Thursday, 30 June 2011

7 years bad luck

Feeling, as I do, relatively free from superstition these days, why is it so hard to escape from the myth that 7 years bad luck would result from breaking a mirror.

The last time I broke a mirror I was about 13 years old.  It appeared to me that my 7 years of bad luck really did happen.  Now I think back I can't imagine why I thought that.  The years before that didn't seem to be any better.  The years after the end of the allocated time of retribution coincided with a time when I had a lot more control over my own destiny and it can't be too surprising that I enjoyed that.  I assume it was just normal teenage angst.

Re-decorating a room in the house I finally decided to remove some mirror tiles that had been installed by a previous resident.  I took down the previous  set of these tiles (in another room) a few years ago, and I was very careful not to break them or to put them in a place where their accidental breakage might be 'deemed to be my fault'.  Deemed by whom?  I don't know.  But it just seemed safer to put them safely and unbroken under the floor boards in the loft.

This time I am plucking up the courage to put them in the dustbin.  They will inevitably get broken sometime soon.  Of course intellectually I don't believe that anyone will get bad luck from the event, but somewhere deep inside I am left to wonder who might deserve the bad luck when it happens.  Is it me? After all, when I put them carefully into the bin they were not broken.  But on the other hand I knowingly put them in a place where they will be broken.

Or does the poor man who empties the bin into the lorry unwittingly get cursed?  This type of justice would seem consistent with certain other common superstitions (namely those attributed to the god of the Old Testament).  There is no justice in the world of superstition.  You would have been lucky to get away with a mere 7 years in the OT, instead of dooming the next four generations of your family.

Here goes!  Wish me luck for the next 7 years.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The last words from the moon . . . perhaps

Officially . . . .

"America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow, and as we leave the moon . . . peace and hope for all mankind.  God speed the crew of Apollo 17"


according to 'most',

just before lunar liftoff Gene Cernan (the last man on the moon) showed his mastery of words and said

"Lets get this mother out of here"

Ronnie Barker 'one-liners'

Love him or hate him, Ronnie Barker was one of the great icons of British humour.  Click the picture to see him in action.

Sorting through a folder of unsorted files I came across these and chuckled my way through them! 

"The search for the man who terrorises nudist camps with a bacon slicer goes on. Inspector Lemuel Jones had a tip-off this morning, but hopes to be back on duty tomorrow."

"Have you heard the one about the retired general who said he had not had sex since 1956? His friend said, 'That's a long time ago.' 'I don't know,' the general replied. 'It's only 20.27 now."

"There was a strange happening during a performance of Elgar's Sea Pictures at a concert hall in Bermuda tonight, when the man playing the triangle disappeared."

"Next week we'll be investigating rumours that the president of the dairy council has become a Mason, and goes around giving his colleagues the secret milkshake."

"We'll continue our investigation into the political beliefs of nudists. We've already noticed a definite swing to the left."

"The toilets at a local police station have been stolen. Police say they have nothing to go on."

"In a packed programme tonight we will be talking to an out-of-work contortionist who says he can no longer make ends meet."

"The prime minister held a meeting with the cabinet today. He also spoke to the bookcase and argued with the chest of drawers."

"Following the dispute with the domestic servants' union at Buckingham Palace today, the Queen, a radiant figure in a white silk gown and crimson robe, swept down the main staircase and through the hall. She then dusted the cloakroom and vacuumed the lounge."

"The West Drayton man who has kept himself awake every night for 17 years by snoring has at last found the answer. He's going to sleep in another room."

Arnold Crump a 6ft, hamfisted, hairy drunk with a short temper, acne, bad breath, dandruff, and fleas was named today as Britain's most unwanted man....

A new publishing venture was announced today, the Stock Breeders Gazette and Playboy Magazine are to join to produce the Farmer Sutra...

What a sad loss to the comedy world that he is no longer with us.

And finally, the unforgetable:

Monday, 27 June 2011

The legendary Mr Gorsky

Continuing the Apollo theme from yesterday's post about astronaut Edgar Mitchell, (for no reason at all), everyone knows what Neil Armstrong said when he became the first man to set foot on the moon (even if they argue about exactly what the words were).  But not so many know about the last words that he said before leaving the surface of the moon in 1969.

Good luck Mr Gorsky!

The story goes like this.

Many people at NASA thought it was a casual remark concerning some rival Soviet Cosmonaut. However, upon checking, there was no Gorsky in either the Russian or American space programs. Over the years many people questioned Armstrong as to what the "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky" statement meant, but Armstrong always just smiled.

On July 5, 1995 (in Tampa Bay, FL) while answering questions following a speech, a reporter brought up the 26-year-old question to Armstrong. This time he finally responded. Mr. Gorsky had finally died and so Neil Armstrong felt he could answer the question.

When he was a kid, he was playing baseball with a friend in the backyard. His friend hit a fly ball which landed in the front of his neighbor's bedroom windows. His neighbors were Mr. & Mrs. Gorsky.

As he leaned down to pick up the ball, young Armstrong heard Mrs. Gorsky shouting at Mr. Gorsky, "Oral sex! You want oral sex?! You'll get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!"

Urban myth or the product of the imagination of comedian Buddy Hacket, the story gets a smile every time you tell it.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

PZ Myers writes a letter

On PZ Myers excellent science blog Pharyngula, he has posted a letter that he has written to a 9 year old girl.  It seems that she had been taught by creationist Ken Ham to ask meaningless questions in order to question the authenticity of scientific claims without accidentally learning anything from the answers.

Myers says:

Ken Ham is crowing over fooling a child. A young girl visited a moon rock display from NASA, and bravely went up to the docent and asked the standard question Ham coaches kids to ask — and she's quite proud of herself.
I went to a NASA display of a moon rock and a lady said, "This Moon-rock is 3.75 billion years old!" Guess what I asked for the first time ever?
"Um, may I ask a question?"
And she said, "Of course."
I said, in my most polite voice, "Were you there?"
Love, Emma B
He goes on to write rather a nice rational letter to the girl, although he is unable to post it to her as he does not have her address.

Dear Emma;

I read your account of seeing a 3.75 billion year old moon rock, and how you asked the person displaying it "Were you there?", the question that Ken Ham taught you to ask scientists. I'm glad you were asking questions — that's what scientists are supposed to do — but I have to explain to you that that wasn't a very good question, and that Ken Ham is a poor teacher. There are better questions you could have asked.

One serious problem with the "Were you there?" question is that it is not very sincere. You knew the answer already! You knew that woman had not been to the moon . . .

Click here to read on.

Psychic astronaut's missing psi

Apollo 14's lunar module pilot, Edgar Mitchell is well known for his interest in the paranormal.  He set up the Institute for Noetic Sciences (mentioned in one of Dan Brown's rambling and predictable novels - which I regret reading last year).  That sounds interesting but on further investigation seems to be a good example of scientism and of course it is a non-profit organisation which is . . . er hmm . . . tax exempt.

Mitchell's wikipedia page includes a reference to his trip to the moon:

On his way back to earth during the Apollo 14 flight he had a powerful Savikalpa samadhi experience, and also claimed to have conducted private ESP experiments with his friends on Earth.

The first of these statements refers to a state of mind where 'the human consciousness is dissolved and lost for a short period of time'.  After being the sixth man to walk on the moon I think I would expect dreams like that.

The second refers to an experiment described by James Randi in his famous 1980 book Flim Flam.  Olle Jonsson was one of three friends who attempted to receive Mitchell's brain waves from outer space, and Mitchell later claimed that the results were more than 3000 to 1 against chance.

What Mitchell neglected to mention was that Jonsson had failed so poorly that the chances were 3000 to 1 against.  This is a phenomenon known in the trade as 'psi-missing'.  In order to get such an unlikely event, surely the paranormal must have been at work.

So next time you hear stories about astronauts claiming that they are specially selected as the most rational people, highly trained to carry out their mission, perhaps you should just ask a skeptical question. 

Was their remarkable claim directly related to the mission?  

If not, then their special skills might be no more relevant to a full understanding of the nature of the universe than your's and mine.

Sunday humour

Here are some Sunday smiles for you (I hope).  The first one is rather sweet . . .

and so is the second . . .

and the third just seems to me to be funny because it is so true.

Small note of appreciation: thanks to Sarah for entertaining me with these.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Green and pleasant land . . .

Parry's inspiring hymn, Jerusalem, has become a second national anthem to many people.  It is an anthem for England, rather than for Britain.  The words "in England's green and pleasant land" evoke true feeling, even for those with no faith in Jesus or those who live in the cities.

Does this say something about rainy summers in England?  Some of my overseas colleagues despair at the rain but I try to remind them that England is only green in August if it has rained a bit in the preceding months.  Soft summer rain is part of English life, with tennis at Wimbledon and cricket at Lords interrupted by the weather.

Here is England's green and pleasant land, with a splash of red!

It was taken on the Yorkshire Wolds at the time of my father's funeral, 9 years ago, but the sight of fields of poppies brings back happy memories, not sad.

Don't worry - I am not hankering for my christian past just because I mentioned a hymn.  As with most great hymns I loved the music but found the words even more intractable than those used elsewhere in Sunday services.  If you clicked on the link to the Youtube video at the top of this post I would like to bet that you found yourself singing along  with it.

Irreducible complexity - another myth

One of the common arguments against evolution, put forward by the creationists, is that of supposed irreducible complexity.   The term was coined by the notorious proponent of 'Intelligent Design', Michael Behe, but the idea itself is much older.  In the 18th century William Paley used a watch as an analogy of the world in an attempt to 'prove' that there was evidence of design all around us.  Darwin had to study Paley's works of philosophy at university, and it seems that he recognised flaws in the arguments. People had inferred the existence of a creator from their own lack of an explanation - from their own ignorance..

Darwin addressed this in his own works.  In the introduction to the Descent of Man he wrote:

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

Of course the arguments of creationists might be easy to refute but it is difficult to make them listen.  Even when there is clear evidence against their 'appeal to ignorance' approach they will not change their point of view.  They make claims that don't make sense, including the common idea that "half an eye is no use to anyone".  They say that they cannot imagine how an eye could possibly have evolved and that it must have been created in its complete final form.

But in fact, the evolution of the eye can be seen at every necessary stage of evolution in living or fossilised animals.  In this video, Richard Dawkins explains why half an eye really is better than no eye at all.

[The video that was originally embedded here was withdrawn from Youtube - but here is a replacement which is just as good -- 29th January 2012]

Incidentally, it is thought that eyes have evolved independently on at least 10 different occasions so far.  The alternative that you might find most familiar is the compound design that is common in insects.  Our own 'design' has been around for about half a billion years, having originally evolved in a fishy ancestor.

Friday, 24 June 2011

The myth of half-humans

A christian (creationist) friend asked me some questions about evolution and on this occasion I felt able to give an answer!

If we evolved from say, apes or something similar, then why is it that we have gone backwards in some areas?  Babies, for example, can't fend for themselves at all, but baby apes/gorillas develop much quicker to be able to fend a little for themselves.

Also, where are the half-ape/half-humans now and the half whatever came before dogs and half dogs etc?  I am sure there is an answer to this, but just wondering what it is.

The apes question is a good one, commonly asked and not altogether silly.  The point is that we did not evolve from say chimpanzees or bonobos or gorillas any more than any of them evolved from us.  All these species have a niche in the world where it is actually pretty good to have their individual characteristics.  We had a common ancestor with bonobos and chimps most recently (6 millions years ago if I remember correctly, with them branching apart from each other after that).  We had a common ancestor with gorillas a little earlier, orangutans a little earlier than that.

The shared common ancestor at each branching point in the family tree is now extinct, but has led to today's different species.  That's why there are no intermediate forms alive today, and there never have been half-ape/half-humans.

It is also worth noting that evolution does not 'plan'.  Our ancestors were no more trying to become human than we are trying to become something even more advanced.  Evolution is the non-random survival of randomly-produced variations.

There is nothing to say that evolution produces continuous improvement, but if it does it there is nothing to say that all features improve at the same time (if at all).  Using your example, the relatively high dependency of our infants is more than offset by their final intelligence, and what counts is their ability to reach breeding age more than the route they take to get there.

Did that make sense?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Fruit of England

It is Wimbledon time, and nothing about Wimbledon is better than strawberries.  Fortunately, in rural England this beautiful fruit is not as extortionately expensive as it is in the vicinity of Centre Court.

This bowl of fruit was fresh from the garden a few minutes before the photo was taken.  Delicious!  Isn't it amazing how blue fruit bowls have evolved to look so good with strawberries?  (I'm just turning the Paley's watch argument upside down.)

Tweet on time - with klout

Have you discovered the power of Twitter?  You might notice that I tweet about all my blog posts and sometimes retweet other people's ideas.  You might have found this post or indeed this blog via Twitter.

Since the aim of my posts is always to bring you something surprising (and hopefully I sometimes succeed) it is not enough for me to mention something that you could hardly have failed to notice. So I will mention some other things about Twitter that might not have encountered.

At my place of work - a place that I sometimes feel quite proud of - Twitter is banned.  That seems quite reasonable.  We wouldn't want everyone tweeting all the time.  They have work to do.  However, a few of my colleagues working in public relations do use Twitter officially, and since they follow many of the people who follow them, they have expressed surprise that I sometimes tweet during the day.  My esteemed friend and loyal follower, Derby Skeptic, asked almost the opposite question.  "Are you on the web all the time?"  Neither had reckoned with a nice little web tool that I have been using, as recommended by The Honest Blogger.  I ignore her implication that the rest of us might be less honest and appreciate her advice. :)

Hootsuite ( is a nice free package that allows you to schedule your tweets.  I have been using it for a few weeks and noticed that it brings in readers from all over the world.  But it is more than just a scheduler.  It allows you to run more than one Twitter account at a time (which I don't, but I might).  It also allows you to see (on one screen) tweets coming in from people you follow, your @mentions, your sent tweets and your direct messages or whatever you like.  You see each of them in a column which updates as often as you tell it to update.

You might not realise that you have something called 'Klout'.  With you can get an indication of your ability to influence social networks.  Hootsuite shows the klout of your contacts and can tell you your own score too.  I hear that only one person has a klout of 100 (but I am not young enough to remember his name).  There are others in the 90s, including Lady Gaga.

OK - my klout has only reached 43 but seems to be rising slowly.  I think a good target would be to keep my klout higher than my age.

Small note: I can also schedule these posts to go out while I am at work.  I make a point not to blog from work.  Then I can be as controversial as I wish without embarrassing anyone else.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Thought for the day - under the spotlight

BBC Radio 4's platitudinous Thought for the Day has come under the spotlight again, with presenter John Humphrys' recent comment that it was ‘frankly bizarre’ to interrupt the BBC’s news programme with ‘what is in essence a sermon’.

It is a sermon with no right of reply.  This morning was partly in praise of the 'saintly' Mother Teresa.  Nobody has a right to point out that not everyone thins so highly of her.  What did Christopher Hitchens call her?  Hell's Angel I think. His book The Missionary Position was a detailed attack on her way of working.

Humphrys seems to sit on the fence when it comes to the question of religion - at least with respect to christianity.  His 2007 book In God we Doubt had a good title but left me a little uncertain that his doubts had developed as far as the title suggests.  On balance I think that he had (at that time) not let go of religion but was well aware of the irrationality of many aspects of it.

Previous attempts to introduce contributions from secular speakers for TFTD have failed, but the British Humanist Association is backing the latest calls for a new review.

Naomi Phillips, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented: ‘The deliberate exclusion of any non-religious voices from participating in one of the most prominent  media forums for debating contemporary moral and ethical issues is a substantial failure on behalf of the BBC. Not only does the BBC fail to provide an opportunity for a balanced discussion –  as a public service broadcaster, it also fails in its duty to provide programming representative of the audience it serves, which must clearly include the very large number of non-religious people in the UK.’

You may remember that I linked to Platitude of the Day (back in January).  That is the antidote you might need at 07:55 in the morning.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Are you a skeptic?

For 25 years or more I think I have been a skeptic without realising it.  Only now I appreciate that there is a real community of like-minded people.  Skepticism is more a philosophy of life that can open your mind to learn something new and surprising every day.  I am sure that the skeptical movement has only become so accessible to all of us because of the freedom of the internet, but other influences have started to play a significant role.  For me, I think that Richard Dawkins' excellent book, The God Delusion, was the catalyst to the way my thoughts have changed.  After reading that book I started to read other works which resonated with my own thoughts more than anything I had read for a long time.  Not all of these were by the people known as 'the new atheists', but several were.

I might have been unaware of my natural 'affiliation' until recently, but this is not to say that I was unaware of the term or the difference between skepticism and cynicism.  Indeed, whenever accused of being a cynic I have always (for as long as I can remember) tried to put on a wry smile and say that I preferred to be thought of as a skeptic.

Even without thinking about it, it seemed obvious that skepticism did not have the destructive undertones of cynicism, which asks questions to undermine rather than to seek information.  I'm not certain that this difference is obvious to everyone though.  It is not a particularly subtle distinction but people often seem to use the two terms interchangeably, especially to try to criticise skeptics when they run out of rational arguments. 

Of course with some people, it is not possible to say anything at all without causing offence.  In particular, I am thinking of many (not all) people of a deeply religious persuasion.  Although apparently it is possible to be a religious skeptic, I suspect that this is quite rare.  Most of the skeptics I know are more or less atheist and in many cases agnostic at the same time.  (Yes - many people really are both.)

There is nothing negative about skepticism, whatever critics may claim.  The logical process of thinking skeptically is 'evidence based' and rational.  We skeptics also have a selection of tools to detect when people try to misrepresent evidence.  (See Delusional Logic.) 

In skepticism we examine claims and judge their value on the basis of something along the lines of 'the scientific method'.  You do not have to be a scientist to do this, and even as a science graduate I received no formal training in critical thinking or 'the scientific method' in its broader sense.  I think this is not uncommon.  A friend who is a PhD qualified physicist told me the other day that she had only learned about these skills through attending classes about philosophy.  Philosophy classes were part of her wider education rather than her specific training in science.

Although science might be a gateway to skepticism I think there are others, most notably comedy.  Comedy writers have to have a special way of looking at the world in order to point out the things that others do not notice.  Their skill-set has a lot in common with the skeptical way of thinking, and humour is undoubtedly a great way to open channels of communication with people.  (Mind you - try making a joke about the Koran and you will see that humour does not always open channels of communication that are useful.)

If you are a fellow skeptic, how old were you when you realised it?  Do you wear the badge of skepticism with pride?  Has it affected your relationships with close family members or friends?  It is a philosophy that can be applied to the whole of your life, and in fact it may be impossible to limit it to just a subset of your everyday experience.

Once you have learned to think skeptically it is a skill that can not be unlearned.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Scotland's finest in the heart of England - KT Tunstall

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon has turned over a new leaf, and the performance yesterday evening was both notable and superb.  It was the best performance that I have ever seen there.  Don't worry.  I am not learning to appreciate the skills of the thespian, but I do appreciate that the RSC is starting to allow its theatre to be used by true stars of contemporary music.

KT Tunstall is the first of those stars to perform there.  Unaccompanied, and with sheer mastery of a little technological wizardry she entertained and amused a packed theatre.  Shakespeare even got a mention, but KT was the star of the evening.

It was fascinating to see how she used a recording device at the beginning of many of the songs to record her own accompanying track either as a beat sequence or using her voice.  The way she made these little recordings seemed to be part of the introduction to the song.  The thing that most impressed me about that aspect of the performance was her mastery of the foot-switches to play the recordings back at exactly the right time to fit in with her performance.

Aside from that, she is an accomplished guitarist, has an incredibly rich and varied voice, and as my daughter said "she is absolutely gorgeous".

The selection of music included many of her well-known songs and a few new ones, with an emphasis on use of her acoustic guitars.  For the encore she finally brought out her electric guitars, and finished the evening with the piano.

What a pity that they sold out of the new EPs so quickly.  I had to visit her web site to buy a copy of The Scarlet Tulip instead.  (She was very proud of the fact that there are no logos and no bar codes on it.)  It is on its way to me now.  Can't wait to hear it all.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Learning from Islamic history

An islamic apologist implored me (@plasma_engineer) on Twitter today to "read history and current events for yourself".

Now I was tempted (no doubt by my alleged misconceptions about islam) to assume that this critic was a man.  But of course she might just as easily be a woman because we are fortunate enough to live in a free country where social media is available to all - yes even to women!  Of course if we lived in a truly Islamic world (or in a country like Saudi Arabia) my initial thoughts would have been certain to be true.  Or is my interpretation of current events so wrong on that topic?

Turning to the history of the religion of peace instead, I cast my mind to the Battle of Poitiers (also known as The Battle of Tours) in 732.  This was possibly the turning point of the first islamic invasion of Europe, where the christian Franks overturned the supremacy of the Umayyad Caliphate.  Had the battle been lost, some say that it is almost inevitable that islam would have overrun Europe by the end of that century.

It was several hundred years before islam seriously threatened Europe again.  This time the significant event was the Siege of Vienna which ended on 11th September 1683.  Notice that date.  Some believe that the date of 11th September has been an open wound in islam since this ignominious event and that bin Laden choose to strike the Twin Towers on the same date in an act of retribution.

Are we now witnessing the third islamic invasion of Europe?  This time it is not a military invasion, but one that is much more subtle and pernicious.  This time we are not allowed to resist it for fear of being politically incorrect and intolerant.  If we are not careful we will leave it too late and medieval sharia law will affect us all.

That brings me back to current affairs.  Did you know that it is estimated that 2000 (yes two thousand) British girls were subjected to genital mutilation last year?  2000 maimed for life because they had the misfortune to be born to muslim parents who took a particularly extreme view of their religion. 2000 who had no choice about the matter even though they live in a free country where they have an absolute right not to be mutilated.  This is a criminal offence in Britain, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.  Not a single case has been brought to trial for fear of inflamming islamic opinion.

So don't lecture me about history or current affairs.  Both of those should provoke moral outrage in any civilised person and I fail to see how anyone can argue against that.

I expect my islamic critic will claim that I am deliberately misrepresenting the situation and will accuse me of being deliberately inflammatory but I assure you that my intention is more to remind people of the risks of accommodating 'creeping islam'.  Already people in free countries (notably Netherlands) have been murdered for using their right to free speech to criticise islam.  Others live with the constant threat of murder.  The courageous  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of the book Infidel and elected member of parliament in Netherlands is one of them.

Religion of peace?  I think not.

Small note: the term 'islamophobia' is often misused especially by islamic apologists who love to claim their non-existent 'right to take offence'.  Islamophobia is not about offending islam.  It is about the perfectly reasonable fear that we should all have of the religion of peace.  Am I islamophobic?  In the sense described here, yes definitely!

Flammable words

One of the early (mercifully short) posts on this blog was a lateral thought entitled "Burning the Qu'ran is out".

People have asked me whether this was an attempt at humour or an attempt to be deliberately inflammatory.

Well . . . yes of course it was a wry look at a topic that was current at the time, when some attention seeking christian pastor in Florida was deliberately stirring up trouble by burning copies of the book.  Although maybe not humorous to everyone the comment was not actually one that anyone should take to heart.  

But however you might have read it, it was more philosophical than inflammatory and I think there is a serious point to be made.  When trying to understand the mysteries of this 'bible of islam' we are often told that it is only possible to understand the true meaning by reading it in the original Arabic.  Translations are prone to error, and the meaning of the inspired words of Allah could be lost in translation.  (I should point out, in case it got lost in translation, that I was using the word bible with a small b, and in that context it was not designed to be provocative, even if this sentence is.)

Aside from the fact that the need to read the original excludes that great majority of the world's population, including the majority of muslims of course, that leads to a serious conclusion.  If you have a copy of the Koran in English, it is specifically not the inspired word of a god, but only an interpretation.

It is only by deliberate thought that anyone should choose to burn a book as a symbol of their hatred of others.  But similarly, it is only by stretching the truth that others can exercise their apparent right to take offence if opposing religious bigots act that way.  If it is only an interpretation when you read it, then it is only an interpretation that is being destroyed.

Where do I stand on this?  Personally I think it is a poor argument to say that you have to read the Arabic.  If the message is that unclear after translation then it is not obvious to me that it is a message that is truly clear to anyone.  However, I would say that it is rather stupid self-publicising nonsense to burn a book as a provocation, however much you despise it.  But on the other hand I would also say that nobody has a 'right not to be offended'. 

Your right to have free speech comes with a price.  It is only because of the right to free speech that all religions are able to preach their myths openly in public.  Our ancestors died fighting for these rights and we should not forget it.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The observable universe

This delightful, humorous and informative picture from the XKCD site is worthy of detailed study.  Among the real items you find the 'Romulan neutral zone' and 'Ford Prefect'.

Being on a logarithmic scale lends a rather special perspective to the universe.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Norway Spiral

One of the strangest atmospheric phenomena of recent times was spotted from northern Norway on 9th December 2009.

The 'Norway spiral' has been studied extensively and the conclusion seems to be that it is an effect related to the launch of a Bulava class missile from the White Sea area, close to Mermansk in northern Russia.  For some reason, the third stage of the missile failed at a high altitude and this optical effect was created.

You may think that this looks like a fake, but there are many different photos of this light in the sky, taken from places far enough apart that it was possible to triangulate its position.  It was within an agreed exclusion zone set aside for test launches of missiles.

See this link for a detailed analysis.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Mischief or insight?

"How can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don't collect stamps . . .

It's like sleeping furiously. It's just wrong!"

A C Grayling may have been an (almost) uncontroversial, non-milititant atheist a few weeks ago when he said that.  Since then he was elected president of the British Humanist Association and he is due to take up office shortly.

Unfortunately though, a storm has blown up and tonight the web site of the Pod Delusion has reported that he has decided to stand down after all.  It seemed probable that he (as an honourable man) might have felt it necessary to do this, as the needless controversy could put the BHA in a bad light, but it is nontheless sad for all involved.

But is this just mischievous campaigning from James O'Malley I wonder?  It was clear from last week's podcast that their sympathies were, at least, divided.  At the time of writing, the BHA's web site mentions nothing about it and I suspect foul play.

The problem is (of course) about Grayling's establishment of the New College of the Humanities with its controversial £18,000 per annum fees.  I find it very surprising that such a furore has been created over the news about the NCH.  Others have been drawn in by association, including Richard Dawkins.  How unusual for these two famous men to be under the spotlight on a matter of the education business, instead of enjoying the notoriety of being prominent and inspiring atheists.

It seems that everyone is criticising them.  But why?  After all, as Dawkins has said, £18,000 might be a lot of money to a student, but in a society where we are plagued with greedy executives, lawyers and bankers, the sum is as nothing for the education of their children.  He would like free education to be available to all again and rightly points out that it is the UK government that is denying that to our children.  His fees for lecturing will all go to charity, and he said that the protestors might as well protest against anyone with a car of higher than average value.

Imagine a picket of all the Porsche dealers in London.  That really would get the news.

I wouldn't be surprised if Grayling and Dawkins have been sleeping furiously for the last couple of weeks, but I for one would wish them a peaceful and restful night instead.  I don't like the inequality in the world either, but I don't see why two of the most inspiring rational thinkers of our time should be pilloried in public for this alleged 'offence' against humanity.  There are greater evils in the world.  Why not go for those who have become wealthy at the expense of the rest of us due to the banking crisis, or for the The Roman Catholic Church, or . . .  the list goes on.  Obscene wealth is all around us world-wide, and establishments like the NCH are just helping to redistribute it again.

Come on folks!  Get some perspective.

Update:  As of 22:30, I still see no sign of an announcement from the BHA and nothing on Twitter except the above link and another odd reference on a site called Bright Green.  Wouldn't it be funny if someone had successfully scammed one of the best skeptical podcasts in the world?  (I'm pretty confident that they have a good sense of humour at The Pod Delusion, and its still possible that the news is true.)   p.s.  I must have mentioned before that The Pod Delusion is a favorite!

Another update 17th June:  It was insight, not mischief.  See the BHA's announcement.

Death of a photon

A dear friend asked me some questions about photons recently, (photons being, at least by analogy, 'particles' of light).  I might have misunderstood the deepness (or otherwise) of her real question.  She is a good christian, and to give her credit she is definitely up for a hard hitting debate about the existence of (her particular) god.  I think she was seeking more of a metaphysical reply with significance to an analogy about the nature of god, but having failed in that respect it seemed a shame to waste a friendly lesson in sensational physics.

But before that, I will mention another related question.  Working, as I do, on a rather successful nuclear fusion device, I often take groups of people around the site on tours.  Interestingly, some of the most interesting questions come from young people.

Now that is not to say that you get good questions from school groups, who's main objective in life is to look cool in front of members of the opposite sex.  But when young people come to visit with parents in tow they often want to find out about the mysteries of physics and engineering.  Naturally, the fact that they are there with their parents limits their age to a maximum of about 12 or 13, but already some of them have a real insight into the world.  One day I was asked "where do all the photons go?  A good question.  See the end for a considered answer, but at the time it took me a minute or two think of a good explanation.

Let's return now to the original topic, which was about the 'life' of a photon and whether it ever dies, and what would happen to a photon created at the beginning of time.  One might speculate what it is like to be an photon, and whether time seems to pass in its frame of reference.  But it is of course not like anything at all and there is no way that a photon could be aware of anything that it might be like, or to sense that it ages or changes.  So it is a meaningless question but it is interesting to examine the creation and ultimate doom of an individual photon.

Photons are produced inside atoms when one of their electrons 'jumps' from a higher energy state to a lower energy (as they do spontaneously e.g. perhaps when their host atom gets energy from bumping into another atom).  Quantum mechanics tells us that these jumps can only be of certain discreet sizes and that for a particular type of atom the number of options is limited, immutable and predictable.

The difference in energy has to go somewhere and that somewhere is a photon.  It is just a packet of energy, and a very small packet at that, but with a very specific and fixed amount of energy.  We see the energy as colour and specific atomic transitions produce specific colours.

The photon is not is produced from nothing.  There is no creation of mass involved and conservation of energy is all that matters.  The photon will then 'live' and travel at the speed of light until it bumps into another atom.  At that point it might bounce off the atom (called scattering).  However, if the atom happens to be receptive to a photon of that particular and exact energy, the photon is absorbed, thus raising the energy level of an electron in that atom.  (In astronomy these are also observable as specific 'absorption bands' and their existence helps us to know what other stars are made of).

Photons no more 'live forever' in space than they live for ever if you put on the light in a dark room.  The photons are created at the light and absorbed at the walls, maybe after bouncing around for a while to find an atom that can absorb them.  Indeed, those photons that were produced near the beginning of time (whatever that means) may well have been reabsorbed, by interstellar dust long ago, and then re-emitted at lower energies.

So that seems to me to explain the physics in terms that I can understand, with just a little reference to the incomprehensibility of quantum mechanics. 

Going back to that intuitive student question, 'what happens to all the photons' . . . it seemed that the best way to answer it was to ask another question.  "Do you know where photons come from?"  Fortunately the young man gave me quite a nice description about energy levels of electrons, and he seemed happy with the explanation that

"That is where the photons go back to".  

At least that was one satisfied customer!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A school of Darwin Fish

How often do we see the christian fish symbol on a car?  Try asking a christian what it actually means sometimes and you will be surprised to hear that they have a variety of different views about the symbol itself and about the obscure Greek characters sometimes contained within.  In that sense it seems to me to be an accurate representation of the different conflicting views of the various churches that make up the 'diaspora' of christianity.

I must admit that I take much more pleasure from the variants on the simple fish.  Many of them are based around the 'Darwin Fish' . . .

What happens when these meet?  There might be a simple staring match . . .

. . . after all Jesus and Darwin can get on pretty well (as they do in many mainstream churches . . .

. . . or was it a kiss?  . . .

Mislead by a bad influence . . .

. . . things could get more complicated . . .

. . . but it doesn't last and a broken hearted fish . . .

. . .  consults its lawyer . . .

. . . but events move beyond that  . . . 

. . . and Darwin is wounded . . .

. . . but  just before . . .

. . . we find that Wallace agreed with Darwin . . .

. . . and helped by the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) who touches Darwin with its noodly appendage . . .

. . . and calls for prehistoric reinforcements . . .

. . . Darwin is revived and looks as though he is winning again . . . 

And in the end, science can come to the rescue . . .

. . . and although the myth of Jonah's whale will still seem the most attractive to those who prefer faith to reason . . .

. . . Darwin evolves . . .

. . . and ultimately, deciding it is safer not to mock Mohamed. . .

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Not just the zeitgeist

A few people have asked me about my sources for the posts last weekend (see links below) and pointed out a similarity (although thankfully only a passing similarity) to a 2007 movie called Zeitgeist.  You can see extracts from it on Youtube (link to part 1 here).  Now that I have watched it I feel that it is that strange mixture of a fascinating topic presented in a way that makes it not quite believable.

For example, it mentions that the star Sirius moves into alignment with the stars of Orion's belt and points to the position where the sun rises on 25th December.  Well it might happen to point to roughly the right place, but it certainly doesn't move into alignment with anything.  You might have noticed that it is in exactly the same place all year round.  That is one of the features of stars!  They stay where they are relative to the others.

Having forced myself to watch three parts and semi-enjoyed it in a kind of masochistic sort of way, I have decided that it is impossible to know which parts to believe.  However, you may notice that I aluded to this in my summary of the similarity of the Jesus story to those of Mithra, Horus and Krishna.  You don't have to believe every single line of comparison but you can easily get the flavour that it was not a new story at the time of Jesus.

The thing that clinches the question of veracity for me is the source of the original idea for those posts.  Several times I have heard Christopher Hitchens refer to the fact that the story of Jesus was by no means original, so I started to look around for more details.  Of all the atheist speakers I have heard, Hitch is one of the few that I respect the most.  His erudite presentation of well researched material in a hard-hitting, no-nonsense format has my respect and admiration.  I feel certain that he would have his facts absolutely correct for one good reason.  He has debated some formidable opponents and if he used erroneous evidence in his argument it is certain that an opponent would use it against him.

Long live Hitch!

Additional small note:  I am reminded via Twitter that Bill Maher covered the topic in his movie, Religulous too.  I wish I could remember who I had lent my copy to!  I haven't seen it for over a year.

Related posts:

Inspiring atheists

Don't let anyone tell you that there are no prominent female atheists around!

It is not secret (even from her I think) that I am a fan of the writing of Paula Kirby.  Whenever I see that there is a new article available I am torn between the two options of 'shall I read it now?' or "shall I keep it to to savour later?"   Of course usually the answer is to do both.

Her regular articles in the Washington Post's 'On Faith' may be the most familiar, but thanks to Richard I suspect that very little of her writing goes un-noticed

Her recent submission to the Hibernian Times is (unsurprisingly) no exception, and whether you are familiar with her work or not I highly recommend you to read "Breaking Out of the Prison of Religion".  Here is a small extract.

Faith is the acceptance of claims for which there is no good evidence; when someone invites you to take something on faith, they are actively telling you not to challenge it, not to question it, not to enquire whether it is really true: they are telling you to simply accept it on their say-so. And this “accepting it on their say-so” is at the very heart of Christianity. It is the only absolute requirement for salvation: that you accept — on faith — that Jesus died for your sins and took the punishment for them on your behalf. Faith is incompatible with genuine questioning. The moment you begin to question faith . . . read on

Follow the link to see what else she has to say with her usual firm clarity.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Any spider experts?

Is anyone any good at identifying spiders?  This 20mm scale beastie 'attacked' me in southern England today.  (Well - when I say 'attacked' I mean that I found it on a strap on my rucksack.)

Presumably it is carrying an egg sack.  Isn't evolution wonderful?

Not even a new myth!

The posts in the last 24 hours are a small part of the reason why I find it difficult to see why anyone can still be a christian.  We have examined some key aspects of the Jesus myth - indeed most of the important features that make Jesus seem to be a son of god - and found that it is somewhat wanting.

We have seen that several characters have stories with close similarities to that of Jesus. The individual details are not important, but there are so many points that it seems inconceivable that they are coincidences (or all untrue).

Admittedly we have to allow for the fact that these stories come from ancient texts that have been copied and re-copied throughout the centuries, and then interpreted in different ways by 'experts' in recent times. But clearly all three characters, Mithra, Horus and Krishna, predate the Jesus character, with Krishna easily being the earliest version of the story.

The canonical gospels of the New Testament were only agreed long after the time of Jesus, by which time the truth could easily have been 'improved'. Remember that none of the bible was written by eye-witnesses to the life of Jesus, and that human memory is pitifully fallible.  The evidence was, at best, anecdotal.

Perhaps in early centuries CE, these were the features that a god needed to have in order to be credible? The tried and tested formula was just applied to Jesus.

Or else it was all true, and all just coincidental. You have to decide for yourself, either on the basis of evidence or on the basis of faith. (You can safely ignore reports that Mark Twain once said that “Faith is believing what you know ain't so”.)

This is a big decision for christians, because surely if you can't believe any of these magic stories from the life of Jesus you have to ask yourself which other parts you do believe. If the bible really is the inspired word of god, perhaps your god isn't being completely straight with you. (This would be consistent with his performance in the Old Testament - and yes, he IS the same god.)

But no 'true christians' would find any of this reasoning at all compelling - I know.

My own faith is that the Jesus story is a myth, and not even a new myth at the time of writing.

Related posts:

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Krishna and Jesus

Having covered Horus and JesusMithra and Jesus and Historical Jesus?, let us move on to Krishna.

Similarities between the Krishna character and the Jesus character include:
  • Jesus and Krishna were called both a God and the Son of God.
  • Both were sent from heaven to earth in the form of a man.
  • Both were called Savior, and the second person of the Trinity.
  • Both had an earthly father who was a carpenter.
  • The mothers of both were (sometimes said to be) virgins.
  • Krishna and Jesus were of royal descent.
  • Both were visited at birth by wise men and shepherds, guided by a star.
  • Angels in both cases issued a warning that the local dictator planned to kill the baby and had issued a decree for his assassination.
  • Both Jesus and Krishna withdrew to the wilderness as adults, and fasted.
  • Both were identified as "the seed of the woman bruising the serpent's head."
  • Jesus was called "the lion of the tribe of Judah." Krishna was called "the lion of the tribe of Saki."
  • Both claimed: "I am the Resurrection."
  • Both referred to themselves having existed before their birth on earth.
  • Both were 'without sin'.
  • Both were god-men: being considered both human and divine.
  • They were both considered omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.
  • Both performed many miracles, including the healing of disease. One of the first miracles that both performed was to make a leper whole.
  • Both cast out demons, and raised the dead.
  • Both selected disciples to spread their teachings.
  • Both were meek, and merciful.
  • Both were criticized for associating with sinners.
  • Both encountered a Gentile woman at a well.
  • Both celebrated a last supper.
  • Both forgave their enemies.
  • Both descended into Hell, and were resurrected. Many people witnessed their ascensions into heaven.
The list goes on, but I think that makes the point.  Incidentally, Krishna was on earth sometime between 3000 and 300 years before Jesus.  I think it is clear which story has precedence.

Conclusions later . . .

Related post links, added later:

Horus and Jesus

DO read the more scholarly and critical comments at the end of this surprising story!  

Following the theme of the day, including Mithra and Jesus and Historical Jesus?, let us move on to the myth of the ancient Egyptian deity Horus, who is sometimes represented as a single eye and sometimes as a man with a hawk's head.

Horus was apparently:
  • Conceived by a virgin, Isis-Meri (not Mary but . . .)
  • He was the only begotten son of the God Osiris.
  • His earthly father was Seb, (a.k.a. Jo-Seph), who was of royal descent.
  • His conception was announced by an angel to Isis, his mother.
  • Ancient Egyptians paraded a manger and child representing Horus through the streets at the time of the winter solstice (about 21st December.)
  • His birth was heralded by the star Sirius, announced by angels, witnessed by shepherds and later by three solar deities.
  • Herut tried to have Horus murdered.
  • The God 'That' told Horus' mother "Come, thou goddess Isis, hide thyself with thy child."
  • Horus came of age with a special ritual, when his eye was restored at the age of 12.
  • Nothing is known of his life between ages of 12 and 30.
  • He was baptised in the river Eridanus, aged 30, by Anup the Baptiser, who was subsequently beheaded. 

Are you beginning to spot a pattern emerging?  

You can read a lot more at the web site of the Ontario based organisation, Religious Tolerance, an organisation with members from all religions and none.  Their accounts of a wide range of religious topics seem to be thorough and fair.

Krishna next!

Related post links, added later:

Mithra and Jesus

Having mentioned Mithra in the last post, I ought to say a little more. 

It is alleged that the Mithra character predated New Testament times by centuries, and yet has the following in common with the Jesus character:
  • Mithra was born on December 25th of the virgin Anahita.
  • The babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger and attended by shepherds.
  • He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
  • He had 12 companions or "disciples."
  • He performed miracles.
  • As the "great bull of the Sun," Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
  • He ascended to heaven.
  • Mithra was viewed as the Good Shepherd, the "Way, the Truth and the Light," the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.
  • Mithra is omniscient, as he "hears all, sees all, knows all: none can deceive him."
  • He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb.
  • His sacred day was Sunday, "the Lord's Day," hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
  • His religion had a eucharist or "Lord's Supper."
  • Mithra "sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers."
  • Mithraism emphasized baptism.
You can read a lot more at  I can't vouch for its veracity but I am certain that there are scholars who seriously assert the claims listed above and that this linked site addresses the topic in great detail.  

Maybe you know someone who can shed further light?

Then again, it is said that the Mithra story has a lot of parallels with even earlier beliefs about the Egyptian god Horus and the Indian Krishna.  More about them later and some comments about the pattern that is building up tomorrow.

Related post links, added later:

Historical Jesus?

Was there a real historical Jesus?  That is a question that most christians do not even entertain.  But many scholars doubt whether there is enough evidence from unbiased or contemporary historians.

. . . the very first thing most Christians often tell me is that most historians accept the historicity of Jesus. This is just an appeal to authority. The fact is that most historians accept the historicity of Jesus on faith. When we really look at the evidence, it is clear that there is very little reason to believe Jesus existed. It is only recently that some historians have started to even question the historicity of Jesus. When they have, no actual evidence has been found to support the claim of a historic Jesus.

So writes Staks Rosch in an interesting and concise post on's Atheism 101: The Jesus Myth.

Of course he is not alone in making the claim that Jesus was not an historical character.  Many others have pointed out that the Jesus story follows the very much earlier story of Mithra.  Even Christmas day was chosen as December 25th which was the date when the Romans celebrated the birth of Mithra.  Surely that is more than coincidence.

Adding some links to later posts in this series:

And another related post:

    Saturday, 11 June 2011

    Religion or Fiction?

    Thoughtful humour to brighten up your afternoon!

    Did you notice?

    Being relatively new at this blogging business, I have fallen into a few traps.  Since I often annoy myself in being able to recognise a mistake whenever I make it again (!!) I have been gradually updating things.  After posting something every day for 4 months I can only say that it has generally been a great pleasure and hardly ever a chore.  I can't recommend Blogger too highly!  And it is free too!  Excellent value for money!

    Have you noticed:
    • It is now easier to leave comments on posts if you do not have one of the accounts listed on the pull down list.  (Anonymous comments are now enabled.)
    • New 'pages' have appeared just under the title (above the line between the grass and the sky), with 'Home' bringing you back to the live blog.  These are for semi-permanent features.
    • Links from my posts will now open in a new tab or window, so you do not lose your place as you are reading.
    Updates and news might appear periodically in the page called BlogNews.  Let me know what you think.

    Lord High Everything else!

    Am I alone in thinking of Gilbert and Sullivan's delightful comic opera, The Mikado, when reading the news this week that Prince Philip has been appointed 'Lord High Admiral of The Navy' to celebrate his 90th birthday?

    If you remember the story from the Victorian era, one of the characters, named Pooh Bah is appointed to the highest office that a citizen can attain, namely Lord High Executioner.  As the story unfolds, we find that he is 'Lord High everything else' at the same time.

    With typical flair for satire, W S Gilbert also touched on the contemporary controversy of evolution, which is a topic that often comes up in my blog posts.  Pooh Bah describes himself as "a particularly haughty and exclusive person of pre-Adamite ancestral descent.  You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule." 

    As if Prince Philip was not capable of Ninety gaffes in ninety years, I can't help but feel that the British Establishment is now making itself even more of a laughing-stock.  Instituting (or perhaps resurrecting?) trumped up titles for members of the monarchy seems nothing short of risible.

    Alleged sayings by the dear old 'man of the people' incude:

    "How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?" Asked of a Scottish driving instructor in 1995.


    "A few years ago, everybody was saying we must have more leisure, everyone's working too much. Now that everybody's got more leisure time they are complaining they are unemployed. People don't seem to make up their minds what they want."  1981.

    Friday, 10 June 2011

    Uncaged monkeys

    Last month I went to The Hexagon, in Reading, to see a show called "Uncaged Monkeys", which was based on the BBC radio prgramme "The Infinite Monkey Cage" starring Brian Cox and Robin Ince.

    I wondered about blogging about the event at the time, but didn't want to 'give away the ending' for those who had not been to see them yet.  Now it is too late because the tour has finished.  Like all my blog entries - it is partly notes and aides-memoir for myself and partly to entertain you.

    Cox and Ince were joined by some other stars who helped to make it a very lively event.  The whole show was all at more-or-less the right technical level for me because I have read a little bit about almost everything they discussed, so I learned a few things and enjoyed listening to the things I already knew.  You know what they say - a physicist likes to hear nothing better than what he already knows.  (Substitute any other profession for physicist according to your preference!)

    Robin Ince gave a great introduction with humour and gusto.  Already I have forgotten the order of events, but I think Ben Goldacre spoke next.  My neighbour (who got us the tickets) works in pharmaceuticals, and she was not altogether impressed by the way he talked about the 'big pharma' companies.  I must admit that he did dwell on negative aspects, but then again I think they deserve their tricks to be revealed.  I suppose good clinical practice doesn't make good stories.  I was surprised by Goldacre's somewhat restless appearance on stage, and deliberately outrageous comments.

    Matt Parker did some mathematical tricks for us.  e.g. he got someone to read out the digits of a bar code on a product so that he could tell them what the last digit would be.  That was quite a feat of memory, as although the last digit is a check-sum to confirm that the other digits have been accurately read, the algorithm is not a trivial one.  He explained that when you see an item failing to be scanned properly at the supermarket checkout, it is often because the scanner has detected an error in the numbers on the bar code, not that it has failed to read it.  

    Brian Cox did a 'wonders of the universe' talk, and showed us lots of nice pictures (e.g. the Hubble Deep field) and he talked about the LHC and how a proton in the beam of the LHC had the same amount of kinetic energy as an aircraft carrier travelling at 30 mph.  He touched on government spending as a proportion of GDP and noted that UK is below the average for OECD countries.  Apparently the government is addressing this and improving the situation, but not by increasing spending on science.  Instead, they have ring-fenced and frozen the science budget, and they are doing everything in their power to reduce GDP.  Hence the proportion spent on science will increase.

    He talked about relativity and used the global positioning system satellites as an example where general relativity was used to correct the accuracy of the system.  Without it there would be an error in the position of the satellites as big as 36,000 feet per day.  Strange units you might think - but they were used because as you may know, light travels almost exactly 1 foot per nanosecond. (I did happen to know that already and sometimes bore people with it.)

    As an aside, you may also like to know that 1 hour is almost exactly a micro-century - but I didn't learn that at the event.  Next time you are asked how long a meeting is expected to last, try these units and see what reaction you get.

    Someone (can't remember who) talked about the Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, and how he had a special skill for inventing insults.  He coined the term 'spherical bastard' and when someone asked what it meant, he explained.  "A sphere looks the same, whichever direction you look from.  Hence a spherical bastard is someone who is a bastard whichever way you look at him!"

    After the interval there as a short questions and answers, then a couple of songs by Helen Arney.  I had heard the first one and its  available on Youtube.  "Let's make love like animals".  Quite clever.

    Then Simon Singh started off by playing "Stairway to Heaven" backwards (the old ones are the best and easily found on Youtube) and went on to talk about various other interesting ways that the mind fools us. Interesting. I'm sure Singh talked a bit about alternative medicine too, but memory fails me and I have already written enough.

    All in all, a good bit of entertainment and many good laughs for all of us, scientists or not.

    (Did I ever mention that I met Brian Cox once while helping to make a documentary for Horizon?  But that was before I realised that he was famous!)

    Thursday, 9 June 2011

    Endeavour's last flight

    The space shuttle Endeavour has sadly completed its final flight, landing on 1st June.

    This amazing picture from SpaceFlight Now was taken from a plane as it emerged from the clouds on the way to earth orbit.

    It is nearly the end of an era that began with so much promise.  Still - before long the Americans will be able to hitch a lift into orbit with China, India, or maybe even North Korea (exagerating a bit perhaps) whenever the price gets too high to go with the Russians.  Russia would be stupid if it didn't cash-in on its temporary near-monopoly on manned space flight.

    Wednesday, 8 June 2011

    Sayings of perfidious Albion

    In the title of today's post, I quoted from the words of The Erratic Photographer, and unashamedly I bring  you his observations on the topic of working in a vibrant international environment.  .  Click on the link above to read about it.

    Of course there is a good reason why the English speak in such veiled speech.  It is a sign that some of us are just naturally very polite. 

    Small note:  Also, our international friends speak English so well that we have to find a way to keep a few secrets!

    Tuesday, 7 June 2011

    Christopher Hitchens on Mladic

    I had a bit of a rant about the (now imprisoned) Ratko Mladic on 28th May, (poor, sick, victimised old gentleman that he might be).  I must have inspired Christopher Hitchens to write something much more informative and erudite. See

    was published in Slate on 30th May.  Hitch might be struggling with his voice, but the fire is still there in his words.

    Monday, 6 June 2011

    Abiogenesis - Jack Szostak's ideas on the origin of life on earth

    As promised, here is another fascinating video about the origin of life on earth, based on the work of Nobel Laureate, Dr Jack Szostak.

    Sunday, 5 June 2011

    Evolution video - Jack Szostak

    Browing around the Richard Dawkins site on a warm early summer afternoon, (while sheltering from the copious quantities of pollen that have suddenly emerged), I found a thread started by a 17 year old French student, A few questions of biology and the origins of life.

    Buried in the dozens of comments and replies (some better than others as usual), there was a link to this amazing video on the work of Nobel laureate Dr Jack Szostak.  He and fellow researchers Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn shared the Nobel Prize for medicine Monday for their research into how chromosomes protect themselves from degrading when cells divide.

    If you have nine minutes to spare to see how much science is embedded behind the theory of evolution and disproving new earth creationism this is the most condensed stream of information that I have yet seen.  Click the link below this picture.

    The list of evidence is huge.  Great music too! (I wonder what it was.)  That led me to another Szostak inspired video about Abiogenesis - how life could have come about on the primordial earth due to well undertood chemistry and physics.  A link to that is coming soon

    Saturday, 4 June 2011

    Sustainable hunters

    The image of the Native Americans as guardians of the environment, people who lived in harmony with nature, is widespread.  Is it true though? 

    The way that bison were hunted might be considered useful evidence.  Entire herds would be stampeded and guided towards high cliff edges, called buffalo jumps, sending hundreds of animals to their death. 

    The hunters simply had to go and harvest as much of the meat as they could eat before it went off, leaving the rest to be consumed by scavengers.  The picture is of the surprisingly named "Head Smashed-In buffalo jump"

    Harmony indeed.