My thumb is not a watch

October 17, 2007

I have arrived at a theological insight through a combination of academic duties, astronomical management responsibility, and clumsy cookery. This comes after spending last week watching and fostering the growth of astronomical e-science (VOTECH DSRP meeting), while having to drop out of the meeting every couple of hours to deal with my duties as Head of School, dragging our sorry academic carcasses towards the Research Assessment Exercise.

The amazing thumb

The RAE panic is getting more intense daily. The thumbscrews are being applied by the University, I found myself thinking, and actually stared at my thumb while I was supposed to be listening to Francois Bonnarel . I was very pleased with my thumb. A week before that I had cut it while trying to chop peppers. This was slightly more than the usual nick; I sliced off a contact-lens sized piece, which was left dangling. Rather than merging back together, the contact-lens gradually shrivelled into a thin hard cap, while a new piece of thumb grew up from underneath. Eventually the hard cap fell off, and voila ! A new thumb. This is amazing of course. But as I stared at my thumb, I realised that the process was even more astonishing than I had realised.

My thumb print had come back. How does it do that ?

Faced with something so gobsmacking, the cliched phrase “Miracle of Nature” is on the tip of your tongue. Indeed some people would brandish such a “miracle” as an example of Why God Exists. Actually, my initial thought was that God really wants us to live in a police state. Otherwise, why would our bodies be so insistent on an unchangeable identifying feature … ? Hem. My second thought was more Dawkins-ish. God is irrelevant.

My thumb is not a watch.

God the Designer ?

Paley argued that if you come across a watch on the ground, you would assume that someone created it; something like that just couldn’t happen by chance. It’s too intricate and perfect. But suppose you came across a flower ? Or, as you dropped out of hyperspace during your journey across the cosmos, you suddenly saw the spiral galaxy M101 in the distance ? The complexity in these things is of a different order and of a different kind. You don’t build something like that; you grow it. Its complexity arises from accretion and meandering over vast aeons. If you started from scratch with a purpose in mind, thought it through, and carefully put every piece in place, even if that were possible, you wouldn’t get something that looked like a galaxy; you would get something that looked like a watch.

My thumb and its print are like this. They were not built by a conscious being. Evolution is the only way.

OK. So maybe God doesn’t build things, he designs them. But what does this mean ? I found myself puzzling over three types of creation I have been involved in recently and how they differ. Warning : we will be doing metaphor here, not mathematical proof…

First, writing a blog post.

Well, I sit down and create. Its all me. And yes, believe it or not, it is designed. Some of my posts are diary-like and spontaneous, but others, like this, are written top down. Once the design is there, the words are placed carefully; and I go back, delete sections, and start again. I design, build, and polish. The result is a watch, not a flower. (Maybe a Timex rather a Rolex …)

Second, writing the RA5A document.

This is an 11,000 word document that goes with our RAE submission. It has been led by me, but it is a group effort. I drew a blueprint, wrote a few bits, then commissioned colleagues to write the other sections. The stitched together result got circulated round, people suggested changes, sections got re-commissioned for editing, and so on in repeating cycles. I have tried to control the document as a whole, but its hard work keeping track of who is working on which bit, let alone what changes have been made. It really is my design, but I can’t say I built it. The whole thing is just on the edge of what you can achieve by command and control.

Third, creating the Virtual Observatory infrastructure.

I am project leader for both the UK AstroGrid project, and the Europe-wide VOTECH project. So do I direct every detail from on high ? You must be joking. Do I design an architecture, and let the engineers fill in the detail ? Nope, and if I did, the result would be awful. It is so complex it is obvious you can’t even try to micro-manage. What I am is the gardener. I provide the soil (money, meetings) ; buy some good plants from the Nursery; and maybe sprinkle some fertiliser (visionary words etc). Then I stand back. Its magic. Ideas and software grow before my eyes. Somehow the trick is to achieve as much as possible by doing as little as possible. (Wu Wei).

God the Gardener ?

This doesn’t make much sense either. I am proud to be the gardener, but there is nothing special about this. You need a gardener, you need plants, you need the guy who works at the Nursery, you need soil, you need water. You need all of it. Its an undivided whole. Nobody is in charge. We just have different jobs.

So at the end of this musing, I can just about see enough room left over for a sort of vague Einsteinian pantheism, or for some sort of mystical “God” which is the same thing as the whole Universe. But an entity separate from, and controlling, the Universe ? Doesn’t make sense.

So ?

As Physicists, in this situation, we typically echo Pauli and say “Its not even wrong”. But as the Eastern Wuss that I am, instead I recommend unasking the question.