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


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


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


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.