicoloured banner reading: “Stolichnaya Premium Vodka stands strong and proud with the global LGBT community against the actions and beliefs of the Russian government.”

Stolichnaya, with its distinctive red-and-white label, was produced by the state in Soviet times and was reportedly the favourite vodka of Boris Yeltsin. After an attempt by the Russian state to regain the brand name in the 2000s, SPI Group, which is based in Luxembourg, has produced Stolichnaya in Latvia using Russian ingredients. Meanwhile, the state-owned Soyuzplodimport produces a nearly identical vodka in Russia.

Russia’s leading gay rights activist said the boycott was misguided.

“They mixed everything up. Stolichnaya isn’t Russian,” said the lawyer Nikolai Alekseev, head of the Moscow Pride organising committee.

“This is all good for attracting attention to the situation in Russia, like any other action, such as boycott of the Olympics, but it will not drastically change anything,” he added.

Unlike Stolichnaya, Russian Standard vodka is produced in Russia and is owned by the Russian oligarch Roustam Tariko. A spokesman for the company declined to comment.

In June Russia’s parliament unanimously passed a law banning the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors, prompting calls for other countries to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, and to distribute material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners. Four Dutch activists were charged in Murmansk this week under the law.

This is not Savage’s first controversial LGBT campaign: in 2003, he held a contest to create a definition for “santorum” after Santorum made comments critical of gay marriage. The new word was defined as “the frothy mixture of lube and faecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex”.

More details emerge of Francisco Garz n, 52, as he recovers in hospital after train crash that left at least 78 dead

The focus of the investigation into Spain’s worst rail accident for 40 years remains on the train’s driver, Francisco Garz n, who has been under arrest in hospital since Thursday evening.

Garz n has so far refused to answer police questions, the Press Association reported. He was now expected to questioned by a judge, it said.

At least 78 people died in the accident in which the high-speed Alvia 151 train careered into a sharp curve at more than twice the permitted speed before hurtling off the tracks. By Friday night, 31 were critically ill in hospital, some of them in comas.

Antonio del Amo, head of the Spanish national police’s central forensic unit, said six of the bodies recovered from the wreckage had yet to be identified.

On Friday, more reports of Garz n’s actions leading up to the crash began to emerge. The daily El Pa s reported that the experienced 52-year-old driver had received an order to reduce speed just seconds before the crash and had acknowledged it by pressing a button in the driver’s cab. It remained unclear whether he had been unable or unwilling to apply the brakes on the train, which was running five minutes behind schedule.

A stream of leaked extracts from recorded conversations immediately following the disaster suggested that Garz n held himself responsible for what had happened.

While still trapped in the cockpit of his train, he was reported to have told the emergency service of the state-owned train operator, Renfe: “I hope there are no dead, because they will be on my conscience.” He added: “I should have been going at 80 [kph] and I am going at 190.” Garzon also reportedly said over and again: “We’re human, we’re human.”

The Spanish news agency Europa Press reported that during the same conversation the driver had said: “I’ve fucked it. I want to die.”

Contacted by telephone in hospital by the regional newspaper, La Voz de Galicia, Garz n refused to comment beyond saying, “You imagine how I am.”

Details also began to emerge of Garz n’s life. He is a lifelong railwayman and native of Galicia, living in the city of A Coru a with his widowed mother, who lost her other son in a car accident. But he was born in Monforte, an important regional rail centre, and has a flat there.

The son of a railway worker, Garz n was brought up in housing built for railway workers and went to a school run by Renfe. It was in Monforte, 70 miles inland from Santiago de Compostela, that he began working for the company in his early 20s.

He had 10 years’ experience as a driver and Renfe’s president, Julio G mez-Pomar Rodr guez, said Garz n had worked on the Ourense to Santiago line, where the accident took place, for more than a year.

Before returning to his native Galicia, he had worked on the line between Madrid and Barcelona, which is served by so-called AVE trains that can reach speeds of 310kph (193mph).

Julia Morais, a friend of his own age in his home town of Monforte de Lemos, told Reuters: “He was sensible and very good at his job. We don’t know what could have happened.”

Garz n’s professionalism appeared to have been compromised by the discovery of a photograph he posted to his Facebook page showing his speedometer at 200kph. However, as a driver of high-speed trains he may have been on a stretch of the network where such a speed is permitted. The photograph was posted on 8 March 2012. It nevertheless surprised Garzon’s friends. One wrote: “You’re going like the bloody clappers, lad. Brake.”

Garz n is suspected of criminal recklessness, but has not yet been charged. Spanish rail experts have argued that mere negligence cannot explain the crash: that the “black boxes” recovered from the train will show that a technical fault was partly – or perhaps entirely – to blame for what happened. Garz n reportedly tested negative for alcohol following the crash.

Garz n was led from the scene of the tragedy with his face covered in blood and given nine stitches to a head wound, but appeared otherwise uninjured.

Meanwhile, in the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela, a shrine to the victims of the rail disaster was forming spontaneously at the entrance to the great cathedral of St James on Friday evening.

Friday was the feast of St James and the day many of the pilgrims to the traditional site of his tomb in the cathedral aim to complete their journeys. Some tied little bunches of flowers to the railings at the entrance. Others placed candles and notes on the ledges below. Nearby, a stack of pilgrims’ staffs leant against the wall.

A day for the ending of journeys was appropriate for remembering those who on Wednesday failed to complete theirs. In many cases it was sheer chance that some of the passengers aboard the Alvia 151 lived and others died.

Carmen Quiroga from A Coru a had switched to a later train because she stood a better chance of dining aboard in peace. As soon as her son heard of the accident, he rang her mobile, but it was out of range. “When I eventually spoke to him, he began to weep: he thought I was there,” she told La Voz de Galicia.

Benito Est vez changed his plans after learning from his parents that a relative had been taken to hospital, seriously ill. “I feared that I’d never see him again,” he said.

Others were as unlucky as Quiroga and Estevez were fortunate. A young man at the scene of the accident who declined to be named said he had swapped seats on the way up from Madrid with a woman who was killed when the train derailed.

Father Ricardo V zquez, the spiritual director of the seminary in Santiago, was among those on hand to provide comfort at the centre where relatives of the victims learned of their loved ones’ fate. Among the “devastated human beings” he attended was a man who “was crying out that he wanted to die because he felt responsible for the death of his daughter whom he had persuaded to come and visit him”.

Manuel Su rez, a sales representative from near Santiago, often travelled to Madrid for his work, but never by rail. “He always went by car or plane,” said a cousin. “But on this occasion, he said: ‘This time, I’ll go by train.'”

Deposed president alleged to have helped Palestinian Islamists murder Egyptian police during 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for conspiring with Hamas during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since he was forced from office and detained by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

After the announcement, Morsi was moved from a secret military facility to Cairo’s Tora prison, where his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, is also being held.

The news heightened tensions on a day when supporters of Egypt’s two main factions formed rival mass protests across the country in what was billed as a showdown between people backing the army and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. By the evening, nine people had been killed, most in Alexandria, and at least 200 injured in clashes in five cities, according to the MENA state news agency.

Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. The charges allege that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brothers were rescued from jail during the revolution with Hamas’s assistance, and then helped Hamas to attack Egyptian police facilities and murder policemen during the ousting of Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals and that Hamas had no role in the uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 25 January revolution [the 2011 uprising] through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return to influence of Mubarak-era officials and institutions who were sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The police – a target of the 2011 uprising – have seen their popularity rise again following the anti-Morsi protests on 30 June, and they have been quick to capitalise. On Friday, police gave Egyptian flags to pro-army protesters in a show of unity.

The decision by the new government to focus first on allegations relating to events before Morsi’s presidency, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that it may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police – who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under Morsi.

Resurgent support for the police, who publicly backed Morsi’s removal, was apparent among pro-army protesters, even from the most unlikely sources.

“The interior ministry [who run the police] have been purified of the blood of the past,” said 66-year-old Magdy Iskandar Assad, whose son was killed by police officers during protests following Mubarak’s fall. “There’s a reconciliation now between the people and institutions like state security.”

Assad was one of hundreds of thousands demonstrating in support of the army chief, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of the Egyptian media has spent the past month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to go out to support Sisi, and thousands heeded the call – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the atmosphere was of a military pageant.

Many wore photographs of Sisi around their neck. Military helicopters flew overhead to loud cheers from the crowd. Smiling protesters had their pictures taken with the soldiers who were securing the entrances to the square, some of them sitting on large armoured personnel carriers.

“My message to General Sisi is: what you did on 30 June was greater than what Egypt did in the 1973 war [against Israel],” said Walid Hedra, 38, a one-time Islamist who grew disillusioned with Morsi after he used dictatorial powers to force through a controversial new constitution last November.

“The armed forces are reborn again thanks to Sisi, the successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said Assad, referring to Egypt’s much-loved dictator during the 50s and 60s. “Sisi is a courageous man who is working for the good of the country.”

Egypt’s pro-Sisi demonstrations also coincided with counter-demonstrations by Morsi’s supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood organised 35 marches across the capital, raising fears of serious factional fighting after nightfall. By the evening, 37 had already been injured in clashes in northern Cairo – but clashes were fiercest in Alexandria, where the health ministry reported at least 100 injured.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, had earlier stoked tensions by calling Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

Many marching in Morsi’s name were afraid of what Sisi’s campaign against terrorism might entail. “It doesn’t make sense for a defence minister to ask people to give him authority to fight terrorism,” said Abdallah Hatem, a 19-year-old student from Cairo. “So his speech was a pretext for something else – a pretext to fight peaceful protesters who want Morsi to come back.”

“None of us here are terrorists,” added Mohamed Mostafa, a street vendor from southern Egypt, struggling nearby under the weight of a Morsi banner. “You can see that for yourself.”

But not everyone on the streets accepted the binary choice of the army or the Brotherhood. A small group of Egyptians, calling themselves the Third Square, gathered in a square in west Cairo to object to the authoritarianism of both groups.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his tenure. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi’s supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June.

Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a protest outside a military compound in east Cairo. In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is considered an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. But the movement’s leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation in the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi. Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core and delusional demand – would also see them lose significant credibility among their supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam. “They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”

Asked whether he would accept anything less that Morsi’s reinstatement, 19-year-old Morsi-backer Abdallah Hatem said: “It’s impossible.”

Additional reporting by Marwa Awad

This may be the year the pop landscape is overrun with Scandinavian singers of the female variety, so we present six of the best

M

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M , AKA Karen Marie rsted, first plonked Pilgrim online last October, causing certain music bloggers to contort into spasms of pure wonder. By channelling elements of the dreaded ‘indie-pop’ sound – there are nods to the likes of Purity Ring in the eerie, cut-up vocals – and bolting on a huge chorus (“holla, holla, holla”), M and producer Ronni Vindahl have managed to utilise elements of something boring and dry and turn it into something uniquely heartfelt and unshakeably catchy. She’s also just released a Denmark-only single called Glass which features the line, “Oh dear one turn the lights off, so our horny souls can have some private time”. You can’t say fairer than that, really.

Cry/dance factor: 56/100. Likelihood of ‘doing a Robyn’: 78. Likelihood of song appearing in an episode of Girls: 79. Relevance of adjective ‘glacial’: 65. Average BPM: 50.

Frida Sundemo

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Perhaps Scandi-pop’s biggest asset of late has been its ability to make people dance like idiots while rivulets of tears and dollops of snot pour over creased cheeks and ugly grimaces. Sad lyrics packaged in happy melodies is nothing new in pop, of course, but it’s an art form the Swedes especially have started to dominate, and Gothenburg resident and former medical school graduate Frida Sundemo has two proper cry-at-the-disco anthems up her sleeve. While the bittersweet Indigo encases an entreaty about not giving up in a souffle of sparky synths and pogoing beats, the gorgeously melancholic Snow finds Sundemo wishing the winter would frankly just piss off: “Goodbye Mr Cold, I’m begging you to go”.

Cry/dance factor: 92/100. Likelihood of ‘doing a Robyn’: 75. Likelihood of song appearing in an episode of Girls: 41. Relevance of adjective ‘glacial’: 83. Average BPM: 140.

Elliphant

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“I’m like a finger up your ass, now why not give it to me?” muses mysterious Swede Elliphant on the clattering Ciant Hear It, a song that seems to have been built around an old rave siren, a dog barking and a disintegrating Commodore 64. Elsewhere on her recently released self-titled EP she channels Arular-era MIA on the frantic TeKKno Scene, the sound of a panic attack on Make It Juicy and Swedish reggae on Down On Life (opening line: “We are waking up in a pile of shit”). While Frida Sundemo can act like a soothing balm to life’s woes, Elliphant’s skull-rattling agit-pop – which has much in common with Icona Pop’s shoutier material – is a pretty good way of kicking bullshit into touch before it all gets out of hand.

Cry/dance factor: 6/100. Likelihood of ‘doing a Robyn’: 36. Likelihood of song appearing in an episode of Girls: 83. Relevance of adjective ‘glacial’: 0. Average BPM: 90.

Margaret Berger

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In 2004 Berger auditioned for the second series of Norwegian Idol (or Idol: Jakten p en superstjerne to be precise) only to be dumped before the live shows. Luckily, one of the judges brought her back as a wildcard (she finished second), and her 2006 album Pretty Scary Silver Fairy explored electropop (think a lighter R yksopp or the Knife). She’s been quiet for a couple of years, but recently won Melodi Grand Prix (the Norwegian version of Your Country Needs You) and will represent Norway at Eurovision. Her song, I Feed You My Love, is spectacular – all big farting synths and dark lyrics like, “You put a knife against my back and you dare me to face the attack”. Jade Ewen this ain’t.

Cry/dance factor: 66/100. Likelihood of ‘doing a Robyn’: 68. Likelihood of song appearing in an episode of Girls: 32. Relevance of adjective ‘glacial’: 59. Average BPM: 95.

NONONO

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When it’s really yes, yes, yes? Formed in Stockholm, NONONO, AKA singer Stina W ppling and production duo Astma & Rocwell, make the kind of percussion-heavy, gloom-tinged pop Niki & The Dove brought to the ‘masses’ last year. While Astma & Rocwell have previous, having worked with Icona Pop and Beatrice Eli (whose 2012 single The Conqueror is a glowering synth-ballad), it’s Stina – who’s just finished a three-year psychology course, education fans – that steals the show. While their debut Like The Wind ticks all the right boxes, production-wise (rattling percussion, spidery guitars similar to the xx, delicate synth flourishes), it’s all anchored by Stina’s vocal, which boosts it all with genuine character. Check out the “wha ah ah ah” bits if you don’t believe us.

Cry/dance factor: 44/100. Likelihood of ‘doing a Robyn’: 49. Likelihood of song appearing in an episode of Girls: 63. Relevance of adjective ‘glacial’: 51. Average BPM: 80.

Faye

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As a teenager, Stockholm-born Fanny Hamlin (no sniggering at the back) was in the Swedish girl band Play alongside Rosanna Munter (please, guys, concentrate) and two other singers with less interesting names. Play released the excellent single Waterfall in 2010, and at one point toured with Destiny’s Child, with Beyonc imparting her vast amount of wisdom to Fanny by suggesting she steer clear of the music industry altogether. Thankfully she didn’t listen. The newly christened Faye recently set about making the kind of elegantly poised electropop torch songs that make you clutch at your chest in overdramatic anguish. Her first single, Water Against The Rocks, was one of 2012’s best music moments.

Cry/dance factor: 89/100. Likelihood of ‘doing a Robyn’: 71. Likelihood of song appearing in an episode of Girls: 57. Relevance of adjective ‘glacial’: 85. Average BPM: 50.

William Hague responds to ‘delusional’ Assad interview with promise to step up aid package with promise of more to come

The UK might start arming Syrian rebels if the death toll and humanitarian crisis continue to worsen, making it necessary to do “something new to save lives”, William Hague said on Sunday.

The foreign secretary is due to make a statement to parliament this week detailing a new package of aid to the rebels, following a relaxation last week of the EU rules on what can be sent to Syria. It is expected to include body armour and civilian vehicles reinforced to provide protection against shrapnel. Hague said the new aid would be non-lethal, excluding weapons and ammunition, but he stressed that policy could change as the conflict continues.

“I don’t rule out anything for the future. If this is going to go on for months, or years, and more tens of thousands of people are going to die, and countries like Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan are going to be destabilised, it is not something we can ignore,” the foreign secretary told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

“If ever we get into that situation [of supplying weapons to the opposition] the risks of arms falling into the wrong hands is one of the great constraints. And it is one of the reasons we don’t do it now. But these things are a balance of risk. You can reach consensus eventually when humanitarian need is so great and the loss of life is so great that you have to do something new to save lives. That’s why I don’t rule it out in the future.”

In an interview with the Sunday Times, president Assad yesterday denounced Britain for its leading role in pushing for more help to the rebels, accusing the government of neocolonialism.

“To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries,” the Syrian leader said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony.”

He derided Britain’s stated aim of strengthening moderate rebel groups, arguing no such thing existed.

“The British government wants to send military aid to moderate groups in Syria, knowing all too well that such moderate groups do not exist in Syria; we all know that we are now fighting al-Qaida or Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an offshoot of al-Qaida, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies. This is beyond hypocritical,” Assad said.

Hague responded by telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “This will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times.”

The comments by Assad dampened hopes of peace negotiations that had been raised in Moscow last week by his foreign minister, Walid Muallem, who said the regime was ready to talk with the opposition. Assad said talks could only take part with those elements of the opposition that were “loyal to Syria” and who “surrender their arms”. He appeared to exclude the main opposition group, the National Coalition, arguing “the Syrian people do not recognise them or take them seriously”.

Today in an attempt to strengthen its ties with rebels inside Syria, the head of the coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, visited areas under their control near the northern city of Aleppo, which has been the focus of intense fighting in recent months. Khatib has offered to open talks with the Damascus regime, without insisting on the opposition’s earlier precondition of Assad stepping down, but demanding the government release 160,000 political prisoners.

National Coalition officials emerged from a meeting of their western and Arab backers in Rome on Thursday confident the European arms embargo would begin to crumble in the next few months and that Washington would also drop its ban on arming the rebels. They said that in recent weeks they have been allowed by Turkey to smuggle in more sophisticated types of weapons, including anti-tank missiles.

The website of the French newspaper, Le Figaro, yesterday quoted a French military source in the Middle East as saying that US, British and French special forces were already training Syrian rebels in Jordan, at the King Abdallah Special Operation Training Centre north of Amman.

The New York Times last week also quoted senior US officials as saying that American soldiers were helping train Syrian rebels “at a base in the region” . In his Le Figaro blog, the journalist Georges Malbrunot cited a source as saying the training mission began “before the end of last year”.

Paralympic star accused of trying to massage public perceptions as press release issued over plans for private memorial service

Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic star accused of murder, is due to hold a personal memorial service to honour Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend he shot dead at his home in what he claims was an accident.

The service is due to take place on Tuesday night at the home of his uncle Arnold, where the South African has been staying since he was released on bail awaiting trial.

Plans for the service in the capital Pretoria came to light after a “leak” to the media, according to the public-relations agency representing Pistorius.

Vuma Reputation Management said: “Oscar specifically requested the memorial service as he continues to grieve and remains in deep mourning for the loss of his partner, Reeva. Since it is such a sensitive issue, Oscar has asked for a private service with people who share his loss, including his family members who knew and loved Reeva as one of their own.”

The press release added: “The Pistorius family would like to make a personal request to the media to please respect their privacy at their home in Pretoria tonight.”

Pistorius, 26, claims he shot the 29-year-old model by accident, assuming an intruder had entered his home on 14 February. The state accuses him of premeditated murder.

A woman answered the phone at Arnold Pistorius’s home on Tuesday evening but said Arnold was unavailable. There was no immediate comment from Steenkamp’s family, who held her funeral last week and have called for Pistorius to face justice.

Shashi Naidoo, a friend of Steenkamp, said: “If you wanted to keep a memorial service private, you would not put out a press release. I think this is a sad attempt to alter public perception.”

The battle of perceptions is being waged by the Johannesburg-based Vuma, hired to deal with intense international media interest since the fatal shooting. It has revamped Pistorius’s website, acted as a conduit for public statements by the Pistorius family, and become the first point of contact for journalists after the former Sun editor Stuart Higgins returned to Britain last week.

Higgins said recently: “I’ve been here at the family’s request to offer short-term support and, given my own lack of knowledge and experience of the South African media landscape, I’ve recruited a local PR agency to offer local support and I will help out from London.

“There’s a danger I will become the story if I stay here and alienate the local media,” he said.

On Monday a government official was quoted as saying that Pistorius wanted to resume training while on bail. Vuma’s Janine Hills was quick to issue a denial, however: “Absolutely not. He is currently in mourning and his focus is not on his sports.”

Meanwhile, a South African government politician weighed into the tragedy on Tuesday. Lulu Xingwana, the women’s minister, said: “I was disappointed Oscar got bail but I respect the decision of the court.”

Xingwana echoed critics who said the Pistorius case highlighted a deep malaise of violence against women, often involving firearms. “If there was no gun in the Pistorius home, Reeva Steenkamp would still be alive.

“Domestic violence is exacerbated by easy access to guns. We are making a call for stricter gun control. As a country we need to wage a sustained and effective campaign against the availability of guns in our homes and streets.”

Women are three times more likely to die violently if a firearm was kept in the home, she added.

It has also emerged that the magistrate who granted bail to Pistorius is related to a woman suspected of killing her two children and then killing herself last weekend. Desmond Nair confirmed that the woman, whose body was found at her home on Sunday evening along with those of her sons, is a first cousin.

By blending high and low art, Roy Lichtenstein tested the contradictions at the heart of our ideas about art. He was labelled a heretic, but half a century later, we get the joke

In November 2011, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1961 I Can See the Whole Room … and There’s Nobody in It! was sold by Christie’s for $43.2 million. The painting depicts a large back square, out of which a circle has been cut. From behind the circle peers the face of a jutting-jawed comic-strip man, illuminated by a bright background of yellow. He is looking through a peephole, at the viewer; above him a dialogue bubble declares that he can see no one in the room where we, presumably, are standing. The irony shoots in many directions, not least towards that perennial question demanded of modern art: is there any there there?

Painted in the same year as his breakthrough Look Mickey, the work in which Lichtenstein first discovered the possibilities of using cartoons and comic strips, I Can See the Whole Room … and There’s Nobody in It! encapsulates Lichtenstein’s wittiness and insight. The painting quotes abstract expressionism – the image suggests such seminal works as Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 Black Square – while entirely subverting its tone. The avant garde confronts kitsch, the old world confronts the new, the individual confronts the mass-produced, and the confrontational confronts the jocular, even as the visible is declaring its viewers invisible. But Lichtenstein is just as willing to efface the image, and its maker, as his audience: in his 1978 Self-Portrait, he puts a blank mirror where the artist’s head should be.

At the same moment that Lichtenstein was discovering that he could use popular culture to ask searching questions about concept, form and technique, Andy Warhol was, quite independently, also using cartoon in his experimental work: neither artist knew it yet, but Pop Art was about to spring fully formed from America’s forehead. The nation did not initially enjoy looking in the mirror that Lichtenstein and Warhol were thrusting toward it: in 1964, Life magazine asked of Lichtenstein, “Is he the worst artist in America?”

Half a century later, the first major exhibition since Lichtenstein’s death in 1997 has arrived at Tate Modern, having travelled from the Art Institute of Chicago, where it opened last year. Although it took a while for museums to warm to Lichtenstein’s then heretical blending of high and low art, the original and the copy, the serious and the trivial, satire and homage, mechanical and handmade, produced and reproduced, far-seeing connoisseurs recognised something new and exciting, and immediately began collecting him.

His work explores ideas of clich s and icons, the ersatz and the manufactured. In the beginning, cartoons and comic strips provided his source material, although he soon moved away from them. But he never abandoned his signature method, the Ben-Day dot (named after inventor Benjamin Day’s 1879 technique for reproducing printed images by using dots to recreate gradations of shading), ensuring that his work would remain as recognisable as it was quotable.

Lichtenstein’s paintings are far more technically demanding than it seems at first glance. His work was described by the critic Hal Foster as the “handmade readymade”: not industrially mechanised, but blending careful techniques of handwork (drawing, tracing, painting, emphasising brushstroke, line, and Ben-Day dot) with the reproduction and screening of found images. It is not art trouv but art retrouv : refashioned, recovered, reframed. And in the process, our simplistic distinctions between making and manufacturing begin to dissolve.

Like Marcel Duchamp before him, Lichtenstein was criticised for not producing original art but plagiarising the originals. Unlike Duchamp, however, Lichtenstein couldn’t even offer the avant-garde defence of aggressive “obscenity”: his work is resolutely unconfrontational, tonally serene, even when the subject matter (such as Drowning Girl or WHAAM!) is pain or violence. This led to persistent accusations of detachment, distance, a frigidity that some say makes his work hard to love. Conversely, others charge that Lichtenstein’s art is too lovable: too accessible, commercial, art “lite” for the merely acquisitive.

His work tests the contradictions at the heart of our ideas about art and taste: reproduction enables accessibility and democratisation (good), but prompts anxieties about vulgarisation and popularisation (bad). But vulgarisation, Lichtenstein said, was what he was exploring: “The colour range I use is perfect for the idea, which has always been about vulgarisation.” The Ben-Day dots, too, were meant to suggest the manufactured and simulated: “The dots I use to make the image ersatz. And I think the dots also may mean data transmission.” The work is “supposed to look like a fake, and it achieves that, I think,” he explained.

It is no coincidence that Lichtenstein’s painstaking, hand-made works about reproduction do not themselves reproduce well: when they are reproduced, they lose their individuality, specificity, scope and delicacy. But the ideas remain, and they are wiser and more prescient than is sometimes acknowledged. Along with the other pop artists, Lichtenstein helped to suggest that any representation is mediated, emphasising new ways of seeing in the age of the industrialised image.

What is the relationship between imagination and the images that have shaped it? As I Can See the Whole Room … and There’s Nobody in It! suggests, Lichtenstein asks questions about perception and environment: apertures and camera shutters, peepholes and voyeurism, frame and screens define the way we view our surroundings. “My work isn’t about form,” he once said. “It’s about seeing. I’m excited about seeing things, and I’m interested in the way I think other people saw things.”

What he saw, and saw others seeing, was mid-century America in all its tawdry grandeur: a brash, jazzy, garish world of bright colours and arrested motion, industrialised and mechanised, through which real human experience keeps pushing its way. Lichtenstein brings noise and narrative into painting, introducing time and motion into a still life. The sensibility of much of his work is not far from the mid-century Hollywood musical: an unnatural, stylised world of primary colours, formulae and clich s, featuring carefully designed outbursts of spontaneous emotion, painstakingly recreated. Lichtenstein’s meticulously hand-painted dots may be no more reminiscent of French pointillism than of Fred Astaire re-recording each tap in a tap dance for the film’s soundtrack. And like the Hollywood musical, his work has been accused of nostalgia, conservatism, appeasement, even as it is celebrated for its energy, technical skill and charm.

Roy Fox Lichtenstein was born on 27 October 1923, and raised in New York City, the son of affluent middle-class parents. It was the jazz age; Scott Fitzgerald was in the midst of the parties that would inspire The Great Gatsby. The young Lichtenstein grew up surrounded by that world of exploding mass culture and commercial advertisement, jazz and prohibition (the peephole in I Can See the Whole Room has suggested the speakeasy to some viewers). Surrounded by the art moderne of the 1930s, influenced by the geometrical, modernist world of art deco and futurism, Lichtenstein also loved the superheroes of radio and film serials, and the popular music of his day, especially jazz. One of his finest paintings, The Melody Haunts My Reverie, features one of his perfect blondes (recently, and accurately, likened to Betty Draper in Mad Men) crooning a line from “Stardust” by the great Hoagy Carmichael.

He studied art at Ohio State University until the second world war interrupted his studies. Sent to Europe, he worked as a draughtsman, among other duties, and encountered European art, including exhibitions of C zanne and Toulouse Lautrec in London. After the war, he returned to Ohio, where he completed his degree and taught art for the next 10 years, while he pursued his painting, searching for an original style. He returned to New York in 1957, and four years later had his breakthrough with Look Mickey.

When the dealer Leo Castelli took him on in 1961, Lichtenstein joined a group of artists that included Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and whom Warhol would soon join and eclipse, at least in the celebrity stakes. For the next 45 years Lichtenstein remained at the forefront of the American art world. The conspicuous in America interested him, he said in 1965: “I think there’s the apparent lack of subtlety and sort of make-believe anti-sensibility connected with American art. I think this is a style and it does relate to our culture and I think it would be anachronistic maybe to pretend to be involved with subtle changes and modulations and things like that because it’s really not part of America.”

But such a statement was not necessarily a criticism. “The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire,” Lichtenstein said, and humour is as central to his work as is a very American buoyancy. Even the 1963 Drowning Girl is defiant: “I don’t care! I’d rather sink – than call Brad for help!” the girl’s thought bubble declares. Lichtenstein added later that, as far as he was concerned, the drowning girl didn’t drown. This relentlessly sanguine perspective, his cheerful willingness to celebrate rather than to excoriate, continues to mean that some will always view him as a lightweight, an artist manqu who sold out to the juggernaut of American popular culture. But context is crucial to parody and pastiche: pastiche reframes the work of art both literally and metaphorically, making us look at it anew. As with most modern art, parody and pastiche mean that the artist must also be a critic, engaging with a tradition that has been inherited without being overwhelmed or suffocated by it.

And clich , Lichtenstein maintained from the start, was central to his work. He was fascinated by the possibilities of reanimating a dead metaphor, playing with the bromidic visual formulae of mass culture, asking questions about inarticulacy, probing the tension between surface and depth. For an artist so interested in reproduction, he also understood the dangers of repeating himself, and worked hard to keep reinventing his work by turning to new themes and source material.

Reimagining Monet’s iconic series of Cathedrals and Haystacks, for example, Lichtenstein explained that they were “meant to be manufactured Monets”, at the same time as they were “a play on cubist composition”, borrowing imagery from the 1930s. “The theme is hackneyed, which is part of the idea”: the Monets “deal with the impressionist clich of not being able to read the image close up – it becomes clearer as you move away from it.”

When he turned to Van Gogh’s famous room at Arles, Lichtenstein’s sense of humour itself became a way of exploring that painter’s romanticised “madness”. Lichtenstein painted Bedroom at Arles, not after The Artist’s Room at Arles, but after a postcard of it, offering a tongue-in-cheek explication of how his painting “improved” Van Gogh’s: “I’ve cleaned his room up a little bit for him; and he’ll be very happy when he gets home from the hospital to see that I’ve straightened his shirts and bought some new furniture. Mine is a rather large painting and his is rather small … His is much better, but mine is much bigger.” This might seem merely facetious, but it subverts our supposedly straightforward evaluative criteria, while affectionately poking fun at American values, reminding us that bigger is not always better.

Lichtenstein added in a more serious vein: “Where the Van Gogh is so emotional, and feverish, and spontaneous, my work is planned and premeditated, and painfully worked out.” Lichtenstein is a conceptual artist who uses conventional representations to explore his abstract concepts. He liked using cartoon symbols, such as seeing stars, or the curving lines that indicate an arm in motion, because, he said, they “related to the way the futurists would have portrayed motion. There are certain marks, like these, that I am fond of using because they have no basis in reality, only in ideas.” And yet they convey ideas about how to depict the most physical of our realities: motion, time, collision. When Lichtenstein is faulted for being emotionally reserved, this is to deny that humour has an emotional impact. It can be defensive, but it can also be a profound point of connection, connectedness, even of sorrow and regret, and certainly of self-deprecation in an art world often accused of overweening narcissism.

Look Mickey, in which Donald Duck exclaims that he’s hooked a big one, features Donald raptly leaning toward his own image in the water, a Narcissus confronted not by his face, but by the artist’s signature, a small, sardonic, “rfl.” Or take the famous Masterpiece, which features another Hitchcock blonde admiringly telling the square-jawed artist: “WHY, BRAD DARLING, THIS PAINTING IS A MASTERPIECE! MY, SOON YOU’LL HAVE ALL OF NEW YORK CLAMORING FOR YOUR WORK!” He wasn’t wrong, but he kept laughing at himself, and that in itself is a virtue worth preserving.

When Lichtenstein died of pneumonia at the age of 73, his last words were: “Well, here I go,” a sentiment that could have appeared in one of his dialogue bubbles – humorous and forward-looking to the end.