Concrete Science Epiphanies

April 9, 2014

The title is a kinda cultural reference to Musique Concrete, don’t you know. Maybe should be read in French.  Sea-onss kon-krett. Pretentious, Moi?

Anyhoo. I have always loved that moment when Jane Public looks through a real telescope and sees the rings of Saturn. Suddenly its real. Not on TV. Seen with her own eyes. There is a physical context. She had to walk up some stairs to the roof, queue up, bend at an awkward angle, and squint. Mental processing is good, but physicality is also good. It helps the scientific understanding, and it has a separate cultural impact which has its own importance. Its a kind of epiphany, an awakening.

I encountered two more such epiphanies yesterday. Here in Edinbrr its Science Festival time. (In Edinburgh, if you miss a Festival, don’t worry. There will be another one along in a minute.)  During the day I donned my STFC tee-shirt and helped out at the STFC roadshow, Seeing The Universe In All Its Light. This has all sorts of groovy things, but the bit I loved best is dead simple. We had a bunch of TV remote controls and pointed them at people’s camera phones. You can see the IR beam, which you can’t see with your naked eye. People almost gasp. There are invisible things in the Universe, but they are really there. You don’t need a million pound device. I can see it with with my own phone.

Wind forward to the evening, where I was part of the SCART Connection, a strange event that presented the results of pairing up scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy with artists from the Edinburgh College of Art to see what they would come up with. This involved microscopic pictures of sludge crystals, sculptures of Ice-2,  Fibonacci spirals, a social soundscape project, and yours truly pontificating about cosmic violence to the accompaniment of electronic music by a local composer.  All very weird and wonderful. One thing that struck me was people’s reactions to a movie of those tiny sludge crystals. You could see them jiggling – Brownian motion in action. When told that this was caused by buffeting by atoms, their eyes bulged. Atoms? I can see them in a movie made by a guy from the Art College? Wooaahh.

Do The Right Thing

December 6, 2013

Like millions of others, I have been welling up listening to people on radio and TV recount their memories of Nelson Mandela. I’ve never even been to South Africa, but during my youth and early manhood, the struggle against apartheid was the great cause for anybody with a heart and a political head, the rotten thing in the world that needed fixing. A short but vivid memory from a few years before Mandela was released is of watching TV and seeing Soweto youths burst across a field, with sticks. I can remember being exhilarated, and thinking yes, they are bursting from their chains – it will all change now. Then moments later I felt guilty. Oh, surely, violence is bad? What we need is peace, love, and understanding? Well mostly yes, I do believe that peace and love is best. But sometimes … sometimes …

Everybody on the Beeb is stressing that Mandela was a great man because he resisted revenge : he emerged from decades of injustice with a message of co-operation and peace. He did the right thing. He did the right thing again five years later when he stepped down, visible proof of the democratic transfer of power. Sometimes we hear that during his time in prison he changed, and realised that he had to reach out to his gaolers.

Just occasionally it is mentioned that he did indeed plan acts of sabotage. In the beginning, in the early 1950s, he believed in non-violent direct action. But he saw it didn’t work, and 65 of his brothers were massacred by police. He decided he had to take up arms, and began forming a guerilla army. I am still waiting to hear somebody on the BBC say this : that too was the right thing.

I love the Beeb, but it is really a branch of the state. The message we are taught is that violence is bad. But the truth is that it is only bad if you ordinary people try to use it. The state needs a monopoly on violence, to maintain civil order. Mostly I believe this is correct : brutal but necessary. But sometimes … sometimes… I have never had to fight. I like to think that in the First World War I would have been a conscientious objector, and in the Second World War I would have signed up. You shouldn’t fight for power, but you should fight evil. But who knows.

So … taking up arms in the late 1950s was the right thing. Rejecting revenge in the 1990s was also the right thing. Having the strength of character to do both, to have the judgement to know what is right for the time – now that is wonderful. Lets not airbrush the violent past. Its part of why the reconciliation was so amazing.

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 ?


February 26, 2008

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