Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Unnatural Science

I'm marking IB. Again. Trying to remember all the things that I knew lots about once. Amazing how it all comes if not flooding at least trickling back along with the sense of either hilarity, outrage or despair at what students write down. For some, hope indeed springs eternal, at least in the temporal time-warp of the exam-room. Physics is agonisingly, piercingly precise and there are people out there of strange persuasion who like to both make up exam questions then tell you what they think the answers should be. Such persons are known as Chief Examiners. I am constructing a mental picture of mine. I expect him to be conservatively dressed, probably in a grey suit with a plain shirt and tie, together with polished black shoes whose laces are exactly the same length. Little Mr Neat without the centre parting. Shortening his name to an affable “Mick" or "Dave” earns a frosty, disapproving glance. Probably from his wife, should he ever have summoned the nerve to acquire one. Assuredly, he is introverted to the point where he still blushes, slightly but distinctly sociopathic, perhaps obsessive (no perhaps about it), and certainly compulsive. A grown up version of Sheldon in "The Big Bang Theory". If anybody I happen to know should say "Ah" at this point, they can consider themselves unfriended from Facebook.
"Interesting. You're afraid of insects and women. A ladybug must make you catatonic."
In between banging my head against the wall it was quite nice to let what's left of my mind wander and think about when the immutable laws of nature got bent a little bit. Neglecting the halving of the angular velocity of the Earth in Judges 10, where a day became 48 hours, the thermodynamics of Pentecost sprang to mind, by way of example. Did the entropy in the Upper Room increase dramatically, I wonder? The tongues of fire – was anything actually ignited, or was the internal energy throughout the room just raised by a few kilojoules? After all, there'd've been plenty of oxygen from the 'rushing, mighty wind' to support combustion. And, what about calculating the average power during the Ascension. Let’s suppose the ‘ascensee’ had a modest mass of 60kg, hence a weight force just shy of 600N. Let us further suppose that to save a crick in the apostles’ necks, they only had to watch for a minute until clouds covered Him. If the cloud cover that day was at 1200m, that means an ascension rate of 1200m/60s or 20m/s. Power being force times average velocity, the average power would have been 600N x 20m/s or 12kW. Isn’t physics fascinating…
Finally – always save the best till last - what about this.
“March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse.” 
(Joshua 6).
Excellent. Lots here to think about. Roman armies broke step on bridges so they wouldn’t collapse. A steady tramping round the walls for nearly a week might have set up a subsonic resonant vibration in the foundations. The citydwellers might have noticed a bit of subterranean rumbling, like a Tube train, perhaps the odd flake or two of mortar falling off the ceiling but thought nothing of it, after all the apartment was insured. Seven times on the last day, just to pound the foundations to pieces. Then, the good bit. If you’ve never heard a shofar being blown by an expert, it’s worth hearing. Now imagine quite a number of priests, well-practised and non-smokers, giving it large for an extended period. The Noise Abatement people would be knocking on the door within minutes. Long blasts would be like standing in Earl’s Court Road with a Guns N' Roses concert going on inside. People take cover, scuttling for their prized possessions as the walls require a different resonant frequency to the foundations and begin to vibrate, as the textbooks say, with ‘increased amplitude’. The wall of shouting does the rest and eventually, bricks and mortar being quite brittle, the whole structure just caves in. For those who don’t believe a word of it, watch what happened to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. No shouting or marching feet this time, just a 'mighty rushing wind'. The bridge collapsed in November 1940 because of a resonant effect between the material of the bridge and the wind whistling down the gorge, rather like blowing a reed wind instrument to make a loud sound. So, ha. Thanks to my other blog for this. 
Postscript. Pentecost Sunday was last week and we were all asked to wear red. I was going to go as Santa Claus, but thought better of it.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Trying to be Human

Rembrandt  'The Return of the prodigal Son'

Living here is sometimes dislocating, often frustrating. I am forced more than I wish by temperament to spend time just being. Not doing – except mundane tasks which are sometimes necessary. My skills, once so carefully nurtured as a source of pride and accomplishment, are simply not necessary here. Being ‘retired’ is like driving a different vehicle on a different road where the car itself has a strangeness about it and the journeys made in it are unpredictable. There is almost a fear of looking inside to find wellsprings of familiarity and old certainties are no longer as well-anchored as they once were. At its heart, such conflict might be reduced to selfishness which is a trite and self-deceptive turn of phrase. I and I suppose many like me – how cowardly to put that bit in -  are fundamentally self-serving. The snarling, growling savage in me feeds himself first and the Devil take the hindmost. The ‘others’ are less important than the ‘me’. My lack of compassion appals me sometimes. A writer in Oxford whose work I admire, spent time as an eighteen year old novice in Kalighat, Calcutta, Mother Teresa’s ‘home for the dying’, writing an award-winning piece here. She will forgive me for quoting her. “Just one drop removed from the ocean of misery but the ocean would be greater if it were not there.” A clear voice magnificent in futility and so very rich in hope.
It is not, therefore, out of condemnation, but out of the desert wanderer in me that I find myself re-reading some of Henri Nouwen’s work. Every time I pick up something of his, it’s like a silver bullet, a lighthouse whose revolving beam briefly illuminates me, trying to be inconspicuous in the shadows. He was a Catholic intellectual, a priest and pastor, who spent the final years of his life at a  L’Arche community called ‘Daybreak’ in Toronto, where people with developmental disabilities live with those who care for them. In his writings, he speaks less of the physical difficulties, inconveniences and setbacks which invariably surround such a lifestyle. Instead, he speaks of hope, reconciliation and joy. After an exhausting lecture tour he discovered Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ and went to the Hermitage in (then) Leningrad to see it. I have to confess to having seen it as well, but it clearly made less of an impression on me than on him. Out of his reflections came the call to make his home at L’Arche. He wrote: “Though I am both the younger son and the elder son, I am not called to remain them, but to become the Father.” It’s interesting that he does not speak as an ‘arriviste’ – part of his deeply embedded humility is that he saw himself most often as an ‘ing√©nue’. He writes: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in the brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” I suppose I have a long way to go, then.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Books on Fire

Nazi book burnings, summer 1933
Yesterday marked the eightieth anniversary of the 'bucherverbrennung'. Over twenty five thousand volumes of Jewish, communist and pacifist authors' work was consigned to the flames amidst cheering crowds of students across towns and cities in Nazi Germany. Less than six months after Hitler's rise to power, their belief in the rightness of their cause is self-evident. Book burning isn’t exactly a feature of modern times, however. Throughout history there have been over one hundred and twenty documented cases of mass burnings, sometimes along with their authors, from the destruction of Ebla in 2240 BCE to the burning of the Timbuktu Manuscripts by Islamist fighters loyal to Al Qaeda in January of this year. Burning a book makes statements. First, it validates and encourages indiscriminate vandalism. Objects that you don’t like, it’s OK to just destroy. Second, it is a clumsy, elephantine strategy to attempt to expunge inconvenient history. Finally and most subversively, it suggests that the destruction of the article itself wipes out the thoughts and opinions it contains. An online post from a supporter of the destruction in Mali wrote: “This is not knowledge we wish to keep. This is not knowledge. This is baggage. We wish you in the west to understand that we no longer carry your baggage.” Nineteen centuries earlier, the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian zealots thus: “But when what is complete comes, then what is incomplete will be done away with.” (1 Cor 13:10). I hardly think that he had in mind the obliteration of the Old Testament.
In modern Iran, the current regime’s book burnings and censorship are clearly aimed at stamping out ideas of freedom from repression and also a more nefarious purpose in a line with the early Muslim invaders of suppressing the pre-Islamic culture and values of that civilisation. Only a few years after the advent of Islam in Arabia, Muslim invaders galloped through foreign territories bringing darkness and oblivion with them. They overthrew a great Persian civilisation including destroying many libraries because books were regarded as the symbols of knowledge and wisdom which under the new Islamic system were simply not required and it paved the way for fourteen centuries of darkness in the Islamic world. The pre-Islamic great library of Ctesiphon in Iran was destroyed during the Muslim conquest in 637. Under the caliphate of Umar Al Faruq, which ironically means ‘the one who distinguishes right from wrong’, it was the first Islamic book burning. "If the books contradict the Qur'an, they are blasphemous. On the other hand, if they are in agreement, they are not needed, as for us Qur'an is sufficient.” Such was the caliph Umar’s command to Saad ibn, the commander of Muslim troops. So, the huge library was destroyed and the books, the product of generations of Persian scientists and scholars, were thrown into the fire or into the river Euphrates. 
Christianity has a longer history of defending an all-powerful deity by shielding the mind from strange ideas; there seemed to be a conjoint in mediaeval minds that the author of a heretical book and the ideas within it could be simultaneously dealt with; their solution being to consign the heretic together with his blasphemies to the purifying flames. The Dark Ages in Europe were full of religious atrocity, many thinkers and scientists were burnt with their ideas together with their books. Bigoted ecclesiasticism dammed the flow of free thought, blocking the seepage of knowledge within Western societies. Books were branded as magical and treasonous, and the writer or indeed the reader was punished by torture or death. 1550 to 1600 seemed quite the years for burnings. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 allegedly for defending Copernicus’ heliocentric theories, but more probably for a number of real or manufactured heresies, including the revolutionary and blasphemous assertion that the stars were in fact suns just like our own.  Fifty years earlier, John Rogers, a  Bible translator and convert to Protestantism refused to recant his 'aversion to Popish superstition and idolatry' and was burned under Bloody Mary's purge.
John Rogers, burned at the stake, London, February 1555

Libraries are like the Internet. Most of the contents are narrow, irrelevant, factually flawed, bigoted and incorrect. The remainder is gold, refined in the intellectual furnace of reason and in some cases, touched by the finger of God. We are all data miners at heart. Conjecture, hypothesis, blind alleyways and mistakes are all part of our DNA. Our habitual error is to assume that our own sets of assumptions are unique, therefore unassailably right and by a strange, incongruous leap of logic, thereby giving imprimatur to the erasure of all else. I once thought that the destruction of a book was almost morally equivalent to an abortion, since because that which comes into being - either a newborn idea or a foetus - may be expensive and inconvenient, it's extinction is justified. But, this is not so since a book has a life of its own outside of its corporeal presence and the ideas it contains are contagious.
A preacher I once heard made a remark which stayed with me. “We’re all just stumbling around in the twilight, most of the time.” Once in a while, a lightning flash illuminates the entire sky and for a split second we see and understand everything clearly. Thereafter, we spend the rest of our lives trying to remember what we thought we once knew.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Do it Yourself

As a guitarist, I am supposed to have a slightly better than average degree of manual dexterity, thus small home improvements should give little cause for concern. After all, the only thing I need is a decent set of tools and the right materials and I ought to be able to turn my hand to virtually any small task as required. Ah. Some home improvers have internal wizardry beyond my understanding. Measurement is a careless art, the more-or-less approach beloved of electrical engineers allows them to demolish walls, create windows and reconstruct vast tracts of external masonry with the same espièglerie and joie de vivre as drilling a small hole. By contrast, my own frontal lobe, pathways gruellingly mapped by years of thinking like a physicist - I wouldn't really claim to actually BE one but I know in principle how it is done- looks for rules, protocols, procedures and method. Order is everything, clean tools laid out in their order of use and materials meticulously cut to size. I have no problem developing the rule book; actually employing the rules is an entirely different matter. Also, gnawing relentlessly in the shadows, is the fearful notion that it will ALL GO HORRIBLY WRONG.
Plumbing is particularly susceptible to the principle that once a small pipe has been unscrewed, with the best will in the world the entire upper floor is engulfed in water, the floor is destroyed beyond repair and the place is knee deep in a torrent of inexplicable ferocity. By contrast, carpentry looks deceptively straightforward. I know about Pythagoras and can draw a right angle with a pencil and a set of compasses. Applying such elementary notions to the replacement of a drawer slider, however, turns out to be fraught with mismeasurement, transcription error (did I mean 32.5cm or 35.2?) and the fact that although my pencil lines ares rigorously rectilinear, the saw won't follow the graphite track so carefully created for it. Spectators watch silently. Their unspoken question 'does he know what he is doing?' hovers like a waiting bird of prey. Closing the drawer is fine. Getting it open again turns out to be the hard part. Especially as the handles have been removed so the front side can be cleaned, sanded and waxed.
For most of us, getting it more or less right is the best we're ever going to be able to manage and even the finest craftsmen are rarely completely satisfied with the quality of their work. We, as architects of our own personality, know the hidden flaws there as well. We know which parts have had to be repaired with filler and hope they don't show too much. Yet, it is here where we have to either work to improve or simply learn to be satisfied. Knowing ourselves carries with it both power and conflict and in much the same way as my attempts to repair a three hundred year old piece of furniture, ravaged by decay and misuse, it is important to discern the difference between the essential and the optional. 

Learning to look within without fear and accept ourselves for who we are is one of the genuine gifts of growing older, actively learning to create our own sense of well-being, knowing, like a poker player, what to let go and what to keep. Jung was right when he wrote ' your vision will become clear when you can look into your own heart.'