Friday, 31 August 2012

Quark quandaries

Every now and then I think it's a good idea to dip into a basic aspect of physics that may not have been in the school curriculum. Take, for instance, the quark. I don't refer to the low fat cheese sometimes given this name but the particle at the heart of every atom in your body (and everywhere else for that matter).

Proton structure

Once upon a time we talked about the basic particles in the nucleus in the middle of the atom being protons and neutrons. They haven't gone away, but they are no longer considered fundamental particles. Each is made up of three smaller particles – quarks. There’s a whole mess of quarks distinguished by characteristics known as flavors (no, really). The different flavors are charm, strangeness, top/bottom and up/down. (Even the more prosaic names can sound a bit odd with antimatter versions. One is the ‘anti-bottom quark.’) The proton is two ups and one down; the neutron two downs and one up.

Up quarks have a 2/3 charge and down quarks -1/3, resulting in a positive charge of 1 for the proton and no charge at all for the neutron. We aren’t used to nature coming up with quantities in thirds. But bear in mind the unit of charge is arbitrary. We really ought to say that up and down quarks have charges of 2 and -1 respectively – so a proton has a charge of 3 units – but because protons and electrons were the simplest particles known when the units were established we are stuck with thirds.

No one has ever seen a quark, nor broken a proton or neutron into its components. It is particularly difficult to do so, because the force that holds the quarks together gets stronger as they move further apart. As this is the case, it’s difficult to understand how quarks were ever dreamed up. The reason we believe that quarks exist owes its origins to a different type of physics that emerged in the early days of quantum theory.

As quantum theory was developed, two different approaches emerged. One had clear parallels in the real world. The second, matrix mechanics, was purely mathematical. It was by building on purely mathematical concepts, until they closely predicted what was seen in the real world, that the quark emerged. The existence of quarks themselves has since been indicated by experiments that show three constituents in a proton – and by the very short-lived production of otherwise unknown particles made up of combinations of different quarks. It’s possible things will go horribly wrong, and quarks will turn up not to exist – but it’s unlikely.

Although “quark” is usually pronounced to rhyme with bark, when American physicist Murray Gell-Mann came up with the name he wanted it to rhyme with dork. Gell-Mann says he used the “kwork” sound first without thinking about how to spell it, before coming across a line in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which reads “three quarks for Muster Mark!” The way quarks come in threes made this line and the spelling very apt, but Gell-Mann wanted to keep his original pronunciation (Joyce clearly intended it to rhyme with mark).

Given all the fuss about the Higgs boson lately, there are some interesting observations to be made about the mass of quarks. Almost all the mass of atoms - and hence of you - comes from protons and neutrons. But the vast majority of has nothing to do with the Higgs field. Around 99 percent of the mass of those particles comes not from the intrinsic mass of quarks but from the energy coming from their movement and that of the gluon particles that hold them together. Thanks to Einstein we know energy and mass are equivalent, and though gluons are massless, the energy of the whole vibrant gluon/quark mix inside the protons and neutrons is experienced as mass. Bizarre or what?

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 30 August 2012

John who?

The cover of my rather ancient
Penguin copy
I occasionally like to revisit books I've read before, and recently picked up a title from my shelf by an author that seems to have almost disappeared from the collective memory of science fiction - John Brunner.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, Brunner was everywhere in the SF bookshops. He was a prolific author, and frankly some of his books were poor rushed jobs. But his best were excellent, and deserve to be remembered.

His most famous title is probably Stand on Zanzibar - not one of my favourites, but interesting in its use of news clippings etc to give the book a different feel. It's an over-population book and I was never thrilled by disaster novels. For me, one of his best was The Shockwave Rider. This used Alvin Toffler's extremely popular (and very inaccurate) stab at futurology Future Shock as a model. That part in itself wasn't very interesting, but Brunner gave us images like the computer virus before such things existed and made use of the fascinating if flawed concept of the Delphi principle (the idea that a group of people with no particular knowledge in a subject will improve their response to questions about it if there immediate answers are fed back to the group, which then re-thinks) as a mechanism for government - a really clever idea.

The book I re-read was a much smaller scale work, both physically and in it reach. Called The Productions of Time it features a collection of has-been actors brought together to put on an experimental play. What they don't know is that this is scheme to drive them further and further into their weaknesses to record the experience for an audience from the future. It's not bad as a novel, if not superbly written, but I think it's a great example of the sort of thing that those who criticize SF as a genre don't get. There is some technology (often painfully old-fashioned in its vision of the future: reels of tape? Perlease!) -  but this is entirely a book about people.

Admittedly not all great SF is about people. I was amused to hear the excellent Angela Saini struggling to defend Asimov's Foundation trilogy on that rather smug A Good Read programme on Radio 4. The format of the show requires three people to read each others choices of books, and the arty types were definitely looking down their nose at Asimov's dire characterisation. It's true, he couldn't write convincing characters, especially women - but Asimov is great for his ideas, not his characters. The Productions of Time is the absolute opposite - it really is all about the characters and for me is good example of why you shouldn't pigeonhole SF as all blasters and space opera. I'm not ashamed to say I love the original Star Wars trilogy of movies... but sometimes I want something different, and Brunner could put it in SF with the best of them.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again, and in this podcast I'm dealing with a slippery customer.

PTFE - or teflon if you prefer was not invented. It was discovered by accident. And, in case you've heard otherwise, it wasn't a spin-off of NASA's space effort - they used PTFE, but it had been produced for years before NASA was even formed. And as for the involvement of a French housewife... Take a listen.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

It'll be a corkscrew next

We drive over to France at least once a year. It's a lovely place to visit and the roads are much nicer to drive on than ours. But I am getting a little tired of the game played by the French authorities where each time you go, they think of a new thing you have to carry in the car.

Recently it was a reflective jacket. Next a reflective jacket for everyone in the car. And this year it's breathalysers. Yes, unless you have a breathalyser in the car you can get an on-the-spot fine. I'm really not sure what they are for. After all, if you use your breathalyser, even if it comes up clear you can't drive, because you won't have a breathalyser in the car (OK it's a twin pack, but you know what I mean). It's hard not to see this as a way to rake in easy fines.

So I've been thinking about what next year's imposition might be. And I reckon it will be a corkscrew. You will be fined if you don't have a corkscrew in the car. This is partly because it is unFrench not to be able to open a bottle of wine at any time at a moment's notice, and partly because that way you are more likely to need the breathalysers.

However, just for once, I won't have to make a panic buy at the Shuttle terminal when I see the latest sign at the AA shop telling you what you must have in the car to avoid being hauled off to the chokey. You see, my trusty Swiss army knife already has a corkscrew on board. So there, French police! I'm ready for you.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Janet and John scientific papers

There is no doubt that the best detailed source of information on the real science that is being done is in the published papers that scientists are required to turn out to prove that they are still alive and working. But the problem for everyday human beings is
a) They are often expensive to get access to (hence the open access business that gets the likes of the excellent Stephen Curry so worked up) 
b) The are often almost unreadable unless you are already an expert in the field.
A new initiative called The 21st Floor Wiki Project aims to change that be asking scientists to contribute a page to a Wiki for each paper they publish that explains what the paper says to the general reader. It sounds a great idea, though I suspect many scientists couldn't be bothered to do it, and if they did do it would struggle to make it readable.

However, let's not damn it before it's tried. Here's more details from the handy press release. Why not take a look at the real thing? Though it is a bit devoid of content as yet. Fingers crossed...

Open Access has been a topic that has provoked much debate and discussion in the scientific community with many viewing it as a necessary step to opening up science to the general public and assisting engagement. It is clearly a good thing that research, at least that which is publicly funded, be available to the public whose money allowed research to take place.

However we at the 21st Floor feel that Open Access on it’s own may not be enough, science can be, at times, a complex an inaccessible thing. Research papers are full of disciplinary jargon and research terms that may be daunting to scientists from different disciplines or even from different fields within a single discipline. In short there are papers out there that may remain impenetrable to non-experts which is an issue that open access alone cannot fix.

The 21st Floor Wiki Project plans to open up scientific research to the public by offering plain-language summaries of important scientific research.

If scientists or researchers have written or read anything that has been published in the scientific literature then we would like to invite them to create a page which summarises the work for a lay audience. 

We would also like to invite scientists, researchers and science fans to summarise your research, or research you feel is important, in a way that can be easily understood by those outside your field. 

We would hope that we could then develop these contributions into a resource that spans all disciplines and makes science more accessible and understandable to both non-scientists and scientists in other fields alike.

If anyone wishes to contribute the page should be named after the published title of the work and should ideally include the following sections (loosely following the structure of a standard research paper):
A brief summary
Why the work was done (what inspired the research? why did the authors want to ask these questions?)
What was done
What the results were
What conclusions can be drawn from these results
Implications of the research (what has been done with the work since publication? has it been reported in the popular press? have any scientific or public controversies arisen from the work?)

The service will always remain completely free of charge and advertising. Hopefully, with your help, we can turn this into a worthwhile resource for everyone who is interested in science and research for any reason.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

What price being offended?

There's a nice game used by economists and psychologists to help understand human decision making that I investigated for The Universe Inside You called the ultimatum game.

In it you and a second person are asked to make a decision about some money. The two of you mustn’t discuss your decision in any way. You are given £1 (say) to share. There are no strings attached, it is a genuine gift, you simply have a decision to make before the money is given to you.

The other person decides how the money is split between you. They can split it however they like. The money can be split 50:50, they can keep all the money to themselves, or they can give you a penny and keep the rest… or split it any other way they like between the two of you. You then say either ‘Yes’ and the two of you will get the money, split between you the way the other person decided, or ‘No’ in which case neither of you gets any money. There can be no discussion between the two of you.

This game has been undertaken many times in many circumstances. The logical thing for the person in your place to do is to say ‘Yes’ as long as the first person gives you something. Anything. Even if you’re only offered a penny, it’s money for nothing. In practice, though, the person in your place tends to say ‘No’ unless they get what they regard as a fair proportion of the money.

What counts as a fair proportion varies from considerably from culture to culture. Some will accept as low as 15 percent, others expect a full 50 percent – but in Europe and the US we tend to expect around 30 percent or more before saying ‘Yes’.

What the experiment shows is that we consider trust and fairness worth paying for. We are willing to lose money in exchange for putting things right. If human logic were based purely on economics, then this just doesn’t make sense. You always should take the money. But your brain makes decisions based on a much more complex mix of factors than finance alone.

This is not to say that finance doesn’t have a significant input into decision making - and any psychologist who expects a Western player always to demand 30% or more hasn't really thought this through. If, for example, a billionaire decided to play this game, and offered a total stake of ten million pounds, the chances are that you would accept being offered just one percent - £100,000. Unless you are extremely rich yourself, that is just too life changing an amount of cash to turn it down to teach someone a lesson and punish their lack of fairness. You would swallow your pride, ignore the psychologists and take the one percent cut.

It’s an interesting exercise to think to yourself just how little you would accept in such circumstances. Where between £100,000 and £1 (which most people would reject) would you draw the line on a ten million pound split? (Please do add a comment and tell me). I think I might cave in for as little as £50 - but then I'm cheap.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Time and motion

After they'd packed up the crew's kit was quite compact
(bottle for scale) - but this was still no iPhone job
Last week I had the fascinating experience of a film crew coming round to my house. I've done TV interviews in the past, but never had this level of direct exposure to the visual media at work.

I've had suggestions that I was engaged in an episode of Wife Swap or something similar. In fact it's both much less and much more at the same time. It's less because what I did will probably result in 10 seconds on screen, and it's more because this wasn't Channel 4 but a role with a Hollywood connection.

I'll reveal more when we get closer to the date, but the interview was for one of those bonus features you get on a movie DVD. It was about time travel and will accompany a science fiction movie that will be in the cinemas in September. What made it rather exciting was that I was sent a preview DVD of the film (with dire warnings about what would happen if it found its way into circulation, given it's not even in cinemas yet) - and I was then to be interviewed both on time travel in general and the movie in particular.

What I found particularly interesting is that old chestnut that everyone says, but it's hard to believe, about just how long it takes to get a relatively small amount of moving pictures captured. The crew were at my house for around three and a half hours. In that time, admittedly we did get over 40 minutes of interview, but I suspect that will end up as a few seconds on screen. So much of the time is just taken getting the lighting and the setup right - and this was just with a handful of people involved. Suddenly the fact that Hollywood movies cost millions of dollars to make doesn't seem so ridiculous.

It's funny, given we were discussing time, that this all a matter of time - time and motion.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Remember those for whom sport is hell

The Olympics has quite rightly generated a lot of enthusiasm for sport in the UK after all those shiny medals were won, and that's fine. To be honest, I found the Olympic thing much more interesting than I thought I would. But there is one clamour that I think needs a little balance.

We have Boris Johnson, for instance, weighing in saying that schools should institute 2 hours compulsory sport a day like he enjoyed at school, and all the Tories are baying about the importance of forcing competitive team sport on young people. I absolutely understand their aversion to 'everyone is equal and there are no winners and losers' type inclusive sports days.


In all this enthusiasm to force our youth into as much compulsory competitive sport as possible, spare a thought for the poor people like me who hated sport at school. I didn't mildly dislike it - I truly found it the most unpleasant experience of my life. Think of the poor sods like me who were truly rubbish at sport. Who never had a hope of coming in the first twenty in a race. Who were always the last ones picked when teams were chosen.

Football wasn't bad as I fairly quickly got the position of dog catcher. There were two dogs (Prince and Rex if memory serves - very regal stray dogs, we had in Manchester) who constantly invaded our school football pitches and tried to get possession of the ball. The only hope of having a game was if someone fended off the dogs and that I was very happy to do as long as I didn't have to come close to that leather, mud-coated monstrosity.

But the rest was hell, and our PE teacher, one Mr Welsby, really was of the evil sadist mould that you often see portrayed in humorous fiction. Cross country running was a constant agony as I suffered badly from stitches. Cricket was a nightmare as I couldn't hit the ball, run quickly enough or catch. We'll draw a veil over lacrosse, rugby and swimming lessons that (genuinely) would be a criminal offence if still operated as they were then. And the gym was vast embarrassment as I couldn't do a forward roll without falling over sideways, couldn't make it over the vaulting horse and couldn't climb a rope. And still couldn't after four years of gym classes. Then throw in the horror of communal showers and you've got something Dante would be proud of.

It's easy to make all this sound funny, but it really wasn't. We had two hours of outdoor sport and one hour in the gym a week. If we had suffered the regime Boris suggested I genuinely would have contemplated suicide. These were the most horrible hours of my young life. If we had been able to play something like badminton or table tennis, it might have been different. But traditional school team sports were a horror for me, and I can't believe I was the only one.

So by all means celebrate the Olympic triumphs. Do consider how we can get our youth exercising. But don't make it the sort of experience I had for people who think that a kick around with a ball is on a par with waterboarding.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 10 August 2012

On mysterious gasses and robins

Full marks to any movie buff who can say which classic cult film from the 1980s gave me the ability to include a mysterious gas and robins in the title of this post. Take a guess...

... no, go on, I can wait...

... any idea?...

It was, in fact, David Lynch's Blue Velvet, which I have heard much of and have finally had a chance to watch thanks to Netflix. It would be an exaggeration to say I liked the film, but I am certainly glad I've seen it - and unpleasant though it is, it's hard not to admire Lynch's work.

The gas in question is the one inhaled at various points by the truly menacing figure of Frank, played by Dennis Hopper. I'd read somewhere before watching the film that this was helium, so I was expecting some scenes with a bizarre silly voice - it might have worked in a menace-by-contrast way, but his voice never changed - so it wasn't helium. (I do find it amazing that a very rare element, so difficult to keep on this planet that it was first discovered on the sun, should be primarily a thing we buy to put in party balloons and to make silly voices. But that's a different blog post.) My suspicion is that it was nitrous oxide - while Frank doesn't display the merriness that often accompanies this, that could be down to his psychotic personality.

And then there's the robin. At the end of the film, the main character's girlfriend played by Laura Dern has been making comments about having a dream about robins being the essence of love - and they see a robin perched outside the window. But the robin is eating a black bug, which rather reduces the 'awww' factor. Reading the Wikipedia entry on the movie's symbolism, I was rather surprised that they didn't notice what, to me, was an obvious reference to and distortion of a scene in Mary Poppins.

In that film an equally fake looking robin (could it be the same one? There can't be too many mechanical robins in Hollywood) also perches outside a window. This has always been a moment that jarred for me because, although Mary Poppins is set in London, the 'robin' portrayed in that film is what's called a robin in the US and bears no resemblance to an actual European robin. Because of this, the image stuck with me - and it's hard not to see a parallel. Of course you can work too hard looking for symbolism... but for me it's a definite reference. Nice one, Dave.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

A la recherche de mushy pea perdu

I am generally dubious about the whole A La Recherche de Temps Perdu thing, a) because I suspect (I've never read it) the novel is a load of pretentious tosh and b) because it is scientifically incorrect. When Marcel Proust tediously droned on about childhood memories evoked by the taste of a Madeleine cake dipped in tea, he was using the wrong sense as a trigger. Maybe he should have gone for a smell.

While it apparently isn't true that the sense of smell is the strongest when evoking memories (vision wins), it does seem from the way the neurons fire in the brain that the first time a smell gets tied to a particular object or activity it kicks of considerably more energetic brain activity than it does on other occasions - so first smell associations appear to be powerful.

I had one brought back to me the other day when, for reasons we don't need to go into, I ended up boiling a pan of mushy peas on the stove for 25 minutes. I was instantly transported to my grandma's house. That smell was the smell of being at my grandmother's, yet until that moment I hadn't realized it - or I had forgotten.

For some reason, she always used dried peas, so they would almost always be either soaking or cooking until mushy, with that distinctive smell that if I were a wine expert I would suggest had hints of flannel and bicarbonate of soda. More often than not it would be black peas (nothing to do with black-eyed peas) on the go. This particular pea variant, actually a dark brown, was a favourite in Lancashire mill towns - a speciality for bonfire night alongside parkin and jacket potatoes, but also an everyday treat. On my aunt's council estate in Rochdale there was even a black pea man who came round selling them every evening. He started with a bicycle, but ended up with a converted ice cream van.

If you ever have the joy of eating mushy peas, or even better mushy black peas (they are nicer - nuttier and with more complex flavours), one word of warning. I have had people (mostly ignorant southerners) say to me that mushy peas are tasteless. If this is your opinion, you haven't eaten them properly. They MUST have a pinch of salt and a good sloshing of vinegar - more vinegar than you could possibly imagine was necessary.   (First time round keep adding a bit at a time until you see why.) This transforms the flavour and makes them delectable. What's not to love?

P.S. In looking for a picture of black peas to include I came across a picture of mushy peas that was actually pea puree. Mushy peas should not be a puree - they still have their pea form, but have exuded enough gunk to have a thick 'gravy'. If they end up as literal mush you have gone to far.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Nature's Nanotech #4 - The Importance of Being Wet

The fourth in my series of posts on nature's nanotechnology, also featuring on

The image that almost always springs to mind when nanotechnology is mention is Drexler’s tiny army of assemblers and the threat of being overwhelmed by grey goo. But what many forget is that there is a fundamental problem in physics facing anyone building invisibly small robots (nanobots) – something that was spotted by the man who first came up with the concept of working on the nanoscale.

That man was Richard Feynman. His name may not be as well known outside physics circles as, say, Stephen Hawking, but ask a physicist to add a third to a triumvirate of heroes with Newton and Einstein and most would immediately choose Feynman. It didn’t hurt that Richard Feynman was a bongo-playing charmer whose lectures delighted even those who couldn’t understand the science, helped by an unexpected Bronx accent – imagine Tony Curtis lecturing on quantum theory.

Feynman became best known to the media for his dramatic contribution to the Challenger inquiry, when in front of the cameras he plunged an O-ring into iced water to show how it lost its elasticity. But on an evening in December 1959 he gave a lecture that laid the foundation for all future ideas of nanobots. His talk at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society was titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, and his subject was manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.

Feynman pointed out that people were amazed by a device that could write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. But ‘Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin?’ As he pointed out, the dots that make up a printed image, if reduced to a scale that took the area of paper in the encyclopedia down to pinhead size, would still contain 1,000 atoms each – plenty of material to make a pixel. And it could be read with technology they had already.

Feynman went on to describe how it would be possible to write at this scale, but also took in the idea that the monster computers of his day would have to become smaller and smaller to cram in the extra circuits required for sophisticated computation. Then he described how engineering could be undertaken on the nanoscale, and to do so, he let his imagination run a little wild.

What Feynman envisaged was making use of the servo ‘hands’ found in nuclear plants to act remotely, but instead of making the hands the same size as the original human hands, building them on a quarter scale. He would also construct quarter size lathes to produce scaled down parts for new devices. These quarter scale tools would be used to produce sixteenth scale hands and lathes, which themselves would produce sixty-fourth scale items… and so on, until reaching the nanoscale.

The second component of Feynman’s vision was a corresponding multiplication of quantity, as you would need billions of nanobots to do anything practical. So he would not make one set of quarter scale hands, but ten. Each of those would produce 10 sixteenth scale devices, so there would be 100 of them  - and so on. Feynman points out there would not be a problem of space or materials, because one billion 1/4000 scale lathes would only take up two percent of the space and materials of a conventional lathe.

When he discussed running nanoscale machines, Feynman even considered the effect on lubrication. The mechanical devices we are familiar with need oil to prevent them ceasing up. As he pointed out, the effective viscosity of oil gets higher and higher in proportion as you go down in scale. It stops being a lubricant and starts being like attempting to operate in a bowl of tar. But, he argues, you may well not need lubricants, as the bearings won’t run hot because the heat would escape very rapidly from such a small device.

So far, so good, but what is the problem Feynman mentions? He points out that ‘As we go down in size there are a number of interesting problems that arise. All things do not simply scale down in proportion.’ Specifically, as things get smaller they begin to stick together. If you unscrewed a nanonut from a nanobolt it wouldn’t fall off – the Van der Waals force we met on the gecko’s foot is stronger than the force of gravity on this scale. Small things stick together in a big way.

Feynman is aware there would be problems. ‘It would be like those old movies of a man with his hands full of molasses, trying to get rid of a glass of water.’ But he does effectively dismiss the problems. In reality, the nano-engineer doesn’t just have Van der Waals forces to deal with. Mechanical engineering generally involves flat surfaces briefly coming together to transfer force from one to the other, as when the teeth of a pair of gears mesh. But down at the nanoscale a new, almost magical, force springs into life – the Casimir effect.

If two plates get very close, they are attracted towards each other. This has nothing to do with electromagnetism, like the Van der Waals force, but is the result of a weird aspect of quantum theory. All the time, throughout all of space, quantum particles briefly spring into existence, then annihilate each other. An apparently empty vacuum is, in fact, a seething mass of particles that exist for such a short space of time that we don’t notice them.

However, one circumstance when these particles do come to the fore is when there are two sheets of material very close to each other. If the space separating the sheets is close enough, far fewer of these ‘virtual’ particles can appear between them than outside them. The result is a real pressure that pushes the plates together. Tiny parallel surfaces slam together under this pressure.

The result of these effects is that even though toy nanoscale gears have been constructed from atoms, a real nanotechnology machine – a nanobot – would simply not work using conventional engineering. Instead the makers of nanobots need to look to nature. Because the natural world has plenty of nanoscale machines, moving around, interacting and working. What’s the big difference? Biological machines are wet and soft.

By this I don’t mean they use water as a lubricant rather than oil, but rather they are not usually a device made up of a series of interlocking mechanical components like our machines but rather use a totally different approach to mechanisms and interaction that results in a ‘wet’, soft environment lacking flat surfaces and the opportunities for small scale stickiness to get in the way of their workings.

If we are to build nanomachines, our engineers need to think in a totally different way. We need to dismiss Feynman’s picture of miniature lathes, nuts, bolts and gears. Instead our model has to be the natural world and the mechanisms that evolution has generated to make our, admittedly inefficient, but still functioning nanoscale technology work and thrive. The challenge is huge – but so is the potential.

In the next article in this series we will look at the lessons we can learn from a specific example of nature’s ability to manufacture technology on the nanoscale – the remarkable virus.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 6 August 2012

Nice one, Boris

Unlike the inestimable Henry Gee, I am not a 100 per cent supporter of everything Boris Johnson does and says - though I think a lot of people do underestimate him.

There's one thing, though, from my experience of visiting the Olympics last Friday, for which I award Boris a gold medal (or LOCOG or whoever thought of it). Quite unexpectedly, along with our Olympic tickets we found day passes for London Underground, busses etc in our jolly Olympics welcome pack.

Leaving aside this saved us around £30 on what was inevitably quite an expensive day out, it was such a good idea. It felt like a positive gesture - we were getting something for nothing we would otherwise pay for - and it encouraged people to use public transport to go to the games. Best of all, it looked like joined up thinking. I was a little worried that the tickets would only take us to and from the venue, but we happily made an excursion to Covent Garden (no, not the opera house) on the way back with no trouble.

Forget celebrating all those British medals. This, for me, was the real success of the 2012 Games.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

What goes around comes around

Another Fred and George, now sadly no
longer with us
I've always been interested in the things that inspire writers of fiction. I'm not talking about that painful interview question 'Where do you get your ideas from?'  which makes every writer cringe. That is silly indeed. But there are certainly things that point writers in certain directions over and above the output of their own creative juices.

I was inspired to think about this in a big way while re-reading, for a spot of summer light relief, one of the P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves books - to be precise, The Inimitable Jeeves. It struck me that consciously or unconsciously J. K. Rowling (notice a similarity in the authors' names?) must have been influenced by a pair of characters in this book.

Specifically there are twins, named Claude and Eustace, who are at college when we meet them. This pair are always up to mischief, either simply causing havoc or, if possible, running dubious schemes to make themselves cash. Does this sound at all familiar?

I don't know if Fred and George Weasley were a conscious hat tip to P. G. from J. K. or simply inspired by a session reading Wodehouse long before that was not directly remembered - but either way it is hard to believe that Claude and Eustace were not prototypes of the mischievous Hogwarts entrepreneurs.

I don't think this is a bad thing, merely worthy of note.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Are you a humanist?

Are you a humanist? Should you care? Take a look at this short, interesting video featuring some quite well known people talking on the subject, and then I'll share my thoughts with you.

Okay, what did you think? My feeling after watching it is that I quite like a lot that goes with being a humanist, apart from one huge assumption that all those taking part seem to make, which is that if you are a humanist you must be an atheist. You see, I think the most scientific religious viewpoint to take is to be an agnostic, and I don't see any conflict with being a humanist.

If you are an atheist you say 'I refuse to be open minded. I KNOW what the truth is and no evidence will sway me.' I don't think that's scientific. As an agnostic, I would say I don't think there is clear evidence either way, so it would be silly to take a Dawkinsesque stand on the subject.

Just to draw a parallel with a science issue, take the business of string theory. There is no evidence for string theory - it is totally untestable at the moment. Now the atheist view would be to say 'Because string theory is untestable, I will assume it doesn't have any validity and I will mock people who do think it's worth giving time to. We don't need string theory, we can get along perfectly well without it.' But as an agnostic I would say 'Okay, we don't have evidence either way yet, so let's suspend judgement until we do. I want to hear more about string theory and I will not mindlessly attack it. And frankly it would be very upsetting to all those people who have given their (working) lives to it, so I will be a little more considerate.' I know which sounds the better approach to me.

I have one other problem with this video, which is the section on death. I think all those smug, middle class, wealthy (mostly middle aged) people have a very specific view of how you can make the best of life and enjoy it to the full. It's a bit harder if you are a starving infant expected to die before your first birthday. I think they totally underestimate the comfort that religion has given to many people in dire conditions. This doesn't make religion true - but it does make the humanist view of death, as stated in this video, very much a view that would appeal best to a group of comfortable, privileged intellectuals with a good long life expectancy.

So will I be asking to join the British Humanist Association? I don't think so - but I genuinely thank them for a thought provoking video that raises some serious and important issues.