Archive for April, 2011


Posted in Uncategorized on April 28, 2011 by telescoper

Well, dear readers, I’m going on a spot of holidays until term resumes on 9th May and have made a conscious decision not to take my blogging machine with me on my journey to distant lands. So, until then, there will follow a short intermission…

Dust to Dust

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 27, 2011 by telescoper

Hey look! It’s our very own Haley Gomez (interviewed by Gemma Lavender) last week in Llandudno!


Best movement illusion I have ever seen…. (via Richard Wiseman’s Blog)

Posted in Uncategorized on April 27, 2011 by telescoper

This sort of thing doesn’t usually work with my wonky eyes, but this one is pretty spectacular even for me. Click on the image to get the full size version

Best movement illusion I have ever seen.... First, if you enjoy the Friday Puzzle, I have just posted 101 of them here. Second, I now can't figure out who kindly sent this to me, but I love it (to get the full effect, it might be good to click on the image and open it up full size)….. Does it work for you? … Read More

via Richard Wiseman's Blog

Gravity and Grace

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2011 by telescoper

This morning I came across the following quotation, which is translated from the book Le Pesanteur et la Grace (i.e. “Gravity and Grace“), written in 1947 by French philosopher Simone Weil:

Science today must search for a source of inspiration higher than itself or it must perish.

Science offers only three points of interest: 1. technical applications; 2. as a game of chess; 3. as a way to God.

I’m not sure I agree with what is written, and in any case the options don’t seem to me to be mutually exclusive, but a number of things did strike me reading it.

For a start, and for what it’s worth, I do think science has value within itself, so I’m at odds a bit with the initial premise. On the other hand, science is a human activity and it therefore doesn’t stand apart from other thing humans are interested in.

Then there is the extent to which we now all have to pretend that pretty much the only point of interest in science is “1. technical applications”. I don’t believe that’s true, actually, and I’m worried that by continually saying that it is, scientists might be sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

And then there’s “the game of chess”. I’m actually hopeless at chess, but I understand this as representing some form of abstract mental challenge.  If that’s what it does mean, then I’d agree that’s probably what got me interested in science. I’ve always been pathologically interested in puzzles. When I look at galaxies and stars, I don’t tend to gaze at them in awe at their enormity or beauty, I just tend to wonder how they work and what they’re made of. I don’t really mind people having a sense of awe, of course, but there’s a danger that if we take that too far we end up being over-awed which might make us shy away from the biggest questions. To me the Universe is just a great big puzzle, though it’s actually rather a tough one. I’m still stuck on 1 across, in fact…

Finally, we have science as “a way to God”. I find it quite interesting that a Christian philosopher could present science as that, especially when so many of my atheistic colleagues regard science and religion as polar opposites. It seems likely to me that anyone who studies science primarily as a means of finding God is probably in for a disappointment. I’m reminded of a quote  from Thomas à Kempis I learned at school:

The humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than the deepest search after science.

But that’s not to say that science and religion are incompatible with each other. I think they’re basically orthogonal, although in an abstract space with an extremely complicated geometry…

One of the interesting things about working in cosmology is that the big questions are very big indeed, which may be the reason why cosmologists tend to have strong views on matters of religion (and metaphysics in a general sense).  Just take the Templeton Prize, for example. The arguments about this year’s award to Lord (Martin) Rees are still simmering on, but it’s worth remembering that many recent winners of this prize, including John Barrow (my PhD supervisor, in fact) and  George Ellis (former collaborator of mine), are most noted for their work in cosmology. Both are religious: John Barrow is a member of the United Reformed Church, and George Ellis is a Quaker. Martin Rees is an atheist. But their religious views are not in conflict with their research. All are outstanding scientists.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the Easter holiday about religion and science. It’s partly the Templeton prize saga, partly the occasion of Easter itself, and partly the fact that I’ve been reading even more of the poems of R.S. Thomas. In case you didn’t know I was brought up in the (Anglican) Christian tradition, attended Sunday School, sang in the local Church Choir, and was confirmed in the Church of England. When I went to seconday school – the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle – I joined the Christian Union and remained in it for 3-4 years.

Although  I was immersed in Christianity – the Christian Union was vigorously Evangelical – it didn’t really stick and eventually all melted away.   I don’t really remember precisely what it was then that made me turn away from religion, although the sins of the flesh might have had something to do with it…

However, although I became an atheist I’ve never been a particularly devout one. The only thing that I’m really sure about is that I don’t know the answers. Does that make me an agnostic rather than an atheist? I don’t know. Perhaps I could just describe myself as a non-believer? That wouldn’t do either, because we all have to believe in some things in order to function at all. Even science starts with unprovable axioms.

A career in cosmology has given me the opportunity to think about many Big Questions. Why does the Universe have laws? Why is there something rather than nothing? And so on. I’m not much of a philosopher, though, and  I don’t have the answers. I do, however, refuse to take the easy way out by denying that the questions have meaning. Of course it’s not entirely satisfactory having to answer “I don’t know”, but I don’t agree with those of my atheist colleagues who think religion is an easy way out. I’m sure that a thinking Christian has just as many difficult issues to grapple with as a thinking atheist. Not thinking at all is the only really easy way out.

A few years ago I spoke at an interesting meeting in Cambridge entitled God or Multiverse? In fact there’s a picture below of the panel discussion at the end -I’m second from the right:

I thought it was an interesting dialogue, but I have to say that, if anything, it strengthened my non-belief. Prof. Keith Ward argued that the primary motivation for belief in God was the existence of “Good”. I have to admit that I find the Universe as a whole amoral and although humans have done good from time to time they have done evil in at least equal measure. The vast majority of people on this Earth live in poverty, many of them in abject misery. Good is a bad word to describe this state of affairs.

I just can’t accept the idea of a God that is interested in the Universe at the level of human beings. We’re so insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, that it seems very arrogant to me to suppose that it’s really got much to do with us. We appeared somehow, miraculously perhaps, but could disappear just as easily. I doubt the Universe would miss us much.

But I might be wrong.


True North

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on April 25, 2011 by telescoper

Following on from an earlier post in which, amongst other things, I tried to educate the residents of internetshire about the facts of English geography, let me put an end to the argument about what is the North and what isn’t.

For reference please consult the following map, kindly supplied by an angry commenter calling himself Chris from Yorkshire (The North)…

..I’m sure this proves beyond all reasonable doubt that “The North”  actually means Northumberland – the clue’s in the name, really. The nameless County between Northumberland and Durham is Tyne and Wear – a relatively recent invention which confuses the issue slightly, but which I include in my definition of “The North” for historical reasons.

Anyway, my point is that Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool etc are all much further South than The North. Even North Yorkshire isn’t really in the North, as any objective reading of the map proves. Sorry, Chris from Yorkshire (The Midlands). I rest my case.

P.S. Looking at the peculiarities of the border between England and Wales has helped me understand why the train crossed in and out of England so many times between Cardiff and Llandudno last week!

R.S. Thomas, a Short Biography

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on April 25, 2011 by telescoper

I came across this short documentary about the poet R.S. Thomas on Youtube and thought I’d share it.

The documentary was made in anticipation of Thomas winning the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, for which he had been nominated. Sadly he didn’t win it, and the honour went to Seamus Heaney.

The film is only a few minutes long, but it says a lot about the man and his life as well as featuring two of his greatest poems. One, Children’s Song, I’ve posted before; the other is The Other, which is reproduced here:

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

Apparently, at St Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, where Thomas was vicar for many years, you can see a large slate with this poem carved upon it; it is shown at the end of the short film. I don’t know why, but I have developed a curious longing to visit that place …


The Sunset Poem

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on April 24, 2011 by telescoper

I hope you’ve had as relaxing and peaceful an Easter as I have…I’ve done very little apart from sitting in the garden doing the crosswords. I thought I’d bid you good evening with this lovely piece of music. In fact it was one of the numbers we heard performed in fine style after the NAM conference dinner at Llandudno last week. It’s Rev. Eli Jenkins’ Prayer from Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas which is also sometimes known as The Sunset Poem. It’s a different choir, though. This is the Dunvant Male Voice Choir and they’re filmed on the breezy clifftops overlooking the beautiful Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsula.

Every morning when I wake,
Dear Lord, a little prayer I make,
O please do keep Thy lovely eye
On all poor creatures born to die

And every evening at sun-down
I ask a blessing on the town,
For whether we last the night or no
I’m sure is always touch-and-go.

We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.

O let us see another day!
Bless us all this night, I pray,
And to the sun we all will bow
And say, good-bye – but just for now!


Bach for Easter

Posted in Music with tags , on April 24, 2011 by telescoper

Well, it’s Easter Sunday and it seems entirely appropriate to post this to mark the occasion. It’s the Sinfonia from the wonderful Easter Oratio BWV 249 by Johann Sebastian Bach, first performed on Easter Day in 1725.

When to believe new physics results (via Occasional Musings of a Particle Physicist)

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on April 23, 2011 by telescoper

This seems like a good day for reblogging, so try this for size. It gives instructions on when to believe stories about discoveries of exciting new physics by large consortia…

It’s an interesting piece, however it does seem to me that it gives necessary conditions for believing a result, but not sufficient ones. It’s not unknown for refereed articles to be wrong…

Here's a brief summary giving my understanding of how physics results are determined in collaborations of hundreds or thousands of physicists such as the experiments at the LHC and when to believe a new physics effect has been seen.  Someone within the collaboration from an institute (university, lab, etc.) has an idea for an analysis. A few people within the institute do some preliminary studies on existing experimental and/or simulated data to … Read More

via Occasional Musings of a Particle Physicist

Is AV better than FPTP? (via Gowers’s Weblog)

Posted in Politics on April 23, 2011 by telescoper

Here’s an interesting discussion of the Alternative Vote versus First Past The Post voting systems. This is the issue to be decided at the Referendum on 5th May in case you didn’t know…

Is AV better than FPTP? On May 5th the UK will vote in a referendum for only the second time ever. (The first time was in 1975, when we voted on whether to remain in the EU, or the Common Market as it was then called.) Now we have a chance to decide whether to retain our current voting system, misleadingly known as First Past The Post, or whether to switch to the Alternative Vote. Let me come clean straight away. Although in this post I shall try to write dispassionatel … Read More

via Gowers's Weblog