Category Archives: Science

Inspiration for my garden room…

Charles Darwin’s greenhouse at Down House.

I am certain I could cobble together something similar with a bit of corrugated plastic and a few sticks. Oh, and a banana plant. It would be nice place to sit and think.

More science versus religion

I don’t feel like writing this, and I am sure most people won’t want to read it either, but that’s ok. I am going to write it anyway in the hope of finishing a thought, one that’s been hanging around taking up mental space for days. What will probably happen is that it will just lead to another thought or three. Are we ever really done thinking? Really? I think that we’re not, and that’s why meditative practice is essential, just as a brief intervention to stop all those cogs and wheels that constantly whir away wearing themselves out. For years I have ‘meditated’ over a glass of wine, I know others take a moment with a cigarette, but I am realising finally that still, quiet calm is the goal, not slamming on the mental brakes with a depressant. Having said that, I realise that alcohol for me sometimes stands in for my lack of religion and will probably always be with me… my drug of lazy choice one might say.

Back to the thought. I was following the science and religion discourse last week through Jonathan (Chief Rabbi) Sacks’, recent round of media publicity linked to a book he has out. He and Professor Richard Dawkins appear to have been more or less joined at the hip in the last week, appearing on television, on radio and then midweek in a live discussion at a BBC Festival called REthink. It would seem that Professor Dawkins also has a book out too.

I think I find this a little disappointing, as if the public is only being treated to a clash between these two old stags high up on the intellectual crags because they both have book publicity to do. For the record, Lord Sacks’ book is called The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning and Professor Dawkins’ is called the Magic of Reality. I also found the discourse frustrating, because it seems to me that it is ultimately circular in nature.

I am happy to be corrected but what I think I hear is something that goes like this: Yes, we all agree that science works on theory backed up by empirical evidence; and at this point in time there is less than there was, but still plenty in the world, in the universe, in the human experience that has so far defied the reach of science. That was where faith in a God might kick in, if you were that way inclined. Or not. To paraphrase, or even quote, Lord Sacks, ‘science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean.’

So the scientists who seek to explain things up to the point of their evidence-based knowledge are permanently left on the back foot when a religious bod hops in, where the rest of us might fear to tread, to cover the gaps with the all-encompassing reach of a ‘God’, an intelligent designer, a universal force.

Sacks suggested he was not a fan of this ‘God of the Gaps’ approach, he said that his God is a gardener. When he was asked by a scientist something to the effect of is his God a sower of seeds that then allowed the garden to go wild, or an obsessive Sunday lawn mower, Sacks’ answer was inconclusive. He said something about God being currently ‘non-interventionist’. God as a gardener on holiday, a multiverse cruise?

I am agnostic, I suppose. I am not quite brave enough for atheism. Perhaps I aspire to it. I have found the religious position frustrating though, because what can’t be answered directly out of their various interpretations of the various religious books, can always be attributed to the mystery of God and the faith in that of those lucky enough to have worked it all out.

When Lord Sacks ended the Start the Week programme by intoning, ‘Without God we are without hope’ I felt he diminished his argument, possibly irredeemably in my case. I was disappointed because I believe there are alternatives. What really would have helped is for a religious scientist, Sir Robert Winston say, to have jumped in and saved a fascinating question, perhaps the most important of all, from turning those of us trying to engage with the debate into something akin to testy drivers queueing round the circular M25 into infinity (and beyond?).

Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

Some Ogden Nash with a brief detour through cornflakes, science and religion

I cannot convey how bored I am with the sound of my own thoughts at the end of this week. The closest I can do for now is to reflect that the bowl of dust, masquerading as cornflakes, that passed for breakfast this morning pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter.

I was going to write about the Chief Rabbi’s, Jonathan Sacks, recent programme on BBC, about the science versus religion ‘gap’, wherein he debated his position with the scientists Baroness Susan Greenfield, theoretical physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili and the notorious atheist Professor Richard Dawkins. I found it compelling viewing, but did wonder, if in his summation, Lord Sacks had wrapped Dawkins views up a bit neatly onto the side of those with religious faith.

I also observed that Lord Sacks seemed more interested in finding the common ground than the scientists did, Al-Khalili seemed a little bemused for instance. Still, it was the Rabbi’s programme, so perhaps it’s not so surprising he was doing the legwork… Now I am going to have to listen to the subsequent encounter between Sacks and Dawkins on Start the Week before making any more observations.

I was left though, with the impression that two of the scientists would have, if not for politeness and being filmed, pointed out that religious faith is mainly based on *one big book and that perhaps people should not believe all they read.

I have a book by Ogden Nash and I enjoy his poetry, when I am in the mood. I don’t always agree with him though. For me making a living is a saving grace. Without out it and the structure it imposes on me, I have no doubt I would quickly disappear up my own arse. Some might say I am halfway there already. They might be right.

Introspective Reflection by Ogden Nash

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

*which book depends on your faith

Don’t be fooled by the smile, this boy is forcing them down

Oscar Pistorius #Bladegate

In case you’ve been on Mars for the last 24 hours, #Bladegate refers to the T44 category 200m final at the Paralympics last night, where Pistorius was narrowly beaten into second place by the Brazilian athlete Alan Oliveira.

Pistorius was not expecting to be beaten. Once into the home straight he was in splendid isolation with only the wind for company… until the last 10 metres. Oliveira came roaring up the outside to take the gold medal on the line.

Pistorius then complained during his immediate post-race interview that Oliveira’s blades were too long, giving him an unfair advantage. Then all hell broke loose: #Bladegate.

There are so many layers to unpick in this affair that it is fascinating. Firstly though, I think that it is important to note that Pistorius has had to fight his way in the world to get where he is and when someone is in that mindset any emotional reaction is likely to initially present as anger. This has led to the accusation that Pistorius is a ‘bad loser’. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. In the tv interview he clearly spoke from a heart that had just been more than a little bit broken, and our hearts are not always rational. If a ‘good loser’ constitutes someone who can smile while inside they are dying, plus feeling strongly that something is unfair, I would wonder about the honesty and integrity of that.

Still, Pistorius’s remarks were clearly mistimed and made in the heat of the moment; by this morning his head was in back in charge and he made a more measured statement. He still maintained his concern about the fairness of the blades used by his conqueror in the race in his conclusion, saying:

I do believe that there is an issue here and I welcome the opportunity to discuss with the IPC but I accept that raising these concerns immediately as I stepped off the track was wrong. I am a proud Paralympian and believe in the fairness of sport. I am happy to work with the IPC who obviously share these aims.

The International Paralympic Committee, who govern the Paralympic Games have just issued their own statement saying that they will not only meet with Pistorius, but that the immediate aftermath of the Paralympics is as good a time as any to revisit the rule book…

I have read some absolutely fantastic analysis of both sides of the argument. Here Channel 4 News FactCheck examine the evidence and their verdict is that Pistorious shouldn’t complain. Then I looked at *whispers* *hides face* this Daily Mail piece who point out that Oliveira did decide to change his blades to longer ones in the last 3 weeks, and that while these remain legal under the existing rules, last night he ran under 22 seconds (21.45 sec) for the first time competitively, on these new blades that boost his racing height by 5 cm. Coincidence?

The longer blades do cause athletes to have a slower start, Oliveira was left standing when the gun went off last night and was racing well in arrears, but down the straight the longer blades store more elastic energy allowing the athlete to maintain speed whilst using less energy than someone on shorter ones, like Pistorius. This is basically what we saw last night, but we also saw an optical illusion which someone who watches horse racing regularly will recognise – that of an athlete (or horse), out front, coming back to the field. In high class races, where everyone is performing to their optimum ability, this slight slowing in front is entirely imperceptible, you can only see the others appearing to accelerate. In these instances, only fractional times can tell the whole story. There aren’t many fractional times for a 200m sprint, but it is reported that Pistorius ran a much quicker first 100m than the second 100m. For Oliveira, with the slow start, it was the reverse.

This is probably because the longer blades do give you an advantage in the straight, but this offset by running more slowly at the start and whilst runnning the bend. It’s down to the athlete which tactics they want to employ. Oliveira and his team, by switching to the longer blades only three weeks ago, took a gamble. It paid off, just. Pistorius’s gamble was running a very fast half of the race, he then paid for attacking the first 100m by having to slow down a bit in the closing stages. His gamble did not pay off, but again, it was so close. This would have only made it worse from his point of view.

Pistorius raced on the blades he ran on in the Olympics. Under the rule book he too could go for longer blades – his maximum permitted height on racing blades, as things stand, would take him to 193 cm tall. His current blades means he stands 184 cm. He could add an extra 9 cm to his height and this would mean if Oliveira stuck with his current prostheses at 181 cm, Pistorius could gain a 12 cm height advantage over his rival. Of course, it is not standing taller that necessarily gives the advantage, it is the longer blade being used, and that advantage has to be traded off against the slower start.

I can’t help wondering, in the battle of the double-bladed runners like Pistorius, Oliveira and Richard Whitehead, where this leaves those athletes with one of their own legs and one blade. Is the leg the limiting factor to their performance? Still, I can see where Pistorius was coming from. Basically, his rival gained 5cm more of blade runner and considerably improved his performance. This might have happened anyway. I think it is fair enough for him to request that a cause and effect scenario be ruled out.

The current rules also seem to allow for a huge differential in blade lengths – after all Pistorius could legally add up to 9 cm to his racing blades. He might regret not switching to longer blades in the Paralympics now, but as an athlete who has battled so hard to prove that his blades do not give him a mechanical advantage over a non-Paralympic athlete you can see why he stuck with his Olympic-approved ones.

I suppose what will happen now is that we will thankfully continue to be astounded by the performances of all the Paralympians and this controversy will die down. The IPC will then meet behind closed doors and I’d take a short price about them severely reducing the range of centimetres you can add to your blades prior to a competition. I’m not a physicist, but it is probably possible to work out a set of equations for the energy stored in each millimetre of blade, depending on the materials used in its manufacture and the allowances for weight and speed etc. The trouble is that the science on the ‘blade runners’ so far is ‘inconclusive’ and for these athletes, who train to their physical limits and spend years preparing for events like this, that simply won’t do.

copyright Metro



I constantly spelled Oscar Pistorius as ‘Pistorious’ in the drafts. I hope I’ve got rid of all the misspelling, apologies if not. I think it is because, in my mind, it should follow the -ious suffix rule e.g. imperious, notorious…

The Olympics: a critic’s viewpoint

I read this interview with Wilf Self on www.thebrowser.com and I have pulled out this extract where Self labels the Olympics as horseshit. Some of his points? Well it’s hard to not agree in parts, particularly about the role of corporate sponsorship, but what intrigued me most was his assertion, that I have put in bold type, where he states that winning and losing are essentially functionless human endeavours.

Philosophically, I might end up agreeing, but I would need a long time to think about it. However, biologically and evolutionally speaking (is that a word, or did it just evolve?), winning and trying not to lose have been physically and mentally hard-wired for our survival.

In the world of Will Self, would we then become, ideally, brains in boxes, or, is there still something to be said for celebrating the possibilities of whole humans: body, mind and soul?

Not sure, just asking.

    From street games to the Games, will you give us a cynic’s word on the Olympics?

I’ve been a constistently outspoken critic of the whole thing. I object to my tax money being wasted on it, and I object to performance sport in general. I think it’s horseshit. Why don’t you just go run in a field, with sheep? It’s meaningless that some guy on a bicycle gets given 20 million quid. And the way the Olympics exist in a grotesque linkage or synergy with the international finance capital is so obvious. Both are arenas that exalt an essentially functionless and useless human performance of winning and losing, and use that as the tail that wags the dog. That’s why the Olympics feed so enormously into the collective psyche.

    When it comes to London’s financial sporting performance, at least, we’ve seen recently that we all cheat and dope.

Exactly. The anology continues. HSBC has its doping scandal, as athletics has its own. The two of them are mirror images. No one should be shocked that there is corruption in the Olympics – that tickets are sold through foreign agents, that athletes are taking drugs and have huge financial contracts, that sponsors refuse to let people wear T-shirts with other corporate logos on them, that Macdonald’s makes you fat, that the infrastructure built in Stratford is useless to anybody, and that the Olympic legacy will not be fulfilled.

Schadenfreude is an unpleasant attribute, but if I were prone to it I could tell you that in a month or two’s time, the cost will come home big time, and people will start getting pissed off. The government couldn’t raise the money for the Olympics through the private sector, so the taxpayer had to put the money up for it – was forced to do so, undemocratically. And we will have nothing to show for it.

Katherine Grainger & Anna Watkins earlier today

And then I must just give a quick shout out to the grammarians who are raging about like rampant bulls, thoroughly hufflepuffed by approved Olympic nouns transmogrifying into new, and non-groovy Olympic verbs like medalling, to podium and skyrocketing. They aren’t the most elegant sounding, I’ll admit, but, ’twas ever thus linguistically I’m afraid, ’twas ever thus. Google it if you don’t believe me…

In conversation with the subconscious

Anxiety, which is different from a direct fear stimulus (say a spider in your bed), arises when we project ourselves into the future; by which I mean if I think about something I don’t fancy doing tomorrow, today, I might get a bit anxious about it. Of course, the time frame can be much longer than thinking about tomorrow, or it can be shorter: in the next minute I have to take an exam – that might get the gut churning.

Once you’ve made the connection you can ease the anxiety by putting yourself back in the now. That’s not to say you don’t rationalise and plan effectively for upcoming, less than pleasant events, but if you don’t want to be in the grip of anxiety the best method I find is to cognitively function very much in the moment.

All well and good, but what if you find yourself feeling anxious when you aren’t thinking about something in the future. When you are just doing some commonplace task and your mind is not elsewhere, but you suddenly realise you feel uptight, worried, angst-ridden. This is a more generalised anxiety and I think it’s possibly endemic in consumer-based societies. How to find the cause? Well, I guess perhaps you have to explore the subconscious – the list of all the things that might be on your mind, but weren’t, at the time. At least you thought they weren’t, but something must be…

And not just your own subconscious (if that weren’t difficult enough), you also perhaps need to have a poke around in the collective subconscious because, after all, you might be picking up some wider anxiety in the world. The collapse of the Euro, the rise of Nationalist parties, the increase in the price of oil ~ you are part of that too.

If I were to propound what Freud said, then this post would continue with me defining the subconscious in different ways and we would also be dealing with three different kinds of anxiety, but I don’t much find this helpful, although it probably makes life more interesting for the psychotherapist. Personally, I find the work of Joseph LeDoux resonates more; it is based on neuroscience and fear reactions in the brain (see here for his latest NY Times article).

What I find helpful in the grip of dread is to ask myself ~ are you projecting forward into the future by even a minute? If I am, I stop and I tell myself I will deal with whatever is causing the possibility of anxiety when it arises in reality, and not just in my mind. If the anxiety is some unnameable thing that has settled on my shoulder for a while, then I notice it. I whisper, ‘Hello, you again?’ and I accept it. I do not fight it or run from it, and, in the end, when it has seen what it came for, it moves on.

Is that a conversation with the subconscious?

Maybe not, but that’s as good as it is going to get.

In the writing of this post I spelled subconscious in about as many different wrong ways as it is possible to spell one word. I think it may be trying to tell me something…

Exploring the concept of survival circuitry

*This post carries a thinking through writing warning*

To explore the survival circuit concept we are better to start from the inside out, or bottom up, literally. To make full sense of that you will have to read the full link to Professor Joseph LeDoux’s article ‘Hubris and The Tree of Life’, in which he informs us that inverterbrates tend to develop, embryologically, mouth first and that verterbrates (including those reading this) develop anus first.

The next extract from the article is the bit that relates to yesterday’s reblogged post concerning LeDoux’s proposed term of ‘survival circuits’ from the Why We Reason blog. LeDoux suggested in an essay last month that rather than try to map our emotional lives onto animals, we map the neurological responses we share with animals. Seems sensible to me.

Body parts change during evolution to help organisms cope with their environment in new ways. There are certain things that have to be accomplished in order to survive. For example, you have to be able to meet nutritional demands, keep your fluids up to date, and defend against danger. And for your species to survive you have to reproduce. This list probably applies to all organisms, and, to some extent, even to simple single cell creatures like bacteria.

We need to eat, drink, have an innate survival response and reproduce to meet the basic requirements of our animal selves. That’s it.

For a while now I have wondered if, rather than dividing emotions into positive and negatives, whilst mapping five (or more) ‘universal emotions’, there is only one basic innate default setting – fear of these survival needs not being met, or the flipside, which is the compulsion to meet them when they are offered. You are either switched on in terms of survival, or your immediate needs are met and you are off.

Everything else we might attribute to the human experience and label as a mood, an emotion, or a feeling is a cognitive, sociological and cultural construction that starts with a threat to survival or the opportunity to ensure survival.

Of course we know it is far more complicated as a subjective experience because our lives have evolved way beyond only getting the needs of the organism met, but it seems perfectly reasonable that on some level, every day, we are subject to the table thumping requirements of our basic organismic self.

This appears, at first glance to reinforce the annoying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but actually it does the opposite and means I can continue to deconstruct that wrong-minded theory later.

However I still need some lunch.

Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt, 1909

Science as a belief system or a method of enquiry?

This is the central question posed by Rupert Sheldrake’s book The Science Delusion, and I think it is an extremely pertinent one.

I have, for a while, been losing patience with the attitude of media scientists (most particularly the irritating Brian Cox) who talk and write about their subject as if it were some kind of dogma rather than a body of knowledge and theory that rightly evolves with time. It is not so much that Cox and his ilk deny the evolution of knowledge. The fact is, I heard his honestly pointing out, when the neutrinos in the OPERA experiment at CERN appeared to travel faster than the speed of light, that science is a discipline wherein you merely remain at any given point in time less wrong than before. No, my petty irritation arises from the arrogant and haughty dismissal of any experience or possibility that sits outside the current scientific orthodoxy.

Sheldrake writes most interestingly on the subject of the mind, something that many scientists will insist exists entirely as a set of experiences formed in the brain through the activity of chemicals, electricity and neural pathways. In fact, there are some who will say that because they can measure activity in the brain before we make a conscious decision that any free will we may think we have is a delusion, our brain has already decided for us. Thankfully, there are scientists that understand, from their own experience and that of others, that there is a lot more to us, our minds, our conciousness than that. I heard a psychiatrist on the radio the other week likening the use of brain scanning techniques to understand mental illness with the idea that you would better understand the plot of Eastenders if you dismantled your telly to observe its wiring. Comparing apples and oranges? Well I suppose so, but they are both fruit and it’s an analogy with some mileage in it to my mind.

When I write ‘my mind’, I don’t mean only my brain – I am sure of it because I have observed my own experience. I might mean a combination of my brain, epigenetics, embodied cognition, collective conciousness and quantum mechanics. If I were to agree with Richard Sheldrake I might mean the field of my mind and morphic resonance too.

You see there is a lot more knowledge out there, up in the air, or wherever, but not just in our skulls than the orthdox scientific community feel compelled to enquire into. What’s worse, those that do enquire are given short shrift by the establishment. Richard Dawkins refused even to look at the evidence contained within Richard Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, let alone discuss what it might mean. Yes, the orthodox scientific community’s methods are superb for describing what goes on in the human brain but these descriptions should never be conflated with our understanding of why, or perhaps how.

Many scientific leaps have been made through close observation of experience and that includes the observation of trial and error. Many trials and a few errors or accidents have created the breakthroughs in medicine and technology that we so rely on in our lives today; hence the sworn fealty to the scientific way. Not all of that effecting of positive outcomes has given us the lowdown on the Why of it though. For example, we regularly make people lose consciousness through administering general anaesthesia in hospitals. The person has a painfree surgical procedure that improves their life. Then the anaesthetist brings them round. We can do all this, but we still don’t know where consciousness comes from. We go to sleep daily and we have a different sort of conciousness, we can describe what it might feel like if we dream, but still we don’t know where conciousness comes from. After all the brain is still there, doing its thing. It doesn’t entirely nod off too, does it?

That is why Sheldrake’s central question is a valid one. I do not necessarily agree with all his various hypotheses, but his insistence about the necessity for the scientific community to get its collective head out of its arse and enquire methodically into all aspects of the human experience (not just those that fit with its current preoccupation with the materialist model) is a valid one. After all, metaphysics is not just for poets, philosophers and religion.

Amygdalae & Anger

I can’t seem to write much at the moment.

I am spending a lot of time thinking about the amygdala x 2: the ‘fear’ centre of the brain.
I am of the view that anger is a fear-based response and I am re-starting my classification of emotions from the inside to the outside which is the reverse of the language-based approach I took before.

I may be a while.

Gedankenexperiment 2: Schrödinger’s Cat

The blog seems to be drawn only to thought experiments that involve cats. I suspect there is not an infinite supply of these (thought experiments involving cats, not cats, of which there may well be).

When I run out, I will have to think up my own.

Schrödinger’s cat explores the interpretation of quantum mechanics through the possibilities for the fate of the cat in the box, before the box is opened and observed.

It’s a good mental warm-up on a Sunday for the woman thinking of cooking an unobserved roast dinner.