Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bah! Humbug!


I continue to be surprised at our ongoing fascination with 'A Christmas Carol', most particularly with Ebenezer Scrooge whose dismay on seeing the length of Marley's chain is palpably obvious (right). As those who know me can attest, Christmastime for me resurrects 'Bah!' and 'Humbug' back into my vocabulary, which as everyone knows equally well, is just smoke and mirrors, disguising the fact that I detest the Santa hats, beery bonhomie, false gaiety (am I still allowed to use that word) and generally hollow merrymaking that seems to clothe the season, while my thoughts turn to starry Judean hillsides and quiet village stables.


The new 3D movie, however, is quite remarkable. Jim Carrey's Scrooge , apart from a passing resemblance to Albert Steptoe, left, is juicily malevolent until his final, heartrending conversion, Tiny Tim's roundly innocent face warms the heart and a gigantically motherly Mrs Fezziwig pirouettes improbably. The flying sequences where Scrooge journeys into his past, present and future like a superannuated Peter Pan are, well, breathtaking. All told, a grand night out.

Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in the movie was when a small, dirty foot appears under the cloak of The Ghost of Christmas Present, and two children are revealed. The Ghost explains "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased." The dark rage on the boy's face was haunting. The Ghost surely means  to contrast education which feeds the mind, a satisfaction of curiosity and a freedom to think for oneself with the insupportable yoke of Gradgrind's 'facts'. It is only a step further to imagine madrassas run by fanatical imams who cloak education in a disguise of righteousness to visualise the damage that can, indeed has been, caused.


Dickens himself worked tirelessly for a wide range of charitable causes, raising funds for soup kitchens, emigration schemes, housing associations, prison reform, hospitals, adult education, and disabled artists. He also believed that through his fiction he could promote moral solutions to social ills and could change society for the better. I think he succeeded. The final shot is a scene from Rochester's Dickens festival, an annual event to celebrate Victoriana in my home town. Everybody dresses up and has too much to drink. I knew the King's Head rather well...

Friday, December 25, 2009

December the Twenty-Fifth


Is it just me or is anyone else slightly ticked off at the relentless pursuit to remove the word 'Christ' from Christmas? Merry Xmas, Happy Holidays - do excuse me, but it's Merry Christmas, and has been so for some time, if you'll pardon the logical fallacy.
My son wrote me from NYC, from where 'Happy Holidays' appears de rigueur. When I was a child, this kind of remark was passed by waving neighbours as the car, loaded with luggage, set off, wheezing precariously, on it's annual pilgrimage to Bournemouth. I used to wonder whether we'd ever get there and frequently demanded to know how much further it was, usually within five minutes of leaving.

So, a short Christmas tutorial. It's perfectly true to assert that we've lost sight of 'the true meaning' of Christmas - whatever that is. The date is subjective and convenient, roughly coinciding as it does with the Roman Saturnalia, when slaves and free exchanged roles, briefly, and rioting broke out after successive emperors tried to shorten celebrations from a week to five or even three days. Evergreens and mistletoe are remnants of pagan fertility rites, as is the concept of bringing trees as symbols of everlasting life into the sitting room - always a problem in centrally heated homes. The reverse is also cited, unlike the one pictured, the tree is brought inside out of the pagan cold. The practice appears to have originated in Germany where trees were decorated with ornaments for a Druid festival, legend having it that Albert of Saxe-Coburg introduced the idea to Queen Victoria, who rather liked it. Martin Luther gets the credit for allegedly being the first to decorate evergreen trees with candles representing the light of Christ, fire hazards notwithstanding. The tree itself symbolises everlasting life, its form points like an arrow to the heavens, and circular evergreen wreaths represent eternity and brings to mind the crown of thorns. And so on and so forth.


Now to Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra. Born around 280 CE into a wealthy family, he became the patron saint of children because of stories that revolved around his generosity toward them. One story appears to have led to the practice of hanging stockings for Christmas. Nicholas knew of a man with three daughters nearing marriageable age. Knowing they would be forced into poor marriages by their lack of dowry, Nicholas sneaked by their house at night and threw a bag of gold through the window for each girl. The gold is said to have landed in the girls’ stockings where they were hanging to dry. We assume the weather to have been sufficiently mild for the shutters to have been left open and Nick had been practising with a basketball.

As for the picture, imagine Owen Wilson after a few years...


Oh, well. Believe in it or don't bother, but you can't make Christmas what it is not. 'Bah!' or even..'humbug.' Alternatively, a little Victorian nostalgia. No tears, please...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mystic Tyranny


From Ayn Rand’s “Faith and Force: the Destroyers of the Modern World” [1960]:

"Western civilization was the child and product of reason – via ancient Greece. In all other civilisations, reason has always been the menial servant – the handmaiden – of mysticism. You may observe the results. It is only Western culture that has ever been dominated – imperfectly, incompletely, precariously and at rare intervals – but still dominated by reason. You may observe the results of that.


The conflict of reason versus mysticism is the issue of life or death – of freedom or slavery – of progress or stagnant brutality. Or, to put it another way, it is the conflict of consciousness versus unconsciousness."

Not quite, I think, but fighting talk nevertheless. Without the battles at Marathon, Thermopylae and the Straits of Salamis, Western civilisation would not exist - at least not in its present form. Aristotle, born about 100 years after Thermopylae, would have been a Persian slave and, without him, we might very well not be having the reasoned and sober debate which has so captured the public imagination about the newest Satan, Global Warming. Twenty-five years ago, we were taught with equal seriousness that a new ice age was imminent and a nuclear winter was a distinct possibility. Both were derived from an imperfectly grasped Aristotelian response. It would seem that we are no nearer to globally workable policy after Copenhagen than before it, if indeed workable policy or 'doing something' is an appropriate method for dealing with a problem that we cannot even define accurately.

It has been alleged that everyone is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. Broad-brush, intellectuals are Platonists, everyone else is Aristotelian.

Plato supposed there to be two realities - a higher realm of timeless, abstract perfection and the degraded, illusory world we think we perceive with our senses. For Platonists, "higher truths" are revealed to an intellectual elite-presumably by the gods-and cannot be communicated or explained to the masses, who stubbornly cling to "common sense" - reason and logic.

Aristotle, the father of logic, held that there is only one reality, the world we perceive by our senses. For Aristotelians, all knowledge is derived from sensory observation by a process of abstraction and conceptualisation. Aristotle rejected Plato's mystical, elitist tendencies and held that by adherence to logic we can and must make rational sense of everything. This being so, and with our cultural history, why are we failing to make sense of what is manifestly happening around us? If the Earth is getting warmer, why can we not predict accurately exactly why, hence what can be done to maintain the status quo? Perhaps the answer lies outside of Aristotle's logic; instead it belongs to Plato's 'higher thought'. Perhaps the Earth itself is the mystic tyrant, bending us all to its will. One way or another.

The image is of the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae, refusing to submit to the slavery of King Xerxes of Persia.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Schmooze


I guess you might describe me as a bit God-fearin' if you weren't really sure what it meant. We God-fearers get together from time to time and schmooze - good Yiddish word. We shoot the breeze, hang out, talk amongst ourselves and in the original, spread rumour...From time to time, a spectral reference is made to our activities on Fridays. Sometimes helpful, sometimes less so. There is an unspoken perception that we all actually believe the same thing - after all, we say the Creed, don't we? It came as something of a surprise when I was jolted out of this cosy, bonhomous naivete by remarks made at one of the multitudes of Christmas soirees to which I have recently been invited.
'It's absolute rubbish that God still cares about Israel. The Church has taken its place.'
'Israelis? - Nazis, all of them!'
What was surprising was not the remarks themselves - let the reader understand - people have every right to believe that butterflies can swim if they so choose and let's lay aside reason and intellect, but the forcefulness of delivery was what caught my attention. Poor theology and political rhetoric notwithstanding, debate on such matters isn't really interesting enough to open here, but when received teaching hardens into doctrine and doctrine solidifies into principle which people - even quite clever people -  then become prepared to defend, the tinklings of Kristallnacht become uncomfortably strident. H'm.
The Shoah Memorial in San Francisco is frequently defaced, as shown.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Unity and Concord


King Ethelred was not, as they say, a Good King. He had paid off the invading Danish bullies, changed his mind and rather than face them in battle elected to slaughter them all on the same day in 1002, a rather early variant of ethnic cleansing. This didn't go down awfully well in Scandinavia, since a) it didn't work and b) the Queen of Denmark's sister was among those massacred. King Sweyn united the Norwegians and Danes, exacting a four-year revenge by way of blood and slaughter on the hapless population, culminating in drunken Vikings capturing the Archbishop of Canterbury and bringing his life to an exciting close by hurling animal skulls at him until he expired.
Why the history lesson today? Well, King Sweyn's father was Harald Bluetooth - they had funny names based on rather odd peculiarities in those days - another was Thorfinn Skullsplitter, whom one might hesitate to invite for lunch. It was this Scandinavian ruler who, with his son united the warring and savage Northlanders in much the same way as Bluetooth technology unites computers, phones and PDA's. Indeed, the Bluetooth logo is his name in Nordic runes.
I wonder if the current visitors to Copenhagen are making use of the technology? It's unlikely that the sex workers' generous offer will be captured photographically by those who availed themselves of it and bluetoothed to wives and families all over the world or, indeed, whether unity and concord will flow from the deliberations of the great and the good. The picture of a sex worker is self-explanatory.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Copenhagen? Wonderful.

It won't be easy, nor cheap to find a hotel room in the City of Spires this week. The great, good and terminally tedious have arrived in town for the optimistic 'Hopenhagen' conference. I shall not be able to attend this year, since the magnitude of my own carbon hoofprint is unacceptably large. Prince Charles is dropping in, apparently, so my place will be ably filled. I hope he's remembered to appoint someone to talk to his plants while he's away. Perhaps he'll avail himself of the not ungenerous offer of local prostitutes who are democratically offering free sex for anyone with a conference pass, in retaliation for the local council's advertisement to 'be sustainable, don't buy sex' posters. Carbon dating takes on a whole new meaning here.
The conference will itself generate a carbon dioxide per day equivalent of a town having a population of 140,000 - so 16,000 extra bodies commuting in and out in helicopters and limousines are each responsible for nine times the normal emissions, which hopefully has nothing to do with the sex workers.
If everybody took public transport from the airport, stayed in dormitories, rode bicycles to the meetings like the rest of the city does and ate communally, this might go some way towards ameliorating any small cynicisms I have. Copenhagen itself gave its name to the element hafnium which, I am informed, poses no threat to plants and is benignly non-toxic in small quantities, except for mucous membrane irritation and liver damage, so conference alcoholics and sneezers should be monitored carefully. Swine flu, or hafnium poisoning.. h'm...
But, of course, the whole shenanigan is eminently mockable, and even in the light of many countries' failures to live up to the Kyoto Protocols, it might be a tad previous to write off the whole deal as a lot of hot air, however clean. In the meantime, it's worth remembering that climate change however caused makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. Watch this space.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Duck and Old Booze

The French, somewhat cruelly – let the reader understand – are said, usually by the English, that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This remains to be seen as Le Tour d'Argent, one of the most famous and oldest eateries in the world, auctions  off some of the contents of its wine cellar this week.


Over the years, the chief sommelier had forgotten they were there. And when the four bottles of 1875 Armagnac Vieux were finally unearthed from the labyrinthine wine cellar, they were covered in a black fungus that looked like matted cat fur. I am told that the fungus does no harm.
The restaurant, which claims to date back to 1582, is cleaning out its 450,000-bottle wine cellar, considered one of the best and biggest in the world. It is putting 18,000 bottles up for auction this week, an event that has rather captured my imagination. A gap-toothed pre-Revolutionary knocks the head off a bottle of Armagnac in a Left Bank alleyway and tips its contents thoughtfully into his mouth. From the same batch, another bottle finds its way into the cavernous depths of the restaurant next door, family-run for generations. Almost a quarter of a millenium later the brother of the original bottle will be reverently placed on an auctioneer's block and sold for a year's pay.
What, je me demande, is such an item really worth, and how its its value determined? The purchaser of the bottle will be able to brag to his friends and business associates thereby increasing, presumably, his social cachet. H'm.
I cannot imagine myself paying for something which in its drinkable prime sold for a few sous and now is representative of a French era that even many Frenchmen might care to forget about. The bottle's contents, like Schrodinger's cat, are unpredictable.
The image is of Frederic Delair; a bespectacled Ibsen who presided over the Tour in its glory days at the turn of the last century. Here he is, carving caneton presse, the restaurant's signature dish, served, inter alia, to Ronald Reagan and Mick Jagger.
The prix fixe at the one-star Tour is $70. With apologies to purists, my text editor does not support accents....

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bomb Proof


Along with almost every other man I have ever known, to some extent or another, despite being Martian, we all grow up. A bit. When I was fifteen, I thought I was invulnerable. I took absurd risks, rode motorcycles too fast, fell off a few times and just got up afterwards. I skied bumps the size of haystacks and to hell with the rocks on either side. Now, considerably older, the thought of this kind of adolescent foolhardiness fills me with a palpable fear of getting hurt. Risk management seems to develop bigger margins and the confidence of living on the edge is replaced with rather more sober appraisal.
Doing doughnuts on the sand in one's car is a pastime here which, along with wheelies on the freeway the young appear to enjoy, usually at four in the morning. The contestants shown have very probably had to endure a little parental finger-wagging - this image shows the result...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgivin'



I love Thanksgiving, so very secular, hence different from the Anglican Harvest Festival since most city-dwellers stopped 'ploughing the fields and scattering the good seed on the land' a while back.  There are - remarkably - some very civilised Americans living in my building with - even more remarkably - some very young-looking Filipina wives. It is, I suppose, a sign of sophistication not to snigger about the Internet being a marvellous device for social cohesion. The hostess at the party by the pool tonight was 47 and looked 30, in sharp contrast to someone like myself, well, me actually, who looks like a Sharpei puppy whose skin is too big for it. A most amiable evening. Children splashed in the pool, oblivious to the chill in the air and young Filipina girls wiggled with characteristically curious insouciance suggesting their permanently disarming smiles fool everyone. The Brits gathered near the beer cooler and swapped dirty stories. Pumpkin pie, is, of course, disgusting unless properly flavoured, which this one wasn't. A friend does clever things with cheesecake and kumquats which might render it more palatable, but I rather doubt it. A small sliver of dung-coloured dessert is de rigueur, however and I shovelled it down like a man, wishing for key lime pie instead. The turkey and fresh cranberries compensated adequately, the laser show made one look as if one was a target for a dozen snipers on the roof and the company was congenial. Excellent. The image is Jean Ferris' 'The First Thanksgiving'.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Consilience





Two of my students are interviewing for Cambridge shortly and I have been asked to consider what they might be invited to discuss when faced with an admissions tutor. The mind goes blank on such occasions, and it was only afterwards that I began to formulate a few ideas.
Every potential university student should be able to come up with some kind of coherent answer to the following question: “What is the relationship between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare?In the light of recent healthcare legislation in the US, the question is particularly prescient since the interaction between social expediency and technological demand is likely to cost a hideously inflated sum of money. Thus, not only university students but Barack Obama and every other political leader should have an answer. Most of the issues that vex humanity - ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, the environment, endemic poverty, healthcare and carbon footprints, cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideology or religion or commanded by myopic response to immediate need. Yet, the majority of our political leaders are trained exclusively in law, the social sciences or  humanities, and have little or no knowledge of natural science. The same is true for the so-called intellectuals, the pundits, columnists, the media interrogators, and think-tank gurus who often do little more than talk about the analysis of the analysis of technology. The best of their analyses are careful and responsible, and sometimes even correct, but the substantive base of their wisdom is often fragmented and lopsided.
The brighter students that I teach should be helped to understand that, in the twenty-first century, the world will not be run by those possessing merely information. Access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while becoming less costly. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on HDTV and laptops. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis, or the new buzzword, consilience – the ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by linking fact and interdisciplinary theory to create common groundwork. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.  The image is of John Robinson's sculpture 'Consilience'.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sacramental eyes




Throughout civilisation, people have explored ways to experience the sacred, the 'other'. Some have followed Huxley’s exploration of mind-expanding drugs, no matter how dangerous it is, Christians sometimes go to church no matter how tedious it is, Hindus plunge into the Ganges no matter how ghastly, overcrowded and foul it is, Muslims do the Hajj to Mecca no matter how far away and expensive it is.
"So it is that monks kneel and chant, that Jews eat a Pesach meal, Polynesians dance, and Quakers sit still." writes Joseph Martos inDoors to the Sacred”. Trivial locations, activities, ‘things’, yet all can be sacramental, symbols of something else, mysterious and hidden, yet waiting to be revealed, out of which flows a sense of the sacred."
 
As we become aware of the otherness of dimension, even trivial moments can take on the texture of the holy. They become translucent spaces where the distance between this world and a bigger, more powerful, more significant yet unseen world seems to briefly disappear. Do we necessarily have to subscribe to one particular faith to sense that there is more going on around us than can be validated by our senses? Perhaps not. Call it God, if you like. Call it spirituality if you must. Call it whatever floats your boat, but it's unmistakable. Had we eyes to see, our conversations, meals, jobs and transitions direct us unfailingly to something larger and more real than ourselves. Seeing them as sacraments helps move us from the known to the unknown, the seen to the unseen.

Whether we perceive the sacred in the objects and mundane events of every day is not a conjecture of existence, as if God had nothing better to do than simply exist. Wearing sacramental lenses indicate that that for which we have been searching has been there all along, hiding in plain sight as symbols always do.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gaudete



Christmas can come and go, as far as I am concerned. One of the great satisfactions of living here is that one isn't bombarded with mindless advertising, 'Jungle Balls' and 'Frosty the Ruddy Snow Elf' from mid-October. A friend last year had inflatable snowmen prominently displayed on her balcony for several weeks, complete with neon fairy lights, flashing intermittently. Had there been a roof available to her, she would almost certainly have had reindeer and sleigh, plus sound effects. There is, it seems, a chink in my bah humbuggery, however. I have been asked to think up something to do for Midnight Mass and came across Steeleye Span's incomparable "Gaudete" from 1972. One of the best folk voices of the 1970's, Maddy Prior runs Stones Barn, an artistic retreat for singing, poetry and folk music near Bewcastle in the North of England. Memories. What a rush.

Fish and Comfort




This is a strange place. A few metres from my house is the second most recognisable icon in the world, the big, yellow 'M'. Which rather puts one off visiting the little complex of restaurants - using the word loosely - with huge drive-ins which form a small local compound. Which is a shame, really, since there's an undiscovered little jewel on the first floor. Normally, I don't do fish. Too much poking around with a fork, separating the flesh from the myriads of spindly little bones which have a tendency to get stuck in sensitive parts of the soft palate. But, this was a find. Decor was minimalist and uncluttered, the artwork serenely abstract, which I liked. I inspected the fish laid out on a slab over ice with an air of knowledge. Huge green lobster sat next to brown, scaly crab, grouper, snapper, prawn and sea bass. I gazed into their eyes, trying to remember what I had been told about fish eyes and freshness and inspected scales and tails, as if I had the first idea of what to look for. As far as I could tell, the slab was a mortuary and the only thing they all had in common was that they had all shuffled off their mortal coils in the comparatively recent past. Having chosen what I was reliably informed was sea bass from the frozen counter, a few minutes later it arrived au naturel, grilled in butter and garlic, on large, white plates, with a remarkably good clam fettucine and green salad. Foodies who read this will no doubt turn up their educated noses, but, well, I rather enjoyed it. The place inexplicably declined to serve either dessert or coffee, which I have to say I found a little curious. I think it's good for people sometimes  - or perhaps me - to find themselves a little outside their comfort zone, like in a fish restaurant, insofar as it's a fair test of their coping strategies and inner defences.
My table overlooked quite a good painting and my fish was the top one on the left.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Strange Beasts




All too much has been written and recorded about the tragedy at Ft Hood, Texas, where a psychiatrist with loner tendencies and antiwar sympathies rampaged with devastating effect. As if going off to war, as he was scheduled to do, Major Hasan cleaned out his apartment, gave leftover frozen broccoli to one neighbour and called another to thank him for his friendship - common enough  courtesies and routines for a departing soldier. Instead, it would seem, he went on the killing spree that left thirteen people dead. The Jerusalem Post made much of his Palestinian ancestry and the Washington Post of his loner lifestyle. They will pick over the bones for months, trying to crawl inside the mind of a man who in all probability had suffered a delusional breakdown of such magnitude that his actions were no longer under voluntary control. Eddies and asides suggest that he’d been planning for months and objected violently to his imminent deployment in Iraq, perhaps because he might be called upon to kill Muslims…the story goes round in an endless circle. Whatever the truth, and the likelihood is that it will never come out, nerves will twitch in the Pentagon for months, not least because this strange beast fuelled by unimaginable hatred, was allegedly one of their own.
We can, I suppose take comfort from the thermodynamic principle that ‘the probable is what usually happens’, suggesting that the reverse is also true. This seems not to be the case, however, in the celestial parallel to the above where a helium fuelled supernova has been observed, burning out in a fraction of the usual time with gigantic thermonuclear explosions. Another strange beast, behaving with worrying unpredictably. Astronomers will chew over this data for months as well. While we can do little to prevent the latter, regarding the former we might ask hard questions about whether the fault lies with initial Islamic indoctrination that surfaces years later with murderous intent. Or, am I just being naive?


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Star of David over Stockholm

Good days and bad days in the classroom – today was, well, a bad day, by which I mean that I did not think that one of my classes in particular actually learned very much in the fifty minutes we spent together.


I am an inferior teacher of chemistry, principally because I have no real passion to explore its depths and wring every ounce of creative genius of impartation from those who know more than I do. It can be faked, of course, much like orgasm, but we and they are not deceived. Primo Levi wrote a passionate bestseller called ' The Periodic Table' which for me is a multicoloured diagram on my laboratory wall, lacking the fire and belly that drove its author and father Dmitri Mendeleev 150 years ago. Levi was Jewish, which brings me to today's observation. Prof. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot will be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry – actually one third of it - becoming the fifth Israeli scientist to win the award. Jews, who number only around 0.2% of the world’s population, have won a quarter of all science Nobel Prizes, which some have ascribed to the so-called 'Jewish Genius'.  Muslims, who are a whopping one quarter of the world's population, have won only a handful. They can only apologise for the grimness of this statistic and even religious scholars who portray Western political systems, social foundations and cultural achievements as manifestations of infidel entities in decay acknowledge the West's overwhelming scientific and technological edge. 


Historically, authoritarian regimes are only as educationally effective as their brightest policymakers – would you buy a drug developed in North Korea?  Freedom to think, explore and expand intellectually is only possible in societies where the pursuit of genuinely inquisitorial scholarship is valued, competitiveness in the academically exciting sense is encouraged and religio-societal environment places excellence above conformity to political or religious rectitude. 

Even modern Islam, which encompasses modernity and places value upon it, is insufficient to develop the mindset of questioning scholarship which is necessary to create prizewinners, since it is by definition locked into a system of taboos which prevent even its brightest thinkers from reaching beyond their communities and developing new rationalities. Nobel laureates cannot grow from cultures that raise kids from an early age to never question a certain conceptualisation of reality. Die gedanken sind frei.
The image is of a ribosome, the nucleoprotein translator of the genetic code into proteins, whose function has been unravelled by this year's Nobel winners

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Magic Mushrooms


Allow me a season of wild ramblings, a rag-bag collection of random thoughts that have momentarily coalesced in my mind.
Goethe once wrote "Science arose from poetry - when times change, the two can meet again on a higher level as friends." 
I spend much of my lab time telling stories to my students. Fiction is powerful since it can clothe fact in a pretty dress or at least, passable make-up. On the other hand, the anecdotal story can be crashingly dull. "You drop a mass from a tower, but ignore air resistance. Who the hell do you think you are, Galileo?  You shoot an arrow from a cliff 200 metres above ground, at an angle of 37.5 degrees to the horizontal, and want to know the horizontal distance travelled before the projectile hits the water. Or ground.  Or swampy marshland.  A fiction.  No one in recorded history has ever cared how long it takes the arrow to reach the ground or how far it goes. I've been doing professional physics for over 30 years, man and boy, and I have never ever found a use for this. In fact, far from having shot an arrow in anger, as my robust ancestor might have done at Agincourt, I’ve never even shot one in a fit of pique, and can’t ever imagine in my right mind wanting to shoot an innocent fisherman on a boat who, like Harold at Hastings, happened to look up at just the wrong moment.
Not all stories are quite as awful. Richard Feynman – allegedly a ladies’ man – wrote a superb illustration about refraction using the idea of a lifeguard on a beach having to first run then swim to reach a drowning maiden in the shortest possible time. I’ve written a kiddie version here if you’re interested.
Some would argue that the culinary art is the most refined form of scientific poetry. Those who suggest that cooking is nothing more than applied chemistry plus good timing have some way to go to qualify as human beings; most of us equipped with a soul can become lyrical about food.  The image is of a mushroom. Not just any mushroom, but the king of Umbrian fungi, Boletus Edulis, described by Antonio Carluccio as the wild mushroom par excellence, one that gnomes would be proud to sit on, so easy to tell stories about.
Can’t you almost feel its antioxidant properties doing you good, were you able to afford to either buy some or truffle them out in woodland, wearing green wellies?
Thanks to BB for the train of thought.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Clanking Weirdness

Let him that has understanding….it won’t work.  This one looks as if because there’s more weight on the left side the balls will trundle round anticlockwise for ever. No they won’t. The balls will inevitably come to rest.


I have a friend (yes, at least one) who is obsessed with the idea of building a device which will fly in the face of the Universe’s inexorable rule that entropy always increases in order to get energy for nothing – a perpetual motion machine, in other words. I forbore to gently tell him that the last tiny frisson of excitement in this arena was stamped on firmly after the discovery of the neutrino and the debunking of cold fusion.  

The conversation ran something like this…



 “You know what, geometry gets in the way, man. Every time. You can try things over and over, and eventually you’re gonna figure out  that the geometry of the universe, and the physical laws constrained by that geometry are all conspiring to do one thing: absolutely prevent the possibility of a perpetual motion machine.”

“Yeah, OK, but I’m still going to try…”



He’s from an Arabic culture, thus has the commercial morals of a Levantine usurer, probably firmly believing that the sweat of one’s brow will overcome the immutability of physical law.

A comprehensive book on the theory of imaginary devices may be an enterprise best suited to some very old, very wise, very patient man. I like to imagine that one day perhaps I might become a guy like that. Old people need hobbies, in order to keep Alzheimer’s and dementia at bay so I’ll be able to retire in a luxuriant garden of clanking weirdness.
This is an image of Oroborus, an ancient alchemical symbol. Looks like a dog chasing its tail, doesn’t it…









Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mise en Abyme







A friend used this phrase recently, and I confess I had to look it up, it’s meaning having been only half-remembered, since I must have last heard it at school. Which is a curious paradigm, since I find that a mise en abyme  is, inter alia, is a play of signifiers within a text, of sub-texts mirroring each other, like a film within a film, endlessly repeating an alternative virtual reality, like Gödel’s eternal braid. The image that springs to mind is from one of the Hannibal Lecter films of a moray eel, turning endlessly, a living Möbius strip.
We revisit the past, but imperfectly. Data is lost and the reality on second visit is never quite the same as at first. Hemingway once wrote that ‘the past is a foreign country’, but our past is familiar in a detached, reflective sense, small wrinkles in the continuum of reflections change the way we now see what was once so familiar. Theological praxis, on the other hand, is supposed to work in reverse; the ‘cloud of unknowing’ rolls away and things which seemed fuzzy and vague take on sharper clarity.
This in mind, I found myself musing about mathematics, symmetry and intelligence. Gödel’s great contribution was that all logical systems of any complexity are, by definition, incomplete; each of them contains, at any given time, more true statements than it can possibly prove according to its own defining set of rules.
Gödel's theorem has been used to argue that a computer can never be as smart as a human being because the extent of its knowledge is limited by a fixed set of axioms, whereas people can discover and hence make use of unexpected truths which sometimes surprise them. It plays a part in modern linguistic theories, which emphasise the power of language to come up with new ways to express ideas. The implication is that we can never entirely understand ourselves, since our minds, like any other closed system, can only be sure of what it ‘knows’ about itself by relying on what it in reality knows about ‘itself’. Is consciousness, then, merely a superset of the Universe?
The hall of mirrors eventually distorts the image beyond recognition. Put another way, it makes the science of lying almost as precise as Euclidean geometry.
‘we work our jobs, collect our pay.
Believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact, we’re slip slidin’ away.’
Paul Simon
The image is of a strange loop. Kind of....

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Spaces, Places

I suppose it's part of getting more mature - I won't say 'old' since in my heart I'm 28 with a Testarossa - but I've been thinking about places. We create echoes of remembrance about place - why do we photograph them - and the echoes resonate down the years, becoming sepia toned and mellow like fine Armagnac. Some are simply breathtaking, others nestle quietly in the interstices of  experience, of themselves inconsequential, Koestler's 'shrugs of eternity'. 
Paris is one of the oldest cities in Europe, a place for grown-ups, urbane and well-cut, like a good suit. The Merovingian kings founded palaces here, St Denis, apostle to the Gauls, was beheaded here, a statue on the left portal of Notre Dame depicts him holding his head, and many more suffered the same fate at the hands of Madame la Guillotine in the ironically named Place de la Concorde, kicking and screaming as they were led from the Conciergerie to their fate. It's barely less dangerous now - get in the wrong lane and one circles forever around the seventh circle of hell. 




This is a quiet Montmartre. Many thanks, BB. At night, it's one of my favourite places.




The sprawl of greater Istanbul from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara with seventeen million souls straddling Asia and Europe bisected by the deep, fast flowing Bosphorus has been inhabited continuously for two thousand seven hundred years, as Byzantium, Constantinople and finally, in 1930, Istanbul
Devotion to Artemis was especially favoured by the Byzantines for her aid in having protected them from the incursions of Philip of Macedon. Her symbols were the crescent and star, and 'the walls of her city were her provenance', which were later echoed in the Ottoman conquest of 1453 when the Islamic crescent ruled for almost four hundred and fifty years.


It'd be all too obvious to post something grand like a shot of the Suleimaniya Mosque or Hagia Sofia - the mosaics are quite beautiful - instead, this is Tarabya, where I used to live - with the restored marina and presidential palace on the shoreline. Flower-lovers attend the annual tulip festival and you can almost see my old apartment on the hillside.
So much for nostalgia, a dish best consumed in small quantities, with an appropriate coulis of reality.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trouser on Earth


A colleague of mine, of necessity unmarried, has a distinctly lurid taste in shirts. Or, more precisely, the spectral concatenation of a purple shirt accompanying a green tie. I think it's probably something to do with the Fourier transform of the combination that triggers the collywobbles and eye-crossingly seasick reactions. Said colleague goes about his business with blind, cavalier insouciance, entirely oblivious to the chaos and mayhem he is causing to those around him, like a jet-ski at full throttle in a swimming pool filled with the Mothers and Toddlers Group. There really are some gentlemen who should not be allowed out to buy clothes unsupervised, but I am not, I think, one of them. It's time for me to lay up for myself treasure on earth in the form of a couple of pairs of pants and perhaps a shirt or two from my tailor. Apart from the fact that this involves having to go to the Fabric Souk - stubbing a live cigarette out in my eye is more appealing - it must be said that   purchasing is rapid, convenient and blissfully short. I walk in and grunt at my tailor, who appears to recognise me. A raised eyebrow indicates that the measurements and required design are the same as last time. He writes meaningless hieroglyphs down in his book like a mediaeval scribe, hands me a card with the job number on it and I am free to leave, returning in three days, having invariably lost the card.

Having been forced to wear bum-freezers at school, I do rather insist that shirtings are made extra long in order to insulate nether regions which have become a little more gravitationally challenged with the passage of time. Perhaps something in a gentle mauve or, perhaps, a fetching lime green, but not, I think, together.


In deference to those who derive childlike amusement from my modest mathematical skill, the curve is a reasonably accurate spectral representation of what happens when purple and green are put together. Pass the bucket.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Weaving Dreams


I sometimes wonder about church and preaching. In my more cavernous depths, a small, persistent candle still flickers, ignited in childhood – my teddy bears were spoken sternly to concerning the condition of their souls and my mother did the readings since I couldn’t manage the long words. Later, I was originally seduced by what one might describe as the ‘ambiance of heaven’. I listened to the dreamweaver as he led me to Zion’s mountain and left me there to be met.  Later, I took up my own tambourine and showed others the foothills. 
To succeed, dreamweavers are marketers; they have to touch dreams. They must ensure that the product is rationally consistent, also emotionally charged by creating something worthy of the company’s original taste. They must construct a theatrical setting, an ambiance where worth and excellence are transformed into unforgettable experiences. They must assign a name to that setting: a credible and exciting ‘brand’ that pulls the customers in and builds their expectations. They must relay an alluring, seductive message that mingles poetry with reality, truth with romance. Finally, they must find the customers worth seducing.
Everybody’s a salesman. Whether seeking to convince someone to buy an idea or influence an employer, win someone’s love, everyone’s selling something.  Many preachers think that selling their product is accomplished solely through recitation of facts, teachers being secondary offenders. However, the individual that makes theatre, creates an unforgettable ambiance, converting fact into poetry, will become the more effective communicator. No product is more excellent and of more value than the believer’s.
One day, I should like the opportunity. There. I said it. Perhaps I’m going to regret having done so, since what one says is often what one gets.
If you’re uncomfortable with the word “seduce”, don’t be. Scripture is full of images about romantic love.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Little Boxes


I have been thinking about boxes, recently. Their size and uncertainty, principally.
At the end of the  nineteenth century, physics was intoxicated with Promethean hubris – or pride - false, insolent, and destructive.  As a young man eager to pursue physics, Max Planck was advised by the head of the physics department at Munich "The important discoveries [in physics] have been made.  It is hardly worth entering physics any more."  - a piece of advice he chose, wisely, not to listen to.  Classical physics-that is, Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism-seemingly accounted for all observed natural phenomena. The universe was aggressively deterministic, it seemed.  The planets, whirling eternally with inscrutable precision; the ebbing and flowing of the tides; the oscillations of a pendulum; the way bodies exchange energy and momentum; waves of light propagating through space – all slaves to determinism  Some claimed that given the initial conditions of the universe, all of its future behaviour could be precisely calculated.
The box was, after all, finite in size. God had been corralled into a space, unimaginably huge, but finite nevertheless.
Planck chose not to listen to advice, plunging headlong into an abyss of unknown dimensions and alhough he did not initially appreciate it, he opened the door for a new paradigm that would assert itself with such vigour that virtually no scientific endeavour would be left untouched by it: quantum physics.   In particular, he had stumbled into the thorny briar of wave-particle duality.  Light seems to propagate like a wave and exchange energy like a particle.  Einstein remarked: ‘’All the fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no closer to the answer to the question, "what are light quanta? Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself ‘’.
We continue to delude ourselves –in spite of de Broglie and the mighty Erwin Schrodinger, who took flight to a villa in the Swiss Alps in 1925, leaving his wife behind and gathering a former Viennese girlfriend.  What would come of this (presumably) quiet period of reflection would change the landscape of physics for ever.  Indeed, it changed the way we as a species comprehend the universe we live in.
The image is of a one-dimensional box of ideal rigidity constructed to solve the simplest one-dimensional Schrodinger wave equation.
And yet, a box is a box is….a box. The dimensions of the box are not ours to measure.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cruel Britannia


The Hilton hosts the odd event here, some stylish, some not. I was persuaded to go to the British Business Forum's annual jamboree the other night which celebrates the best of British, and all Britannia was in evidence. The BLS or British Ladies Society, wot lunches a lot, had a pitch cheek by jowl with the Kuwait Nomads who are a spectacularly bad rugby team who lost with cheerfully metronomic consistency all last year. Two members of the BLS are pictured above, clearly enjoying a pleasantry or two. There is a prize for the best caption, especially those referencing the object the lady on the right is holding. 


Competitors like the Sheraton put on the best canapes, just to show the four-stars how it ought to be done, expensive schools wheeled out their - mostly Pakistani - best and brightest and in spite of remorseless persuasion to the point of outright leverage, I failed to secure the raffle prize of a business class ticket to New York.

The Church of England was also present, and was breaking the law. It is forbidden to  display crosses publicly here; they got away with it by displaying a Celtic version which might have been mistaken for a decorative hubcap by naive locals. Church here has been described as truck stop where expats go for a whiff of familarity, rather like the beery bonhomie of English pubs on wet Sunday lunchtimes. All of which got me wondering what kind of people attend - or perhaps, log in to - St Pixels, the Internet Church. This link is the  joinup page, which I know you will all scramble to, pay your fiver, and fill in, thereby enjoying all privileges of membership. I don't, of course, join anything. Like Winston Churchill, I rather lean towards supporting like a flying buttress, from the outside. I did look on the Worship page, which revealed the following...




I rather wondered why the worshippers had chosen such unflattering avatars. Then I read the prayers and all became clear. How very cruel of me. Can't wait till Friday service...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Symbols Mislaid


Whatever anybody says, I do quite like Dan Brown's writing. Not quite as much as the New York Times, it seems, but, enough. Purists argue, no doubt using big words like 'metonymy' that his style lacks class, but I think the associations between 'da Vinci' and 'Symbol' are intact, since similarly eerie nerve endings are remorselessly tweaked. The writing is a little bit too excitable for my own leisurely taste, I prefer my plotlines to unfold gently, curling upwards like good cigar smoke, and frequent and persistent use of italics is a technique I only employ when writing handouts for children with short attention spans. His, then,  is not an entry ticket to great writing, as if by picking up a Dan Brown and enjoying it will provide the reader with a gateway into literature; perhaps having finished it he might pick up 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' as his next good read. Cynic, know thyself. Bottom line is no one really knows why the hell we're here or what we are doing, but we have had a riot of a time trying, however clumsily, to explain it all and convince others that we're right. Some even try to tell us they hold the key to understanding, and the frisson is, we're tempted to believe them.

That's why Brown has had so much success. At times like these, we're tempted to have little faith in anything and we'd all like to see the systems that failed us get a good kick in the slats. We can't help but try to make sense of it all with these gigantic brains. Who doesn't prefer a nut to the glow and the haze, especially when we have a chance to crack it?

The image is of a piece of early Native American pottery found in Arizona. It is significant because of its striking resemblance to the Masonic compass and square.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sop to Cerberus


The world becomes stranger. 'Promising' was often a word used on a school report to indicate that a child might perhaps do quite well, given a following wind and some encouragement. Barack Obama might have earned a first presidency report which could use such a phrase. Unfortunately, so far we have all froth and comparatively little beer, a black hole of US debt which has weakened the world's most universal currency, Afghan militants with ascendant momentum, a policy of apparent appeasement in the Middle East, despite consistently transparent lies from the self-appointed guardians of Al Aqsa, and finally attempting to deal with a psychotic Iranian leader, undeniably capable of producing a working nuclear device.
But, the Nobel? Alfred Nobel's stipulation that the prize go "to the person who shall have done the most or best work for the fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace" seems hardly  appropriate since Obama simply has not had sufficient time to sweet talk Washington hawks and to justify being awarded it. The Committee can be capricious and not only in respect of the peace Prize. Rosie Franklin, from my old College, should have got the 1962 Medicine Prize over Watson and Crick, an example of the unpredictable nature of the award where one does the work and someone else cops the credit. And yet, faute de mieux. Morgan Tsvangirai is probably as deserving, or not, but if a currency is devalued, it takes longer to recover than if it were not. So might it be here. Obama promises much and is undeniably the fastest thinker on his feet that Washington has had for many years, but even this might not be enough. America is like a tennis star on the wane. She has had more than her share of aces but the overarm muscle isn't quite what it was on the world stage and others are flexing their biceps with an eye on the glittering prizes. It remains to be seen whether the Nobel comittee's sop to Cerberus will be enough to energise the beast sufficiently to regain the high political ground. 

Depressing, isn’t it…


I rather prefer the IgNobel Prizes, I think. At the 2009 ceremony, Public Health Prize winner Dr. Elena Bodnar demonstrated her invention — a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be rapidly converted into a pair of protective face masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander. Should swine flu strike, we look to the ladies for protection.
The Mathematics Prize was an exercise in standard form. Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s oxymoronic Reserve Bank was awarded the Prize by giving  people an everyday way to deal with a wide range of numbers - from very small to very big. His bank prints  notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).
In 2008, the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology and the citizens of Switzerland were winners of the Peace Prize for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity. It's only a heartbeat away, Barack...


Elena Bodnar clearly has her brains in her bra and is a very clever girl in consequence. Here she is at Harvard with facemasks and friends.