Sunday, 31 March 2013

Marvin, the paranoid android and understanding

You may think that the final footnote to my last post was perhaps a little too disparaging. I have nothing much against Alan Rickman as an actor but his performances in film can border on the quite simply awful; like Jack Nicholson he appears to be able to play only one character, the audience's single-minded perception of Alan Rickman. His laughable performances as the villain in 'Die Hard' and 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' surely gave new meaning to the phrase 'hamming it up'; William Shatner once said that the key to playing the tosh that was 'Star Trek' was to take it seriously. Even Rickman's portrayal of Snape in the Harry Potter movies doesn't avoid the sense of self mockery inherent in so many of his performances.

In case you want to hear what Marvin (the Paranoid Android) should sound like, here's a clip from the TV series which largely used the same actors as the radio series (Trillion and Ford Prefect are notable exceptions), including, as Marvin, Stephen Moore (perhaps best known for playing the hapless wireless engineer in 'A bridge too far' who cannot get the radios to transmit and thus contributed to the debacle that was 'Operation Market Garden'*):

I was perusing the TV listings yesterday and I came upon a film which was being broadcast by the BBC, 'One of our dinosaurs is missing'. Starring Peter Ustinov, Derek Nimmo and Helen Hayes, it is a children's film about a twit of a British diplomat, Nimmo, who steals a microdot from the pre-Maoist Chinese, is pursued and ends up hiding the incriminating evidence of his 'theft' in a dinosaur skeleton which is then stolen by the Chinese; the day is saved, for the British at least, by a group of 'Mary Poppins' nannies led by Ms Hayes. Silly, childish Disney fare of the 'Herbie rides again' ilk. However, the film is based on an adult comedy novel, 'The great dinosaur robbery' which was notable, if memory serves, for twisting Maoist epithets into 'The Great Leap Downwards', in which the entire population of China jumps up at the same time and the resulting earthquake devastates the planet and 'The Great Leap Forwards' in which the entire Chinese nation jumps into the sea at the same time and the resulting tsunami swamps America.

The book, which is very funny and scarcely childish at all, was written by 'David Forrest', a pseudonym of journalists Robert Forrest-Wedd and David Eliades, which I came across via another of their books, 'After me, the deluge'** which I read sometime back in the early seventies. The book, a poke in the eye for organised religion, concerns a small village priest in France who receives a telephone call from God (in a call box/pay phone) telling him to build an ark because God is about to embark on another cleansing of the globe. The ensuing mayhem by the police, the Papacy and ultimately the French population, who converge on the village in huge traffic jams, are meant to be laughable but through it all, the priest's naive and blind faith are seen to be a real source of strength. At the very end of the novel, the ark built, most of the world incredulous and the population of France descending on the tiny village in their thousands, it starts to rain!

As is my wont, having been reminded of this and not having read the book since my late teens in about 1973, I sought it out on Amazon; out of print! However, that was not the worst of it. The book originally cost about £2.00 when first published in hardcover; it was not published in paperback as far as I know. Second-hand resellers now want between £115 and £215, depending on quality, for a copy; I am clearly in the wrong business.

One of my long-standing joys is second-hand bookstores; I could, and did, do, spend hours amongst the dust and paper mites looking for, not something of more value than the price written in pencil on the flyleaf, books that no-one thought it worth republishing after the initial run had been sold. I have copies of Jack Mavrogordato's 'A Hawk for the Bush', Bert's 'An approved treatise on hawks and hawking' (originally from 1619), R.Stevens' 'Laggard' (about the training of a Peregrine Falcon), Panofsky's monograph on Dürer and Raymond Ching's 'The Art of..." and a host of others from second-hand booksellers; did I get ripped off as 'After me, the deluge' would seem to suggest.

I am inclined to think that this might be a recent phenomenon, one in keeping with the Internet age. I well remember the most staggering second-hand bookstore in Inverness in the early '90s, which occupied the most massive of spaces; a church or so it seemed to me. The assistant was willing to break a set of 12 books, Bannnerman's 'The Birds of the British Isles', illustrations by one George (Old Man) Lodge, for one twelfth of the cost of the entire set; this at a time when it was almost impossible to get the entire set of twelve.

Perhaps, in the age of the Kindle and the iPad, books, real books no longer have any value and therefore their price diminishes; I was quoted £350-400 for 'Die Zeichnungen Albrecht Dürers' by Friedrich Winkler in the late '70s. I bought a copy a couple of years ago for £195. Perhaps those on Amazon are just ripping off the unwary. Wouldn't be the first time that the Internet has been used to gull the unwary.

I love my books, not only for the wisdom that they contain, but also for the signed flyleaves, personal, not at some 'book signing jaunt',the lavender pressed in between the pages of Donne;  'for your birthday, with much love'; these things can never be replaced by an iPad, a Kindle, a Cloud.

There's no doubt that a coincidence is a truly remarkable event. I was watching a compilation of blues music from televised BBC archives today when, amidst BB King, Buddy Guy, Son House, Freddie King, Tony McPhee et al, who should crop up about half way through? Stone the Crows with Maggie Bell and Les Harvey! (Please see previous post!)

* 'Operation Market Garden' was the airborne assault, involving 35,000 paratroops from the 82nd and 101st US Airborne and the British 1st Airborne and the Polish Brigade, against the German held bridges at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, the latter across the Rhine, which, if successful might have shortened the second world war by three or four months. An audacious plan, it was inevitably doomed to failure, as was any assault whether in the north through Holland by Montgomery or south through France by Patton, whether the bridge at Arnhem was captured or not, by the simple fact that the allies had no control over any deep water port; supplies were still coming in via the Normandy beaches and were grossly inadequate to one major assault let alone the two that should have been planned if Germany was going to be defeated by Christmas..

** A translation of 'Après moi, le deluge' , a quote often attributed to Louis XV of France but may have well have been spoken by Madame de Pompadour. It presages the French Revolution and may therefore, I think, be considered apocryphal.

Dreams, aspirations and a plank bridge by the pool

Curiously, Romania went from absolutely nowhere up to the top spot in my stats yesterday. I am expecting an email from the 'lovely Elena' soon, complete with photograph! (Reference here)

I seldom, if ever, pontificate about, analyse, my own work. although it is ripe for some would-be PhD, all too keen to slap a twenty first century label on me as a degenerate, a reprobate; an emotionally damaged, intelllectually challenged, sad individual, eager to parade his inadequacies before the world. I have sought meaning, at other people's insistence, in some few, small artworks, the stilt (depression), the magpie (arrogance), the Canada geese (fidelity); however, never in a piece of lamentable prose. I seldom write that which others might question for a meaning; an underlying 'raison d'etre' to explain what I write.

However I feel constrained to do so with 'The univited guest' not because it has any worth but, firstly, because I am attempting to write a suitable coda to the story and, secondly, because a single 'path' led to so many related paths, confined in time, that as I sought a coda, that extension to the big note,* I found myself piecing together all of the different strands, both 'real' and conjectured that make up the final tale. (Although no doubt I will get around to revising it in time; I usually do.)

Most of what I write, and I suspect this is also true of many other writers, can broadly divided into three; the events of my own life and my reaction to them or desired reaction to them, we do not always react as we would wish; the events of my own life and other's reaction to them and the events of other people's lives and my reaction to them.  I suppose one could add other people's lives and other people's reaction to them but this is much more problematic and troublesome; it has a larger degree of fantasy or imagination inherent in it.

There are some things which happen to you that you avoid speaking about, writing about, because they are too painful to recollect, even allegorically or symbolically; the memories, although the tracks still exist, are too personal, too fraught with grief, without any saving grace, that to follow the path wherever it might lead, guides you to a place where you do not want to be, ever again. Writing, for example, about my father's death, both in the short week between death and funeral and subsequently, provides a ready path to grief (tears still well up in my eyes when I read the penguin's eulogy for Havelock) but that grief is tempered with the joy of the many years that I spent in his company. However, what can you do when the grief wipes out any trace of the joy; that you no longer remember that which was good but can only remember the hurt and the pain?

A couple of months ago, following a throwaway remark about life, the universe and everything**, I decided to confront one of my many personal demons by writing about it. It would have been too painful to confront this particular demon head on and so I decided to skirt around the issue by imagining a meeting between me and my little demon now, in the present.

I don't know about you but I write stories as the Penguin writes them; stitching together isolated snippets of a tale, or many tales, like a patchwork quilt and only later trying to form a coherent narrative out of the fragments. What was so surprising about this particular tale was the way I envisaged the 'fictional' Leo's current circumstances; they encapsulated all the dreams and aspirations that I had all those years ago.

When I first started painting seriously enough to actually sell my work to complete strangers, I dreamed of a cottage in the country, a place to be alone with my birds, a river or a small stream, visible from the patio where I could fish or watch the ducks and the geese and the occasional gliding swan; a spot so like the holidays of my adolescence before I acquired the 'Wanderlust'. I dreamed of Michaelson speakers, a snip at £10,000 per pair, and Kroll amplifiers, hot with the valves that powered them, a legacy from the only time that I have heard such awesome quality; a demo in a shop opposite Mornington Crescent tube station, with no intent to buy, but a copy of Sheffield Lab's direct cut disk of Prokoviev's 'Romeo and Juliet' firmly clutched in my hand. A garden full of rhododendrons; memories of the site of the old 'Crystal Palace' and stolen kisses, a park that still bears the name of the moniker that the media applied to it, although the building is forever gone, only the foundations remain.

I suspect that every city dweller goes through a phase of wishing they lived in more rural surroundings, although it is difficult to imagine the inconvenience of such a translocation; inconvenience that is much lessened by twenty-first century technology. Yet, I never did it. It wasn't for the lack of money nor the inconvenience of travelling up to town each day; something kept me in the city but I have no idea what.

Perhaps the best place for dreams is in sleep.

* A reference to the final movement of a piece by 'The Nice', the Keith Emerson led 'progressive' rock trio, from their 1968 album, 'Ars longa, vita brevis' (art is long, life is short - a better translation would be 'art endures, life is transient'). The piece's central theme is derived from the Allegro from Bach's 'Brandenburg Concerto no 3'. Yes, of course I have the vinyl!

** Has it ever occured to you that 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' only works on radio? I have read the books, I have seen the BBC TV serial, I have watched the film; they are all rubbish! Only the first six episodes on the radio work! And don't get me started on Rickman's lamentable performance as Marvin!

Saturday, 30 March 2013

RIP Alvin Lee and Peter Banks

A very short blog today.

You know that you are getting old, OAP conditions like strokes notwithstanding, when your 'heroes' start dying of comparatively old age. I learnt today that two of the best guitarists of their generation died this month; Alvin Lee and Peter Banks.

Alvin will be best remembered for 'Ten Years After', who I saw back in '69 or '70 at the Albert Hall supported by Blodwyn Pig* and Stone the Crows**, and who is forever immortalised with the blistering, foot-stomping rendition of "Goin' Home" in Pennebaker's film of Woodstock. A man with a prodigious right hand technique that the years did not diminish.

Peter Banks was the original guitarist with Yes, before Steve Howe, and I well remember him, seemingly dwarfed by a whopping Gibson ES335, stepping forward on stage for the delicate solos in Yes' version of Stephen Stills' 'I see you'. Remarkably good footage for the time is here:

* Blodwyn Pig was Mick Abrahams' band after he left Jethro Tull and was, surprisingly for the time, a straight ahead blues rock outfit of drums, bass, guitar and..........Jack Lancaster's saxaphone.

** Stone the Crows with the incomparable Maggie Bell on vocals (think Bonnie Raitt crossed with early Bonnie Tyler). Tragicaly, the band's guitarist, Les Harvey, was electrocuted on stage in '72 by a badly earthed mike stand.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while

I think I see my father riding, riding many miles. *

Watching, as I have been accustomed to these past weeks, 'Hill Street Blues' (see last blog), I came across an American actor named Eric Pierpoint. This seemed oddly familiar to me but nonetheless strange; it was obviously a French name but the spelling was all wrong. I googled what I deemed to be the correct spelling and found that which was familiar; 'Albert Pierrepoint'. The Americans, as they usually do, I blame Webster's first dictionary which first proposed 'color' instead of 'colour', 'favor' instead of 'favour', a clarion call to 'American' English not (the hated) 'English' English, had simply gone by the pronunciation and discarded the extraneous letters. Pierrepoint in 'English' English is pronounced pier-point as opposed to the French who would pronounce it 'pee-air-pwoin'. I am sorry to all the linguists and phoneticists; I used to know all of that symbol stuff (as displayed on Wikipedia), most language students do, but it has been a long time, a very long time.

Albert Pierrepoint was the 'official' British executioner between  1941 and 1956 and was responsible for tying the noose around the necks of around 435 men and women, although he had been assisting for at least ten years prior to 1941; learning the trade, so to speak. It is increasingly difficult in this day and age to understand how someone would willingly kill, murder, another human being, state-sanctioned or otherwise, whatever their crimes, simply because they were paid to do so (Pierrepoint was paid £15 per execution in the 'forties, about a third of the weekly wage of a good NHS doctor); unless they were a psychopath. Should a psychopath be in charge of the mechanism of a state or national 'final retribution'? I use the term official in quotes because Britain had no official executioner; a man, Stephen Wade, was invariably used in preference to Pierrepoint in executions in the county of Durham, for example.

Pierrepoint likely acquired the moniker 'official' because he was first choice in the UK government eyes to officiate at the execution of over 200 Nazi 'war criminals'. ** It is easy to see that in the light of the atrocities committed in 'Occupied Europe' by the Germans during the war of conquest that Pierrepoint would come to be so regarded, although he had previously performed his duties as hangman for around a dozen or so  American GIs stationed in the UK prior to the D-Day landings, some of them for the crime of rape, which was not a capital crime in the UK at the time.

I think that it would be difficult to accumulate evidence of possible psychopathic tendencies on the part of Pierrepoint; he was very likely just carrying on the family business as his father was a hangman and his uncle his assistant. Growing up, he was likely inured to the moral dilemmas inherent in state sanctioned killing; in his autobiography he seems to indicate that he wanted to follow in his father's  footsteps from an early age. In a climate of the normality of the concept of capital crimes added to his desire to want to to emulate his father, it is unlikely that the morality only very occasionally crossed his mind.

From my earlier writing, it should be apparent that I oppose capital, and for that matter corporal, punishment in any circumstance. From a purely practical point of view, capital punishment rarely works as a deterrent to crime, most, if not all criminals believe they will not be caught and most murders are committed in the 'heat of the moment', only 'contract killings' would be exempt from that appraisal; from a moral or ethical standpoint, it is surely hypocritical in the extreme to punish murder with exactly the self-same retribution, we have, I think, moved beyond the simplicities of Old Testament wisdom and concepts of 'an eye for an eye' have had their day; human beings are fallible, even 12 of them together in one room. Would it ever be possible to justify just one mistake, a person incorrectly hanged or electrocuted or shot, to their parents, children, siblings with anything other than expediency. Karl Popper once wrote that a basis for an ethical approach to society's problems was not the adage 'the greatest good for the greatest number of people' but rather 'the greatest good for everyone'; capital punishment does not fall into the latter box.

After the carnage and the atrocities of the second world war, large sections of the western, democratic world undermined the basis for capital punishment and abolished it and that legacy continues to have an effect around the globe. What I find interesting is that in notionally the most free and most developed nation, some legislatures still cling to the outmoded notion of state execution.

* The title and the first line of this blog come from the Led Zeppelin version of a traditional English folk song, 'The maid saved from the gallows', although its roots perhaps go much deeper into Scandinavian and Eastern European folklore. The Zep version is truer to the original English folk song than its American counterpart, 'Gallis Pole', by Leadbelly (Huddle William Leadbetter) which omits any dialogue with the hangman. In the 'original' version the opening line is: 'Hangman, hangman, slack your rope a while, I think I see my father, ridin’ many a mile'. The hangman was not averse to a little bribery or corruption, especially if the hanging was of a woman, although some have questioned whether a fee (not a bribe) is implied.

** Pierrepoint was able to buy his first pub on the proceeds of the war criminal work.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Ensembles, Cop shows and Hill Street Blues

I have recently been engaged in the most rewarding exercise of watching the entire seven seasons of Hill Street over recent weeks; I am up to series 5 (of 7) as I write. It is, I think, difficult for people born after its original transmission in the UK in 1981 (praise be to Channel 4) to realise what an impact the show had on the relatively small number of people who consistently watched it. It was not only unlike any other 'cop show' at the time, or before, but also unlike any programme at the time.

The programme's first innovation was to gather an ensemble cast of 12 to 13 members supported by an irregular appearing cast of about the same number who appeared or did not appear depending on where the main thrust of the storyline(s) lay. Previous examples of the genre had largely revolved around a central character, Kojak, Morse, Columbo, Jack Regan etc, who was usually accompanied by a sidekick; it was rare for there to be more than two central characters and one of those was invariably subordinate. This allowed for character development on a scale rarely seen in TV drama before 'the Hill' although it placed a much greater burden on the writers since in many respects plot, though essential, no longer entirely drove the storylines. As important as was plot to each episode, just as important was the, sometimes, complex interplay and development of character. This was not only groundbreaking but enormously influential; from ER, St Elsewhere; NYPD Blue to Babylon 5 and the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. It has become the norm, so much so that even before the final season of 'the Hill' had begun, it was clear that the format had run its course; such radical innovation suffers from its own success if it cannot continue with ever newer innovation.

The series also broke new ground in its quasi-documentary cinematographic and sound techniques. The use of hand-held Arriflexes weaving amongst the 'stage' of actors and sets; the narrow depths of field used which allowed for out-of-focus shots in the foreground as well as the background while maintaining focus solely upon the point of interest which was often middle ground; the use of multiple, different dialogues going on both on and off-screen at the same time; the amount of character-driven dialogue recorded outside of the strict confines of a set on a sound stage, often in moving cars; the edits were swift and moved rapidly between plotlines. These are all elements largely missing from earlier such programmes and lent a feeling of reality and pace to the show which was certainly missing from American TV at the time.

A further novelty at the time was to include both episodic and multi-episodic plotlines which developed the idea of  combining the best of the serial and series formats; the resolution of the series and the anticipation of the serial.

Although seasons six and seven can be seen as largely inferior to the first five, Bochco, a joint creator, had left at the end of series 5 and the ensemble cast had reduced in number, it still retained enough of the older characters and style of the original series to make it worthwhile to watch, although its style had been copied so much that it had started to look almost hackneyed.

It is interesting to note some of the bit players who later found success, moderate or otherwise:
Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon et al) as a gang leader;
Jonathan Frakes (drug dealer) and Brent Spiner (film director) from Star Trek: TNG;
Patricia Wellig (pregnant mother) and Ken Olin (detective) from Thirty Something;
David Caruso (NYPD Blue and CSI: Miami) as a gang leader;
Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption et al) as a rookie cop who hangs himself;
James Tolkan (the carrier commander in Top Gun) as a gay football coach;
Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker (LA Law) as a couple of hapless tourists stranded on 'the Hill';
Edward James Olmos from Miami Vice and Battlestar Galactica as an evicted Puerto Rican;
Peter Jurasik (Londo Morali in Babylon 5) as Sid the snitch.
I exclude Dennis Franz because although he played two roles (Det. Bernadetto in series 3 and Det. Bunz in series 6 & 7 in HSB) he is best known for another Bochco production, NYPD Blue.

And of course there is one of the most famous catchphrases in all television; Michael Conrad as Phillip Freemason Esterhaus at the end of  the 'roll call' which started every episode:  "Let's be careful out there!"
This must surely rank with 'Thunderbirds are go!', 'Hi, ho, Silver' and even Kojak's 'Crocker!'

Friday, 22 March 2013

Penguin diagrams

I thought I would presage the return of the penguin, if he indeed does return, with an apposite homage; the penguin diagram. These are Feynman-like diagrams which show complex interactions brtween sub-atomic particles invoved in the decay of, among others, the beta-meson and which show how a quark changes 'flavor, 'bottom' into 'up' for example, by releasing a 'W' or a 'Z' 'particle. The Feynman diagrams look very much like a 'stick-penguin' without the head as below:

These diagrams are useful in examining the mechanisms which underlie charge parity (CP) violaion. CP symmetry states that a particle, in certain aspects, should have the same properies as its anti-particle, eg an electron should have the same charge value as the accompanying positron except that its 'sign' ('+' or '-') is reversed and that the same properties apply whether it is right-handed or left-handed, essentially in all important aspects, a particle should be a mirror image of its anti-particle.

One of the weirdest things about quatum mechanics is that although the equations seem to work to a high degree of accuracy, and the net effect of all those probabilty amplitudes is the reality we all perceive through our senses as something tangible and very real, the reality at that level seems not to be tangible, real.  If an electron only has a probability of 'being there' at any given time, in what way can it be considered as having a reality separate from the brain that 'sees' it. Things get little better with string theory as we humans don't cope very well with one-dimensional objects, vibrating or not, and the folded up extra dimensions prove to be impossible to grasp except in refined matthematics of Hilbert space.

I have been inclined to think for many years that 'matter' is just energy which is able to crystallise out from an energy field for a period of time but is not necessarily fixed for all eternity. However, there is a problem with this view because it implies that as matter crystallises out of the energy field, particles and their anti-particles should form in equal numbers; you create an electron/positron pair from pure energy just as annihilating the pair in a collision forms pure energy. However most of the apparent stuff in the universe appears to be matter; there is not enough of the expected anti-matter to balance it if particles and anti-particles are always formed in pairs. The CP violation goes some way in resolving the issue but it is too weak and occurs relatively rarely to account for such a stark imbalance.

With the netry of a candidate for the much speculated Higgs boson, the standard model is largely complete and yet still deepquestions remain. Perhaps what is needed if a revolutionary new way of looking at the world, some insight which owes no debt to the twentieth century, great as those achievements were. I do not expect it anytime soon.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

These are a few of my favourite things......

When asked to describe art, J M W Turner, probably Britain's finest pictorial artist, described it as 'a rummy business'; much the same could be said about 20th century physics. 'Rummy', which has little to do with the drink or the card game, in this context is an archaism for 'odd', 'peculiar'.

Despite the Victorians' belief that after Newton, Faraday and Maxwell et al, there was little to be discovered about the physical universe that was not already known, Planck and Einstein (together with their legions of followers) turned that particular myth upside down and inside out. The twin pillars of Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity have driven the tale of the universe from the smallest to the largest. As each new aspect of the two theories expanded into purely theoretical, that is to say mathematical, territory, experiment continued to 'prove' the basic tenets of the two theories despite the fact that each theory was, to a large extent, mutually exclusive. Relativity only applied at a macro level to planetary systems, galaxies, galactic clusters, pulsars and black holes, the kingdom where gravity rules while quantum mechanics could only be applied to the infinitessimily small; the realm of atoms and sub-atomic particles where the strong and the electro-weak forces held sway and gravity was almost a complete no-show at the party..

All theories in the physical realm have a tendency to start life as extremely tentative hypothoses, an idea born out of an examination of the world that surrounds us and a leap of imagination about how that might be explained. The fundamental cornerstone of any physical theory is that it possible to explain the world, the universe, in a way that seems reasonable to other human beings. Even the unscientific explanations still must have a widespread belief that a God or some pantheon of Gods can explain the world in we have lived and continue to live. As bizarre and ridiculous as Mount Olympus or Valhalla may seem to modern minds, peopled as they are with Gods endowed with supernatual powers and all too human emotions and motivations, they are no more ridiculous than a simple supreme creator or even modern relativity or quantum physics.

However, what grew out of simple curiosity about how the world was and how it might be explained in terms that human beings might comprehend, there was a growing realisation that simple, blind faith in some form of deity, or deities, was no longer enough to explain the universe and all that it contained. As humanity learned by a slow and often painful process that certain aspects of the world could be explained using empirical facts learnt from their forebears; that the seeds of wheat could be made to grow into adult plants where you wanted them to grow; how animals could be bred ever larger for meat merely by choosing the strongest and largest to breed from; how a certain 'sand' from a certain part of Italy could be used to 'weld' stone together to create buildings resistant to the elements (concrete) so humanity began to expand into the realms of theories about how the world was which did not necessarily derive from observations.

As the dark ages wound their way into the middle ages and thence into the 'age of reason', the effects of the imports from the Indian and Arab worlds started to exert their stranglehold on Western civilisation; mathematics. In the main, all physical theories about the cosmos we inhabit have been expressed in terms of mathematics since at least the fifteenth century and humanity has not been content to rely on the algebraic mathematics of the Greeks and the Moors; with each passing century, new kinds of mathematics have been invented, or perhaps discovered. Newton's and Leibnitz's calculus; the multi-dimensionality of Hilbert space; Cantor's set theory; Russell's axioms of a complete mathematics and Godel's subsequent refutation; the mysteries of imaginary numbers and their complex number derivitives, so essential to the quantum world. The universe is no longer described in tangible, concrete, objective terms but only in the language of mathematics. It is this power of mathematics which allows theories to be so finely wrought but also enables the hypotheses derived from theory to be so accurately measured and confirmed.

 The way in which our observed reality conforms to theory in some ways beggars belief. Richard Feynman, the great, perhaps the greatest, physicist of the twentienth century*, remarked that the power of Quantum Electrodynamics, that strange interaction between light and matter, could accurately predict events equivalent to measuring the distance between New York and Los Angeles to the thickness of a human hair. The theory, at that time, was only accurate to three decimal places; now its accuracy may be measured to seven or eight decimal places. Feynman's insight was to dispel the infinities which had so plagued quantum mechanics since its inception sixty years earlier by incorpaorating them into the fundmantal equations, path integrals, the so-called 'sum over histories' approach. And yet, this was. by Feynman's own admission,  a 'trick', a 'cheat'; you got rid of the infinities of the equations by assuming that 99.99% of them cancelled each other out! More importantly they seem actually to do so. Light travels in a straight line (a geodesic in relativistic, curved space time) not because it does but simply because all of its other available paths mathematically cancel each other out.

We humans have a natural, instinctive attraction towards symmetry that probably stems from our perception of ourselves and which is reflected in all other animate life. This symmetry is usually only in one plane, lateral, left to right, and yet it dominates our perceptiion of reality; the 'Golden Mean'; our perceptions of what it is beautiful, idiosyncatic cultural influences notwithstanding; our beliefs about what we feel to be intrinisically, intuitively 'right'. So we search for such symmetry in our theories about how the world, the cosmos, might behave. Odd is good, even is better. It took twenty years after Gell-Mann's initial postulate of quarks to find a candidate for the 'top' quark to filll the gap in the 'up', down', 'strange' and 'charm', 'bottom' and 'top' symetrical table; it took forty years to find a candidate for the 'Higgs boson' to fulfil the expectations of another force to balance the potential trio of 'W', 'Z' and 'X' (the Higgs) in the table of triads that constitute the 'standard model' of quantum physics. Is there a reason why God should do everything in 'threes'.

Moreover, is nature really symmetrical in this way? And if so, why should it be so? Do we not simply map our desire for order on to the chaos of the universe. It is difficult, at times, to escape the inevitable conclusion that the only order in the universe is the one which we impose, hard to escape the the 'anthromorphic principle'. We do not understand the supposed inflation of the early universe and are consequently at a complete loss to explain what appears to be be an ever accelerating expansion of this universe; we do not begin to understand how the 'Higgs' field contributes mass to particles; we do not understand how matter appears to be merely 'crystalised energy', why else should the mass of a 'particle' be expressed in GeV, giga electron volts, a measure not of weight, mass but of energy; we do not understand how 'space' is filled with a 'virtual' quantum foam, the constant creation and subsequent annihilation of pairs of particles whose existence is too brief to be measured; how does the universe 'borrow' energy, is the cosmos so 'uncertain'; what is dark matter, what is dark energy, those bizarre candidates for what constitutes much of the matter of the universe? The mathematics leads us to believe that this is so, that reality works in this way; that our being, our very existence is merely a product of some probabilty and yet, we are not beholden to mere probability but probability amplitudes; imaginary numbers multiplied by real numbers. How can we believe in such things; that this is reality?

In the end, how are we constrained by the patterns of our brains, our history. If there is an objective reality, a reality that exists outside of ourselves; how is that reality to be defined? Perhaps the events of the last century should be dismissed as merely a blip along the way. We seek enlightenment; it is the 'human condition'. What if the scientific path were just one more 'cul-de-sac'. Perhaps it is time for another Planck, another Einstein or perhaps it is the time for another Christ, another Buddha?

* In labelling Feynman 'the greatest', I wish to bear no disrespect to Planck, Einstein, Shrödinger, Heisenberg, Dirac, Bohr et al. However, Feynman, almost single handedly, loosed quantum mechanics from the Gordian knot of infinities which envelopped it; stopped it from being a real theory about the world. Physicists still draw 'Feynman diagrams' and all the subsequent theories about the quantum world draw upon Feynman's initial equations about quantum electrodynamics. I tend on the whole not to give much thought to string or 'M' theory not because it is not a valid theory but because it seems to make no testable predictions which are not already covered in quantum theory.