Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Happy Saturnalia!

Ah the miracles of modern technology. While you read this I'm back in the sea! (I hope)

Why Saturnalia? Well, as a card carrying atheist, I think it would be mildly hypocritical of me to celebrate Christmas in the manner in which it ought to be celebrated and so I celebrate the pagan Roman festival which is the reason Christmas is roughly where it is in the calendar. It was so much easier for the early Christians to hi-jack an existing festival than to try to create a whole new one. What's interesting is that with every passing century Christmas comes to resemble Saturnalia more and more. Overeating, indulgence in too much alcohol, a lot of tomfoolery and exchanging gifts so that for many people in the west the whole point of Christmas is exactly that! All we need now is to introduce Saturnalian role reversal (masters served slaves so read ruled get waited on by rulers) and we would have come full circle.

Below is an e-card I received from MG (he sends 'home-made' ones every year) and the Penguin couldn't agree more!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

There will now be a brief interlude as we allow certain ideas to permeate the crevices and cracks and settle in dark pools deep beneath the ground

Only a few weeks to go now. Some of the chicks are starting to get restless and keep their eyes ever northward as though sensing the sea. Perhaps we do, even that young, sense something we have never seen, felt; even just an unexplained longing for something, we know not what. Although I followed Havelock and Myfanwy that first year, still, it seemed to me, I think, that I knew the way; that I knew where the sea was. Perhaps I shall try this year and keep my eyes closed some of the way, see if I can smell the salt; not for too long, I wouldn't want to get lost now, would I? That unfortunately is only too easy down here, the ice can be a little disorientating sometimes; it does have a habit of appearing the same in all directions. :) Still, navigating by the sun is not so difficult for a penguin nor by magnetic field, although, given the way it sometimes fluctuates, it's not to be relied on.

We are aiming for 14 December for Cozy's little show. We've persuaded most of the adult penguins here to remain until then so that as many chicks as possible can see what he has planned, although Cozy still refuses to tell me what exactly he has got in mind for the two flares and the two pieces of string, still buried in the snow; except to say he thinks I 'might like it'. We'll see. Although he has often been a sore trial these past months, I do hope that this goes well for him. Cozy, like all of us, gets no younger with each passing year and perhaps this will be the last opportunity he has to impress the youngsters; I sense that he thinks so. That even if he survives to haul himself up onto the ice again next year and make his way here, his body will not be up to performing again, well unless he finds a willing partner. :) It would be nice to think that, if this to be his swan song, it might be remembered, down the years, by those who never saw, just heard from their parents. In the creche. A latter day 'Thundering Penguin'. 'Catapulting Cozy'? Ah well, we shall see. Nothing is certain here, no matter what we might wish and it is forever so easy to fall from a knife edge.

It is strange here, as we near the year's end. So much appears to have happened in your world but I think that those events are your concern, not mine, although no doubt they will impact down here and we will suffer, as we always do. It is only the small things, the corona, the halo around our struggle for survival, that matter to us here. The pride I feel in once more raising a healthy and fat chick through the long hard winter; the joy in Fricka's return once more; the contentment that other penguins can feel as I do, be not just automatons, that friendship is possible whatever it might cost here; even the sadness of Havelock takes on a hopeful hue when viewed in the light of what we achieve here, in the face of almost insurmountable hardship. Although it is much to hope, perhaps one day you will come to realise the immeasurable sadness you will feel when we are gone, forever. Perhaps you will find it in yourself to, just once, refrain, to exercise a little self control, a little compassion . 'Tis but a tiny hope, but a hope nonetheless.

I think I will try to 'post date' some posts for while I'm away, just in case. Strange tho' it might seem to this penguin, perhaps some will miss the rambling musings of a sad and oft tired bird, however imperatorial :) MG has agreed to do more QED posts if we do not get to photon absorption and emission by the time I have to leave tho' I doubt he will explain it as well as I. Probably come back next March to a mailbox full of whinges and moans about having to do the words AND the drawings, poor lamb! :) And no-one to point him in the right direction so it will be even more wrong than it otherwise might be.

Interesting thing happened just then, in that last paragraph. The mutability of consonants (and vowels). How 'p' and 'b' mutate around each other in words. 'Absorb' but 'Absorption'. I had trouble spelling the noun, tho' I know a little philology. Lazy speakers the English! But that's probably the Norman French inheritance. Never could cope with Anglo-Saxon, the Norman scribes, forever twisting it in ways it was never meant to go. The roots of a conquered nation go deep!

The muse continues to prod and perhaps I will be permitted to post. The allegory will fly past you, but it is there nonetheless. Perhaps my biographer will explain all in fifty years time. :)

Odd, do you not think? To write a valediction at least two weeks before 'Farewell'. Perhaps in two weeks I will not be able to write one.

Friday, 28 November 2008

QED. Are you sitting comfortably? You'll need to be...

Well, are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

A big thank you to the British Broadcasting Corporation for that. The opening lines to the daily 'Listen with mother' in the days when radio was King, before TV and film corrupted us with THEIR images, THEIR representations! When, as children, we could dream our own dreams, see our own characters not just a superfluous by-product of corporate greed. The closest thing to reading that it was possible to get! When you couldn't read. Just use your ears, not your eyes!

Also a little apology for the tardiness of this post. (a) I got sidetracked by a little triangle :) (b) the muse has been dragging me kicking and screaming towards faerie again and (c) MG is tearing his hair out over work :(. So...........

So, where does the photon go when it leaves the emitter? Well, it's not in a straight line to where it is pointed! :) The photon travels by all available paths. However quantum mechanics predicts that it will invariably travel in a straight line to its 'target'. How come? Well, we're back to good ol' Dick's arrows :) Told you they were useful!

If we take a very simplified look at the possible path(s) of the photon through spacetime, we might see something like this


This sort of translates to the following 'arrows' added together:

As you can see, the probability (amplitudes) at the beginning and the end tend to cancel themselves out (they just wander around without going anywhere) and what counts are the arrows in the middle which reinforce each other when you 'add' them all together and actually go somewhere. When you draw the single arrow (as before) between the start of arrow one and the end of arrow 'n' ('n' being an indeterminate number, however many arrows you choose, in our earlier example it was just two) you get the 'straight line' path we observe.

Now, I hear you say, that's just an over complicated way of saying light travels in a straight line, the way of least resistance, or better, the way of least energy. Light never uses more energy to get from (a) to (b) than is absolutely necessary. In that way light is very similar to the girl (or guy) at the supermarket checkout and explains why it takes 10 minutes to fill up your cart but 30 minutes to check it out. Always the least energy to move the cereal from (a) to (b).

So why do we need this complicated arrangement of the photon going by all available paths when we could just assume that light travels in a straight line (the dotted line in the diagram above, in case you've forgotten). Diffraction gratings, that's why!

Imagine, if you will, that we leave the experiment exactly as it is but we chop 2/3rds of the glass on the right away so we are just left with a little bit of the left hand side of the glass, where the arrows all meander around, going nowhere. We etch some lines at a particular spacing, it's different for red light and blue light. Then what? Obviously, no reflection! There's no glass in the middle to reflect from! WRONG! It's greatly reduced but the receptor at (b) DOES get hit by the odd photon (and it's predictable from the probability amplitudes) that manages to get itself out of the tangle at the left end and is not then cancelled by the now non existent tangle at the other end. So a photon does travel by ALL available paths! Try explaining that with conventional wave optics!

Sunday, 23 November 2008

I don't know if this is what you are looking for but.........

There now follows a brief interlude in the discussion on QED while I attenpt to travel back in time to an era when short flannel trousers were de riguer, you could still buy powdered egg and no-one who lived in cities had ever seen a cow 'on the hoof', so to speak. Hot running water was non existent, we still cooked by candle light and all the washing went through the mangle before being hung in soot laden air to dry.

A little problem. How to calculate the length of one side of a scalene triangle without using cosine formula, which is what I think your comment refers to.

Here's the triangle. If it's not what you need or think is useful, you've exhausted my ingenuity (and my memory) :)

Angles at A and C are 55 and 40 degrees respectively. (Someone might want to do the sums, I just measured mine with my wee draughting table and it looks about right.

OK. The length of AB is 5 units, the length of AC is 8 units, crucially the height HB is 4 units. (Looking familiar?) HB forms a right angle with AC.

The unknown quantity is BC.

To calculate:

AB squared is the sum of AH squared + HB squared ie 25 (5) = 16 (4) + 9 (3) AH = 3
Therefore HC = 5 (8 - 3)

HC squared = 25 + HB squared = 16 gives us BC as the square root of 41, about 6.4, give or take.

Of course this all changes when we start to accelerate towards the speed of light and all those nasty Lorentz contractions start messing up the arithmatic. So whatever you do, don't under any circumstances try and teach this to tachions. It also breaks down a bit at the Planck length, but doesn't everything? Including me?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

QED, really fast clocks and little pointy arrows

One of the very real problems with quantum mechanics is the maths :) All those equations, path integrals, Dirac matrices and so on. However, what our friend Mr Feynman did was to 'replace' those with nice little pictures :0 Kind of him, don't you think? These little pictures are the pointy arrows of the title.

Imagine if you will a clock, one whose hand rotates 30,000 times a second, or thereabouts. It should be fairly obvious why it rotates so fast; the speed of light is very fast. Release a pure 'red' photon from a source which is directed somewhere. Start the clock. Measure where the hand is on your clock at the precise instant it hits the target. You have a little arrow pointing in some direction. The length of the arrow is determined by the square of its length (Unfortunately, neither MG nor I 'know' why it's the square, it just is in the equations - the maths - of which the arrows are simply a graphical representation.)

Now imagine a pure red light source situated at (a) which can fire 1 photon at a time (they do exist!) and a detector located at (b) with a sheet of glass located under them with another detector located at (c). Start firing photons and see where they are detected. After a sizable number of photons have been fired, we discover that 4% of the photons go to (b) and 96% go all the way through the glass and end up at (c). OK, so the length of the arrows has to be 0.2 (0.2x0.2=0.04 or 4%!).

(a) __________________ (b)


OK. Let's increase the thickness of the glass, does that make a difference? You'd think it wouldn't, wouldn't you? The photons must be bouncing off the top surface of the glass, yes? Well they're not and the thickness makes a difference. With the thicker glass the result is that 8% reach the detector at (b) and only 92% make it all the way to (c). So it's not just the surface that's reflecting is it? So let's make an assumption. The underside reflects as well. So it has its own little arrow. Except it will be a different pointing arrow, the photon takes longer to hit the back edge than the front edge, further to go. So we now have two arrows to deal with, those that hit the front and those that hit the back. Crucially, in this model, the arrow for the 'back hitting' photon is reversed in direction.

Now you can 'add arrows' together. Just attach the pointy bit of one to the tail of another and then draw another arrow between the two. Just so! The square of the length of the third (bolder) arrow gives you the probablity (amplitude) 0f the photon being reflected. Neat, huh?

So let's increase the thickness of the glass again. Oooh, we get 16% reflection! The thicker the glass the more reflection! Let's try it. Increase the thickness of the glass again and what do you get? 0%, no photon reaches (b)! Oh dear! Latest postulate, in Tom Cruise's words, "crashed and burned! Not a pretty sight!" Now, experiment has this sinusoidal oscillation happening at least 32,000 times in succession - there's a limit to how thick you can make glass without spending the entire Federal budget- o-16% every time. Why? After all it seems a little crazy, no?

The answer lies in the 'direction' of the arrows. You see at certain thicknesses of glass the arrows (the time it takes for the photon to traverse the thickness of the glass), according to our little 'clock hand', can point in exactly opposite directions, 0%, (an arrow joining them as above of zero length) or widely differing directions, as in the example above, 16% when you join them together.

Now before anyone starts getting out of their pram, this is a staggering oversimplification of what is going on but, crucially, it captures the essence of what is going on and, more importantly, the numbers add up, so we must be on the right track, even if it is simplified.

In the next exciting instalment of 'where the bloody hell did I leave my photons and why can you never find an electron when you need one', we'll look a little more carefully at where the photon goes as it leaves the source and why it always goes in a straight line to where it has been aimed. It doesn't really, sort of, it just looks that way! :)

Thursday, 13 November 2008

MG's BIG mouth, fuzzy little balls and a strange theory of light and matter

I had an email from MG a couple of days ago. "Hi Penguin, someone's floundering in QED, I said we might help them (and maybe some others) out. You up for a bit of oversimplification to get Dick's message across?"

Thanks, Malcolm Goodson, all round 'nice guy' (some say :) and only too willing to impress his idiot of an ego on an unsuspecting planet. Sometimes I think he 'jests' on purpose when he supposes that he was Attilla the Hun in a previous life! I can just imagine the pasty faced dwarf galloping across the plains on his little mongolian pony! Well what can you do? So I said yes.

Therefore, anyone who reads this blog with a desire for insightful analysis, charm and wit in equal proportions, a slightly different take on the world or just an amusing read might be well advised to steer clear of any blog which is titled 'QED + anything else'. On the other hand, those posts might give you a modest insight into the most bizarre ideas ever and cause you to question whether there is any objective reality out there so....................................

Here they are, the combined ramblings of two diseased minds working in concert but trying, faithfully, to render the great Richard Feynman's ideas in language that everyone can understand. We do not, in any way, think that we are telling 'the truth' here. It can only be an interpretation . (We do this to cover our ar**s.) We do not have the maths! BUT we believe we have it right and hope that it enlightens!

A small digression. Dick 'shared' his Nobel prize with two others but, crucially, only Dick's 'solution' is ever used. All hail to the mighty Dick :)

So, Quantum Electrodynamics, the interaction of light with matter. But first a small history lesson

By 1900 the atomic theory of matter was well advanced. A point like nucleus with electrons in orbit around, a microscopic planetary system. This was borne out by experiment, notably Rutherford's. He aimed beams of 'particles' at solids and noticed they were scattered but not as much as he expected if the atoms inside were solid ball-like objects. It seemed like there was a lot of 'space' in between the atoms which a planetary model could explain. However Newtonian mechanics, which did explain planetary motion, did not explain certain behaviour of the 'planetary' electrons.

In the very early days of the 20th century, Max Planck, solved the issue of black body radiation by proposing that electrons could only lose or gain energy in discrete amounts, 'quanta'. They were prevented from accumulating or shedding energy in a progressive way, ie by adding loss or gain cumulatively. It was all or nothing. In this way, Planck prevented the electron from spiralling into the nucleus of the atom, it could only go so far inwards since it couldn't shed 'half a quantum'.

In 1905, Albert (that's Einstein for any of the educationally challanged out there, not Roux) demonstrated that it was also possible to explain why electrons are emitted from, say, a metal when you shine a light on it, the photoelectric effect, by positing that light was not a 'wave' but discrete particles.
Only when the light particles have sufficient energy could the electron acquire enough energy to break free from the nucleus by absorbing a light particle, a photon. It didn't matter how much light (how many photons) you shone on the object, the only thing that mattered was the frequency of the 'light wave', the energy of the photons. Below a certain photon energy level (wavelength) no effect was observed. Each photon had insufficient energy to allow the electron to absorb enough to break free, no mattter how 'bright' the light, or better, no matter how many photons. He got a Nobel prize for that! The godfather of quantum mechanics who denied his own godson to the end!

By 1926, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Bohr, De Broglie, Planck et al had got a basic theory together and thus was born 'the collapse of the (Schroedinger's) wave function', the 'uncertaintity principle', 'wave/particle duality' and an inherant 'fuzziness' to the entire universe.

However quantum mechanics had hit its first major obstacle. If you tried to predict the outcome of an experiment to match actual results using quantum theory, you could do so at a 'coarse grained' level, an approximation, but as you tried to fine tune your calculations and bring them closer to the 'measured outcome' by graining more finely, a remarkable thing happened. Suddenly, infinity entered the equations! It was as though nature had no intention of letting you see what was really going on!

In 1931, Paul Dirac postulated a 'magnetic moment' for the 'perfect', non interacting, electron of 1.0. A magnetic moment of an electron is a bit like imagining the electron as a little magnet, how magnetic is it? This was broadly in line with Maxwell where electricity, which is no more than a stream of electrons, is essentially the reverse side of the coin of magnetism. They are interlinked. One always induces the other. Experiment put this 'moment' value at 1.00118. Now it was known (from Einstein above) that electrons interacted with light, photons; so this has to be factored in and then this would then bring the theoretical more in line with experiment, wouldn't it? It must, after all, only be a minor adjustment, the difference is so small. Unfortunately, any adjustments just led to infinities again! Quantum mechanics had come to an impasse with nature. The theory on the surface looked sound but if you delved 'deeper', it all fell apart, there were these 'stupid' infinities that just would not go away! God was always closing the curtains!

It was not until 1948 that first Julian Schwinger (and independently, Tomonaga), then Feynman showed that there was a way out of the morass of infinities. It is interesting that Feynman in his lectures gives precedence to Schwinger (he was the first) but omits to say that Schwinger's methods are not used nor are Tomonaga's and also omits to say that only his are! This penguin, at least, wishes that he had had the opportunity to meet Mr Feynman. We could have played some serious bongos together!

So, where are we? Light is made of particles, photons. Electrons can 'capture' a photon and take its energy to increase its own and we have equations that work at a coarse-grain level but not fine grain. We have a theory that explains things classical physics explains and things that classical physics does not explain so we ought to be on the right track. All we have to do is get rid of those bl**dy infinities!

In the next QED blog we'll be looking at the partial reflection of light from glass and why it cycles through 0-16% reflection depending on the thickness of the glass.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Hurricanes, Hollywood and the Lafayette Bar & Grill

This is the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time
He could have been the champion of the world

Remember that? Bob Dylan's 'Hurricane'? About 1975? The sad story of the boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter and his 'false' imprisonment for multiple murder? A sorry tale of stitch up, conspiracy and malice against a poor, hapless, black boxer, too uppity for his own good. I don't know why, but the lyric came into my head and to pass the time I went and had a look for the story. What was funny was that I didn't quite find what I was looking for.

In the aftermath of the 1999/2000 film, with Denzel Washington, someone had set up a web site to lambast the film for its inattention to facts, its total lack of objectivity and for its completely 'fairy tale' like quality in lionising Carter. Now the site is quite extensive and has all the hallmarks of the 'single issue fanatic'; you know, those loonies who obsess over one thing to the exclusion of everything else, eating, sleeping, washing, you know the kind I mean. Except......

The site's author spent about 20 years as a journalist. Now journalists are a queer bunch, I know, I have a few in my address book, especially once they get wind of a story. For journalists, it's often all that counts while they're working on it, the story. So I was a little intrigued and delved. What the site's author has amassed is a huge amount of official documents which puts a whole different slant on both the film and Carter's account, on which the film is based. What you come away with is an ever growing realisation that in many ways, we seem to have been conned.

The site's author actually covered the second trial for his newspaper and like a good journalist has created a site which, to this penguin, marshalls so many facts, discrepancies in accounts and what appear to be outright fabrications in Carter's account that you can't help but feel that the juries in both trials (yes there were two, separated by about 10 years) actually may have got it right, after all. On the balance of probabilities, the police probably, like the Mounties, did get their man.

Now this is not to say that I think they should pop Carter back in the slammer. He was released by a federal judge on a couple of procedural issues (mainly lack of disclosure by the prosecution) in a last ditch appeal in the late eighties for a writ of habeus corpus and seems now to be leading a perfectly law abiding life, albeit one which seems to be founded on spinning his story of his life at $20,000 a throw. I suppose if you want to pay that kind of money to listen to someone who now says he was running guns to the ANC in the '60s :) all well and good but the American judicial system took a hard knock in the wake of Carter's release and the film made matters worse; perhaps the issue does need to be looked at again. Having said that, there probably is no point, even the prosecutor saw no point trying to pursue the case again in the late eighties so long after the original event, despite the fact that they were decidedly unhappy about the decision. They considered it perverse in the extreme, given that previous appeals by Carter's team based on the evidence had failed.

So why bother to write about it? Well, as I was googling around the subject I came across an obituary for Joey Giardello, who died in September this year.

Oh dear, the penguin's going off topic again :)

Joey Giardello was the undisputed middleweight champion of the world from 1964 to 1965. One of the old school of boxers who fought his way up from rookie to champion the hard way with over 100 fights. A capable and a skillful boxer. When he lost to the man he had beaten in 1964 to gain the title, Dick Tiger, he effectively retired. So what has that got to do with Rubin Carter? Carter was the first challenger for Giardello's title in 1964. Carter lost, as he usually did to boxers who had any real skill, to a unanimous (and undisputed) points decision, effectively 10 rounds to Giardello, 5 to Carter. From then on in Carter seemed to go a little downhill, losing seven of his next fifteen fights and had slipped from one to five in the ranking list of contenders and looked on his 'way out'. A little after that he was 'inside'.

So what did the WBC (which didn't exist in 1964) do in 1993, it awarded Carter a middleweight championship belt (they gave one to Giardello as well at the same time). I wonder how Giardello must have felt? He beat the man fair and square but Carter ends up getting a belt anyway? And then in 2000, the film portrays Carter as a man robbed of the title by a corrupt and crooked system, with Giardello an inept and shambling wreck of a fighter who spends the last round on the ropes being pummeled to a pulp by Carter, when in reality, Carter scarcely got a look in after round five.

Giardello sued and had footage of the whole fight to back up his claim. Universal settled out of court. I wonder why? Perhaps they didn't want anyone else coming forward saying exactly how much fabrication was in a 'true story'?

You see, in one way, it was that story that tipped the penguin over the edge. If the story could be so wrong on that issue, what else might it be wrong on? And if Carter is making a living spinning lies, then shouldn't someone point this out?

I suppose not really, politicians do it all the time, why shouldn't the citizens?

If you want to waste :) an afternoon digging around Cal Deal's site it's here.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The difference between quantum mechanics and love

What makes you angry? Sometimes it's so easy to see: someone jumps the queue at the bus stop and you end up standing all the way, usually with some poor, frail old lady, who is also forced to stand because of someone's selfishness; someone meanders down the platform at a snail's pace so you can't 'overtake' and you have to keep 'chopping' your stride to avoid running into them; someone barges past you in the supermarket and grabs the last packet of pappadelle. But sometimes, it's all a mystery.

Strange, I have a weird sense of deja vu about that last paragraph.

I got invited on to someone's blog last week, ostensibly because I have an interest in quantum mechanics. They have a theory which turns out to be 'infinitely expanding atoms' creating spacetime as they go. Now I raised a few 'objections' to potential issues here and after getting 'non replies' and references to Newton and Einstein decided I was not going to waste my time trying to argue the toss with someone who was going to 'lower the net' for their every return. (Thanks to Dan D for that one. Wonderful analogy he uses when discussing 'conversations' with creationists. A tennis match. Your serve is that rational, well substantiated argument that your opponent insists you serve, so you do, but lo and behold as soon as they swing, down comes the net and what is returned is neither rational nor well substantiated. Well, two can play that game! But just as you're about to make your backhand cross court pass, up comes the net again! No wonder those games never finish!)

Anyway, I really had to stop myself from leaving a less than polite Parthian shot. But more to the point, I couldn't understand why I was so angry; you read stuff like that all the time. Part of it at least, I think, is that it saddens me to think that people who usually get no further than 'What the bleep do I know?' but think they would like to know more about quantum mechanics might actually get sucked in by such unsubstantiated and unscientific twaddle and end up thinking they know what the science is about. So to deflect the anger, I put the net back up and had a think :)

It wasn't a long sustained think, I'm not Descartes; more a 'punctuated equilibrium' think. Long periods of statis punctuated by short bursts of evolutionary vigour. The stasis being provided by Dick Feynman's description of the covered mirror and diffraction grating experiment which I had gone to check on because it formed part of my musings. I wanted to verify that I had remembered it correctly. (I had:) However, as a result of Dick's guiding hand and soothing, but self mocking, tone, a light bulb switched on and I realised what it is that's annoying about any discussion over quantum mechanics which doesn't end up in frantic equation scribbling on beer mats. People don't get how 'wrong' it is!

Just about any scientific theory you'll come across has as a very basic, but tacit, assumption: there is an objective reality out there which you can measure, observe, speculate on and discuss in verbal terms because everyone shares that same reality to a very large degree and they will also share, to a large degree, although not completely, language which assigns common values to that reality. If you show a picture of a German Shepherd dog to a Frenchman and say: "Un chien?" The chances are he'll agree with you. A dog= un chien. The mappings are usually not as simple as that but you get my drift.

However you can't do that with quantum mechanics! I hear hoots of disagreement! "What about 'A brief history of time'?" you cry. "'The emperor's new mind'?" "Schroedinger's cat?" And therein lies the rub. Quantum mechanics is so keen to have itself understood that it forgets to tell you that it is all about number crunching not about words, even, really, about ideas. At root, it is a recipe book. Follow the instructions, feed in the ingredients (more numbers) and out pops an answer. Go and do an experiment and see if you get the same answer. If you do, move on to the next problemette. This is what physicists know in the bottom of their hearts but are too coy to say, for fear of alienating people. Only the numbers and the symbols count! :)

You see, according to quantum theory, the world, the galaxy, the universe, you, me, they're not composed of protons, mesons, quarks, photons or any other 'ons' you can think of. The universe is simply composed of probability amplitudes. One giant 'what might be', not one giant 'what is'. This should be, as it was to Einstein, deeply distressing to anyone. No wonder we all hide, even the physicists. But there isn't anything we can do about it. At that level, that's how it is. Somehow from all those 'just probabilities' comes what we experience.

Now there is no doubt in my mind that quantum physicists think pretty much like you or I think. I am quite sure that when Murray Gell Mann first started thinking about the scattering experiments that seemed to show that the proton wasn't just this singular object and actually seemed to have 'hard bits' and 'not hard bits' he did not immedaitely rush to the blackboard. I am sure that he probably thought that it could be a bit like a few ball bearings tightly packed in some kind of soft, spherical condom, but, and this is my point, he did, eventually, go to the blackboard. He did start frantically scribbling equations. No-one gets a Nobel prize for Physics for a quaint analogy. Quantum Chromodynamics stands or falls on the equations and their predictive qualities not on the analogy.

It took me a long time to realise what was fundamentally unsatisfying about commentaries/books, often by science journalists, on research in quantum mechanics. It took a physics graduate demonstrating to a bewildered penguin how a 'constant' (the penguin forgets which one but remembers it was quite important and crops up all over the shop) falls quite naturally out of running through a set of equations, it just 'appears', as if by magic. This is quantum mechanics not the analogies for the 'too disinterested to learn the maths' brigade. The last is not an insult, a cheap jibe, the penguin too has little enough time, or aptitude he thinks, to learn what must be learned but the penguin knows it must be learned if one is truly to grasp what the theory says and he therefore adjusts his thinking processes accordingly until a time when there is a spacetime enough to contemplate polynomials. God is in the maths.

A postscript. Quantum Electrodynamics is, perhaps, the supreme predictive quantum mechanical view. The interaction between light and matter. It is predictively accurate to 5 or 6 decimal places, in Feynman's words "... equivalent to measuring the distance between New York and Los Angeles to the thickness of a human hair" and yet it is fundamentally flawed. Feynman himself admitted 'renormalisation' is a trick, a way of removing infinities from equations, but a trick that works! Perhaps that's all we can ever hope for. Tricks, that work!

And finally, as a postscript to a postscript, a little movie clip (just click the play button). What today's blog was going to be about but ended up not being about. Perhaps a later one will revisit it. Those who have read earlier posts will know why this resonates, the rest will have to engage in some reading practice. :) The film should have ended here, but didn't, for which I dock 0.5 points. The director should have had the courage of his scriptwriter's convictions. So it's only 9.5 on a scale of 10 but, in the comfort of the penguin's own cinema, with control over WHEN it ends, it always scores a perfect 10!

Here's looking at you, kid

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Please to remember, the fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

Today is that day in Britland where they celebrate non-success! Guido Fawkes' failed attempt to blow up the King of England and his parliament! They do this by systematically sending huge amounts of cash up in smoke, literally. Oh alright, they have firework displays but they amount to the same thing.

Now it has always struck this penguin as odd that the celebration should have continued for so long. It actually started at the time of the original plot, although in a different form, as a thanksgiving for the deliverance of the King, James Thefirstof-England (formerly King James Thesixthof-Scotland who changed his name when he took the job for reasons which have now become obscured in the mists of time. He is best known for his bible:) from an untimely demise. Now the plot at the time was firmly laid at the feet of English Catholics and so it seems reasonable that the largely protestant English should take great pleasure in rubbing the Pope's nose in it; they had after all only just seen off a catholic inspired invasion not fifty years before - the Great Spanish Armadillo. Actually the Armada was less seen off by the Brits than by the Great British weather but we'll leave them their illusions of Great Queen Bess and Sir Francis Drake playing bowls at Plymouth Ho!

Now the Brits have been reasonably tolerant of religions over the last 400 years or so; even James himself didn't, as might have been considered reasonable for an absolute monarch at the time, go in for a great deal of Catholic bashing, just the odd one here and there, and they are more tolerant now of other faiths, or lack of them, than they have ever been. The enduring nature of the celebration cannot then be a continuing desire to blow raspberries at the Pope nor, I think, can it be in celebration at the saving of a long dead monarch, who is after all just that, dead! Most people if quizzed would, I think, tend to say that Fawkes was trying to blow up Parliament by which they would mean the democratically elected 'House of Commons'. In fact Fawkes was trying to blow up the house next door, the House of Lords, the 'Commons' did not even exist then. So why?

I think it has to do with the very thing young Guido was using to achieve his aim of separating the King from his entourage, gunpowder. The Brits have never been ones for celebrating much and until recently, fireworks were usually only ever seen today; there wasn't much of a 'fireworks' tradition (except among the immigrant Chinese community) and so in thrall to all that aerial splendour, the Brits clung aggressively to this one opportunity every year when they could 'light the blue touchpaper and stand well back'.

There used to be tradition which, perhaps sadly, is rapidly dying out where a 'guy' (effigy) made of some old men's clothes stuffed with newspaper, to provide form, would be wheeled out into the High Street by children in the weeks before today and used to solicit, oh alright, beg, for money for fireworks; 'penny for the guy, mister?' The poor have always been canny when it comes to raising money for a bit of fun. These would be added to whatever the parents had provided and each little garden in the street would have its own little display while the children stood around with 'sparklers' in their hands breathing 'Oooooh!' into the night air along with huge plumes of mist.

Another tradtion, perhaps also dying out but more slowly, was the community bonfire. In addition to begging for money, the children would trawl their neighbourhood looking for anything which might burn; knocking on doors, asking for old or broken furniture (it used to be saved especially for this by generous householders) and generally ransacking the area to build the largest 'bonfire' they could on a patch of waste ground, of which there was a lot in the years after the war in major cities. Small exercises in space creation made by Hitler on the way home. A 'guy' would be placed on top, the pile liberally doused with petrol and the whole thing ignited to the consternation of the adjoining householders and the local fire brigade. The whole street would gather round and eat half baked potatoes and over baked sausages cooked in the fire, while the guy burned. Ah the old 'Blitz' mentality. Have a cup of tea and a chat while everything goes up in smoke around you :) Sometimes the houses burned as well but that was not an annual occurance just the occasional bonus when the fire brigade were stuck in traffic :)

Now it's just Council/Government organised displays of the most staggering ingenuity. Safer, no children suffering 3rd degree burns, more thrilling to watch, phantasmagoria in the sky sparklers!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Franz Marc, William Blake and unbreakable connections.

MG tells a wonderful story of the picture below and the poem which follows it. At an impressionable age, an unsophisticated 17, a couple of friends took him to the Lehnbach Gallerie in Munich. Wandering around, the three came upon the painting below, which is large, very large! MG sat down on the bench in front of it. After some minutes, impatient for some other pleasures, they said they would meet him about 2 hours later at the gallery entrance. Two and a half hours later, they wandered back from the entrance to try to discover what had become of their 'charge'. They found him still on the bench, mumbling to himself, "Did He who made the lamb make thee?"

Der Tiger, Franz Marc

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The Tiger, William Blake

Not sure what it is about the poetry and stuff at the moment. Perhaps the prospect of at least a week without smilies from a certain quarter, :( perhaps the Penguin equivalent of 'flu', you know, nostrils all bunged up, sweating like the proverbial, jackhammers on the inside of the head, nothing will stay down, even the bile and acid. Ah well, no doubt, like all things, this too will pass.

Now over the years, I've built up a little trove of these 'connections' of his and it sometimes puzzles me that things which might end up being experienced a number of times end up being tied to a single image whether a physical image like the tiger above, or a mental image, a picture in your head. He always see Marc's 'Tiger' in his head when he reads the poem and always starts reciting the poem when he sees the painting or a reproduction. This seems strange to this penguin. That exacly the same, or nearly the same neurons fire every time. I suppose after a couple of times, it starts to get self-reinforcing, like a little feedback loop in the memory.

Bouquets of flowers are always associated with standing on tip toe and vice versa. Why? Well as a pasty faced dwarf, MG invariably has trouble reaching up to peck the cheek when presenting a bouquet and on that particular occasion was especially humbled when some time later in the evening the person asked for another (peck not bouquet) which meant tippy-toes-time again; humbling for a testosterone fueled male. :) You'd have thought she would have had the courtesy to bend a little and save his pride :)

Gene Kelly is a wry smile from the doorway and the words: "Alright, you're forgiven". For what? A thoughtless, tactless remark and the ensuing 20 minutes as he attempted to apologise in a torrential downpour by re-enacting 'Singing in the rain', lamp-post swinging and foot in the gutter splashing included. Any resemblance to a drowned rat standing at the gate was entirely uncoincidental. The wry smile had the umbrella. :) Whenever it pours.............

Star Wars is always sunglasses. Some time after the release of 'Return of the Jedi', a cinema organised a 'breakfast showing' of all of the first three films. These start around midnight and the films are shown back to back and then they serve breakfast. Makes for a pleasant night out, literally. Now one of the party had recently bought bought a very expensive pair of Ray-Bans. As they're settling down to breakfast, someone remarks: "Why have you still got your sunglasses on?" "Hm? Oh I didn't notice, I still had them on." Yeah right! Every time MG puts his Guccis on, it still brings a smile. How on earth can you sit through over six hours of film and not know you've got shades on? :)

And finally, though this one is perhaps a little cruel and really only works one way but........ MG often gets a cab home from his mother's after visiting; the journey by public transport is a bit awkward. Now as they approach his road, he'll say: "Next right." ie turn into the next road on the right. His only problem is that the next thing, he wants to do, is shout: "It's a bloody roundabout!" (Roundabouts, in road terms, are traffic smoothers at junctions, you wait for a space to enter the flow in a clockwise direction and leave the flow at the appropriate turn off, they're indicated by a raised, circular mound. often many metres wide, at the centre of the junction) Now of course these don't show up on maps, only the junction itself. So MG's reading the map and says: "Next right". Now he can see it's a roundabout, the driver proceeds to go counter-clockwise around the roundabout, ie turning right! Just as well no-one was coming round the other side :) To make it all the more bizarre, the car behind followed!

Well the fish stayed down today so....................................

Sunday, 2 November 2008

On the shores of Gitchee Gumee, of the shining big-sea-water....

I went hunting for the snark today for a little light relief, the library here has a "Complete Works of Lewis Carroll", and by chance, I found a poem I had never come across before, or, at least if I had, I had forgotten it. It was Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photography". A silly poem about family portrait photography, Carroll was a photographer too, written in the metre of Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha". (The link is to Carroll's poem, not HWL's.) Now, as Carroll points out, once you have the metre in your head, it's not difficult, if you are poetically inclined, to mimic it. What struck me was not the skill but the conceit of marrying the poem's form, Hiawatha and photography. Hiawatha as a wannabe David Bailey. One of those little side slips by the brain.

I was going to hang a blog about the plight of the native American in the nineteenth century on that but decided that it would be too depressing so instead I thought it might be interesting to put down some poetry. Not necessarily 'great' poetry but things that move, intrigue or humour this penguin instead. Now I will probably run foul of the copyright furies, who will hound me to Hades, but on the basis that some may be unfamilar..........

Where the poem is in a foreign language, I have tried to provide a translation next to it in case the other language is not known

Jorge Luis Borges

Un poeta menor-------------------------------- A minor poet

La meta es el olvido-----------------------------The goal is oblivion
Yo he llegado antes------------------------------I have arrived early

Genesis iv, 8 Genesis iv, 8

Fue en el primer desierto.-----------------It was in the original desert.
Dos brazos arrojaron una gran piedra.-Two arms let loose a great stone.
No hubo un grito. Hubo sangre.---------There was no cry. There was blood.
Hubo por vez primera la muerte.--------For the first time there was death.
Ya no recuerdo si fui Abel o Cain.--------I do not now recall if I was Abel or Cain.

Nor does the penguin know and I, too, have arrived early.

Roger McGough

Defying Gravity

Gravity is one of the oldest tricks in the book.
Let go of the book and it abseils to the ground
As if, at the centre of the earth, spins a giant yo-yo
To which everything is attached by an invisible string.

Tear out a page of the book and make an aeroplane.
Launch it. For an instant it seems that you have fashioned
A shape that can outwit air, that has slipped the knot.
But no. The earth turns, the winch tightens, it is wound in.

One of my closet friends is, at the time of writing,
Attempting to defy gravity, and will surely succeed
Eighteen months ago he was playing rugby,
Now, seven stones lighter, his wife carries him aw-

Kwardly from room to room. Arranges him gently
Upon the sofa for the vistors. 'How are things?'
Asks one, not wanting to know. Pause. 'Not too bad.'
(Open brackets. Condition inoperable. Close brackets)

Soon now, the man that I love (not the armful of bones)
Will defy gravity. Freeing himself from the tackle
He will sidestep the opposition and streak down the wing
Towards a dimension as yet unimagined.

Back where the strings are attached there will be a service
And homage paid to the giant yo-yo. A box of left overs
Will be lowered into a space on loan from the clay.
Then, weighted down, the living will walk, wearily, away.

For Adrian Henri

A nun standing
In a fish and chip shop queue,
Watching as the vinegar runs through,
And thinking
How nice
To buy dinner for two.

The penguin thinks that it is pleasing to know that where he treads, others have trod before. And that the memory of those footsteps can pass through our feet and into our hearts.

John Donne

'TIS true, 'tis day ; what though it be?
O, wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because 'tis light?
Did we lie down because 'twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.

Light hath no tongue, but is all eye ;
If it could speak as well as spy,
This were the worst that it could say,
That being well I fain would stay,
And that I loved my heart and honour so
That I would not from him, that had them, go.

Must business thee from hence remove?
O ! that's the worst disease of love,
The poor, the foul, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
He which hath business, and makes love, doth do
Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo.

Oft times has the penguin needed to make such a choice. But Donne is wrong. 'Tis no sin to 'pull a sickie' for love!

Ernst Jandl

Manche meinen -------------------Most peopre think
Lechts und rinks ------------------Reft and light
Kann man nicht velwechsern---Ale nevel confused
Werch ein Illtum!-----------------What an ellol!

Impossible to translate. But worse is 'Der kunstlicher Baum' (The artful tree). Translation is not the problem, getting the translation to conform to the shape of an oak tree is!

Justin Quinn


I would blame no bird
When the slightest twig is snapped,
For its nervousness.
Suspended above it all,
Held by steel and brick,
We live inside their silence,
Years after their acts.

Not about the current situation, not about al Qaida, but the 'troubles' (Northern Ireland). Strange how history inevitably repeats itself, George Santayana notwithstanding.

Jacques Prevert

Dejeuner du matin---------------------Breakfast

Il a mis le cafe-------------------------He poured coffee
Dans la tasse--------------------------Into the cup
Il a mis la lait-------------------------He poured milk
Dans la tasse de cafe------------------Into the coffee cup
Il a mis le sucre-----------------------He added sugar
Dans le cafe au lait--------------------To the milky coffee
Avec la petit cuiller-------------------With the little spoon
Il a tourne------------------------------He stirred
Il a bu le cafe au lait-------------------He drank his milky coffee
Et il a respose la tasse-----------------And put back his cup
Sans me parler------------------------Without a word
Il a allume-----------------------------He lit
Une cigarette--------------------------A cigarette
Il a fait des ronds----------------------He blew rings
Avec la fumee-------------------------With the smoke
Il a mis les cendres--------------------He tipped his ash
Dans le cendrier-----------------------Into the ashtray
Sans me parler------------------------Without a word
Sans me regarder---------------------Without a glance
Il s'est leve-----------------------------He got up
Il a mis---------------------------------He put
Son chapeau sur sa tete-------------His hat on his head
Il a mis---------------------------------He put on
Son manteau de pluie-----------------His raincoat
Parce qu'il pleuvait-------------------Because it was raining
Et il parti-------------------------------And he left
Sous la pluie----------------------------In the rain
Sans une parole------------------------Without a word
Sans me regarder----------------------Without a glance
Et mois j'ai pris-------------------------And me? I hung
Ma tete dans ma main----------------My head in my hands
Et j'ai pleure.---------------------------And I wept.

Ah, have we not all been there?
Bye, bye

Friday, 31 October 2008

Double Dutch, Go Dutch and 'Top Nation'

I was thinking today about how words, phrases enter a language and for some reason are retained long after the reason for their original adoption has vanished.

Now for more than 1,000 years before the Second World War, Britain and, before 1707 and the Act of Union, England, were 'Top Nation'. More importantly, in maintaining that supremecy, there was scarcely a people on the planet that they hadn't been to war with at some time, at least once and very often a good deal more than once. Admittedly some wars were defensive but none the less the list is impressive!

From fighting the Romans alongside their Gallic cousins which forced Caesar's invasions of the island in 55BC and later 54BC, and again a hundred or so years later against Claudius; fighting the Scandanavians for control of eastern England; being overun by invading Normans (Vikings with a French accent) and returning the favour a couple of hundred years later by invading France almost continually for a hundred years or more; tussling with Spain and Portugal for control of the high seas; fighting each other for a right not to be ruled by a long haired pansy with a pointy beard; fighting the new born American nation for the right to rule and tax and annoying the French in Canada, along with the indiginous populations; waltzing into just about every part of Africa with loaded guns; Australia, New Zealand, India, China, the Russian Empire, Germany, Italy, Japan, Iraq. I think South America only escaped until the twentieth century because it took that long for corned beef to be invented.

It's easier to count the nations the Brits haven't been to war with; Switzerland, the Brits don't like cuckoo clocks and Emmental cheese is just holes joined together by rubber; Leichtenstein, the Brits missed it, it was so small; Luxembourg, while common in childhood, an interest in philately wanes in the adult Brit and few wars have been caused by arguments over the optimum size of the perforations between stamps; Belgium, too recent.

Now somewhere in the middle of that list (about 1750-70 or thereabouts), the Brits got into a spat with the Netherlands, again over who was going to be top nation, this time on the high seas. Now the Brits eventually won but not before the Netherlands' Navy had engaged in the rather daring and, for the Brits, humiliating maneouvre of sailing up the Thames to London. Now wars invariably throw up disparaging terms for the oppoents but in these enlightened times they are seldom if ever used. No one seriously calls Germans '****' or the Chinese, '*****' or '******' but the Dutch insults appear not only to have been retained in English, even in these PC times, but are, it seems to this penguin, not now seen as racial slurs.

To 'go Dutch' (for each party to pay for themselves) originally, in a time when men invariably paid for food and drink, was an insult. It was meant to show how mean the Dutch were. Does anyone think that now? 'Double Dutch' was an insult based on the incomprehensibility of the Dutch language to English speakers with its strange gutterals, doubling that incomprehensibility made 'complete nonsense'. A 'Dutch Uncle'was someone who spoke to you in a blunt, unsympathetic way and perhaps worst of all, the idea that Dutch sailors had to get drunk before they could fight, 'Dutch courage'. It's strange that these seem to have hung around.

Perhaps, in the end, it is that the Netherlands is such a small country and the Brits actually have forgotten that they were once at war with them over the trading empires. They don't even think that there might be racial overtones, they just think it's at worst mildly joshing.

It's a strange country, the Netherlands. Large chunks of it reclaimed from the sea (polders). Great swathes of the countryside are below sea level so that as you come in from the sea, you descend before rising to the central massif, which at 1.2m above sea level commands an awesome view of the dyke system, which is the only thing that stops the Netherlands from being permanently under water, a kind of latter day Atlantis, only smaller.

It is the only country in Europe which teaches 'finger in the dyke' technology to its children from an early age. Once qualified, they form a volunteer force of willing fingers on bicycles, ready to rush to any dyke in the vicinity which has a finger sized hole in it and to remain for as long as it is necessary until a grown up can arrive with a repair kit.

They are composed of distinct types of people. The pale, dour, round-faced Goudas who mainly live below sea level and the happy, cherubic and ruddy skinned Edams who make up the bulk of the population on the central massif. The capital is Amsterdam after which New York was named*.

Enough Geography! As we all know, history ended in 1945 when America became top nation so there is no point in continuing with any of this now. Sellars and Yeatman were right. Stop!

* New York used to be called New Amsterdam until the Brits made the Dutch settlers change it!

PS Has it ever occured to you that the Romans counted backwards? Be honest!

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

A thing of beauty in a strange, loopy kind of way

Ah, Doug, what have you crafted in your spare time? So rich, thoughtful, thought provoking, a book as complex as its subject.

I have just finished Hofstadter's 'I am a strange loop' and it is, as all his books are, a lovingly made manifestation of the often silent musings on the nature of consciousness, mind, self, I. To argue, so eloquently, for the inevitable, emergent quality of consciousness from just a sufficently complex rag bag of neurons. To so subtly fuel my recent, inexpert ramblings. You may go peacefully and content from this life, Doug, whenever that may be, and, at last together with Carole once more, you may stand with Jorge Luis and feel no shame, only contentment that you matched his skill. To take the reader so far down untrodden paths, forever forking, with mere words, symbols, splodges of black on white. I think Borges will be proud to stand at your side.

Not only did the book stimulate my neurons but it also reminded me of other books which I now need to re-read to enrich my own musings on emergent phenomena, 'The extended phenotype' (Dawkins and definitely worth a post of its own), 'The quark and the jaguar' (Gell-Mann and tricky), 'Consciousness explained' (Dennett and, as always, simply brilliant. How can such an incisive mind work at 'Tufts University', which always sounds to this penguin like a campus for cuddly, red squirrels? The penguin should perhaps explain. In Britland, they used to have this road safety campaign for children, which was 'fronted' by a red squirrel. It was called the 'Tufty Club', Tufty being the name of the squirrel. Sorry Dan, I just can't help it :)

You see, what Doug has done, for this penguin, is to encapsulate in a single book (say 400 pages) a hugely diverse range of thinking on a lot of the things that this blog has been about. Evolution. The absence of (a need for) God. Who, or what, we are. Why we do what we do. Empathy. Cartesian dualism and why it is so misguided. John Searle and why he is such an arsehole. And from any one of the things listed, a veritable host of other things spring. That is truly a Borges-like quality and is to be admired, lauded in this poor, humble penguin's opinion.

And no, Doug doesn't pay me to write this stuff! Although if he ever does 'google' himself and comes across this blog, then US dollars will be perfectly acceptable, brown envelope addressed to 'The Penguin, Antarctica' should reach me. I know the postman :)

Monday, 27 October 2008

Richard Leakey, biodiversity and gloom

Came across an interesting article today by Richard Leakey. It seems that the South African government have now put elephant culls back on the agenda and seem set to reintroduce them (having banned them in the nineties). In one sense the conservation project with the elephants worked too well.

Now Leakey is a paleontologist. I may be doing him a dis-service here, and if so I apologise, but he's not a scientifically trained paleontologist. He learned everything from his parents, who worked the Olduvai gorge in Kenya for many years in the first half of the twentieth century and turned up Homo Erectus, Australapithicus Robustus and in no small way contributed to the knowledge of how rich the 'bush' of early human evolution was. Richard made his contribution to the knowledge about human evolution over a number of years during the 50's and 60's until going on to become Director of Wildlife for the Kenyan Government. (I have a suspicion he just does the lecture circuit now.) Now Leakey gained a bit of a reputation for being bull headed about his own theories of human evolution (I think he was just miffed over Johanson's discovery of australapithicus afarensis, 'Lucy', and the ensuing accolades) and about wildlife in general and it was interesting to see how the old tub thumper had mellowed :)

His article was suggesting that, perhaps, a cull might be necessary.

Now, obviously, as a non-human, I don't think humans have the right to manage the planet for their own benefit, which is, in effect, what the proposed cull is all about. Humans are encroaching more and more on elephant territory, as populations increase, and elephants are being forced into far smaller areas than can sustain them. This means that they end up destroying the area in which they do live to the detriment of other wildlife in the area and ultimately to themselves. If elephants cannot 'roam', they end up turning the environment into a desert and Africa has a big enough problem with desertification as it is!

What was interesting, perhaps much more than the article itself, which tried to take a balanced view, although I fear Leakey was gently sobbing as he wrote it, were the comments. They broadly fell into three camps. Those who reluctantly agreed with Leakey's analysis, those who were opposed to the cull for the same reasons that this penguin is - nothing gives you the right despite what you believe your God may have said in an unguarded moment, off the record, and those who had veered so far towards misanthropy that enforced sterilisation or 'human culling' were being put into the mix, although there weren't an awful lot of them who actually lived in Africa!

It seems to this penguin that this is just another example of the perennial problem 'Man' will always face . Most, if not all, of the creatures on the planet evolved to deal with situations in which man was not present. You are a recent addition to the daily roll call of species. Perhaps less than 40,000 years. Evolution, except in rare cases, does not move so fast. None of us, restricted to natural selection, as we are, can evolve fast enough to deal with you, with a few notable exceptions. The rat, the 'urban' fox, the magpie, although they are largely pre-adaptations. The niche they evolved into has certain similarities with the niches you create. And so they prosper.

But then how does man react? Is it possible to find a route through the morass you have created? In the end, this penguin thinks not. In the end, man will take the product of billions of years of evolution and turn it into little more than a concrete jungle punctuated by the occasional biodiversity theme park. One of the things that Ridley Scott left out of his version of 'Do androids dream of electric sheep' (Blade Runner) was the idea that only human constructed 'animals', using genetic engineering, were possible. Naturally occurring animals had long since died out. One of the most poignant parts of the book is where the narrator of the book thinks he has discovered a real animal, only to later discover it has a 'signature' of its maker. It is a dreary thought, but one which I think will come to fruition. Hopefully not in my lifetime, nor 'little Fricka's' but what an inheritance I leave my daughter and her chicks!

Sunday, 26 October 2008

A miracle of electrons, the web and Hi Da'

Hi Da’

Sorry about the long gap between e-mails this time, but I’ve been a bit tied up.

I didn’t tell you in the last e-mail that the trip to town went fine, just like you said it would, know-all! Me and the boys had a good night out last Friday and it was, well as all nights “out with the boys” are. A little food, a little wine, well, quite a lot of wine actually, good conversation. No bloody women messing it up. Jay was a bit of a pain, especially towards the end; does he have to be so self-righteous all the time? And Pete (you know Pete, don’t you?) got the right hump with me, when I told him a few home truths. He thinks he’s so fucking perfect. He was having a go at Jay and I just told him not to be so bloody hypocritical and look in the mirror a bit more, he might find Jay staring back at him. As you can imagine that went down like the proverbial Lead Zeppelin! (Although I thought the metaphor was really good. I think John is rubbing off on me. :) Pete’s not spoken to me since, but it had to be said. Maybe I should have said it when everyone hadn’t been so into the Vino Collapso; Pete’s really sensitive after a couple of drinks. Oh well, I suppose he’ll get over it. And it was overall a good night!

There was a bit of a barney afterwards though, I think the local rednecks wanted to turn it into a proper fight, you know what they’re like, but, let’s face it, we were in no condition to mix it, although Pete wanted to. Hah, they’d have killed him! So we just let them have it their way, I think it was for the best, all round. I don’t like not standing up for myself, you know that, but there really wasn’t any point at the end of the day.

My interview went ok the day before yesterday. Lots of questions but, like you’re always telling me, I didn’t rabbit on and I kept to the point. The bloke seemed a bit put out at the end, I think, although I don’t think he was in a very good mood to start with, to be honest. But why have the hump with me? I didn’t ask for the interview, he did. If he didn’t want it, why drag me all the way there? I got the distinct impression that maybe it wasn’t HIS idea and he was miffed at having to get out of bed so early. Either that or his missus is witholding the conjugals. :) The trouble was that the others seemed to think that his bad mood meant that THEY could get all heavy an’ stuff so I had a bit of a rough ride afterwards. I had to go and see someone else as well up the hall, which I didn’t expect, but it was all pretty much the same. Bloody bureacrats, everything in bloody triplicate. Triplicate? Yes, triplicate, the second arsehole sent me back to the first one again. And if he had the raving hump before, well the second time……:)

It’s been a bit boring since then. I’ve thought a lot about what I said in the last e-mail and mostly wish I hadn’t sent it. I hope that it didn’t upset you too much, or if it did, you’ll forgive my foolishness. I realise now that a lot of what I said isn’t true. I know you love me in your own way (you just have a funny way of showing it sometimes :) and you only want what’s best, I do understand, honest, da’. I just think sometimes that I’m not made for times like these.

Occasionally I have wondered whether we children don’t just work out the paradoxes and the hang ups of our parents, you know, almost like reliving their life again. You get the kids to resolve your hang ups by having them live their lives and hope that it does you some good. Sorry, that was a bit psychobabbly wasn’t it and a bit too close to the last e-mail for comfort? Sorry!

There’s a queue and I have been here for nearly an hour now so I’ll have to finish up. There is so much more I would like to say, you know that, but maybe if everything goes ok in the next few days or so, I can come and see you? We’ll have a good old natter, like we used to. You know you used to enjoy them too, don’t kid yourself, you pig-headed old bastard! :)

I have to go now, it’s time.

Take care, look after yourself, (look out for me too! :) and I’ll see you soon, I promise.

Yes, it’s time. They’re bringing the cross…...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Birth daze, bath days and a voice to shatter crystal:)

Joyeux Anniversaire!

Given what the last post was about, I thought it might be quite good today to talk about feedback. Now that's not what's left on 'comments', but feedback in a more general sense. Those of you who came of age in the late sixties/early seventies of the last century (you're feeling old now, I can sense it from here. Last century indeed! :) will know all about acoustic feedback. Jimi's recreation of the Vietnam war with six strings, a couple of pick ups and a Marshall amplifier, cranked to '11'. Blackmore's swooping, howling banshee of a Stratocaster as he swung it above his head by the strings, having previously disengaged the neck from the stock with the heel of his boot! (It's only four screws, big ones to be sure, but only screws!)

Now all that's happening here is that the sound wave generated by the speakers is allowed to arrive uninterrupted at the pick up (which is geared to 'pick up' the subtle vibrations of the strings and is normally shielded by the body of the guitarist). The 'pick up' picks up the wave form as vibration and feeds it back to the amplifier which emits it amplified again and so on. A closed loop develops which eventually after a little oscillation around a central point finally settles down down into a screaming wail at the limit of the amplifier's output.

A small digression. It used to be quite scary down the front in the early seventies. You had to be there within spitting distance, at least for Deep Purple gigs, because they would hire a couple of strippers posing as members of the audience to dance naked in front of the front row or the mosh pit, depending on the venue, during 'Wring that neck' or 'Space trucking'. Adolescent males, ay? Even worse was Keith Emerson lobbing knives into speaker cabinets to 'fuzz up' his Hammond organ or bringing out the bull whip which had the bass player, Lee Jackson, running for the far side of the stage :) Emerson actually got every rock band banned from London's Albert Hall for about three or four years by burning the 'stars and stripes' on stage during a perfomance of Bernstein's 'America' :) Good ol' Emo! Some people felt quite strongly about Vietnam then, even in Britland!

Anyway, a revenons a nos moutons, as they say. Normally mechanical feedback, as opposed to audio feedback, is handled by the central heating/air conditioning thermostat example, but I would like to offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks to Douglas Hofstadter for the much more interesting, and scatological, example of the......... flushing cistern! Now, it's just an inlet pipe with a valve, there's a float attached to an arm which then controls the valve. The float's called a ballcock! You can tell plumbing was traditionally a male dominated craft, can't you?. As the water level falls in the cistern, the ballcock falls with it, opening the valve and allowing water to enter the cistern. As the level of the water rises the ballcock, being mainly air, rises with it and closes the valve at an appropriate point. We know this because we can take the lid of the cistern and see it in action. But what if we couldn't? Might we think the cistern might be 'conscious' or at least dimly aware of the water level? After all, it 'knows' exactly when to turn off the water to stop the cistern overflowing?

Of course no-one would seriously suggest a lavatory cistern is aware, it's an inanimate object and, as far as we know, sentience belongs only to animate objects, things that are 'alive', whatever that means.

Now a bacterium is alive but is it aware? An aphid? A fish? A lizard? Quite clearly, these have some concept of self and that which lies outside self, eg food, mates, rivals, predators etc but self aware akin to the way you are self aware? What about a dog? A cheetah? A howler monkey? A chimpanzee? Ah, now we're on much safer ground and not just because they are mammals too. They are relatively 'late' arrivals on the planet and come equipped with large brains relative to body size so it is not so difficult for you to think that there might be something akin to your consciousness in them as well. But what develops the brain? After all, brains are not needed for survival. The most successful 'animal' on the planet doesn't have one. The humble bacterium has colonised just about every niche on planet earth, including you, and it doesn't even have the rudiments of a brain.

Feedback develops the brain. Little if anything else is required except memory. As the brain and the body in which it resides interact with the environment in which they live, there is a constant and expanding series of feedback loops, wildebeest is good to hunt, lion is not. That chimp punched my lights out the last time I tried to groom him. This one didn't. That place is hot and burnt my foot. This place did not. Those animals which process this feedback in the most efficient and effective manner will have a greater tendency to survive in a competitive environment and will pass on those innate processing skills to their descendents.

Which brings me to my point. (And there was you thinking I'd never get there! Or I didn't have one to start with!) In one sense, the feedback loops supply our ego, our sense of who and what we are. No external force, no divine spark, no soul is required. If once we get the idea that we have one, an ego that is, and we did, survival makes this a necessity, a sense of 'this one' as opposed to 'that one', then the ever expanding feedback loops of life's experience provide all that we need to generate that indisputably existing I.

With the brains we have, as I does this, it impacts on my environment, and as I gets the feedback, I gets stronger, or at least the perception of I gets stronger.

So I rules.

From there it is but a small step to the realisation that you too have an I.

And your I, though less important, becomes tangled with my I and all the other Is and forms the surely wondrous I.

This truly is Darwin's Dangerous Idea!

The penguin is sorry that there is no Obelix and no 'petit' Idefix; no Tintin et Milou; no Lucky Luke; no Spirou, Fantasio et le Marsupilami, no 'mousse au chocolat'. Time has been short, much else has needed to be done and it is far to go, from here to there. The penguin hopes that the bouncing smiley suffices. :)

Saturday, 18 October 2008

"There is grandeur in this view of life...."

Now I know it must seem sometimes that I have something against religion. I haven't but when the most powerful nation in the world, in control of at least half of the nuclear weaponry on the planet, lurches blindly and so far into Christian fundamentalism, it worries me. It worries me a lot.

I read something the other day which made me think. A bit of Creation 'Science'.

Richard Dawkins has spent most of his adult life (after the 'Blind Watchmaker') railing against creationist science, sometimes obliquely and sometimes, as in the 'God Delusion' quite openly. Has any of it worked? Judging by what I read, nope!

I must point out here that I do not have a problem with creationism itself. I believe it misguided but I'm as entitled to my opinion as creationists are. What I have a serious problem with is the attempt to dress it up as science. To do so merely demonstrates the fundamental misunderstanding (or deception, but let's be generous here) that these creation 'scientists' have about the scientific method.

Religion has been under attack, so certain fundamentalists think, from science for over three centuries. Poor Galileo Galilei, what infamy is laid at your door! The only way therefore, they think, to counter this attack is to use science itself to provide alternatives to the arguments. So far, all fine and dandy. However, they don't! They use a semblance, a simulacrum of the scientific method, which, if you're not careful, will easily dupe you into believing that this is, in some way, valid science. You see, what creation scientists attempt to do is to provide proof that 'modern' theory is false, and that God exists, using 'science'. They start from the assumption that Genesis is largely true in so far as it relates to the earth, man etc and work backwards from that.

I could do exactly the same thing with Tolkien's creation myth. Perhaps I will one day, if I ever have the time.

What they don't realise, or choose to ignore, is that the scientific method actually 'proves' nothing whatsoever and, more importantly, seeks to prove nothing. Its purpose is to do the exact opposite! Its purpose is to disprove hypotheses! You cannot prove that God exists using science, only disprove his existence! Fortunately, with a few exceptions, Dawkins being the primary, science does not see that a matter of faith is a good subject for a scientific enquiry. It is not amenable to a decent, practical experiment nor even to a rational argument leading to a tentative hypothesis.

No physicist worthy of the name will try to tell you that quantum mechanics is true, that the up quark exists, absolutely. What they will tell you is that the late nineteenth century, point particle model of the atom as 'planetary system' has to be wrong because it fails to explain a whole host of things from black body radiation to beta decay. These things can be explained with quantum theory. That doesn't make quantum theory true, just better at explaining things. It's the same with relativity. It isn't true in any absolute sense, just an awful lot better at explaining gravity in the presence of very massive bodies than Newtonian mechanics is. Relativity isn't true but Newtonian mechanics is, in a very specific sense, false, or, at best, simplistic!

Now the primary target for a lot of creation 'science' is evolution, mainly, I think because physics and chemistry are too 'hard', too much knowledge is required to start with. However, even here, they get massively confused. No one can deny evolution occurs, however dense you are. An example. (Oh, and just so we're clear here, evolution is change, it is not 'advancement'. There is a tendency towards increasing complexity over time but only because complexity has a tendency to beget complexity. Evolution is not a steadily ascending ladder. It's a myriad of lurches, up, down, sideways, in design space, in which some things work and others don't. What works, survives. What doesn't, doesn't!)

There is a bacterium, staphylococcus aureus, very common, about one in three of you are infected. In the years after the second world war, it was effectively killed, when it was necessary because your immune systems couldn't keep it in check for some reason, with antibiotics, penicillin, aureomycin, ampicillin et al. Fifty years on, what rampages through the wards of UK hospitals? What killed Rory Gallagher? Depardieu's son? MRSA! Methicillin (or multi) resistant staphylococcus aureus. The bacterium evolves! It changes! What killed it yesterday, will not kill it today! That cannot be denied by any sane, vaguely observant individual. No-one can deny what is before their eyes. Unless you want to deny reality itself! Or does God constantly create anew? An ever increasing number of slightly different staphs coming off the assembly line?

What creation scientists actually need to argue against is the believed mechanism by which a thing evolves. And why some creatures do and others don't seem to, or at least very much. But then that's all a bit more tricky, isn't it?

The theory of evolution by natural selection is probably, relativity and quantum mechanics notwithstanding, the best theory man has devised. As a way of explaining the diversity of life and its (importantly) continuing diversification, it has no serious rival. Those creatures which by a quirk of fate and genetics are equipped best to deal with current circumstances will survive, if in competition with others for finite resources, and will pass on that genetic equipment to their descendants. If the equipment fails because circumstances change or because the equipment becomes faulty, those descendants will also, ultimately, fail!

The basic genetics are well understood but it is difficult to test specifics, for example, why are leopard spots the shape they are? Why do giraffes have long necks? There is insufficient time available to us to run the experiment. However experiments are conducted with rapidly breeding insects, drosophilia, fruit flies, and random mutations do occur and some would seem to be advantageous. But we can also ask other questions.

Why are sunflower heads constructed in spirals? Because the genetics that makes them uses a Fibonacci sequence when making cells, causing a spiral. Why do animals; fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals all have the same basic body plan? Fluke? A lack of imagination on the part of the 'intelligent designer? Or a common ancestor? Tinkering with complex embryos at very early stages of development to generate a new blueprint is apt to go awry so other potentially successful 'plans' are never found once complexity sets in. Just a few when the organism is much less complex, when happy monsters are far likely, hence: radially symmetrical; laterally symmetrical; segmentation, building bodies joining identical bits together;colonies.

Why do the bones of the mammalian inner ear appear to be scaled down reptilian jawbones that mammals do not have? Coincidence? Or descent with modification? Why are humans born so early in their development and are then at the mercy of the vagaries of nature for much longer than other mammals? Divine whim? Or the fact that if they were born when they 'should be', according to normal mammal practice, their heads wouldn't pass through the pelvic opening because their brains are too big? Any baby that hung around for more than 9 months wouldn't get out and more importantly the mother would die. No more of that particular genetic quirk then.

Now you may not, may not want to, 'believe' that this a damn good hypothesis, but it has so far stood up to everything the scientific method can throw at it; from the peacock's tail to the development of altruism in humans, these things do have a 'Darwinian' explanation. They can be explained by natural selection. No one says it is the 'truth' just a good way of explaining things consistently. We can see that organisms procreate, we are living proof. We can see that offspring are like but not identical to their parents. We can see that sometimes a small difference in the genetic makeup can affect survival rates, even if the experiment is somewhat artificial and not one we intended to conduct (see MRSA above). If someone ever comes up with a serious scientific rival, we'll look at it. Does it explain things as well as or better than the neo-Darwinist synthesis? If better, then neo-Darwinism will go the same way as Ptolemy's astronomy.

Please, if you are going to replace evolution by natural selection with divine creation and call it science, give us something we can test, give us at least a stab at objective knowledge, give us a rational argument, not some blind obedience to a book cobbled together from who knows what sources. Give us just one tiny experiment we can conduct to attempt to disprove your account. If you cannot, if you do not, you do not have the right, cannot have the right, to call it science!

And ay, there's the rub!

The trouble is, if enough people think, are misled into believing, it is science and not faith then may the tooth fairy help us all! Faith has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else. Allied with pseudo-science who can know what might be in store? Well, actually, we do know. It's called the second world war. The holocaust. The gulag. The Ukrainian famine.

Thank you, Charles Darwin, for the title today.