Friday, 21 November 2008

Visiting and finding planets

It has been a good month for one of the great scientific endeavours: the study of the other worlds in our solar system.

Last week in Sydney there was a presentation by Alan Stern, the chief investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which we've never yet visited, and beyond. After the encounter with Pluto (shown here with its oversized moon Charon, plus baby moons Nix and Hydra), NH will visit a few additional, probably small, objects in the Kuiper Belt, the part of the solar system you didn't learn about in school. Think of the asteroid belt, but put it out beyond Neptune, and put it on steroids: crawling with dwarf planets and dirty snowballs of all sizes.

New Horizons, launched in 2006, flew by Jupiter in early 2007 for a gravity assist and is now a ways beyond the orbit of Saturn. It will make its closest approach to distant Pluto on Bastille Day, 2015.

Meanwhile ARGO is all the talk as a proposal for the fourth “New Frontiers” mission. (NH is the first spacecraft launched within the New Frontiers scheme: the concept is medium-class, investigator-driven projects awarded on tender, like a grant). Flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, then a close encounter with Neptune and its huge retrograde moon Triton, which will then sling it on outwards to a big Kuiper Belt object of the investigators' choice. Triton itself is believed to be a dwarf planet from the KB captured by Neptune, so this mission would effectively visit two such worlds in succession. This is the most exciting uncharted-territory mission I know that's in prospect.

The astronomers have also been busy, with the first visual observation of planets orbiting other stars.

In cyberspace, the new blog is threatening to feed my infatuation with planetary science missions beyond all reason ...

... and closer to home, NASA has released a digitally remastered version of the splendid 1966 photograph of a full-crescent Earth, with a swathe of the Moon's surface in the foreground.

[The image of the Pluto-Charon system is from the Hubble Space Telescope and is discussed here]

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Yes we can; yes we did; yes we will

The blogosphere generally must be insufferable right now, but I can't help myself. 2:30pm summer time in Sydney; 10:30pm on the US eastern seaboard, and my (like-minded) workmates and I have been glued to the NYT website while pretending to work every few minutes. We can relax. Obama has won Ohio and held Pennsylvania; he pulled ahead in Virginia about an hour ago, and almost all the remaining votes are from Fairfax county which he has in a lock; Florida has been blue all day; and the networks are calling New Mexico for the Democrat. There is no plausible scenario where McCain can reach the White House with those losses. So it's over.

My excuse for being excited now is to watch the tally in North Carolina, which is on a knife-edge: I'm not well-enough acquainted with the layout to judge the remaining votes with confidence, although a lot of them do seem to be from populous, strongly Democratic centres. But just the thought of it is pleasing: North Carolina.

Come three months from now, we will have to be reminding ourselves: Obama is a politician; human nature didn't just change; our structural problems didn't just disappear. But for moment, I'm going to enjoy what has changed.

Giving credit where credit is due

One way or another the 43rd presidency will end today (and then really end again, on 20th January), with no true successor: a very different man will become, as they still say, the leader of the free world. Criticism of the president is a dime a dozen, and having a go at him became cheap a long time ago, so on this occasion it's appropriate to listen to six writers say what they will miss about President George W. Bush.

Because there are good things to say about him. GWB is by all accounts devoid of racial prejudice in his own dealings, and he showed a consistent will to generously resolve the problem of illegal (for which read: poor Hispanic) immigration to the United States, a token of real leadership and sensible priorities, and something that caused him no end of trouble with his own party. It is not much to your credit if you take a stand that causes you trouble with your enemies: if it causes you trouble with your friends, this is more to the point. (Shades here of PM John Howard and controls on assault weapons, a similarly principled stand for which I hope I have always given him full credit, my general disapproval of the man notwithstanding.) The Bush White House also showed a real commitment to opposing sex-trafficking --- what an earlier generation called “white slavery” --- an issue on which, until the last few years, so-called social progressives have been unacccountably silent.

On a related tack, there was a huge stink a while back when Representative John Lewis issued a warning to John McCain, invoking the name of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace: everyone thought this was excessive because, well, McCain is pretty clearly no racist. However, there's a sense in which this was the whole point. There was an excellent NYT article the other week by Russ Rymer on “The George Wallace We Forgot”, explaining the relevance of the governor's tragic history, and why Lewis was speaking on good authority:
He [Wallace] might have carried a tolerant message into the Alabama governor’s mansion in 1958, but he lost the race after spurning the support of the Ku Klux Klan (which then backed his primary opponent, John Patterson) and being endorsed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Sadly for Wallace’s state, his region, his nation and himself, he did not respond as John Lewis did after his defeat by Carmichael. Mr. Lewis, whenever confronted with calls to divisiveness, chose to redouble his commitment to reason and tolerance. After his loss to Mr. Patterson, Wallace is said to have turned to an aide and declared, “I was out-niggered ... and I’ll never be out-niggered again.”

After Wallace finally won the governorship in 1962, his administration was never as race-hostile as his campaign appeals implied; black leaders found his office door open, and often his mind, too. But he would eternally pay the price for the methods he used to gain that office.
Albeit that politics is the art of the possible, there are some movements and tendencies with which no accomodation can be reached, and the writer paints an awful portrait of a reasonable man forced to retreat in dismay, and disarray, by a storm of race-hatred which he did not truly share, but which he had helped to unleash by his pandering. And now, his name is a byword. It's a sad fate, and something you might wish to be warned about: this, Rymer claims, is what Lewis was trying to do.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Apart from the election

In spare moments this last month, when not following the presidential election, I have been reading Byron Smith on studying ethics

and the New York Times:
On tainted milk ... 150 years ago
On Warren E. Buffett and the market crisis ... 101 years ago
On the seen versus the unseen, in health (read to the end ...)
On French Muslims in Catholic schools
On the Popularity of Steampunk (following a link)
On a long-serving Republican retiring from the House
On developing a healthier food economy
On letting the bedbugs bite, and on blood, more generally;

its columnist David Brooks, on “The Class War Before Palin”;

and the magazine, discussing When Judges Make Foreign Policy, including the following wonderful snippet:
The Bush administration, through its characteristic combination of boldness, historical ambition and operational incompetence, has given sovereignty a bad name, much as it has for unilateralism. But the constitutional principle here is actually one that most liberals also fully embrace: namely, the principle of democracy.

International law, as even its staunchest defenders must acknowledge, often fails to accord with democratic principle...
I have also been enjoying (thanks AJB for the link) John Cleese, on genes

Monday, 13 October 2008

The Green Baize Table Conspiracy

The insanely overdue writeup of my review talk, Quantum entanglement at the psi(3770) and Upsilon(4S), is now on the arXiv public preprint server, and will be included in the proceedings of the Flavor Physics and CP Violation conference. I was asked to give the review because of my involvement in a test of quantum mechanics by the Belle experiment: I wrote about this last year in the post Tangled up in (quantum) blue.

When I have spoken on these results, the most popular part of the talk has always been my explanation (included in the writeup) of an important counter-example, in the form of a conspiracy theory involving the Cigarette-Smoking Man. It seems that more physicists watch the X-Files than would generally admit to it.

The burden of the counter-example is that, if one is willing to countenance bizarre and conspiratorial alternative theories, the sort of study we did at Belle doesn't establish the quantum mechanical result it's trying to test. So we just do the best we can. However there are optical experiments that are immune to (at least this type of) conspiracy-theory explanation. This is the really remarkable thing, and why Bell inequality tests are considered such a big deal in physics. Based on such experiments, we conclude that the weirdness of quantum mechanics is a real feature of the world --- independent of whether quantum mechanics itself is ultimately correct. We might one day learn more, and go beyond the understanding we have from QM, but even so we'd be stuck with the fact that two objects "separated" in space, even many kilometres apart, can be (in a sense) inseparable, forming a single object, a single system. A whole, rather than two parts.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Keep your eyes on the Prize

I guess you-all have noticed that the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physics has been announced, and once again it's gone to a bunch of guys for work in particle physics: Yoichiro Nambu, Makoto Kobayashi, and Toshihide Maskawa. No complaints from me.

The results of my own experiment, Belle, have been instrumental in vindicating this work, particularly that of Kobayashi and Maskawa. We mention them daily, and not just because the experiment is based in Japan; the situation is the same on the other side of the Pacific, at the friendly-rival experiment BaBar at Stanford.

These gentlemen's work concerns spontaneously broken symmetries: the universally used example is balancing a pencil on its point. This situation is symmetric, but unstable. The stable configuration --- the configuration with lowest energy --- has the pencil dropping flat onto the table, picking out one direction at random over all the other possible directions it could equally well have chosen. The phenomenon is quite common in physics: the achievement of Nambu was to apply this to particle physics, in particular the strong interaction that binds the quarks, the atomic nucleus, and so on; the achievement of Kobayashi and Maskawa was to further explain the breaking of the "CP" symmetry, and in the process predict the existence of six types of quark. At the time they wrote their paper, three types were known, and the other three were found, one after the other, over the next twenty-two years. We set great store by this sort of bold predictive power. The final, spectacular confirmation of Kobayashi and Maskawa's work was the observation of CP violation in the B-meson system by Belle and BaBar in 2000-2002, with precisely the value expected on their model. At which point the entire field cried "Respect!", looked at their watches, and started counting down to the inevitable award of the Nobel. The real award, of course, had already been given in full.

[The Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo has been left out of the party by the Swedish Academy. It was Cabibbo who first established the idea of "mixing" between types of quarks (in his case, "down" and "strange") that was then extended by Kobayashi and Maskawa. Including him would have spoiled the symmetry-breaking focus, but still: his friends have grounds to be disappointed on his behalf.]

There are various discussions, aimed at both the public and the press, at the Nobel Prize site; there's also a longer and rather Nobel-Prize-obsessed technical account by the Academy [warning! physics background required!] on the physics involved. As usual, there is also an accessible report in the New York Times science pages.

Why should you care? Well, CP violation is one of Sakharov's three necessary elements to explain how the universe can have lots more matter than antimatter: why the place is full of stuff, rather than the stuff (the matter and antimatter) having all just annihilated away to leave radiation alone. Why, in other words, it's possible for you to be here.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Times for avoiding work

When avoiding work in the past few weeks, I have been reading the New York Times

On chemotherapy for pregnant women with cancer
On real heroes, and fake stories, from September 11th
On memories of containment
On the tyranny of diagnosis
On weeping for the Rosenbergs, even though they were guilty

and David Brooks (one of the NYT's two resident conservatives),
On why experience matters, breaking with Republican message discipline for once, to tell us what he actually thinks before, rather than after, the election.

When avoiding all of the depressing news, I have been watching the muppets sing Danny Boy

Friday, 19 September 2008

Top five fantasy battle-cries

1. "Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!"
Mentioned in Appendix F.I of The Lord of the Rings. Unlike the other war-cries mentioned here, this one takes itself 100% seriously. The films treated the dwarves as comic, and that's an easy enough step, but there wouldn't have been anything comic at all about a swarm of heavily-armoured men with axes, charging at you shouting this. Even if they were short.

2. "The weak shall perish!"
The battle-cry of Species 8472 in Star Trek: Voyager. If you think the sentiment is alarming, just wait until you see one of these guys in the flesh.

3. "Get away from her you bitch!"
Ellen Ripley, in the great Battle of the Single Mothers scene of Aliens. Fight scenes in science fiction can be formal and a bit bloodless, but this one is satisfyingly visceral. Even after watching it many times, you still feel the danger of it.

4. "Resistance is futile!"
The Borg, in the various newer Star Trek series, passim.

5. "Screw you guys: I'm going home!"
Eric Cartman, in South Park, at more-or-less any provocation.

Plus, special awards:

(i) (children's literature division)
Cited for meeting the challenge of representing non-violent violence, and resolve to carry out the same:

Merriman Lyon, in Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree:
And whoever shall cut the blossom, at the moment when it opens fully from the bud, shall turn events and have the right to command the Old Magic and the Wild Magic, to drive all rival powers out of the world and out of Time.

(ii) (general division)
Cited for defiance in the face of certain defeat, and for general coolness:

Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor,
as described in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion:
... He passed over Dor-nu-Fauglith like a wind amid the dust, and all the beheld his onset fled in amaze, thinking that Oromë himself was come: for a great madness of rage was upon him, so that his eyes shone like the eyes of the Valar. Thus he came alone to Angband's gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came.

That was the last time in those wars that he passed the doors of his stronghold, and it is said that he took not the challenge willingly: for though his might was greatest of all things in this world, alone of the Valar he knew fear. But he could not now deny the challenge before the face of his captains; for the rocks rang with the shrill music of Fingolfin's horn, and his voice came keen and clear down into the depths of Angband; and Fingolfin named Morgoth craven, and lord of slaves. Therefore Morgoth came climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable unblazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star ...

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Hope and compromise, or, On not making a better world (2)

... There are, as we have seen, two types of question a moral doctrine may answer: what are the goods we may know within the world? And, what goods are appropriate to forming the right ends-of-action here and now? The kingdom of God is among the answers to the first of these questions. God has shown us his ultimate purpose in Jesus Christ, and will bring in the Kingdom of his Son. But what I have to discern is the concrete thing that is given to me to do in the light of that hope. And when somebody invites me to join in creating a new world free of misunderstanding and suspicion – just sign the petition here! – I know that he or she is bleary-eyed with moral hyperventilation. “Not everything that should be done, should by us be done,” said Paul Ramsey, articulating a basic principle of discriminating action.

That remark, made back in the nineteen sixties, was originally addressed to the need for a responsible foreign policy on the part of the United States. This reminds us that the bad idealist is not always a dreamy and ineffective poet, but can be dangerous. If my bewitchment with an ideal is combined with a great deal of practical energy, the negativity of the ideal will be the hallmark all that I do. Of such mental stuff is ideological tyranny constructed. Ideals must be focussed into practical and concrete conceptions of how we may do good. If a sense of the negative is a precondition for imagination, a sense of the positive reality of God’s good providence is a precondition for turning imagination into action. I ought not to linger among the yawning absences, but press on to the reality of what God does, and makes available to me to do.

This raises in its turn the question of “compromise”. Compromises are the decisions, explicit or implicit, that render ideals practicable. We compromise when we discard certain aspirations as unrealisable – either absolutely or simply in the circumstances... As a model of good compromise we may take lawgiving, which is the fashioning of a community norm that enables a multitude to live together in a disciplined manner to the fullest extent it is collectively capable of... An idealistic law is a vicious law, that requires too much; it has not compromised sufficiently with the practicalities of conformity and enforcement. A demoralised law, on the other hand, has required too little; it has not exploited the ways in which law can help the multitude live better. The well-framed law follows the very difficult line on which sustained attempts to hold one another to what we ought to do are fruitful and effective.

But there can be bad compromises as well as bad ideals, and not every difficulty ought to put us off...
So Oliver O'Donovan, in the third of his 2007 New College Lectures titled “Morally awake? Admiration & resolution in the light of Christian faith.” All three of the lectures were excellent, and very much in O'Donovan's signature style: dense, thoughtful, eirenic, and grounded.

[This material is reprinted with permission from New College: the college at all times retains ownership of the intellectual property rights to all New College lectures material (in printed or electronic form). The lectures are available in PDF and MP3 form at the College website for personal review and study, but may not be retransmitted without express permission.]

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

First beam at the LHC

This afternoon, CERN will attempt to circulate a proton beam in the Large Hadron Collider for the first time, and it's turning into quite a big public event. For further information seeThe event will be covered live in a webcast. The public lecture at Sydney Uni tonight, by my colleague Kevin Varvell and the science communicator Karl Kruszelnicki, has unfortunately (or fortunately!) already sold out.

UPDATE: We got beam all the way (27 km) around the ring. It went quite smoothly, and everyone is pretty stoked. Concerning the potential of the machine, as usual, the report in the New York Times puts it well: speaking about the new physics we hope to see, they write
those discoveries are in the future. If the new collider is a car, then what physicists did today was turn on an engine, that will now sit and warm up for a couple of months before anybody drives it anywhere. The first meaningful collisions, at an energy of 5 trillion electron volts, will not happen until late fall,
meaning of course the Southern Hemisphere's spring. Serious physics running will then follow in 2009.

As for the public lecture in Sydney, I thought Kevin and Karl did a very good job. One drawback, although nothing to do with the physics: it was standing room only at the Footbridge Theatre, and they were turning people away, including folk who'd RSVP'd as they were asked to do. Not good. We can only apologise for it: events have overtaken us and we've been overwhelmed by the interest people have shown. Sorry to those who missed out.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Mal's speech, or, On not making a better world (1)

This report is maybe twelve years old? Parliament buried it, and it remained buried, until River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear. 'Cause there's a whole universe of folk who are going to know it too; they're going to see it.

Somebody has to speak for these people.

You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you've all come to the same place, so now I'm asking more of you than I have before --- maybe all. [Because] sure as I know anything, I know this: they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people ... better. And I do not hold to that.

So no more running. I aim to misbehave.
In the DVD commentary on Serenity, Joss Whedon describes this as Mal's “St Crispin's Day speech”, and it's instructive to compare it against the original. Much as I love both the speech and the film, the comparison is not entirely flattering.

Let us be clear: Whedon holds that schemes to change the human condition are doomed to fail, and that it is wicked to make the attempt; I do not want to complain about this. There was quite enough utopianism last century to last us for ... well ... some time. We are not free of its pull, and there is a certain tendency lurking around the so-called progressive strand in our society that cleaves to the idea that if only we could make this modification, this tweak, then everything would fundamentally change for the better. I am happy for someone in popular culture --- even better, given the topic, for someone in geek-cult culture --- to set up a stall in opposition to this.

But there is more to the speech than resolve against such overreaching folly. I spoke approvingly of Whedon's ethic in an earlier post, but it is not without its own self-indulgence. It is, of course, romantic, and in a wishful-thinking kind of way. Mal and the other Browncoats, the losing side in the War for Independence, are nothing if they are not the Confederacy: courtly, honourable, local, and resistant of the encroaching, homogenising, antiseptic modernism of their opponents. But the Independents are a fantasy of the Confederacy, defeated in an Honourable Cause without slavery or intransigence or any real wickedness of their own. (Cf. the Bajorans in DS9, who were contentious, superstitious, and caste-ridden, as well as being plucky and Unjustly Colonised.) This is having one's cake, and eating it, all at once.

The speech itself contains an indulgence more modern, and in its way more worrisome. Finally, it says, and reluctantly, I have been goaded into action by a decisive and indisputable evil: an evil with a conveniently vast and identifiable roll-call of victims. Now I can, and I should, act; and I will be justified in acting.

Am I wrong to see the image of a certain Western sensibility here? I mean the tendency, at once jaded and enthusiastic, that needs to label some evil as “genocide” before it can be seriously opposed; the demand that any worthy military effort must be assimilable to the fight against the National Socialist Party of Germany. There is a lot of this about, and it will not do: on the one hand, we did not know that the Nazis were going to perform genocide when we (rightly) chose to fight them; on the other hand, we (and I do mean we, i.e. including myself) have at least in the case of Iraq made war recklessly, while in the grip of the view that We Have To Do Something.

The calculus, in having recourse to violence, is just not this binary.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Lately ...

... I have been grateful to my small band of loyal blog-readers, who have had very little encouragement from my side. In my defence: as well as doing my job, I took a whole week off work (including three days fully off the grid) for the first time in about a year. Along the way, I managed to watch two very good and very different films that I have been meaning to see for years: United 93 and The Company.

I have also been reading xkcd on Google Maps and teleportation;

two stimulating and accessible articles on why the early appearance of life on earth tells us very little on how “likely” life is, and whether we are alone in the universe: one on priors, and one on conditioning, matters that should forever be labelled “Handle With Care”;

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in the Guardian back in May, on why it's unkind to 1968-ards to ask “where are they now?”;

and from the New York Times:
how trolls think people should just get over being hurt by words;
why there's merit in putting expert witnesses in a hot-tub;
and Judith Warner, writing against transparency:
For if public figures, purported leaders, “owe” us anything, it’s some kind of role modeling in the sphere of public discourse. They should not feed our basest appetites for dirt. They shouldn’t encourage us in the ugly side of our national quest for the ostensible truth in all things political – that tendency we have, that we hold in common with other spiritual heirs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to get the whips out and flay alive those who reveal themselves in ways that don’t jibe well with the public mood.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Behind the Times

Coping with jetlag, and avoiding vast piles of mail after my travels in recent months, I've been catching up on some reading. Here are the highlights.

From the New York Times:
On reintroducing worms
On low birthrates
On quoting Bob Dylan in legal opinions
On energy-efficient production in Japan
On suicide prevention, and survivors
On why 'We have to have a talk about Barack Obama'
On the (exceptional) American practice of excluding evidence
On satire, and the New Yorker cover

Olivia Judson's NYT-hosted blog also has an excellent post on getting rid of the term 'Darwinism', for the sake of evolutionary studies. This is the third in a series celebrating Charles Darwin: the first and second posts are also good.

From Leszek Kolakowski (thanks, Laurence, for the link):
How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist

And from the London Review of Books:
Hugh Pennington on why the unburied dead don't spread disease, and why it's harmful that people (and governments) believe that they do

The subscription section also includes Rosemary Hill's review of the recently published translation of Hermann Muthesius' 1904-05 Das englische Haus , which is an excellent read; and Muthesius sounds full of insights.
Why, Muthesius wonders, do the English leave town planning to be ‘handed over to the lowest order of intelligence’, creating incoherent city centres? Why do they bother to experiment with blocks of flats which don’t suit the national temperament and would, if multiplied, mean ‘the demise of one of the best aspects of the English heritage’? English children will never thrive in them. Today, as the Modernist-inspired tower blocks come down and public housing looks again to low-rise and terraces, and as Birmingham, Manchester and other cities attempt to redeem their centres from the ravages of the postwar planners, it is the great-grandchildren of Muthesius’s subjects and indeed the great-grandchildren of their cooks and butlers who are remaking the English house. We watch property programmes on television night after night ...

Monday, 30 June 2008

Hidden charm in South Carolina

This last week I've been enjoying the hospitality of the University of South Carolina, where the The Eighth International Conference on Hyperons, Charm and Beauty Hadrons, a.k.a. "BEACH 2008", has just concluded. I presented an invited review of the new "hidden charm" states, focussing on results from my experiment, Belle: we have taken the lead in finding, and trying to characterise, a number of these new mesons, so called because they have both a charm quark and charm antiquark in their makeup, and thus have no charm (!) overall. Some of these particles just don't fit. Known mesons are built from a quark and an antiquark, and this structure gives rise to certain expected properties, different from those of the new states. So, we believe, these particles are put together in some other way.

The slides from my talk can be found here. The key result comes at the end: we see evidence for two more hidden-charm states that carry electric charge, something it's impossible for a conventional charm-anticharm meson (a "charmonium" state) to do. We found evidence for the first such state last year: this article from CERN Courier gives a brief description. Our paper on the latest results, which we'll submit to the Physical Review soon, can be found at arXiv:0806.4098 [hep-ex].

The early slides of my talk cover a quite different topic: charm mixing, previously mentioned on this blog. There's an historical and personal reason for this. I was supposed to present a review of mixing at the seventh BEACH meeting in Lancaster two years ago, but got very unpleasantly sick after a visit to Beijing, and ended up stuck in a hospital bed "back home" in Japan. (The glamour of international work and travel can be over-stated.) So it felt only right to include a brief update, in lieu of the review I couldn't give in '06. And it was nice to actually make it this time.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Simon's speech

I am very smart.

I went to the best medic-ed in Osiris, top 3% of my class; finished my internship in eight months. "Gifted" is the term.

So when I tell you that my little sister makes me look like an idiot child, I want you to understand my full meaning.

River was more than gifted, she ... she was a gift. I mean, everything she did --- music, math, theoretical physics, even ... even dance --- there was nothing that didn't come as naturally to her as breathing does to us. And she could be a real brat about it to: I mean, she used to ... [awkward pause]

There was a ... a school, a government-sponsored academy: we had never even heard of it but it had the most exciting programme, the most challenging. We could have sent her anywhere (we had the money), but she wanted to go: she wanted to learn. She was fourteen ...

I, ah ... I got a few letters at first, and then I didn't hear for months. Finally I got a letter that made no sense: she talked about things that never happened, jokes that we never ...

It was a code. It just said: "They're hurting us. Get me out."

[Zoe asks, "How'd you do it?"]

Money. And ... and luck. For two years I couldn't get near her, but then I was contacted by some men, some underground movement, they said that she was in danger, that the ... that the government was ... playing with her brain. If I funded them they could sneak her out in cryo, get her to Persephone, and from there I could take her ... wherever.

[Inara: "Will she be alright?"]

I don't know if she'll be alright. I don't know what they did to her; or why. I ... I just have to keep her safe.
Simon Tam is explaining to the Serenity crew why he was smuggling his sister in a crate on board their ship; why the Alliance is after them; why he would risk everything, his own life, and the lives of others into the bargain. It's the Whedon ethic in a pure form: a high value on personal loyalty and obligation; a willingness to break rules; a suspicion of grand causes; and the utter rejection of wrongs done by groups "for the greater good".

And it is heartbreaking. People have talked about "found families" in Joss Whedon's programs --- the emphasis on the group of friends, over and above natural family --- but Simon and River Tam are an example of total, unwavering, illusionless devotion. River knows that her brother is a stiff: awkward, humourless, unrelaxed; and Simon knows only too well that River was always fragile, and that now she's broken ... and more than a little crazy. Yet for them, that doesn't change anything.

The sci-fi western Firefly was that rare thing: a cult television program that lived up to the hype; a pearl of great price that the network didn't properly recognise. It earned its impossible fairytale ending: the wonderful movie Serenity, a critical and popular success, vindicating the cancelled show. And bringing Simon and River's story to a fitting conclusion. It bears watching again and again, over years now, but recently the start of it all has been returning to my thoughts. The TV show is quite arch, even flip about some things, but there is a centredness to it as well, a real conviction. And this is exhibit A.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

There are many copies. I don't know if they have a plan.

Olivia Judson, a.k.a. Dr Tatiana, made an informative post on cybrids earlier this week. It concerns the technique --- it is fair to describe it as controversial, when human DNA is involved --- of transplanting a small cell of one species into the egg of another, in place of the target cell's own nucleus. The nuclear DNA then ends up being entirely from the transplanted species ...

... but the nucleus is not the only thing with DNA. Some organelles, specifically the mitochondria, have it too, and mitochondria are important. Whether the (say) human/bovine mitochondrial differences, or other differences between human and bovine eggs, are important, I'm not well-placed to judge.

I was struck by the statement that "A mammalian egg may contain as many as 200,000 mitochondria": I had no idea that it could be so many. (Lots of cells have only a handful.) This seems to be another of those areas where even people like me, members of the scientific community in good standing but with only rudimentary biology, know some of the facts but not their relative importance or proportion: where we miss the "feel" of the thing. As I have learned over the years, the interior of a cell can be a very complicated, crowded, non-soup-like place. This is not what I was told at school.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Addiction, oversharing, and the new economy

I felt liberated — finally, a job where I could really be myself! Never again would I have to censor my office-inappropriate sentiments or shop the sale racks at Club Monaco for office-appropriate outfits. But at the same time, I wasn’t quite convinced that the system of apprenticeship and gradual promotion that I’d left behind when I left book publishing was as flawed as establishment-attacking Gawker made it out to be. I’d been lucky enough, in my publishing job, to have the kind of boss who actually cared about my future. At Gawker, I barely had a boss, and my future was always in jeopardy. In my old job, I’d been able to slowly, steadily learn the ropes, but now I was judged solely on what I produced every day. I had a kind of power, sure, but it was only as much power as my last post made it seem like I deserved.
And as with the employment conditions, so (it turned out) with the social conditions. The quote is from a terrifying-yet-oddly-fascinating article to appear in the upcoming weekend magazine section of the NYT, by writer Emily Gould on her period as an editor at Gawker Media, "a network of highly trafficked blogs".

The whole thing is interesting to reflect upon as a topic for intergenerational argument. Does Emily's mother (or perhaps her grandmother) understand the world, the economy, the social circle in which she is moving, and its rules and opportunities and risks? Almost certainly not. Is that world an example of everything her (grand)mother warned her against? Almost certainly, yes.

The news on Ted Kennedy

The ABC nightly news in Sydney on Wednesday reported Senator Ted Kennedy's cancer diagnosis in the following terms: that tributes had been pouring in from Democrats, and that the situation was tragic.

As reporting this is incompetent, and as a judgment it is absurd.

Among the prominent well-wishers in the United States have been President George W. Bush, Senator John McCain, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. None of these people were Democrats the last time I checked. Senator McConnell is quoted in the New York Times in these terms: "Senator Kennedy enjoys great respect and admiration on this side of the aisle [i.e. among Republicans] ... He is indeed one of the most important figures to ever serve in this body in our history." That respect would be because Kennedy has been serving in the US Senate for 46 years, is acknowledged by all persons as one of its leaders, and in the manner of active members of that institution habitually forges alliances with, and drafts or co-sponsors legislation with members of the other side. The death or serious illness of a legislator of Kennedy's stature is a sombre bipartisan event in the US. You do not need to be an expert on American politics to know this sort of thing, and for the premier television news program in Australia to be tone-deaf to it ... I'm sorry, it is just inexcusable.

Oh and BTW, for a little context, the guy doubled over and weeping at the podium over Teddy's cancer in the broadcast (Robert C Byrd) is 90, and is the only person who has been in the chamber longer than Senator Kennedy. So he has a free pass to cry in this matter, it would seem to me.

As for the situation being tragic: the Senator is 76. It is sad for him and for his family and friends (there are rather a lot of both), poignant given his brothers' fate, and in the manner of these things it has brought everyone up short with a reminder of the inevitability of death: lots of people participate in this particular illness. But it is not a tragedy. Cancer striking down a teenager or a person in their twenties, a mother in her thirties, a family man in his forties --- that is tragic. To live into one's late seventies in reasonable health and vigour, with wealth and family, and moreover in a position of great power and acknowledged leadership --- that is a good innings under any definition. It is regrettable that it will likely be cut short (for as I understand, the prognosis is poor for a man of the Senator's age with this kind of tumour) but it is not a deep offense against the proper order of things. Let's get some perspective.

[Disclosure: I lost my own father to cancer at 80, on about a week's notice, when he had otherwise been in very good health for a man of his age. So if I'm being unreasonable here, it's not for lack of exposure to the phenomenon.]

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Mongolia via Taiwan, with assistance from Iran and Poland

I've recently been in Taipei for the Flavor Physics and CP Violation conference, the highlight of which was the ominously named "cultural activity" ... a trip to a local auditorium to hear the Mongolian singer Urna perform together with the Chemirani Trio on zarb drums (and other percussion), and the wonderful Jerzy Bawol. (I will never say a bad word about the accordian again, I swear it.)

This was splendidly accessible, serious, light-hearted, joyful music, without a trace of irony. Terrific stuff. There are samples on the Urna website I linked, but sadly none from the particular collaboration that I saw on the 6th.

It's somehow appropriate that one could find so impeccably international a collaboration in a place that does not even belong to the United Nations ...

[The slides of my presentation at FPCP, a review of "Quantum entanglement at the ψ(3770) and Υ(4S)", can be downloaded from the conference site. Regular readers of this blog may recognise the principal result, which was previously remarked under "Tangled up in (quantum) blue". Particle physicists (and some other physicists) should have no trouble with the slides, but I guess they'll be somewhat heavy going for anyone else. The writeup for the conference proceedings will, I hope, be a bit more accessible. I will link it here when it's done.]

UPDATE (13th Oct 2008): The writeup of my talk is now available on the arXiv server. I discuss it in a new post on this blog.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Le Carré on spies, the Swiss, and a short Hungarian

Peter Guillam is recalling the first time he worked with Toby Esterhase, the surveillance genius of the British Secret Service (a.k.a. "The Circus"):
Whenever he thought of Toby, that was what he thought of: Switzerland eight years ago, when Toby was just a humdrum watcher with a reputation for informal listening on the side. Guillam was kicking his heels after North Africa, so the Circus packed them both off to Berne on a one-time operation to spike a pair of Belgian arms dealers who were using the Swiss to spread their wares in unpopular directions. They rented a villa next door to the target house, and the following night Toby opened up a junction box and rearranged things so that they overheard the Belgians' conversations on their own phone. Guillam was boss and legman, and twice a day he dropped the tapes on the Berne residency, using a parked car as a letter-box. With the same ease, Toby bribed the local postman to give him a first sight of the Belgians' mail before he delivered it, and the cleaning lady to plant a radio mike in the drawing-room where they held most of their discussions. For diversion, they went to Chikito and Toby danced with the youngest girls. Now and then he brought one home, but by morning she was always gone and Toby had the windows open to get rid of the smell.

They lived this way for three months and Guillam knew him no better at the end than he had on the first day. He didn't even know his country of origin. Toby was a snob, and knew the places to eat and be seen. He washed his own clothes and at night he wore a net over his snow white hair, and on the day the police hit the villa and Guillam had to pop over the back wall, he found Toby at the Bellevue Hotel munching pâtisseries and watching the thé dansant. He listened to what Guillam had to say, paid his bill, tipped first the bandleader, then Franz, the head porter, and then led the way along a succession of corridors and staircases to the underground garage where he had cached the escape car and passports. There also, punctiliously, he asked for his bill. Guillam thought, if you ever want to get out of Switzerland in a hurry, you pay your bills first.
The main action of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is set in 1973, so this anecdote takes place in 1965 or so. I have always loved this as a piece of writing: memorable, vivid, easily evoking a whole little world and its practices, not to mention its characters and values. (Both the surprise and the inevitability of exposure is nicely caught by the matter-of-fact "and on the day the police hit the villa ...".) Esterhase is of course, as his name suggests, a Hungarian. He's a mildly comic figure throughout the Smiley/Karla novels, and not taken 100% seriously as a person by anyone: both because of his mannerisms, and because he's from Hungary, a country that everyone (and especially the Russians) finds intrinsically ridiculous. But no-one denies his talents. "Tiny Toby spoke no known language perfectly," we are told at one point, "but he spoke them all."

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Brontë on frankness and reserve

By this time he had sat down: he had laid the picture on the table before him, and with his brow supported on both hands, hung fondly over it. I discerned he was now neither angry nor shocked at my audacity. I saw even that to be thus frankly addressed on a subject he had deemed unapproachable --- to hear it thus freely handled --- was beginning to be felt by him as a new pleasure --- an unhoped-for relief. Reserved people often really need the frank discussion of their sentiments and griefs more than the expansive. The sternest-seeming stoic is human after all: and to `burst' with boldness and good will into `the silent sea' of their souls is often to confer on them the first of obligations.
I am finally, after many interruptions and failures of application, struggling towards the end of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, this being my third, and I swore my final, attempt to read it. Passages like this one make it seem worthwhile: I see the point of the book.

Call me a Philistine if you will, but I don't see the point of a lot of the rest. Such as --- oh, let us pull an example out of the air just at random --- Mr Rochester. Let me be clear that this is no mere objection to Rochester being a woman's man: a fantasy figure. For I would have a beer with Mr Knightley at any time, on a moment's notice.

Friday, 25 April 2008

MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark ...

... all the sweet green icing flowing down ---
Someone left the cake out in the rain ---
I don't think that I can take it,
Because it took so long to bake it,
And I'll never have that recipe agaaaaaaain ....


Yes, I know it should be MacArthur Park, but who am I to argue with the original Richard Harris recording? All seven-and-a-half minutes of it?

The song is forty years old this month*. It is cheeseball, overblown, sentimental, and preposterous: and still, there's a part of me that loves it. Harris was not exactly the best singer in the world, but he was an excellent performer, and this recording is a great performance. If the song is an epic: go epic.

UPDATE (28th May): It appears that Chris Noth, a.k.a. Big a.k.a. Mike Logan, is a big fan of Harris' recording.

* [I've had trouble establishing a date for the album, A Tramp Shining, looking around in the web. April 1968 is the best I've managed, based on this website on the Dunhill label.]

Monday, 21 April 2008

The Pentagon's hidden hand

If you are interested in the media response to (and responsibility for) the progress of the war in Iraq, may I recommend an article in today's New York Times, "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand". It's the more devastating for being sober in its tone.

The standard of investigative journalism in this paper --- supported by the exemplary American Freedom of Information regime --- is excellent. It's in signal contrast to the partisanship of papers in (say) the UK, and the self-importance and shallowness of papers in my own country.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

One year on

This blog is a year old: I wish the occasion were a happier one. By the way of a good-news story, though, let me point you to an effort to remember students and faculty through relief work in poor parts of Virginia.

The following posts have been popular:

All together now! (30-Jul-07)
Blinded by the light (05-Jan-08)
Easter for grownups (27-Mar-08)
The end of the affair (01-Jul-07)
Four reactions to an apology (17-Feb-08)
A German beer trail (22-May-07)
Kermode on Vermes on the Resurrection (23-Mar-08)
The love that dare not speak its name (25-Jun-07)
Midgley on rights and social ethics (14-Sep-07)
Miserere mei, Deus (18-Nov-07)
Of giants and crockery (17-Oct-07)
Perks? (19-Apr-07)
Pheasant Plucking (24-Jun-07)
She is a very bad girl (12-Jul-07)
sushi and sashimi (23-Dec-07)
Talk is cheap (24-Oct-07)
Tambourines and elephants (16-Dec-07)
Tangled up in (quantum) blue (05-Oct-07)

Let me also put in a shameless plug for Silver on the Tree (30-Mar-08) and Europa Rising (08-May-07)

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

If seeing is believing ...

If seeing is believing, then we better be damn careful about what we show people, including ourselves – because, regardless of what it is – we are likely to uncritically believe it.
It's sentiment I endorse, but I'd be a bit suspicious of it coming from me, or from someone likewise conservative. In fact the author is Errol Morris, writing in his blog at the New York Times. As a documentary film-maker who himself uses dramatic re-enactment as a tool, I'd say he can speak with some authority on this question.

The article is a little long, but well worth reading: on re-enactment generally, and on some fascinating individual cases. And (somewhat off-topic), if you haven't seen Morris' documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, then truly, you must.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

The NYT deep-sixes Ice Nine

In recent days my friends --- including several physicists --- have been tormenting me with the news about the court case in Hawaii attempting to stop the turn-on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. I would like to think that I have a sense of humour about my work, but I do not have a sense of humour about relentless focus on the spectacular (as opposed to the central, or the important); nor do I have much time for the current conviction that crackpots and obsessives, for some mysterious reason, deserve to be given cultural space.


I was pleased to see an editorial in the New York Times today, dismissing the concern while having fun with it at the same time. I may not have a sense of humour in this matter, but at least I can appreciate it in other people.

[I have previously posted on the LHC, and on the ATLAS experiment, which I am joining this year.]

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Silver on the Tree

He accepted everything that came into his mind, without thought or question, as if he were moving through a dream. But a deeper part of him knew that he was not dreaming. He was crystal-clear awake, in a Midwinter Day that had been waiting for him to wake into it since the day he had been born, and, he somehow knew, for centuries before that.
Thus Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising: Will Stanton has woken into a dream, with all of the sudden shifts of place and inexplicable certainties that a dream has, but a dream that is more real --- closer to the truth, about the world and about himself --- than what he has taken to be his waking life.

For it is Will's eleventh birthday, and he is finally, truly awake: seventh son of a seventh son, he has woken into his powers as an Old One, an immortal warrior of the Light, fated by birth to take his part in the Law-bound struggle with the Dark. He is the last of the Old Ones, completing the Circle, and is bound to play the central role in the final struggle between the powers: the Dark, seeking to swallow up human agency by means of its own weakness; and the Light, fighting to preserve the world free, and at last give it back to man. It is a frozen, oddly static kind of struggle --- no-one gets killed, at least not directly --- but the stakes are high, the Dark truly terrible, and the Law and the High Magic within which all is bound are merciless; and even the Light can be cruel. "This is a cold battle we are in", says Merriman Lyon, Will's mentor, first of the Old Ones, the historical Merlin, "and in it we must sometimes do cold things."

It is a humourless vision of the world: not lacking in joy, perhaps, but excluding all play. "In this our magic," Merriman scolds Will after a heedless act, "every smallest word has a weight and a meaning. Every word that I say to you --- or that any other Old One may say." From that point onwards, Will accepts his responsibility without complaint, and (for the most part) without regret. It's a measure of the writing's power that you still believe him as a pre-teen boy: a boy with normal tastes and habits who can nonetheless step, at a moment's notice, into a vast timeless struggle where everything is freighted with significance. The contrast with the Earthsea books, written around the same time and themselves pretty serious, is signal: "a mage", Le Guin says, "is a trickster", and the (original three) books are full of delight in the lesser enchantments. The exultation and danger of the great spells, and the concern with Equilibrium, are visibly continuous with the ordinary pleasures and risks of life. But, of course, the mages of Earthsea are mortal men. It's to Cooper's credit that she doesn't just tell us, she shows us that Will and Merriman and the others are "not properly human".

The Old Ones are a triumph; Will's compatriots Simon, Jane, and Barney are another matter. They are drawn well enough, and believable in their way, but there is something Enid Blyton-ish about the Drew children, and it jars with the high seriousness of the books. You really do not miss them in The Grey King; in Silver on the Tree they are a positive intrusion. And in the Trewissick scenes, where they are joined by the (otherwise unexceptionable) red setter Rufus, the dread spectre of Timmy the Dog does rather haunt the proceedings.

The books have other flaws. They are quest stories: searches for a grail (Over Sea, Under Stone), for six Signs of Power (The Dark is Rising), and for a vital, lost piece of parchment (Greenwitch); the winning of a harp, to wake immortal warriors (The Grey King); and a vertiginous race across space and time to final confrontation with the Dark (Silver on the Tree). Few real decisions are ever made, although one scarcely notices this, as one event follows another, fulfilling old prophecies in the long waking dream. Our real world intrudes --- and it does feel like an intrusion --- in the final book; and the ending is rushed. (Let the reader understand: why did there have to be a boat? Why, why, why?) As with any story where the characters slip about in time, there are plot holes through which one could drive a truck. And so on; and so forth.

They are children's books. Written for older, serious, literate children, who can cope with long sentences and complex clause structures. They are Celtic. They are pagan, although pleasingly free of anti-Christian posturing. And they are assured: what sells them in the end is their almost-unfailing assurance of tone, their conviction that the dream is real. One of the few times that assurance slips, the narrator makes a defensive comment on the childishness of the two prophetic rhymes that summarize the action. She need not have bothered, for here is the last verse of the simpler poem, which is surely effective enough:
Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold;
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Easter for grownups ...

... courtesy of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury: here's his sermon for Easter Day. On facing the inevitability of death:
Maturity lies in accepting the truth - and then making the most of every moment of sensation so that our response is as deep and wholehearted as may be. 'This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou must leave ere long', as Shakespeare has it at the end of one of his most memorable sonnets (no.73).

Yet here comes the Easter gospel, apparently determined to upset this stoical maturity and to promise us just that eternal life we are urged to leave behind as a childish fantasy. Death will be 'overcome', 'swallowed up in victory'. (I Cor 15.54) Is the Christian gospel just a version of that popular but problematic passage sometimes read at funerals, beginning 'Death is nothing at all' and talking of it as just 'slipping into the next room'?

That's not quite the tone of what St Paul or any of the other New Testament writers is saying - nor of some of the ancient hymns and prayers of the Church in this season ...

Monday, 24 March 2008

Kermode on Vermes on the Resurrection

In the current London Review of Books, just in time for Easter, the critic Frank Kermode reviews Geza Vermes' book "The Resurrection". Sadly, it's not in the publicly-accessible section, so if you're a non-subscriber you'll need to content yourself with snippets, or shell out for the full article. (Or maybe just subscribe: the LRB is an excellent read.) The article, and apparently the book, is an example of informed, reasonable scepticism concerning Christian claims: the sort of thing local author John Dickson was calling for in Friday's Herald.

Of course, one has always been able to find literate discussions in journals like the LRB ... but popular discourse lately has been dire. When I was an undergraduate, one ran into lots of on-campus criticism of Christianity that was complacently ignorant: rather like on-campus talk on some other subjects. One expects people to grow out of such posturing, but it seems some folk never did; and in recent years it has become acceptable, for whatever reason, to dismiss the Christian faith in ill-informed and wholesale terms.

By contrast to this, both Vermes and Kermode are concerned to take the New Testament seriously; this is not to say that they "agree" with it, or with Christianity more generally. Vermes, writes Kermode, is interested in
the inconsistencies, the flaws in testimony, the narrative faults, of the New Testament record, treated as evidence, however flawed, of something that happened. As he remarks, he feels his responsibility to be judicial in character; his main business will be to see whether the stories told by the witnesses stand up in court [... for the] Christian creeds emphasise the presence in their accounts of an undoubtedly historical character, Pontius Pilate [... whereas in] a different sort of narrative he might not have a proper name but be simply the Governor, the Procurator or the like, and we should not need to be told as much as we are about him ...
They go on to disagree on what to make of the Pilate material in John's Gospel, as well one might.

Christian scholarship and advocacy should likewise know what it is talking about, acknowledge other competent interpreters, and avoid claiming too much. For a Herald article, Dickson's piece was very good in this way, and was even willing to take some small swings at his own side. Too often in this town, there seems instead to be a "not in front of the children" attitude about public statements: an idea that one must avoid saying anything that might dismay or confuse the humble believer; an anxiety about always staying on-message. Statements and articles of this kind (some of which can be found on the Sydney Anglican website) either leave me cold, or leave me infuriated ... and since I'm conservative enough that I believe the Nicene Creed, it's not as though this is a question of orthodoxy.

So if Dickson's piece reflects a renewed willingness for conservative Christians here to talk on something other than our own, zealously guarded home turf --- a willingness to communicate --- then three cheers for it.

[Thanks to The Blogging Parson for pointing out the Dickson article.]

Sunday, 23 March 2008

(2) the o-furo

Number 2 of "Ten things I love about Japan".

Taking a bath in Japan is a pretty big deal. As you might expect in a country blessed with hot springs, there is a whole culture and way of bathing, and in ordinary (and entirely modern) homes you will find a bath quite unlike the ones we use in the West: short, very deep --- one can sit in the o-furo immersed up to the neck --- and with a recirculator that can maintain or modify the temperature of the water for as long as you please. Think of a hot spa, without bubbles, built for one person ... or for two people who know each other very, very well.

Let's get something straight: the bath is not for washing in. No, no, no, no, no. When you get into the bath, you should already be clean. (A shower is supplied for this purpose, perhaps with a small stool to sit on if you prefer: the Japanese use the European-style showers where the head is attached to a long flexible hose.) The bath is for taking your ease; it is a small version of the onsen, the public baths (artificial, or at hot springs) for social soaking. Foreigners tend to think the Japanese are uptight, but this is at best a partial picture: the Japanese take relaxation very, very seriously.

Soap may be out of the question, but beer is another story. So are snack foods. I myself am partial to a certain kind of prawn chip, common in Japan, shaped like a twist of rope the size of a child's finger. Colleagues offered me a plate of these chips at a party once, asking if I liked them; I praised them as the ideal accompaniment for beer, when sitting in the o-furo and drinking. The younger Japanese standing around smiled, nodded, and broke out into polite applause: in this taste, if in nothing else, I had gone native.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Saturday. Adelaide. Pärt. Miserere. ABC.

For those in Australia, or with access to ABC Classic FM on the web:

A programme by the Adelaide Chamber Singers will be broadcast live from St Peter's Cathedral in Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival, this Saturday from 11:00 pm Sydney time. The first work is Arvo Pärt's extraordinary setting of the Miserere, previously discussed on this blog.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Fish, on a fish out of water

In the NYT opinion section there's a post from Stanley Fish that tries to distinguish good and bad reasons for opposing a controversial university appointment: thoughtful as always. For example, here's a striking portrait of the plight of the outsider in certain special kinds of community:
he or she will lack the internalized understanding that renders the features of the enterprise intelligible, and in the absence of that understanding, the wanderer in a strange land will see only anomalies and mistakes that should be corrected. Items in a practice are not known piecemeal; you don’t learn them by listing them. You learn them by being so embedded in the practice that everything that happens within it has a significance you don’t have to strain for because it is perspicuous without any mental effort at all ...

Monday, 25 February 2008

Teenage boys are human after all ...

... according to a survey discussed in the NYT on the weekend. This reads like another of those studies that gets over-interpreted because its results are striking on their face, but the discussion in the article is interesting. A sample: after noting that the survey results --- which showed that boys were motivated by things other than sex --- had been greeted with derision by male bloggers, it's stated that
skepticism about boys in their teens isn’t surprising ... but it reveals more about what’s going on in the minds of adults, than of teenagers.

“Grown men often deny how dependent they are on women,” said Michael G. Thompson, a psychologist specializing in children and families and co-author of the book “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.” “The idea that you could pine for a girl, and be devastated by a girl makes an adult man uncomfortable. It reminds them of how profoundly attached they get to women.”

Sunday, 24 February 2008

The science of pretty pictures

There's a great set of photos in The Week in Science at the New York Times, with links to the relevant articles (both in the NYT and in journals etc.)

Saturday, 23 February 2008

An enquiry concerning the proper use of scientific arguments, wherein our author loses his sense of humour

My mate Eb remarked, re that last post, about flame wars starting when people tried to "fix" something "wrong" on the Web late at night ...

... and he might as well have been talking about me. There was a post last week at nothing new under the sun, which has since been buried under a pile of long comments from yours truly. Byron has occasionally gotten a word in edgeways.

The original post concerns a Jared Diamond article on agriculture; the (ahem) "discussion" concerns the sciences, myths, their nature, and the proper use of scientific arguments in wider disputes. My point, in part, is that there are limits to what counts as a fair argument, even if the cause in question is Really Really Important.

I am sensible of the irony (if not the absurdity) of trying to establish this point using an extended series of posts to someone else's blog.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Four reactions to an apology

I guess even people outside Australia have noticed that on Wednesday the federal parliament passed a motion of apology to the nation's aboriginal people, in particular the so-called Stolen Generations: victims of policies of removal of aboriginal children from their families. Of almost equal symbolic importance was the speech by the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in support of the motion.

There has been a lot of talk on this during the week and in a sense I do not have much to add to it. But by chance it's my duty to offer prayers this morning, on behalf of the 10:00 AM congregation at my church, and so I have to reach some kind of publicly useful position on the week's business. On the one hand, this is dark history that (as the PM says) cries out for recognition and redress. On the other, it is a fearful thing to inject irrelevant polemic into a public prayer, and so I've been trying to understand to what extent this apology really is controversial. As a way of thinking through this, here are a couple of (very different) reactions I think should be rejected; and one, equally critical, that I think should be treated with respect. (Skip to the end if you want to get to the positive bit!!)

(1) Easiest to dismiss is Miranda Devine's statement in the Herald that the PM was fanning the flames of the "culture wars". Coming from a serial arsonist, this really was a bit much ... and if Ms Devine truly thinks (as she says) that Mr Rudd is taking up the approach of former prime minister Paul Keating, then her memory is worse than mine, or her imagination more powerful. I fully admit to having enjoyed Mr Keating's use of aboriginal rights and history as a cudgel to beat his political opponents: at the time, I also thought it was clever politics, a way of bringing the Labor Party in line to support land rights (after the initiative of the High Court) that it might otherwise have held at arms length. In retrospect he was wrong, and so was I. That polemical approach sowed the wind, and we then reaped the whirlwind for eleven-and-a-half long years: reaction that could point to what it reacted against, accuse it of partisan ideology and impracticality ... and be at least partly right.

So there, Ms Devine: I was wrong; so was Paul Keating, at least in this respect. As for the Labor Party, it is currently led by a dentist (figuratively speaking), a bureaucrat, a plain and uninspiring speaker (although his litany-inspired speech yesterday was, for him, unusually good) ... the kind of man who can say without irony that he is excited by establishing evidence-based policies. I take that as a token that the ALP is also willing, in this matter at least, to move on. Perhaps you could try it yourself. I understand that newspapers thrive on controversy, and on "debate" between "opposed" positions, and thus there's a kind of premium on taking a contrary view. But come on: this is important.

(2) Criticism instead from the left, and (as it were) from above, comes from a guest-post by Scott Stephens at Faith and Theology: The apology and the moral significance of guilt, accusing the PM and Parliament of tokenism and empty spectacle and (his words) enlisting aboriginal people "to take part in a kind of emotional pornography for the benefit of thousands of white Australian viewers".

I find this kind of purism --- this apology does not go far enough, so it is worse than useless --- infuriating. One could take issue with the details of the argument: for example, if it's intention that matters, as Mr Stephens Kants, doesn't that count against the approach of Paul Keating? (Mr Stephens faults the PM's language for not being as robust as PK's storied Redfern Speech: "we took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life … we committed the murders … " and so on.) As mentioned, I loved the Redfern Speech and I love PK, but the man can barely open his mouth without at least incidentally swiping at his enemies, Redfern not excepted: surely this is intentional at some level, and thereby compromises the action? Or if one's vice has become so ingrained that it proceeds without any higher-level volition, is it thereby innocent? (Hint: The Christian answer to that question is "no".)

But such arguments are incidental: I just cannot see the merit in trying and convicting the Prime Minister of compromise, of judging the limits of achievable consensus --- of being a politician. This is not news. Nor is it criticism. It is self-indulgence.

And yet ... Mr Stephens is held in regard by at least some other people I respect, and I have learned from experience to be careful of dismissing someone where this is true. There's also something a bit suspicious in a scientist accusing a theologian of contrariety and self-indulgence: because I would say that, wouldn't I? Maybe my reaction against this sort of posturing is part of some Two Cultures problem, however I have, as Mr Darcy would say, not yet learnt to condemn it.

(3) Both Ms Devine and Mr Stephens appeal for support to Noel Pearson, the aboriginal leader whose fierce independence of previous debate has won him enormous authority in the wider Australian community. Read his reflections the night before the apology, and also shortly after the election last year, and you will see why. In fact, one could profitably skip the Devine and Stephens articles and read Pearson alone: the substantial points against the current bien-pensant consensus are all there, but they are set in the midst of an argument that is actually about the problem of dealing with this history, and the present, in political terms, rather than using the apology as a tool in some other dispute.

Mr Pearson is in two minds about the apology, and seems to feel no need to condense his views into a easily-repeated "reaction". I will honour that restraint by simply saying: read what he has to say.

(4) As for me, I have no plan to repeat the apology later this morning: that would be presumptuous and unnecessary. But I do want to use it as a starting point, or (perhaps better) as background: for how can one ignore it this week? And when will we get a topic more fitting for reflection during Lent? "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?", asks the hymn. The answer to the question is "Yes", but it is not a simple yes by any means, and some of the issues are the same.

At Good Friday services at the Lutheran church in Geneva --- it doubles as a kind of chaplaincy to visiting English-speakers, and (a little perversely) as a British Commonwealth get-together --- a striking hymn was sung in the nineties, adapted from a Zulu (and Xhosa?) protest song. It was powerfully used to invite reflection on the crucifixion, and on all human sin, especially sins committed in company: the simple chorus will stay with me all my life.

Senzenina --- What have we done? What have we done? What have we done?

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Two takes on the US budget ...

... both from the New York Times: one from the science pages, hoping that America's recent unilateral disarmament in Big Science may come to an end; and one from the editorial page, lamenting the fact that the budget as a whole is broken.

I am torn. If my own concerns were to take a hit as part of some reasonable, overall accounting --- a spreading-out of necessary restraint --- then it would be hard to object. But the process in the States at the moment is neither reasonable, nor global, nor an accounting. The Bush Administration is a long bad dream, defiantly resisting its wake-up call, and the new president is still a whole year away. (It is going to be a long year at that.) Meanwhile the Congress is in some kind of holding pattern.

A propos of the election: how strange is it that Hillary Clinton seems the least fictional option for president? An Obama v. McCain contest would resemble nothing so much as the final season of The West Wing, with John McCain playing Honest Arnie Vinick, and Barack as Matt Santos, substituting black for brown. If the junior senator from Illinois is considering an older man as his running mate, he would be wise to first insist on a visit to a cardiac specialist ...

Monday, 14 January 2008

A winged (and sunshaded) messenger ...

... is going to fly by the planet Mercury later today (at 19:04:39 Greenwich time). The MESSENGER spacecraft is making the first of three gravity-assist passes by the planet, modifying its orbit around the sun before making a final manouevre to achieve orbit of Mercury in 2011. In the course of these flying visits, the probe will be mapping the planet and making other studies to prepare for the eventual orbital mission.

Mercury has only been visited by one other mission --- three flying passes by the Mariner 10 probe over thirty years ago --- and placing a modern probe in orbit will dramatically increase our knowledge of the solar system's smallest planet.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington. (Image taken on 12th January, 1.2 million kilometres from the planet: details are available at the MESSENGER web site.)

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Give the man his due

Olivia Judson (a.k.a. Dr Tatiana) blogs on the NYT side concerning Alfred Russel Wallace, evolution's Other Guy. It was his birthday on January 8th (OK, so I missed it), and in five months it will be a hundred-and-fifty years since his letter to Charles Darwin that, by showing that someone else was onto the idea, prompted him to publish The origin of species by means of natural selection.

Second in time and in profundity to the sainted Charles, Wallace has missed out both on being a scientific pin-up and on being the scapegoat for a million social and conceptual ills. (Heads up, people: "it" is not Charles Darwin's fault. Or Alfred Russel Wallace's. Or the fault of biology. If you want someone to blame for whatever dreadful thing you think has been unleashed, you might more accurately try Herbert Spencer.) Of course, I should not wish the latter fate on anyone's memory. But as for Wallace's scientific standing: this is a man who, whatever his other weaknesses, independently hit upon the idea of evolution by natural selection, one of the great concepts of any age, and the key in the lock of natural history. Let's give him his due.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Blinded by the light

It's thirty-five years since the release of Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Bruce Springsteen's first album and an eternal member of my top-ten-disc list: an album I could not bear to part with.

Let's begin at the beginning, with Blinded by the light, which you may know from the Manfred Mann's Earth Band version of 1976. Mann is bright, full, polished, and somewhat over-processed; Springsteen's original version is a rangy, burstingly articulate shaggy-dog revelation of a song, overstuffed with internal-rhyming lyrics but somehow still loose and jangly. The other album highlight is Lost in the flood, a lush triptych of apocalyptic stories that proceed from dream-horrors to the truly terrifying: the casual cruelty and indifference of ordinary people. At the other end of the scale, I have a personal fondness for the quietest and least typical entry, The Angel, which is merely a poem set to sad music. (But what a poem!) There is not a dull song on the album, although there are some strange ones, and in all of them surprises of music, of image, or of sheer poetic beauty.

Greetings is one of those first-published-works with a coltish energy, what Lester Bangs described (in his Rolling Stone review) as "reveling in the joy of utter crass showoff talent run amuck and totally out of control". Springsteen's next album, a bare eight months later, has a similar zest but more polish, and was a bit more popular; his 1975 album, Born to Run, set the world on fire. And for the wider public, "Bruce Springsteen" pretty much begins in 1975, the song Rosalita excepted. But for those who have ears to hear, all of the talent and poetry and promise and joy is there in January '73, together with that utter-crass-showoff edge that the mature albums --- for all their wonders --- don't quite recapture.

Like others of my generation I got interested in Springsteen because of the Born in the USA tour: it was one of my English teachers, possibly the only person at my high school who shared the interest, who put me on to the early albums. My schoolfriends listened in incomprehension as I obsessed and enthused about the poetry and the energy of this work, and it wasn't until years later that I discovered I shared the love with critics, fans worldwide, and the entire state of New Jersey. But since the knowledge isn't general, the least I can do on this anniversary is to pass on the good news. If you haven't heard Greetings: you must. And Mr Buchan --- if you're out there --- thank you from the bottom of my heart.