Light-speed doubt

February 27, 2012

Lets see if we can link the faster-than-light neutrinos with Richard Dawkins.

This morning I listened to Start The Week (yes, I overslept …)  featuring a bunch of soft-core religious types, positioning themselves as the cuddly middle between Fundamentalism and Militant Atheism. Reminded me a bit of politics in the 90s. After many years of Socialist Worker Party nutters and in-your-face Thatcherite nasties slugging it out, Toady Blair smooths in, all calm and nice, bundles up the masses in the middle, and sweeps to power. Well anyway, lets not carry the analogy too far or I will start writing a whole different blog post. Lets just say that mostly I am happy with the idea that bitter polarisation does not help the rational cause. The more religion becomes a kind of fluffy lifestyle choice the better. Might even try one on for a bit sometime. Something with a bit of mystical chanting sounds fun.

What threw me though was that the cuddly ones were holding up doubt as a strength of good religion. One described himself as an Agnostic Christian. Hang on there Jim, isn’t Doubt our banner ? If there is one thing that defines the scientific approach to life, its scepticism.

Of course the paradox of scientific scepticism is that it has been so successful for four hundred years, that humankind has built up an amazingly reliable body of knowledge and understanding. In practice, if a student interrupts to say “Aha ! but Newton’s Law could be wrong, and then  everything else in this Lecture is wrong !”, we sigh patiently and say “just stick with me for a while here …”. Truly maximal doubt can be grossly inefficient.

So instead we have a kind of hierarchy of doubt.  Or maybe layers of an onion catches the situation better. Although it is rarely quantified, we have a clear sense  of which things to doubt, in which order. This is why the Opera neutrinos story  is so interesting. You don’t casually suggest that the speed of light limit can be broken. But the Opera folk did such a very very careful job of checking everything, and were so up front about their result and analysis, that people had to take it seriously. The betting was still very heavily on some mistake being found, but enough layers of the onion had been peeled that there was a non-zero chance of reaching the core.

Now the Opera team have announced  that they have found two technical problems, including a dodgy connection. So it looks like Einstein is safe for now. Jon Butterworth has written a nice Guardian science blog post  making the case that they were nonetheless right to publish. Where would we be if we avoided publishing things that seemed to contradict our pet theories ?

I think the striking thing about the FTL neutrinos is not just that the Opera team were prepared to think bold thoughts, but that the whole community was prepared to question Einstein if necessary. I think this is what separates doubt in science from doubt in religion. For many religious folk, surviving doubt strengthens their faith; others oscillate in an endless nervousness; and a few can have a catastrophic loss of faith and abandon their religion. But its always a personal issue. You never hear of an entire community of co-religionists trying to collectively decide whether their holy book is correct.

Rees on Religion

April 6, 2011

Bit of a Twitter Buzz this morning about Martin Rees winning the Templeton Prize. For those who don’t know, the Templeton Foundation is an organisation founded by billionaire John Templeton, to encourage open minded and progressive thinking in religion. In the 1980s they also started funding science, where they felt there was some philosophical (not necessarily directly religious) interest. Most interestingly, in 2006 they gave nine million dollars to help found the Foundational Questions Institute, led by by some well known astronomers and physicists.  Some scientists are clearly nervous about the Templeton Foundation, and others are relaxed, as described in this Nature News article.

Martin gave an interview to the Guardian about his reaction to the prize, and the relation between science and religion. Its the sanest thing I have read in ages. Briefly, his attitude is (a) I don’t believe in God. (b) I sometimes go to Church for cultural and work reasons. (c) Relax. Science and religion are disjoint activities. Pretty much like science and music. (d) We need to encourage progressive attitudes in religion, rather than setting up science in opposition.

Dawkins has called Rees a “compliant quisling“. Martin kinda brushed this off, but I have to say I’m with the Astronomer Royal on this.

A little while back I wrote about the Martin Gaskell affair, and was shocked at the level of crudeness and vitriol on the Pharyngula blog. Who needs religious fascism when we atheists can be just as vicious and unreasonable? I do realise that the perspective is rather different in the USA, where it is much more tempting to feel embattled. But it still doesn’t feel right.

Religion ain’t disappearing any time soon. If religion causes a lot of our problems, the sane solution is to encourage better religion, and encourage people to feel they can have their God and Darwin too, as Martin says.

Finally, while we are doing a bit of Rees worship, I just loved his closing quote from Hobbes : “There can be no contentment but in proceeding”

Course, Robert Zimmerman said it better

The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keeping on
Like a bird that flew
Tangle up in Blue

Spitting on Authority

December 22, 2010

One should be careful when making assumptions about religious divisions. In the High Street, just uphill from St Giles Cathedral, is the shape of a heart, laid out in cobblestones, known as the Heart of Midlothian. Every time I walk past it has several gobbets of spit in it. If I am accompanied by a puzzled visitor, I will mutter that I think Catholics spit on it because it is a symbol of Protestantism. Or possibly the other way round. Not sure. But I think thats what I heard somewhere. English visitors like hearing this because it reconfirms their prejudice that Scotland is still crippled with sectarian division, whereas in England all that nonsense has withered away.

Now, reading Edinburgh, A History of the City by Michael Fry, I find that the real truth is that the Heart is a symbol of class war, not religious struggle. In olden times, this was the site of the Tollbooth, a bizarre building that combined an actual tollbooth, sittings of the mediaeval parliament, and down below street level, the city prison. The prison floor was a large open plan affair, with prisoners chained to a long bar running the length of the room. In the middle however, was a square box of plate iron, in which was incarcerated whoever was currently condemned to die. It was this grim cage that was known as the Heart of Midlothian. This building, ugly in spirit and fact, was finally torn down in 1817, and the cobbled heart left to mark the spot. Since then, the lower citizens of Edinburgh have been spitting on the heart as a symbol of authority and repression. Walk from there down Victoria Street to the Grassmarket and you will find a pub called The Last Drop. Yup, thats where the scaffold was. Grim sense of humour, the Scots.

When the Tollbooth was torn down, Walter Scott took away the door and kept it in his house at Abbbotsford. A year later, he published his famous novel, The Heart of Midlothian. The story is about a family of Covenanters. The father, Davie Deans, gets hot under the collar about religious affairs, and fights his corner. Daughter number 1, Effie, turns away to a life of secular sin. Daughter number 2, Jeanie Deans, also turns away from theological dispute, but in calm serenity.

The most famous part of the book however relates a true story of Edinburgh history – the Porteous riot. in 1736, Captain Porteous was condemned to death for ordering his soldiers to fire on a crowd attending a hanging. Then news came from London that Captain Porteous was to be reprieved. At this time, the Act of Union was shall we say not uniformly popular with ordinary Scots, and this was seen as an insult and injustice by a remote power. An angry mob stormed the Tollbooth, dragged Porteous out, carried him down to the Grassmarket, and hanged him. This famous story, and Scott’s re-telling, must have cemented the feelings of bitterness and injustice connected with the Tollbooth.

Wind forward a hundred and ninety years, and time has almost erased the memory in the stone tape. I am not the only inhabitant of Edinburgh who is vague about that be-spittled symbol. If you stop most people passing the Heart and ask why people spit in it, they will simply say “Err .. dunno, its a tradition”. Check out this wee YouTube documenetary-ette .  Or they are Hibs supporters, who have now taken the Heart of Midlothian as a symbol of the rival football team of that same name. Of course that team division reflects a traditional sectarian split, but thats almost gone too – somebody will probably tell me what fraction of the Hibs team are not Catholics.

It can be sad when the traces of history fade. I wrote here about my favourite chip shop unknowingly commemorating the widows of Flodden, until it changed its name, and a six hundred year link was snapped. But maybe, where a sense of history is still re-inforcing bitterness and division, it is better to forget.

Canossa revisited : Science, State, and Religion

March 31, 2010

I expect you all saw @ProfBrianCox on @Wossy. Thats Twitterspeak for Brian Cox on the Jonathan Ross show . I think. New at this stuff. Anyway, it was j.good. Everybody loved the will-he won’t-he finger in the liquid Nitrogen thing. Rather more Dr Bunhead than Carl Sagan if you know what I mean, but hey that’s good. My favourite moment was a little more serious. Ross suddenly asked Cox whether he was atheist, religious, agnostic or what. Brian paused slightly and then stated that personally he was comfortable living with uncertainty, and that was what science gave you. Well, spot on, but of course he didn’t actually answer the question. Part of me thought this was chickening out, and part of me thought it was very wise. It didn’t rule out Einstein style cosmic pantheism, and didn’t criticise anybody’s personal choices, but left you to work out for yourself that religion is a crutch you don’t need. But do we need to take sides ? A year in the USA reminded me that millions of people believe that science is the enemy of religion; not because science is intrinsically evil, but because it is part of a secular state which limits their freedom to teach their children what they wish.

My Christmas reading included Millenium by Tom Holland. Set at a time when people were deeply religious and thought the world was about to end, the central story is about the battle for authority between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. The turning point was when the excommunicated Henry IV crawled to the castle at Canossa in 1077 to do penance. Pope Clement kept him waiting outside the gate, in his hair shirt, for several days before admitting him to an audience. This established papal supremacy. At least thats what Mr Holland told me.

I thought of this as the Catholic Church child abuse scandal kept rolling on. The jaw dropping thing is not that priests did those awful things, but that the Church felt it was above the law, and had no need to hand the guilty over to Caesar. For a while it looked like Pope Benedict would have his Canossa-in-reverse in Ireland, as the pressure grew for him to publicly grovel. But the result was still an expression of regret for the crimes committed by others, and sympathy for the pain felt by victims – not an apology for covering everything up.

Meanwhile it seems, the same US states that legislate for a requirement to teach religious scepticism concerning evolution, also wish to insist on scepticism concerning global warming. (See this NY Times article.) Why ? Does the Bible say that changes in climate are not anthropogenic ? Don’t think so. I think its because in Christian minds, science is at the core of a rational secular state which wishes to squash their culture and remove their freedom to believe. Even our academic humanist colleagues think there is an unhealthy bias towards the state funding of science.

Right now many physicists are tempted to see the State as a barbarian force intent on squeezing out the pursuit of truth and replacing it with the pursuit of gold, even making the production of gold the test of value for scientific activity. Well we all know the dangers, but its really only fine tuning. The religious zealots are right. We are at the heart of the military industrial complex.  Government knows the value of science. Since radar and the bomb, we get lots of money. You think thats because the goverment think we are fine men and women and deserve to have an undisturbed life of enquiry ?   We are public servants. Our paymasters want as much as they can for their money. Whats more, they are not obliged to see science as a single block.

The Government is minded to appoint a Minister for Life Sciences. Now stop obsessing about UKSA and worry about that instead.

Minister for Space anyone ?

The Struggle for Truth

May 31, 2008

Our academic lives are fraught with worry. Where is my next grant coming from ? How can I finish that marking and still get to Sweden by Thursday ? Why does my laptop keep saying “illegal action ?” Shall I try that weird new algorithm, or shall I just hack a quick solution before the team meeting ? Who was that person from Brussels ? Is that the same woman who sent me that email ? Where did I file it ? Is X plotting against me because their proposal is up the same round, or am I just being paranoid ? Why do I keep getting a “no such module” error message ??

Then sometimes you just stop. Do nothing for an hour or three and the dust of a thousand truths has time to settle slowly on your head. This could be the time when you reach a simple scientific insight. Or it could be when your head turns to spiritual matters. Does all this stuff, life, etc, have any meaning ? What will happen when I die ? Now from a scientist’s point of view, the trouble with religions is, well, they can’t all be right. Which one is the true religion ? How do you know ? (For the purposes of debate, I am ignoring the obvious option, that all religions are just a pile of dingos kidneys).

My kids have found the answer. You get ’em to slug it out in a nice safe virtual world. I came across the wee ones playing an Internet Flash game which seemed to consist of a bloke that looked like an Alien boxing with a bloke that looked like a Monk. This they said, was Faith Fighter where you pick a deity and start fighting. What I saw was apparently Xenu (from Scientology) versus Buddha. You can also choose Jesus, God, Ganesh, or Muhammad, pbuh. (Before you enter the site, you get warned about the Muhammad depiction thing and get offered a censored version with no face).

I must say I found their particular choices problematic. Scientology of course isn’t really a religion but a pyramid selling scheme. Arguably Buddhism isn’t really a religion either, and it doesn’t have a deity, who certainly isn’t Buddha. But of course thats just me being an intellectual Western hippy type. If you just look at actions rather than concepts, and see temples and incense and chanting and so on, it sure looks like a religion, and Tibetan Buddhism seems to be full of fairy tales. But anyhoo. There is a gamers forum debate about Faith Fighter here, and another similar game with the wonderful title of Adult Swim Bible Fight. This also features some bee-yoo-tiful music, which I know I know … I think maybe its that thing that Mozart memorised at the Vatican ?? Help anybody ?

Perhaps violence is the only way to settle arguments. I once had a friend who was a convinced Determinist, and another who believed in Free Will. Lets call them A and B. After twenty minutes of stubborn debate, B kicks A on the shin. “Ow !” says A, “what did you do that for ?”. “Sorry old chap” says B, “I guess it was just going to happen, nothing I could do.” Then B kept kicking A on the shin until he admitted that Free Will existed, which he finally did.

Course, all those events were just … I don’t need to finish, do I ?

The Twentieth Planetary Congress

September 21, 2007

The Association of Space Explorers is in town – qualification for membership at least one orbit of the Earth. (I guess a round the world ticket on British Airways doesn’t count). So two days ago the astronauts, cosmonauts, and the tiny number of euro-nauts were dispersed about the Schools of Scotland giving inspirational talks. Then yesterday there was a public conference hosted by the University, with a whole bunch of interesting talks – about fire safety on spacecraft; about how to keep crew members fed all the way to Mars; about returning to the Moon; and about how space exploration has changed our attitude to Earth and its fragility.

It was a strange occasion for various reasons. Firstly, the audience was about one third each crumbling astronauts, university scientists, and high school kids, all sitting in different parts of the room. Secondly, my daughter was there, which I am not used to at scientific meetings. She made faces at me from across the auditorium anytime somebody said something vaguely rude about astronomers. Thirdly, it was all taking place in the famous Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. During the intervals, walking the corridors drinking tea, I felt I should be plotting against other factions, watching out for the ecclesiastical knife, and fretting about gay bishops and so on.

There was a talk about the NASA “return to the Moon” program, now called Constellation (not to be confused with Constellation-X, the big X-ray mission). I still can’t quite decide what I feel about money on the manned space program versus the unmanned science programme, but it depends on how you ask the question. If the question is “well, we got so much money for space stuff – do you wanna spend it on astronauts or on telescopes and space probes ?” then my answer is “telescopes please”. But if the question is “should we spend another billion or ten on bombing Iran, or should we train up some astronauts for going to the moon ?” then my answer is “why are you even asking ?”

Science, Rock, and Jelly

September 3, 2007

The great fear of many rationalists today is that a wave of religious zealotry is sweeping over the world, poised to undo the progress of both science and liberal democracy. The intellectual enemy is rigidity of thought, a kind of mental fascism. But many people in Western society who describe themselves as “spiritual” are not rigid at all. Recently I found myself debating with some cuddly New Agers. Its like trying to nail jelly to the wall.

When you log in at the front page displays an array of latest blog posts in various categories. You can dip your toes in many different ponds at random which is strange and refreshing for a few minutes each day. So a few days back the headline “Whats Happening in Science” linked to something about The Vetruvian Man. Intrigued, I clicked over and found something that was all about golden rectangles in Da Vinci’s pictures, and the cosmic significance of this. Alright in its way, but I found myself a bit disgruntled that this was labelled as the hot new thing in Science. Even stranger, the post was tagged “Quantum Physics”. So I left a somewhat sarcastic comment. The owner of the blog, Kristina, replied politely but confusingly, and a rather strange thread continued for a short while. (I think she has stopped accepting my comments… ) Well, it was quite rude of me to be so pushy in someone else’s world, but if you take a short look, you will see what I mean about the jelly thing.

So does this matter ? I have had many hippy/new-age/moon-crystal kinda friends over the years and if you switch off certain parts of your brain they can be lovely to be with – just sit on the carpet, hold hands, drink tea, stare at the mandala, chat and drift, and time vanishes. Peace, harmony, joy. But then you realise you’ve got be somewhere and they’ve lost the keys again. aaagghhhhhh.

So fundamentalist religion is like a rock, and new age spirituality is like jelly oozing through your fingers. At first you think you have a hold of it, but a few moments later your fingers are sticky and the carpet is wet.

So what is the right metaphor for Science ?

p.s. for our American chums, remember that jelly=jello and jam=jelly. And as for wearing your vest on top of your shirt, well what can I say.

Waking Up on the Cosmic Express

March 3, 2007

Roaming round the science blogs these days, every third post seems to be about Science Versus Religion – for example here, and here, and even one from me. One of the best was “Thank You Richard Dawkins” over at Cosmic Variance, which provoked a long and strange debate. I find this phenomenon both invigorating and alarming, as my fellow scientists are basically right but often oddly strident. I have found myself repeatedly daydreaming about a striking conversation that took place a year or so ago on my way to an observing run at the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT).

What follows is essentially as it happened, but fictionalised for heuristic effect. If Veet reads this, he will understand.

I am flying from London to LA, en route to Hawaii – the Cosmic Express, the UK Astronomy Special. I have just had an idea and am scribbling some calculations on my newspaper. The man in the next seat asks me what I am doing. I explain that I am a scientist, and go on to say that I am on the way to use a new wide field camera on a telescope on top of the Big Island. Fascinated, he gently grills me. His questions are very cogent, initially naive but rapidly sharpening as he listens to my answers. I begin to wonder if he is teasing me and is actually a Dutch astronomer – but no, he is just intelligent and well read, with the kind of intellectual freedom that goes with lack of responsibility – he is called Veet and he scratches a living on Kauai tutoring the children of wealthy farmers.

I go on to explain how the infrared is important because you can see cold things, things hidden by dust, and very distant, redshifted things. He swallows all this with a pleased grin. Then somehow, at a pause, religion comes up – I don’t remember how. He says that the problem with the world is that our science and technology is very advanced, whereas our religion is still primitive. What we need is more advanced religion.

I snort. Advanced religion, I say, would be advancing it to the point where you have no religion. Religion is like a bad dream that humanity has woken from now that we understand nature, and have material comfort and democratic social structures. Fairytales are not needed – we are not frightened, or puzzled, or oppressed. God is unnecessary.

So who mentioned God ? says Veet. It soon becomes clear that he finds the Abrahamic religions more absurd and worrying than I do, seeing them as a kind of virus, a slave system that traps people, and enemies of knowledge and truth. I find myself defending Islam and its role in preserving science through the dark ages, but he downplays this, saying that the scholarship was always carried out by subject peoples conquered by Islam.

But, he says, this doesn’t mean there is no spiritual aspect to life, and in fact the scientific approach, a healthy scepticism, leads us in a consistent direction. There is no personal self; it is an illusion caused by memory, the continuity of physical structures neighbouring in space. The point is to arrive at this insight before the illusion vanishes at death. Suffering arises from grasping; when you know you do not exist, suffering ceases. Ah, I gradually realise, this is Buddhism. So … how about this re-incarnation mumbo-jumbo ? If there is no self, what is the thing that pops back in to another body ? He smiles. Yes, Buddhism is more advanced than gods-in-the-sky, but perhaps not yet the final story. His point exactly.

The self, he suggests, is like a waterfall. It looks like an object, but its really a process. Its caused by the landscape, making the water flow in a structured way .. for a while. The waterfall isn’t real. Only the water is real. OK, say I. This is like Heraclitus – a man can never step in the same river twice. Uhuh, says Veet. Its not the same river, and its not the same man. Nice game, I say … but whats the water here ? He smiles. Just because there is no personal self doesn’t mean that there is no consciousness. It is obvious that consciousness exists in the Universe, along with matter, and energy. But it must be a single universal field, which follows the landscape and produces temporary structures. Somehow as organisms we participate temporarily in this universal field of selfness. Mystics have been saying the same thing for thousands of years.

Now I get cynical again. We are heading down Mysticism Road towards Gibberish City. All is One. You too are Brahman. The world is a Veil of Illusion. You may think you see the real world, but you don’t. The reality is something stranger, deeper, mistier, which only the Master can really see. This stuff is very clever, but just another delusional fantasy. Like String Theory ? he asks with a grin. Well, yes, I say. The point about science is that you may have elaborate explanations, but you keep it concrete, you stay grounded in experience. You are sceptical, and you test your ideas against Nature. If it disagrees with experiment, its wrong. Doesn’t matter whether a Grad Student said it or Ed Witten said it. If Nature says no, it isn’t so. On this basis, Quantum Mechanics may be weird, but its solid. String Theory isn’t even right or wrong yet. Its a beautiful idea waiting to become science one day. And as for merging with Brahman.. well where do you start ?

Long Pause. He holds up his pen. What’s this ? he says. Its a pen, I say. No, he says, “pen” is a noise. This is what this is. He hands me the pen in silence. I just stare at it for a while. I can see a tiny glare of light reflecting off a tangent. Its blue at one end and green-ish at the other. The pen is light, but I can feel its weight, and I roll the pen on my palm. Its smooth but I feel a slight tickle on my skin.

The point ? I can put this in scientist-talk, he says. In our heads we have a model of the world. Words, concepts, equations. Powerful but confusing. The illusion is that we mistake this buzzing mental world for the real thing. So you see mysticism is the opposite of your caricature, and quite like your empirical worldview. The illusory world is complex, confusing, fuzzy, and only Ed Witten can really understand it. But let this drop away and the real world is concrete, definite, hard, bright and simple. Its exactly the same as before but without the crap.

Interesting. Reminds me of the philosophical debates from the early days of quantum theory about whether the theory represents something real, or is just a convenient instrument; a machinery for calculating what happens in Nature. It works, but maybe there could be other instruments that would do just as well. Just because it works doesn’t mean it reflects some underlying essential reality. Well, I guess philosophers still make a living going round this circle. But working scientists see that debate as a failure of nerve. Electrons and quarks are real. We make concrete progress and understand the world better each day. This is not a game. There is a knowable reality.

Woah, says Veet. Thats a pretty strong theological position ! The scientific credo. I thought you guys were thorough-going sceptics ? To me, he says, scientific theories are not discovered, they are created. They are as beautiful as Hamlet or Beethoven’s Ninth. They are a great human achievement.

I wriggle, having been trapped into seeming dogmatic. Yes, ok, I say, if you work only on theory, you can never be sure you are not fooling yourself. Grounding in the concrete observed world is crucial. And in science, you always have to be ready to say you were wrong, and then your theory goes out of the window. But, look, the point is, science works. Airplanes fly. Transistors get invented. Its not a beautiful but arbitrary fiction. Our scientific creations are somehow connected with the real world, and they are useful.

Same with Hamlet, says Veet.

Long pause. I rattle the ice in my coke. The plastic cup is so thin I can feel the ice bump against my fingers. I can hear the people behind us talking and laughing. Guess I tuned it out before. I turn back to Veet.

Well, its interesting to hear mysticism isn’t what I thought. Don’t get trapped by the words, keep connected to the physical world. Thats cool. But then, so what ? This doesn’t seem deep. Clear some clutter from your mind and its kinda obvious.

Exactly, says Veet.

The sun is coming through the window. The light of day is like a block of glass. Everything is the same as before.