God, Dawkins, and the Cosmos

December 31, 2006

Richard Dawkins is an industry.

I guess I had thought of Dawkins as a biologist who wrote some books in his spare time. (Very good, very famous books). I stumbled upon a link to his website and was expecting the usual low key hacked-the-html-myself type scientist home page. Instead I found this vast complex extravaganza full of tour dates, forums, buy-the-book-here, etc. There is lots of work in this kind of dynamic site, and I doubt whether even a very clever and energetic biologist does all those Server Pages and databases (or whatever..) himself, so his book sales have to pay for this stuff. The site is not hosted at ox.ac.uk, but at richarddawkins.net. Its a business.

But I am cool with this. Its a good business, and he is Professor of Public Understanding at Oxford, so its even more or less part of his day job. And of course he is these days a man on a mission, trying to cure the world of the virus of religion. Many of us are right behind him; we are convinced of the power and the sanity of reason, and worried by the resurgence of the religious right and fundamentalist terrorism. This feels like the key struggle of the twenty first century. Our banners are unfurling in the wind as we stand ready to storm and liberate the city; our general Dawkins cries “Mark me and do the like !”

But some scientists are religious, and yet more are prone to quasi-mystical comments – like Hawking describing the COBE map of the cosmic microwave background as like seeing the Face of God. COBE map. When speaking to non-scientists, I find that people expect astronomers in particular to have some kind of insight into The True Nature of Things because of our daily exposure to the grandeur of the cosmos.

In one of my standard popular talks, I have a section where I step through the universe from Earth to Pluto to the Pleiades to the Andromeda Nebula to the Virgo Cluster to the Hubble Deep Field. This leaves one feeling awestruck but irrelevant. Then I flash up a picture of the Trifid Nebula and discuss the range of feelings it evokes.Trifid Nebula. Some people feel such awe and a sense of beauty that they think “This is an amazing universe. This is not here by accident. There has to be a God.” For others, it just amplifies the emptiness, the existentialist nausea, brought on by the endless sea of galaxies. But for myself, and I think for many other scientists, pictures of the cosmos are not especially important for the “God Question”. If you are inclined to mysticism, you will see God in a cupcake; if you are not, you won’t. When I stare at the galaxies, like any other human being I get the feelings of vastness and irrelevance, but its not depressing. Its a good feeling to accept that this, rather than some fairytale, is what the universe is really like. It is what it is.

Of course, just because you are liberated from believing in some bloke with a white beard in the sky, doesn’t mean you can’t get some kind of mystical groove from staring at cupcakes and galaxies, some suspicion of an underlying unity. We all read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I even read some Alan Watts once. Maybe you can feel connected to those cupcakes and galaxies, start seeing the jewel-net of Indra. Maybe. But if you start down this road, it is too easy to be suckered. The Vedanta, as interpreted for us Western sceptics by Watts et al, is fascinating; but Hinduism in practice seems to be ritual and superstition, and an excuse for a repressive social system.

All this talk of Eastern mysticism reminds me .. I loved the Dawkins TV programme, in which he demolishes Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in equal measure. But err… from a world perspective, aren’t these pretty much the same religion ? Somebody said to me that he starts off by defining Buddhism as not really religion … Hmm. Perhaps I should get round to buying the book.

Another sale, Richard.

Andy’s first blog

December 28, 2006

Well hello there world.

Fifty two point seven years after squeezing down the birth canal and out into the world, Andy dips his toe into the waters of the blogosphere, ready to take the plunge. Its not that I am a naive beginner in the online world… as well as all the normal astro-geekery, my scientific interest in very large sky surveys has led me into some frontline stuff over the last few years. I am formally responsible for a huge database (growing at 20TB a year), and run a project taking forward the e-Science agenda, using some cool new technology. But I do this stuff pretty much as a manager .. some very talented people who work for me do all the real work. Nige, Keith, etc, you know who you are when you stumble on this blog.

Since 2001, although I manage people writing Java, set up committee meetings on a wiki, and have been to endless conferences spouting “visionary” stuff about database interoperability, community XML standards, SOAP services, Grid computing, workflow technologies etc, at the end of the day I will sneak home and do a quick accretion disc calculation by knocking up some Fortran 77… Meanwhile my kids of course are all on Bebo and MSN and doing Web 2.0 things like it was drinking coke.

This strange disconnect in my life began to strike me and I planned a course of action. Step-1 was to learn Python. (I tried Java but gad was it tedious). Step-2 was to join FaceBook. But that just made me feel like disco-dancing dad. Step-3 was to start a blog. This might seem ideal, as I am old, senior, and pompous enough to believe I am worth listening to… but on the other hand I do have teenage kids so actually my normal daily experience is of eye-rolling contempt and repeated bubble pricking. So anyhoo.. here goes.

S o I think this blog will be about : what e-science really means (we’re making it up as we go along..) ; what its like being a scientist; and the pleasures and pains of being an academic in the 21st century UK. It will also be about cool astronomy stuff of course. My first instinct was to do an astronomy blog, as that is what I am supposed to be an expert on. But as I surfed, I found that loads of people already do that better than I could imagine achieving. As this blog is slowly clothed, I will point you at some of my favourites.

Well howboutthat. I seem to have started.