un momento por favor...

I'm not ready to start up yet... settling is .. well unsettling.  So here's a little tidbit to mull over.

"If there were an afterlife I would have to reconsider the engineering design of fridges with a very critical eye, and I would start to get worried and think that I don't understand the universe."
 - Brian Cox in the passenger seat of a car


This isn't a blog post with a point.  I'm sitting with a cup of tea, full of tired, and wistful feelings of strangeness.  In an hour or two the packers arrive from our other apartment where at this moment they are repacking our boxes ready to ship to Australia. These boxes have sat in that little heat box of a studio apartment, partly unpacked and unloved, waiting for the next big thing.  Some of them were shipped from Perth Australia, to Los Angeles, then stored, then shipped again from LA to India and stored, and then once more from India to Thailand.  Now here they go again.  

I'm not proud of it.  It really sums up the lessons I've learned and the journey I've taken. Once I was a hoarder of western proportions. I went from being pretty poor to having lots of money and buying things I loved - books and paintings, wood carvings, cds and dvds.  But since I have been in the uneasy position of not being able to find a place in the world that is safe and stable for Gagan and I to be, all those pretty things are in boxes and their memory has faded. I've realised that I don't remotely need them in my life to be happy.  Well, I will give one caveat to that - the books would be the one thing I would enjoy having around my home. To cast my eyes along a well stocked shelf, to run my finger along the spines and pull out a random book to read over a hot drink in the afternoon would make life more precious.  But that is truly the only thing.  Though everything else is lovely, and has meaning in its own way - I can honestly say that if I had a photo of them, I could enjoy them as much with a glance once in a while. That says a lot I think.  

It has cost a huge amount of money lugging these things around the world.  By the time I realised I should unload and simplify my life a huge amount, I wasn't in a place that I could do that. So here we go again - spending much of the last of our savings to haul it across the oceans again. But this time - we'll find homes for things at the other end. In Australia there will be second-hand stores and places to donate loved things, so that other people can love them as well.  What a lesson to learn. 

And meanwhile I am sitting with that very surreal feeling I always get in the midst of a move.  Circling the globe is never a 'normal' thing to do.  And now I am finding myself almost back where I was 16 years ago, yet I am not remotely the same person, and the country I fled from has now become one that I see as saving us.  How we do grow up when we learn how lucky we are!

I don't like moving and moving and moving. I've done it enough now to know that I just don't remember things very well. Each place that is so real in a moment, becomes a vague and distant memory way too quickly for my liking.  I'm sitting in this living room in this very nice apartment here in Bangkok. This room was almost prison like at times as I was confined to the house because of my health, but it's where my learning epiphany took place so I feel very fond of it, and to know that soon I won't be able to picture it very well seems a little sad.  But perhaps it's all about living in the moment - learning to enjoy the 'experience self' more than the 'remembering self'.   I'll sign off from Thailand with this interesting TED talk.  I'll write again soon - I have drinkable tap water, fresh air, recycling, and the Southern Cross constellation in my sights.

Love Song

Tim Minchin  ... what a legend!

for karaoke.. here's the lyrics!

Fuck the motherfucker.
And fuck you, motherfucker
If you think that motherfucker is sacred.
If you cover for another motherfucker who's a kiddy fucker, fuck you!
You're no better then the mother fucking rapist.

And if you don't like the swearing that this motherfucker forced from me and recon it shows moral or intellectual paucity
Then fuck you motherfucker, this is langauge one employs when one is fucking cross about fuckers fucking boys.

I don't give a fuck if calling the Pope a motherfucker means you unthinkingly brand me and unthinking apostate.
This has nowt to do with other fucking godly motherfuckers, I'm not interested right now in fucking scripture or debate

There are other fucking songs and there are other fucking ways, I'll be a religious apologist on other fucking days
And the fact remains if you protect a single kiddy fucker then pope or prince or plumber you're a fucking motherfucker.

You see, I don't give a fuck what any other motherfucker believes about Jesus and his mother fucking mother.
I've no problem with the spiritual beliefs of all those fuckers, whilst those beliefs don't impact on the happiness of others.

But if you build your church on claims of fucking moral authority and with threats of hell impose it on others in society
Then you, you motherfuckers, can expect some fucking wrath when it turns out you've been fucking us in our motherfucking asses.

So fuck the motherfucker
And fuck you motherfucker
If you're still a mother fucking papsit.
If he covered for a single motherfucker who's a kiddy fucker, fuck the motherfucker! He's as evil as the rapist.

And if you look into you mother fucking heart and tell me true that this mother fucking stupid fucking song offended you. With its filthy fucking language and its fucking disrespect, if it made you feel angry go ahead and write a letter.

But if you find me more offensive then the fucking possibility - the pope protected preists when they were getting fucking fiddly.
Then listen to me motherfucker, this here is a fact:
You are just as morally misguided as that motherfucking power hungry, self-aggrandised bigot in the stupid fucking hat.

Come Fly With Me

The world has been seemingly gripped with the news of the volcano eruption in Iceland and how it has paralysed air travel in the UK and Europe (and therefore worldwide) for many days. It's been incredible to watch. Giant headlines in the newspapers, tv news dedicating much of their half hour to images of stranded passengers sleeping in airports and relating their stories.

I have reacted weirdly to it and I'm trying to figure out why.

I think if it was 5 years ago I may have been the same as many of the people they show. I might have felt like it was a catastrophe and my life was turned upside down, feeling anger and frustration at the situation - at the airlines - at the governments - at anyone! And maybe I'd be making decisions to try and get home from where I was.

That brings up interesting ideas, however.  I'm wondering if it's a combination of our cultural environment, high expectations and a generally poor ability as humans to make decisions, that is making this worse than it really is.

Watching from afar, I find myself thinking that people from the West seem to react to crisis with panic, and when the smoothly run events of their lives are suddenly not so smooth, they begin to make bad decisions, or to not realise their expectations were too high for the situation.  Does that mean, as Westerners, we are not able to distinguish a true crisis from an inconvenience, and as such, we panic or overreact?

Don't get me wrong, I know if I was apart from Gagan I would be feeling very sad and desperate to see him. I'm sure that uncertainty would be upsetting, but at no point in this current flight chaos was there any implication that people *would not* get to their destinations eventually. The stories being related by weary travellers seemed to have a certain disconnect between the actual events and the stress and upset suffered.

Some examples I heard that puzzled me slightly.  One passenger related how they were diverted to Moscow, but none of the people have Russian visas so were kept in a hotel under guard, and basically could not leave their rooms apart from the time they were escorted to the restaurant for meals. Okay... I am sure that was disconcerting, and for most people the idea of being locked away is not pleasant.  But if you compare it to the reality of life for many people on the planet, it's not actually true 'hardship'.  Just hanging out in a hotel room .... is it?  Am I so wrong to wonder why this is newsworthy and upsetting when the world is so full of death and destruction?

Another person was in Amsterdam. He has epilepsy and was running out of medication. I understand that's an urgent thing, but there are lots of interesting things about that.  Firstly, as someone will chronic illness myself, I have to travel with medicine and would never go anywhere without a whole lot of extra doses.  Secondly, once again, as someone with illness, it would be advisable to have insurance so that you are covered for this kind of emergency.  And lastly, I would think in a pinch, if you went into a hospital in Amsterdam you would be able to see a Dr and get a dose of what you need, even if you have to pay for it - they're not going to turn you away and expect you to suffer.  Sometimes, we have to pay if things don't work out.  People do seem more willing to pay for a holiday or something of perceived value in happiness, than something that they just simply need and won't get any added pleasure out of. If it feels like we are paying extra, or paying when we shouldn't have to, then we resent it.  But, sometimes we just have to do it.

So what are the things that have gone wrong?  How could people have dealt with their own circumstances differently?    Just like the guy who probably should have packed some extra medication, or thought about his options, what else should people have done?  From my own humble and meaningless little bubble, it feels like much of the discomfort is 'perceived' rather than 'actual'.

There were people who spent thousands of Euros renting taxis to drive across Europe. Was that a wise decision... or spur of the moment?  Did they weigh up how much they would spend if they stayed where they were, or if they couldn't stay, moved somewhere else that they could wait it out for planes to start up, rather than drive all the way?

Many people were talking about the jobs they had to get back to. I can imagine that would be stressful. It would be surprising (and pretty pathetic) if any boss would fire someone if they didn't get back for that reason. Of course, there could be one or two... but we're talking the big picture here. And if work is piling up while you're away, and that is a worry, how does that stack up against all the stress that you put your body through to try and get back?  Does one outweigh the other?  I don't have the answer... but I think asking the question for each person would help in making a wise decision.

In the long run, I guess I just felt a little dismayed.  You can't live in the developing world and see terrible poverty and corruption around you all the time, without having it change your point of view. I know I might have been one of those people a long time ago, but now I keep wondering what all of them would do if a *real* crisis was to hit.  What if they were in Haiti on January 12th, or the quakes in Chile or China? What if they were lived in a country in civil strife equivalent to anarchy like Somalia?  Just thinking of my friends in India and how they are used to travelling vast distances by train in terrible conditions we would not dream of, and flying is a huge luxury to them.  So hearing these passengers complaining about hotel rooms, and train trips, and uncertainty... but never noticing they didn't have to worry about their own safety or future, makes me feel sad.

To think in these terms, I realise it's all about context. This might be the worst thing they have ever experienced.  If you took some Londoners from the 1940's who lived through the Blitz, they would have probably not batted an eye.  If you live in a culture that has always given you all you need - provided you with the ability to place your wants above your needs, then you don't have to think about how to cope. You don't even need to consider what a crisis is... odds are you will never experience one. Hardship comes in the form of unemployment and debt, or not getting the job you want, the car you want.  Not in having your town fall to rubble in a earthquake, or civil war destroying your community, or no health care while disease ravages the young and the vulnerable.  In fact for people living in poverty stricken countries, they cope remarkably well with crisis and just get on with things, since they live in a perpetual state of it.   Context.   We only know what we see around us.

Which leaves us with the question - why *aren't* we more able to relate to things until we see them for ourselves?  If we're bombarded with images of starving children and war torn countries, why can't we see that we are incredibly well off, and hence shrug off inconveniences and make the best of a bad bunch?  Are we desensitized by the media, are we just greedy, or is it that we evolved to live in small communities with people mostly like ourselves and that was as far as our genetic altruism goes.  I have read a lot to support the latter.

I am not trying to say all the thousands of people stuck all over the world have not had a difficult time. But it's worth noting that until the planes stopped flying, they had gone to those places by choice (and many for a holiday) and it was only when someone told them "you can't fly" that the experience stopped being fun.  That old saying "life is what you make it" must have something in it, I think!

So... with the hopes of making better decisions in future and keeping things in context, I add these two TED talks that I find inspiring and thoughtful.

###  EDIT   ###   I just found out that insurance probably wouldn't cover this as irritatingly it's still called an "Act of God" ... which is just insane in this day and age. I would love to contest that on the grounds of being a rational atheist!  Anyway, so my point about saying people should have taken out insurance was badly researched.  Which means that all the airlines who have tried to compensate and temporarily house people are doing something rather decent I feel.  We hear of airlines losing money - profits are down, so this must be hitting hard.   And now news reports are that people want to know how the 'crisis' could have been handled better.  Sigh.. oh well.   Apparently someone has to 'fess up. What a strange world we live in.

Tell It Like It is

Sometimes the truth hurts..... hurts so good.

This is Richard Dawkins on whether the Pope should resign over the child abuse scandal. Take it away, Rich!

"Should the pope resign?" No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly - ideally - qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears. 


Noah 1 - Darwin Nil

Pope on a Rope

This has been around for a while... but it seems ever so apt now (and still makes me giggle)....

Nothing But the Truth

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."  Arthur Schopenhauer

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
Max Planck

I heard these two quotes today. I'm not sure that either of them describe the scientific community as it stands in the present day, but it's an interesting commentary on how the past and the present collide. Once the earth was flat and scientists were heretics who postulated otherwise. Then there was the  geocentric model of the universe with the sun and stars revolving around the earth. Proposing otherwise, directly went against the establishment and more importantly, religion, and that was what made it so hard for those brave scientists... but they did it.

Now though, there is a healthy process of discovery in the scientific community.  New ideas may be viewed with healthy skepticism, but only if the data doesn't support it. Prove it well enough and move on to new and bigger things.

Except... the uneducated and opinionated public is now the problem.   They're the ones who seem to fight the idea of scientific enquiry, research, education and endeavour.  It's fine to reap the rewards in medicine, military might, technology, and entertainment....  but they don't want the most basic scientific theories (that are the underpinings of so many of these developments they take for granted) to be taught to their children or given any credence/support in their society. It's like we are going back to the dark ages.  Sometimes I wish we had one giant isolated island that they could all be put on, to fend for themselves and live as they please - with no benefits from science or 'elite' (did you know educated is now a dirty word?) ideas to sully their otherwise perfect lives. What a science experiment that would be.  If nothing else, it would make a bloody good movie!

Maths is Cool

Game On!

Dominant Species?

Viruses are the most abundant lifeform on Earth. If you laid all the viruses on the planet end to end, they would form a line 200 million light years long.



Hungry White Blood Cell

Kinda makes you feel sorry for the wee bacteria!

The Business of Understanding

Richard Feynman's comment about the kind of people who say they don't understand his lectures:

"and then there's a kind... saying that you don't understand it - meaning 'I don't believe it, it's too crazy, it's the kind of thing I'm just not going to accept'.

I hope you'll come along with me, and you'll have to accept it, because it's the way nature works. If you wanna know the way nature works, we looked at it carefully. ...that's the way nature works. You don't like it?.. go somewhere else. To another universe, where the rules are simpler, philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy. I can't help it, ok? If I'm going to tell you honestly what the world looks like to ... human beings who have struggled as hard as they can to understand it, I can only tell you what it looks like, and I cannot make it any simpler. ... I'm not going to fake it. I'm not going to tell you it's something like a ball bearing on a spring - it isn't. I'm going to tell you what it really is like, and if you don't like it?.. that's too bad."

1979 Lecture from New Zealand

Stick THAT in yer pipe and smoke it!

The Scale of Things

I meant to post this back in December and forgot, and then a friend sent it to me again now, reminding me how freaking amazing it is.  It makes me ask so many questions as I watch it...  awesome (in the true sense of the word) and inspiring.  Dammit... where is a pocket cosmologist when I need one?!

The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?

What HE Said!

Sometimes you find someone else can put what you want to say in words SO much better than you can (well... a lot of the time actually...that's why people get published and I write a blog - snort!) Anyway - I saw this video and thought it was pretty sweet. Never having been a theist, I didn't have an epiphany from the fog of religion into the wide open skies of knowledge, but still, I feel like my new-found love of science is summed up perfectly. If I had been shown these things, with this kind of awe and wonder and enthusiasm as a young person... the direction my life took may have been very different.   Still... doesn't stop the joy now!

Tickle Yer Funny Bone

This guy is a chuckle... and the Irish accent definitely helps!

And a Good Time Was Had by All

I wish we'd been in Melbourne the last few days for the 2010 Global Atheists Convention.  Sounds like it was really good.

When Couch Potato is Not a Dirty Word

A while ago I posted about how I might feel if I wasn't working anymore. Well..  elementary forces conspire to create change and here I am... no longer able to work. It's rather odd, but I try not to think about it as much as possible and focus on the weirdly liberating aspects instead.  Now I have time to concentrate on science in all its glory... even though I am starting from the beginning.

So.. whadya do when you can't work?  You crowdsource!

For instance.... how about searching for a particles of interstellar dust captured on aerogel on a satellite?  Over 27,000 people are searching using a virtual microscope on slides at 50 microns magnification for the tracks left by particles that are too small themselves to be seen. It's been going since at least 2007 and they *think* they may have found ... wait for it....   two!

Or... from the very small to the giant.  What about classifying galaxies?  Looking at images of 100's of galaxies and describing their features - spirals, rings, bars, disturbed etc.

A little closer to home you can map solar storms with live data coming in every hour from a stereo camera that allows you to track the beginning and peak of the storm billowing out from the surface of the sun.  It estimates how soon it will reach and affect the earth.

Or you can help to classify thousands of stars using their observed absorption spectrum, which are unique almost like DNA. By comparing against other stars spectra and picking the closest match, the scientists can use that data to identify how hot or cold the star is, and if it is a supergiant, giant or dwarf (indicating the luminosity). The power of a prism and a telescope!

The most challenging one I've found to this point, is a protein folding game. The leap of difficulty from the tutorials to the science puzzles and beyond is so great that I haven't yet figured out how to do it. Right now I feel like I've shown up at a Theoretical Physics conference with an abacus and a protractor. I am hoping for a revelation ;)

There are many more projects out there. Running simulations of merging galaxies, analysing light curves of a star, and some that involve actual data collection in the field.  Making use of a large group of people to crunch your data makes a lot of sense. There is increasingly less money for science, and huge amounts of information to be processed. Computers are great at some things, and lousy at others. Our brains have evolved making us really good at certain things - looking for similarities between images, and making choices based on those similarities, so renting out my brain's idle time for such noble pursuits seems pretty freaking cool to me. I may not be employable at the moment... but I can at least contribute. That feels like a bit of ok, and I'll take it!

Oil and Lube Job

So there was lots of news about .. shock horror.. *design* flaws with the LHC, and the terrible prospect of them shutting it down at the end of next year for an entire year to fix it.  Well, it's just shoddy journalism, and as Brian Cox repeatedly pointed out... it's just routine maintenance - engineering, people!  Anyway...  I saw this online and thought it was a good rebuttal.

Universe to shut down for a year to address ‘design flaws’

User groups have today criticised God’s plans to close the Universe next year to carry out essential maintenance work.
The decision follows reports that there are serious design flaws in the cosmos that are preventing it from achieving its full potential. ‘The Universe is perfectly safe,’ insisted God, ‘but people need to remember that it is a prototype and, at this early stage, there will be some teething problems.’ Stephen Hawking disagreed however, and described God’s creation as ‘riddled with black holes.’
The closure is just the latest in a long line of problems to dog the Universe ever since it began operating 13.7 billion years ago, most notably the controversial recall of millions of galaxies found to have faulty gravity.
Engineering work begins in late 2011 during which time a replacement bus service will be running.

Thanks to Newsbiscuit for the laugh... 

Sum of All Things

It isn't very often that you can realise just how lucky you are to be alive in this moment of time.  Regardless of the rubbish going on in our lives right now, Gagan and I are full of excitement knowing that the world is on the brink of 'Something Big'.  I'm not sure if there has been a moment like it before - where humans have actually known that they were about to discover something remarkable *before* they discovered it...  so in a way, this feels to me like the pinnacle of our big brain evolution. What am I talking about?  Oh... the Large Hadron Collider of course!

The most fundamental questions of physics - of space time... of how the universe came into being - may be answered in that wonderous exciting tunnel under the farms near the border of France and Switzerland. So many countries - even places like Iran and India have been involved. It's such a meeting of the minds and seems to me to be what the human experience is all about.  Although they have some idea what might be discovered, what is really mind blowing is what they *don't* know. Their original standard model could be blown apart and they have to start again - new questions instead of answers, totally unexpected things could be discovered... and of course the concept of finding other dimensions.  I'm on the edge of my seat.

There are lots of excellent documentaries we've been watching, both from when it was being built and now as it's working.  I love to peek in at the LHC Portal to check if a beam is present in the tunnel... it's all greek to me, but the most poetic greek I can imagine!  The CERN podcasts with one of my favourite scientists Brian Cox (perhaps more on him another time) are mouth watering to listen to... so what do you have to do to visit this place I wonder?! Ah in my dreams....

As I mused about it all... I began to wonder at the scale of the project. No one person could have all that science in his head. No matter how evolved we are as a species, we can't hold all that in one brain.  So really,  all these physicists and engineers and specialists from around the world who have gathered in this one place - are like a Very Large Array... hooking their brains together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Civilization has moved through so many stages, (some having forward momentum and some not so much!)...  the Stone and Iron Ages... Dark Ages, Renaissance...  and some would say that we are in the Silicon Age.   Now it feels as if we are on the brink of something remarkable... could it be the Particle Age?  I'm ready....   are you?

Lifted Up

I have been dancing to the demons of hormones and bewitched neurons for a while.  Weirdly, I saw this clip was posted to several Facebook friends and blogs,  but I just hadn't been paying much attention. I only just watched it... talk about joyous!  It's lifting, soaring, wonderous and hopeful... what more can we possibly need in life.

Life, the Universe and Pretty Much Everything



I love this  :)   Gagan and I watch Bewitched all the time and I think Endora called Darrin 'Darwin' so many times.  Oh.. and I have to say, (to quote evil Ted) I have a full-on robot chubby for Samantha... she is way cute!  

Pity she put up with that sexist marriage though....  sign of the times I guess.

Holy Smut

The Spiritual Physicist

I never use the word 'spiritual' ... but I just listened to something I really liked, and I think it sums up why learning about the universe - from the largest to the smallest things, can be so wonderful and make us feel fulfilled in every sense.

I love to walk down a street, and imagine that because I'm walking I'm kind of shattering  the time around me. I'm causing time to elapse at a different rate than it would if I were standing still. I love that idea. ....  When I look at the table top I delight in the fact that I can, in my mind, picture the atoms and molecules, and the interactions between them and the mostly empty space that's in there, and that when my hand touches the table top I see the electrons in the outer surface of my hand pushing against the electrons in the outer surface of the table. I'm not really touching the table. My hand never comes into contact with the table. What's happening is the electrons are getting really close together and they're repelling each other. And I love the fact that I'm in essence deforming the surface of the table by making my electrons come really close to it. That enriches my experience. 

Brian Greene, a physicist from Columbia University was talking about time in respect to the theory of relativity, and how the speed of time depends on our position and how fast we are going.  The thing is, he just gets really excited... like a kid... his voice gets faster and faster, and his cheeks get full of spit, like he can't get the words out fast enough. It's really delightful and passionate and full of a sense of wonder that you kinda hope every scientist still has.  If you can feel things like this just by walking around and touching inanimate objects, who needs invisible magic men in the sky!

Note:  To hear him, you need to go about 25 minutes or so into this show, but the whole programme is *definitely* worth a listen.

Late to the Party

I said to Gagan that learning all about science is a little like arriving late to the party.  I feel like everyone else is here already and I have walked in to a crowded room dressed in decidedly ugly 80's clothes with a daggy haircut and the whole place has turned around to stare and point. 'Did you see what just walked in? How embarrassing!'  I am trying to melt into the corners and look inconspicuous .. pretend I've always been here, but you know how it is. The harder you try to not be noticed, the more likely you are to end up with french onion dip smeared on your cheek and the lights showing up your visible pantyline.

But... better late then never eh?  Phew..... at least I'm here and I'm not leaving.

I was introduced to this wonderful article called Lockhart's Lament written by a friend of a friend. It's about the teaching of mathematics in school. It's radical, confronting, brilliant and punchy.  It makes you think of everything you felt when you were at school and *wanting* to like maths but wondering why it was easier to gaze out the window instead.  It brings up such fundamental ideas about what mathematics is in the first place - an art or a science.  It firmly, aggressively in-yer-face states that it is an art just the same as poetry, literature and painting.  Rote learning is missing the point completely... and the case for why is very convincing.  Though the article is long (25 pages), it's really worth the time and makes me wish I could start all over - get the chance with someone as inspired to teach from such a viewpoint.

It also makes me remember something that happened when I was little. I was at a cousin's house, and tinkering around on her wonderful piano. She was a piano teacher - very accomplished and not a little intimidating.  She was very proper, quite old, rather grandiose and though kindly, was strong minded and I was small and always a little nervous around her. She had a wonderful huge garden, in sections that seemed like they went on forever - perfectly tended with English flowerbeds and blossoms of every colour. A visit there was always special and I remember that my Mum (also a wonderful pianist who taught piano for many years before I was born) was chatting with her while I got to play on her very grand piano. After what seemed a long time, I proudly had made up a little song. I'm sure it wasn't long at all... just a series of notes I imagine (I must have been 7 or 8) but I was excited to play it for them.

I'm sure what I played was utter crap! They will have smiled after indulging me, but the main thing I remember was that I was hoping for an 'oh great' and mainly got a delicate little talk about how music works. About how it is structured and its rules and so on. I know they were both kind about it, but I can remember just being so deflated.  I was a pretty stubborn kid and I have a memory of just giving up on music then.  What a shame.

I think in some small way it's the same thing. I had had no concept of rules or restrictions and was very free about it.  I was just exploring (which also meant what I did was rubbish - but maybe that is not the point).  Maybe the journey is more important than the result - just like in mathematics.  Perhaps there would have been some way to gradually introduce more structure once my passion was captured. Who knows.  And...I was a very sensitive kid (still am)!

Imagine if we were all just learning to explore - in whatever discipline. Whether it's exploring an idea about how the timbre and rhythm of certain words fit together to make a beautiful sentence, how completely perfect a circle is and the concept of pi, maybe the idea of how mirror neurons in the brain can fire when simply observing someone else having an experience.  I'm not sure that we should separate art and science when it comes to how our brain works - the beauty of exploring and learning to think in new ways - challenge ourselves,  is all that matters in the end.  Maybe there is no difference, and art and science is simply 'knowledge', for want of a much better word, and should be taught as such.

No More Nails!

teehee  :D


An Atheist in Space!

Weirdly edited YouTube clip... but I loved the 'weightless and godless' bit  :)

A Little Gem

"I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong."   - Richard Feynman

You wha'?

I woke up with a start this morning. Straight out of a dream with the last words echoing in my mind.  I think I had asked a friend (I won't say who) about my blog and he looked at me with a weird expression, and exclaimed 'well.. THAT was a giant arse-cube of seven Galactic floaters!'

I don't think it was a compliment.



How Do You Catch an Atom?

One of the many documentaries we have watched lately was this one....  Project Poltergeist.  It talks about the discovery of the neutrino. I admit... I didn't really know what a neutrino was before I saw this, and even after watching it, I feel like my brain is stretching and pushing against my eye balls trying to grasp some of the concepts. A little like quantum theory really!  But anyway.... it was amazing watching what these scientists were doing.   Basically, a mathematician had calculated the number of neutrinos that should be coming from the sun, and the physicists were trying to prove that was so. The problem was, when they counted them... the numbers didn't add up. The 'Solar Neutrino Problem' was born.

The thing was.... the documentary glossed over the bit that I wanted to know the most.  Perhaps it wasn't interesting to other people - but see what you think.  A giant swimming pool sized vat of chlorine-based cleaning fluid deep deep under ground to lessen the background radiation. The neutrinos pass right through the planet, and just a few of them should interact with the cleaning fluid, causing the creation of an Argon atom.  So even though they couldn't see the neutrinos - they could see the result of them as proven by the Argon.  Collect and count the Argon atoms and you can tell how many neutrinos you have... voila!       Huh?  What....  'scuse me?

They just breezed past that.  Suddenly there was Ray Davis (who was to go on and win the Nobel Prize for this astounding work)... carrying a test tube.. with... *what* in it?   his wife was joking about how he would travel across the country with a little tube full of nothing.  But... but....  hang on.  How do they catch an atom.. how do they count it? How did they know they only had a measly three?  That was a huge amount of liquid... this is not like looking for a pea or something.  From everything I have seen and read, I didn't think we had a way to see atoms or measure them... so this is huge to me. I really want to know.  I can't seem to find it on google.

So they went on to discover that the neutrinos didn't quite travel at light speed and actually have a mass (both of which they didn't expect), which enabled them to change their state on their way to earth and in fact show up as 3 different flavours of neutrino - all this good and groovy stuff... but I am still hung up on how the frak do you find and count a few atoms in a swimming pool?  If anyone reads this and knows... please comment. I am eagerly waiting....

A New Centre of the Universe?

Well....  just for a few days in February anyway.   TED is happening  right. now.   Ooh... I am like a teenager fawning over the schedule and speakers. It really feels like a bubbling cauldron of concentrated human possibilities. Very exciting.. and waiting for the talks to come online is edge of the seat stuff.

The blog has pictures to drool over - meanwhile.

Two quotes from it that I took an instant liking to... as is my want ;)

Michael Specter: "You're entitled to your own opinion -- but you're not entitled to your own facts."

Sam Harris: "Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering? ... No."


What a Send Off

This is something special. J.K. Rowling makes such an inspiring speech. There is nothing you can say about it really. Just watch.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

I don't think we had big commencement speeches or the like in Australia - at least we didn't when I went to Uni.  I didn't even go to my graduation ceremony, but I don't think there was anything like this big deal. Perhaps because it wasn't for as many students. I think they split the graduation up - humanities students were one night and sciences were another.  That makes me think, I am reading Carl Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World and he said something that struck me profoundly.

"My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method."

That is identical for me.  If I look back on my childhood, I can certainly say my parents instilled both of those in me. So why on earth didn't I study science?  Damn... what a missed opportunity. I want a do-over!  I guess we figure out the things that really matter much later in life.

A Smidgeon


I've been a bit quiet on the blog unfortunately. Sorry... just battling fibro and depression - ah how sweet it is. But anyway,  I hope to be getting back to it. What keeps me going is all the inspiring science I read and watch, and I do want to post it, even if I don't write a lot.   In the meantime, here are a few images that were worth posting.





The continuation ....

This post is actually taking an interesting comment from the post "Things I learnt I rather wish I hadn't" and writing more about it. The comments section has a limit to the amount of words and I felt it deserved a proper answer :)

The comment reads:

Debates like the kind you describe really frustrate me. It's really pointless. The discussion starts out as if everybody is speaking the same language, but they aren't.

The problem lies not in a difference of opinion, but a difference of premises. When people disagree on the premises, it's very hard to have the conversation make any sense.

These kinds of disagreements usually go unsaid. You might think it's about science and religion, but really it's about values. You value deductive reasoning. You value statistical analysis. These values are the reasons that you give science so much credence, and your arguments are made with these values in mind. Ultimately, when you follow any argument back to its origins, you find values which are simply believed without any further proof.

But if the person on the other side of the discussion has different values, they won't follow your arguments. Your arguments will sound as nonsensical to them as their arguments sound to you. It's almost as if the two sides are employing different logical systems.

Now that I think about it, perhaps they are.
 I've thought a lot about this before replying as I really understand what Keith is getting at, but I also have some reactions to certain parts of it.  So... here is my reply.


Hmm... I understand your point though I don't necessarily agree with all of it. I completely agree that in many cases (as evidenced on the forum quite often) people with opposing views will never be able to have a discussion because they do not share certain common premises or values. It's not just arguments about this sort of thing - you see it at work, in families, in politics etc.  I don't think that means we still shouldn't have the discussion though. For example, there are a large number of theists who have become rational thinkers saying that talking with people (who did not aggressively ram atheism at them but helped them to look at things from a new perspective) made a huge difference. Reason enough to keep the debates going I think ;)

As far as the example we're talking about though, and how you have described it - I think that is getting into cultural relativism. I'd like to quote Richard Dawkins here:

It is often thought clever to say that science is no more than our modern origin myth. The Jews had their Adam and Eve, the Sumerians their Marduk and Gilgamesh, the Greeks Zeus and the Olympians, the Norsemen their Valhalla. What is evolution, some smart people say, but our modern equivalent of gods and epic heroes, neither better nor worse, neither truer nor falser? There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds, in its extreme form, that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth: science is just the mythology favored by our modern Western tribe. I once was provoked by an anthropologist colleague into putting the point starkly, as follows: Suppose there is a tribe, I said, who believe that the moon is an old calabash tossed into the sky, hanging only just out of reach above the treetops. Do you really claim that our scientific truth — that the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and a quarter the diameter of the Earth — is no more true than the tribe's calabash? “Yes,” the anthropologist said. “We are just brought up in a culture that sees the world in a scientific way. They are brought up to see the world in another way. Neither way is more true than the other.”

Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications, such as the dummy planes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don't.* If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there — the reason you don't plummet into a ploughed field — is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right. Western science, acting on good evidence that the moon orbits the Earth a quarter of a million miles away, using Western-designed computers and rockets, has succeeded in placing people on its surface. Tribal science, believing that the moon is just above the treetops, will never touch it outside of dreams.

I seldom give a public lecture without a member of the audience brightly coming up with something along the same lines as my anthropologist colleague, and it usually elicits a murmuration of approving nods. No doubt the nodders feel good and liberal and unracist. An even more reliable nod-provoker is “Fundamentally, your belief in evolution comes down to faith, and therefore it's no better than somebody else's belief in the Garden of Eden.”

Every tribe has had its origin myth — its story to account for the universe, life and humanity. There is a sense in which science does indeed provide the equivalent of this, at least for the educated section of our modern society. Science may even be described as a religion, and I have, not entirely facetiously, published a brief case for science as an appropriate subject for religious-education classes. (In Britain, religious education is a compulsory part of the school curriculum, unlike in the United States, where it is banned for fear of offending any of the plethora of mutually incompatible faiths.) Science shares with religion the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.


Perhaps this is not being said, but there is the suggestion the two sides were employing two logical systems (do we want to say 'logic' instead of 'logical' here, perhaps?). The implication that because we value science is why we choose to give it credence, is what I have a problem with. Whether or not I value it doesn't actually matter - science works. I could choose to follow the flying Spaghetti Monster (bless his noodley appendage) and science would still work.

Anyway,  I think it is actually two issues - one that some people with opposing ideas may never be able to communicate because of an inability to share common premises, and the other a discussion on how science and belief systems interact (or not).

Never tell me the Odds

I love maths. I'm no good at it mind you, but I love the idea of a very pure and ordered form of science that can describe the world around us, even the natural world in all its chaotic beauty.  But you know, sometimes there might be a time when you want to leave the text books at home.

A 31 year old, advanced grad student in Economics at the University of Warwick made the dismaying discovery that his chances of finding love were rather small.  Not just unlikely.... but... well, astronomically infinitesimal. He doesn't have particularly tough criteria either, he's not a picky lad.  She just needs to be based in London, aged between 24-34, and have a university education. That's not much really, is it?...   no 'blonde with big tits', or 'must have read all the volumes of Shakespeare as well as be a 34D'.  I think that should be doable, don't you?  

Being very realistic, he estimates he would be attracted to about 5% of the women that meet this criteria. Fair enough. That seems pretty true to life... after all, you have to have that spark of chemistry don't you?  Anyway - with that in mind he calculated that leaves 10,500 women in Britain that fit the bill.... just 0.14 percent of Londoners in fact.

In my experience women are usually much more picky than men, but if the women are the only the same as he is, that means his chances of meeting this dream girl is now down to 0.00034 percent, according to our lovelorn teaching fellow. Oh dear.  What are the chances he might meet one of those 26 women on a night down at the local over a pint then? It's best we walk away now and don't look back. This is stuff of poetry and country music, my friends.

So - in cases of the heart, my advice is, don't over analyse these things. After all, even people who are simply looking for someone with a heartbeat, and believe they have found 'it', can still end up on the emotional scrapheap. As Han Solo said 'never tell me the odds'.

p.s.  If you'd like to find out what happens to our Romeo - read the end of the story

Things I learnt I rather wish I hadn't

Spending so much time on the Richard Dawkins forum, I come across a plethora of varied topics. I read all sorts of things - science, philosophy, poetry, humour, and a lot of discussions and arguments about religion.  The other day I was *glued* to the most distasteful thread that went on for 15 pages. It was split from another one and had turned into a discussion on child brides - specifically based around Islamic belief.

The basis of it was that one guy who appeared to be a muslim convert from the West, was fiercely defending the right of modern muslim men to marry children based on the teachings of the Quran.  He wrote in great detail about the prophet Mohammed marrying one of his wives Aisha when she was 6 years old. That's right people... 6!!  But he didn't have sex with her. No no... as clearly written in the Quran "he placed his member between her thighs and massaged it softly", the wonderful pedophile he was, and waited until she got her period at age 9, to then truly violate the young girl. Beautiful eh?

According to that lovely holy book, she was given a choice about whether she wanted the marriage, and decided she did (of course she didn't feel under any pressure - nah course not). They say she was a mature girl - more mature than girls nowadays (which is also why she had her period earlier than we do now) and hence was able to make such a decision. All this is by the by, however.

There is no doubt that moral standards in ancient times were very different than now. Romans were porking young boys and thought is was an acceptable thing to do. You don't have to be too smart to see we have changed our idea of acceptable and 'moral' - and to imagine that those morals are divinely given is ignorant, uneducated and yet still widely believed ;) After all - if morals were given to us by a god, then wouldn't they be unchanging across time - be the same for all people? What about the Euthyphro dilemma?  Anyway... I digress. We now have way too much scientific, physiological and psychological information to back up a moral decision that tells us that a 6 or 9 (or 13) year old girl is not capable of choosing to marry, let alone should not be having sex with a man old enough to be her grandfather.

Our wonderful forum chappie fought so valiantly for the right of a muslim man in our modern world to marry a child, regardless of whether the law states it is illegal, based on two distinct and clear reasons. Firstly, as long as she has had her period, this means she is ripe for the picking.  As was pointed out many times with irrefutable science and documents, just because menses has begun does not mean a girl is capable of giving birth.  A 9 year old girl's body would have to grow a lot in order for that to happen and she could easily die if she tried.  He was not listening.

Secondly, he said a marriage would not take place without the girl's guardian assessing whether she had agreed. Now... just imagine. She is told this is the man we would like you to marry, it's a male dominated society (e.g. Saudi Arabia) and she is just a little girl. Exactly how much she understands the implications of marriage or what she is being asked - well, what did you know when you were a child?  When an authority figure comes and asks you if you are sure, you will probably say yes. This is not exactly the kind of situation you would imagine a small girl saying 'I don't want to do this'.  How can *anyone* believe that a guardian is able to determine her consent. Are they going to tell her what this man is going to do to her? I highly doubt it.  But anyway... it's all there in the Quran, so it must be right, right?

The problem I have with it all, apart from the sheer rage and disgust, is that this ancient, outdated and clearly immoral text would be used as any kind of guideline for living.  No doubt muslims have to do just what the christians do - quote mine from their ancient and idiotic book for the parts that are not clearly reprehensible and immoral to find things that resonate with their lives.  It's rather like statistics... sure there are some good things in there, but you have to ignore the rest of it to find it.  Children are sacrificed, women raped, daughters sold off, Jesus says some very questionable things about forsaking your family in order to love him, and *somehow* two of even the largest dinosaurs fitted onto the ark with food for a year ... all of that is just overlooked.  People are very willing to turn on, tune in and drop out when it comes to belief. 

Child brides exist in many parts of the muslim world. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are scary places to be a little girl. It happens in other religions... you see it in India as well. Ignorance is everywhere.

Some other time I'll write about how easy it is to let moderates off the hook.  Right now I am just rather revolted.  I think Tim sums it up for me.

And as Stephen Fry so aptly put it... So you’re offended. So fucking what?

Faith.. got some?

pope benedict xvi

Creationist Fail

Don't be Stupid

Tim Minchin is really amazing. He manages to say things so clearly, so bluntly and with enough humour to stop us from wanting to cry at how stupid people are.

Thanks Tim. Keep at it :)

Memories... you're talking about Memories

Most of us are pretty certain about who we are as people, what opinions we have and what we believe. Isn't most of that based on memories? We have an experience, react to it, store it away and then pull it out again at a later date to use in relation to some new situation. Obviously, that's how we learn as infants and children, but it doesn't seem to take long to become very sure of our 'certainties'. We know what we know and are ready to argue to defend it.

I used to see things in black and white. My opinions were strong and I would stand up for them pretty vehemently in certain situations. I know where I got that from. My father has always seen things either His way or the Wrong way and you better watch out if you didn't agree. Moody and prone to bouts of explosive and vindictive anger, he is the only person I have known that will argue even if you share the same opinion. Though he was never able to share his childhood with us, he has been a victim of his memories his whole life. Nightmares, conspiracy fears, and bitterly comparing his life under apartheid against our peaceful life meant that he always felt his suffering was worse than anyone else's. It wasn't hard to see that a terrible past had left scars and mental illness. But empathy only goes so far when illness is ignored and danced around, and people get hurt.

Living with fibromyalgia gives you a chance to learn some difficult lessons. When you start to experience inconsistant memory loss along the lines of early alzheimer-style symptoms, it's certainly an opportunity to reflect on the nature of brain function. I might think I am sure of something - remember it as clearly as if it was a moment ago. Then Gagan will point out that I am definitely wrong. I used to fight about it - argue against it, and he would have to patiently work with me until I realised that my so called memory was false and I was fighting for nothing. It's a lot to take in. But I have to say - it's a leap forward. To be released from that strong ownership and vehemence of certainty. How many times in the past have I argued over something and been wrong I wonder? How pointless to argue at all over things based on a memory.

So to get to the nitty gritty, there is some interesting research on all this.

The day after the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident, psychologist Ulric Neisser asked 106 students to write down exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the explosion. When he interviewed the students two and a half years later, 25 percent of them gave strikingly different accounts. But when confronted with their original journal entries, many students defended their beliefs. One of them answered, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

Neurologist Robert A. Burton has written a fascinating book about the entire subject, from which the above quote comes. How many of us have really strong memories about significant events? I remember my brother and I were watching Space 1999 when the news came across the screen that John Lennon had died and we ran to the kitchen to tell Mum. Is that even remotely what happened, I wonder? Will I continue to remember waking up in my bedroom in Thailand to see that Michael Jackson had died, or will that memory change over time? If things that seemed a bit of a shock at the time may not be correct - how can I be sure of mundane memories at all. Isn't that truly what we are getting at?

Here is a tiny clip showing how easy it is to trick someone into believing they remember something that never happened.

How fascinating. How alarming.

So in light of all this I really try not to argue over things that are memory based any more. I can remember emotions I have had but not details. It's much better to look up facts, learn and be willing to be flexible. Seeing the anger and bitterness of my father, I can't possibly be sure how true his memories are vs. a tortured unwell mind creating its own painful justifications. After all, this is a man who recalls beyond a shadow of a doubt seeing both a cougar and skunk in the wilds of Africa in his youth. Not much you can say to that really. It certainly would rewrite some of the planet's natural history if he had.

It feels like no coincidence I have been mildly obsessed with Blade Runner ever since it came out in 1982. Strangely I can remember every little thing....

New Decade

Well, the Noughties are over and my jetlag is almost wrestled into submission. A surreal and weird trip to Canada is over and life goes on.

I don't have a lot to write about yet... lots to wrap my brain around. But I offer up this rather wonderful moment that really says it all.

Lawrence Krauss, you're my hero :)


The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism