Monday, 31 October 2011

Finest view in England - from a Marilyn!

The view from the top of Helvellyn is surely one of the finest in England.  Not many people get to see it in person and that is part of the glory of it, but even if you could get there by magic it would still be a landscape that has few rivals.  I am glad to say that I was not disappointed by it, having worried that memory is fallible, and knowing that it is nearly 30 years since I last set eyes on it.

At 950 metres, Helvellyn is not the highest peak in the country (two others being a few metres higher), but there can be little doubt that the view from the top of Striding Edge is among the most spectacular scenes.

Striding Edge is more than a mile long.  It is one of those geographical features that used to be in every child's text books.  Perhaps it still is, but the kids that I have asked have not responded positively.  (Hardly a surprise there!)  That could be for a number of reasons, but putting on a curmudgeonly hat (for a change) I think it is because young people today seem generally less impressed by the natural wonders around them than they are by whatever nonsense their friends are putting on Facebook.  That's a tragedy isn't it?

The reason for its appearance in text books is that it is a feature produced by glaciation.  During the last ice age when Britain was overwhelmed, several glaciers started from the top of Helvellyn, pouring themselves down the mountain in a leisurely way.  The one between the two 'knife-edge ridges', Striding Edge and Swirral Edge produced a 'cwm' which is now partly filled by the pretty little Red Tarn.

Aside from the technical details, I was accompanied by two teenagers to the mountain and we traversed Striding Edge in a strong gale and then clambered up the even more frightening climb to the top of the mountain.  Of course they took it in their stride much more than I did.  I have never been afraid of heights, but I must admit that a slight feeling of vertigo was threatening me at several points on the windy climb up the mountain. 

I'm sure that Helvellyn is higher than it was 30 years ago! And steeper!  At least this time I did not have a snow-drift building up in my ear!  The temperature was perfect for walking/clambering, and the decision to wear shorts for the walk was not regretted at any point - or at least not by me!

The journey down from the peak would have been less exciting if it had not been for the wind.  I can't even begin to estimate the speed of the wind, but on the long wide slopes to the north of the peak of Helvellyn, the cross-wind threatened to blow me off my feet several times. 

I found myself very glad that I had bought a pair of light weight walking poles.  Not only had they helped to share the load between arms and legs on the way up and down, but they helped to counter the force of the wind.  (They also helped me to realise that certain muscles in my arms had not been used enough!  Ouch the following day!)

One item of reassurance was gleaned from the 11 mile walk, with 3,500 feet up and down.  Sorry about the archaic units, but they worked well in the version of  'Naismith's Rule' that I had been taught years ago.  (This is a rule which helps you to calculate the amount of time needed for a walk.)  I had expected that a correction factor much greater than unity would have to be applied for unfit men of my age, but nobody could be more surprised than me that the 5 hour 45 minute walk was completed a few minutes faster than the calculation would have predicted.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry about Naismith's Rule I find the answer less reassuring - but probably more realistic.

Finishing on a lighter note, did you know that Helvellyn is a 'Marilyn'?  This is a term for a peak that is 150 metres higher than its surroundings.  The name is a pun on the Scottish Munroes (Marilyn being homophonous with Munro).

Sunday, 30 October 2011

How Many Lakes?

You might have noticed that during the last week there has been a little less interaction from me than usual.  Even though there has been a new post every day, scheduled in advance, I wasn't able to respond to the comments that people have left.  The reason for this is that I have been away visiting the English Lake District, in Cumbria, for a week. 

Let's just say for now that communications are not as easy in that area as they are in the rest of the country!  See the small skeptical note at the end.

For the next few days most of my posts will be based on this holiday - but rest assured, they will not be a straight-forward account of a holiday.  Skepticism, humour (and possibly a little atheism) will creep in somehow!

The amount of rain in these mountains - the highest mountains in England - brings a certain elegance and beauty that has inspired the poets throughout the ages. You  hardly go anywhere without seeing the names of Tennyson, Wordsworth, Shelley or Ruskin, or the more ubiquitous modern writers such as Beatrix Potter or Arthur Ransome. 

Even if there is temporarily no water in the air, you can be fairly sure that there soon will be.  As it turned out we were very fortunate that we only had one rainy day but the overnight precipitation was enough to keep the waterfalls running beautifully.

Travelling through the valleys enjoying the scenery I was reminded of the age old question. 

How many lakes are there in the Lake District? 

Walking in the mountains and valleys you find bodies of water with poetic and evocative names: Crummock Water; Grassmere, Buttermere, Blea Tarn.  But among these meres, waters and tarns you find no lakes.  Or do you?

Yes - there is one!  Bassenthwaite Lake is the only actual lake in the Lake District.  Actually I would almost argue it is not even the most beautiful lake, even if you accept that it is the only one!

Small note:  I'm not saying that mobile communications in Cumbria are not up to the standard that I would have hoped to find, but one day I was surprised to get three text messages, welcoming me to the Isle of Man!  That means that the phone signal from an island 40km (25 miles) away was stronger than the local signal and I had the opportunity to make an international call.  In our house in Langdale I could send and receive text messages only by holding the phone at arm's length out of the upstairs window!  The very concept of mobile broadband represented the triumph of hope over experience!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Unlikely flying fellows

Sadly, this hastily snapped photo is far from perfect, but I saw these two unlikely flying fellows in the sky over my garden recently and couldn't resist sharing it.

The Goodyear Airship is not to be confused with a 'blimp' as it is free flying and noisy.  It is accompanied by a free flying and silent Red Kite.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Restrictive licensing laws!

I didn't like to choose a title that described this photo in detail.  It might have lead the authorities to suspect that I do not treat my children kindly.

This was seen in a bar next to the River Thames in Oxfordshire and it made me smile while waiting to be served.  Licensing laws in UK have been relaxed to some extent in recent years, so I think this sign might be a bit out of date.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

"I was an atheist . . . just like you!"

Have you ever been told "I used to be an atheist, just like you"?

I have.  I don't usually believe it because it is often said by christians who were converted in their early twenties.  It just means that they were being rebellious teenagers who were trying out their independence.  It doesn't necessarily mean that they had seriously studied the subject and made a rational decision.

Galileo Unchanged has obviously had this experience too, and writes very nicely on the subject. 

Well-educated Christians deconvert to atheism, but well-educated atheists don’t convert to Christianity.  More education about the history and origins of Christianity increases the likelihood that the Christian will deconvert, but more education increases the likelihood that the atheist will stay put.  Education pushes you in one direction only.  Read on

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

How many neutrinos does it take to change a light bulb?

Fresh after the news of the possibility of neutrinos traveling faster than light (although so far only in Italy and Switzerland, not anywhere else in the universe), a few jokes have started to emerge.

The barman says "We don't serve neutrinos here".  A neutrino walks into a bar.


Who's there
Knock knock.

The old styles are the best are they!  My attempt to create a light-bulb joke for neutrinos was so unsuccessful that I thought it best to invite your contributions in the comments below.

See Indecisive Neutrinos (3rd October) for more background, but not an explanation about why these are slightly funny to physicists.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

X-rayted pin-up calendar!

The ladies of the Women's Institute made themselves famous by publishing the calendar which lead to the entertaining movie Calendar Girls a few years ago.

But here is a link to a slightly more revealing calendar, the Eizo X-ray Pin-up Calendar.

I hope the poor model doesn't feel the cold!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Headington shark reaches 25 years

In the suburbs of Oxford (UK), far from the sea, there is a bizarre and eccentric sight.  This year it reaches its 25th anniversary.

It isn't a photoshop creation!  This thing is real and I have often enjoyed the sight myself as I have passed the end of the road.  Obviously some of the neighbours objected at the time and the series of appeals for planning permission reached the Home Secretary, Michael Hesseltine.

Small update (29th Oct):  This started off as an interesting anecdote, but the comments have developed into an interesting discussion about atheism, so I have added the Atheism tag!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

National Secular Society takes BBC to task

Terry Sanderson of the UK's National Secular Society has been examining the spending of the BBC and found that the cuts to its budget apply in almost all areas of activity.  But for some reason, the religious activities are ring-fenced.

He writes:

In all the reports I saw, there was no mention of the religious propaganda department, which is based in Manchester and produces such wildly popular programmes as Thought for the Day, Pause for Thought, Songs of Praise and endless church services on BBC Radio 4. The last time we checked, using a Freedom of Information request, this department was gobbling up £10 million of licence-payers’ money each year.
Read on 

Similarly, it has often been suggested that the UK's National Health Service wastes a lot of valuable funds on hospital chaplains.

The armed forces have now been found to be doing the same.

So . . . it seems that it is swingeing cuts for everyone - unless related to religions!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Probably no Dawkins?

William Lane Craig's UK tour (referred to in an earlier post) is being promoted in Oxford with a witty advert on the buses.  It refers to Dawkins' sensible decision not to debate with the man who he has referred to as 'a ponderous buffoon'.  I think it is almost certain that there will be no Dawkins in the Sheldonian Theatre on the night of the event.  A colleague of mine at work kindly suggested that I should take up the challenge in place of Dawkins and that he would pay to watch that.  Little hope of that - although I think it could be great fun and however badly 'a nobody' like me performed it could do little to harm the cause of atheism.

The advert might be witty - it made me smile - but I wonder whether the organisers are shooting themselves in the foot by bringing the atheist bus campaign back into the news, free of charge.

This video describes the background, from the viewpoint of a christian organisation.

I would just say that there is probably an upside down Union Flag (sometimes called the Union Jack) prominently featured!  Flying the Union Flag upside down is traditionally a sign of being in distress.

Meanwhile Dawkins is not in distress.  Far from it.  Read his article in The Guardian from yesterday.

Friday, 21 October 2011

End of the World?

This is the date set by Harold Camping for the end of the world.

The rapture happened on May 21st as predicted by Harold Camping.  See my blog post Judgement Day this week!

The Thinking Atheist covered the rapture event humorously in this Youtube video

Obviously only the very best christians were taken up to heaven, and the fact that nobody noticed any difference meant that none of us knew any of them.  Even the pope has been seen since then.  I suspect that heaven will not be terribly busy.

Other christians tell me that they never believed any of this.  Nor did I.

Of course, predictions of the end of the world are not uncommon throughout history.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Dr Who on the Thames

Boats designed for the English canals are not called barges (as used in common parlance) but 'narrow boats'.  Some canal locks can accept boats up to 70 feet long, but others are more restrictive.

This 'narrow boat', moored on the River Thames is also a short boat.  No, that is not a technical term but merely a description.  I feel that it could probably navigate almost any waterway.

The humorous name suggests that it is bigger inside than it is outside!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

On objective morality - hear Dan Barker

Continuing to learn from interactions with interested readers another comment recently from one of my valued (but possibly deluded) audience seemed to disagree with my suggestion that there is no such thing as objective morality.

Actually I would go further than that and suggest that there is not even objective morality within the christian community.  Hear ex-christian preacher, now atheist, Dan Barker, speak on the subject.

Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and you can hear him speak every week on Freethought Radio.  It is one of the podcasts that I regularly listen to.  If you can get a copy of his book Losing Faith in Faith I would recommend it.

Perhaps after watching that video you can tell me how there is one morality for men and another for capriciously malevolent fictional characters?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Did god make science?

In the comments on my post Ever thought about rainbows? (9th October) there is a claim that god 'made' science.  In the spirit of interaction with my readers, it has become my policy to extract the most interesting comments and bring them back into focus in a new post.

Is it a testable claim that god made science?  I think the answer is "Yes!"

If this idea is examined in any detail at all we have to wonder why god might have taken so long to 'make' science. Its not altogether evident in any of the bronze age texts is it?

When he finally began to reveal science to his chosen natural philosophers how did he do it?  It seems that god more-or-less allowed the ideas and concepts to leak out gradually during the last few hundred years.

Did his earthly representatives encourage science when it began to grow and explain some mysterious aspects of the universe?  I think the answer to that is also quite emphatically "NO!"  

A Catholic version of Galileo at the inquisition, facing a kindly and just looking inquisitor. 
(Yeah - right!)

I don't recall any stories about Galileo claiming that his ideas had been revealed to him by god.  If they had been revealed like that, why would he have withdrawn them under duress?  Christians claim that Galileo never lost his faith throughout the whole saga.  Well - what would you expect him to say?  It is disrespectful and disingenuous to make such a claim.

The christian church spent so much time and effort trying to eradicate science that it stopped participating in the field.  It would be hard to claim that (e.g.) The Vatican's appointed scientists have contributed much to 'real' science.

Its no use choosing a different god and claiming that Allah has done any better.  The middle-eastern world was leading science until islam became properly established, but now it is stuck in medieval times, in science, in law and in moral terms.

It seems clear to me that no god made science happen in any way, and in my view this observation adds further to the considerable body of evidence that there was never any god to make science or anything else.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Religions know their place in Oxford

On one of my rare visits to Blackwells famous bookshop on Broad St in Oxford, I was delighted to see that they place Religions and World Tales in between Myths and Legends and Fairy Tales.

Small edit, June 2012 - on a recent visit to Blackwells I was sad to see that they have reshuffled their shelves and now it it less well placed.  How sad!  At least it is recorded here for posterity.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

"A curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it"

Andrew Brown's excellent post on The Guardian Blog yesterday neatly addresses the questions that are often used to question and ridicule the fact of evolution.

As Jacques Monod said in 1974:  "A curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it" and I think the questions demonstrate this rather neatly.

The problems listed by Brown's correspondent were the usual:

  • How come something came from nothing?
  • How to generate life from non-life?
  • How to create intelligence from non-intelligence?
  • Where did information come from?
  • How can you have 'design' without a designer?
  • How can you have an effect without a cause?
  • How can you overcome the second law of thermodynamics?

I'll let you read on to see the answers to the questions in his article which is not long, all phrased very nicely, and all on familiar territory for anyone who has studied the topic at all.

But then you must read to the end and see his coup-de-grace where he expands on his innovative recommendation of:
" . . . American Carl Zimmer, whose book Parasite Rex is a glorious, terrifying, and intermittently disgusting romp through the roots, the intestines, and even the eyeballs of almost all living things to discover what else lives inside them. These parasites are unquestionably designed for their purpose . . .   
Read the rest

Small note:  Thanks to Petra for this link!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Edison's 1000 successes

It is said that "Thomas Edison took 1,000 attempts to create the light bulb".

When asked about it, Edison allegedly said,

"I have not failed 1,000 times.  I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb."

Friday, 14 October 2011

Wall Street needs our support

No - not the parasites who work in Wall St and the other commercial centres around the world - I mean that the people who have been protesting in Wall St for several weeks need our support!

Worldwide, the bankers have created a financial crisis which affects all of us and still the richest bankers have walked away with bonuses measured in millions (whatever your currency might be).

Who pays?

We do.  You and I, the ordinary but brilliant, intelligent, hard-working people of the worlds democracies contribute the profits of the banks and subsidise the losses of the banks.  Our governments have spent hundreds of billions rescuing failed banks - and we still pay the bastards who made the banks fail!

Whether the banks made profits or losses, the bankers still received contractual bonuses.  Would you get a bonus if the company you work for performed badly?  No.  But you (I speculate) are not a director.

I've been aware of the Wall Street riots for a few weeks and I have been wondering why they have not been reported by the media.  I think the answer is that the media are being advised by governments that they should keep it quiet.  Civil unrest is very unsettling to fragile, barely elected, democratic governments. Certainly the BBC has not made a point of publicising the protest.

Here is your chance to make your views heard worldwide via internationally famous campaigning site Avaaz.  They say:

Thousands of Americans have non-violently occupied Wall St -- an epicentre of global financial power and corruption. They are the latest ray of light in a new movement for social justice that is spreading like wildfire from Madrid to Jerusalem to 146 other cities and counting, but they need our help to succeed. 

As working families pay the bill for a financial crisis caused by corrupt elites, the protesters are calling for real democracy, social justice and anti-corruption. But they are under severe pressure from authorities, and some media are dismissing them as fringe groups. If millions of us from across the world stand with them, we'll boost their resolve and show the media and leaders that the protests are part of a massive mainstream movement for change.  

Read on at this site, and make your vote - ACT NOW!

Small note:  I have been registered with Avaaz for a few months.  Their campaigning e-mails are not intrusive.  I trust them and recommend that you do too.

Smaller note: I can hardly believe I said "the parasites who work in Wall St".  'Work' is not the right word.  Should it be 'gamble'?

Thursday, 13 October 2011


In yesterday's post about 'speaking-in-tongues', I mentioned another more interesting and more testable speech phenomenon.  This is where people seem to be able to speak a real foreign language that they could not possibly have come into contact with.  Sometimes you hear anecdotes about people who have had a stroke and although they have lost their native language they seem to have switched to another language entirely.

Does it really happen?  If it does it would be truly remarkable.  You would expect the evidence to be cut-and-dried.

Sadly, the internet is not exactly awash with provable or convincing cases and the lack of good evidence does seem to suggest that xenoglossia is another case of 'the story teller's art'.  The same few stories are repeated frequently on multiple sites.

There are tales of American lady being hypnotised and then speaking as a young German girl, of a Japanese housewife who speaks perfect Nepali, various people in India who could suddenly speak another language  and a girl who speaks an ancient Egyptian dialect (which is obviously not easily falsifiable).  A high proportion of the accounts that I have found seem to have at least a tenuous link to the psychic community and therefore are not to be trusted at all.

Even some of the more credulous sites resort to this sort of statement:

Many findings of xenoglossy are still suspect since most documented incidents have proven to be false. The "unknown learned foreign" language proved to be nothing more than forgotten phrases discovered in the subconscious, or pseudo- languages which were pure gibberish. In fewer cases the phenomenon appeared to be telepathy results between two people such as a hypnotist and a subject.

Ah - so it was telepathy all along then?  That makes it much more credible!

Some of the cases often reported are examples of 'proof by Daily Mail' (a UK newspaper with a bit of a reputation for sensational stories that appear to be true, but might not be).  In the particular case linked here, The Mail neglects to mention that the man lost his ability before it could be tested by anyone who could independently confirm the claims.

Sadly, my skepticism is undented by what I have read.  That's a pity.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Only a facade of language

Glossolalia, or 'speaking in tongues', is sometimes claimed by Pentecostal christians to be a sign that they have been touched by the 'holy spirit'.  It has many biblical precedents, which of course makes it undeniably true.

Or does it?

The phenomenon has been extensively studied in many different communities around the world, and perhaps the first surprise is that is is by no means exclusive to the pentecostals or even to christians.  To me, it is analogous to Pascal's Wager.  (See an earlier post called Pascal's Gambling Debts).  In a universe where everyone agreed that there was only one deity (not like our universe) communication with god might be a possible explanation, even if it is not testable.  But since shamans, spiritualists and pagans also exhibit the same phenomena I think it is hard to argue that god is behind it all.  Which god?  Or should I ask 'who's god'?

Indeed, a study in the 1970s by linguist William Samarin showed that the structure of the utterings was not consistent with it being a real language and he described it as being 'only a facade of language.

Neuroscientists conducting brain scans on people who were speaking in tongues have confirmed that the areas of the brain responsible for language go surprisingly 'quiet', while the areas that produce emotion become very active.  There is little doubt that these people are emotional and I believe that most of them are doing it in good faith and not just putting on an act.

However,  you can begin to see the signs that I am skeptical of the straight-forward claims that god is influencing the people to speak like this. 

But I am not alone in these doubts. Not even all 'the faithful' have any time for 21st century speaking in tongues

The Wikipedia article explains that some christians, the 'cessationists',
believe that all the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to occur early in Christian history, and therefore that the speaking in tongues practised today is simply the utterance of meaningless syllables. It is neither xenoglossia nor miraculous, but rather learned behavior, possibly self-induced. These believe that what the New Testament described as "speaking in tongues" was xenoglossia, a miraculous spiritual gift through which the speaker could communicate in natural languages not previously studied.

Now we come to a much more interesting topic.  Xenoglossia is a phenomenon where people claim to be able to speak or write a (real) foreign language that they could not possibly have learned.  I'll come back to that another day.  It sounds much more interesting!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

'Scientist' - an abusive terminology?

I have long felt that the media often use the term 'scientist' in a slightly disrespectful - even abusive - way.

Shouldn't they be required to specify what type of scientist they mean.  In Newton's time he was not referred to as a scientist but a 'natural philosopher'.  These days science has split into a wide diaspora of different subjects and I feel that they deserve the respect of the correct use of their names.

Judges, magistrates, barristers, solicitors and advocates are rarely referred to by the collective noun 'lawyers', but somehow physicists, chemists, geologists, psychologists and meteorologists are just 'scientists'.

In a 2010 debate with William Dembski, I was pleased to hear Christopher Hitchens making a similar point, and explaining that the term 'scientist' is 'late 19th century coinage we could do without'.

I recommend the rest of the debate which few people deny to have been an outright victory for Hitchens who was on great form that day.  Here is part 1.

Small note:  Have I committed a similar offence by referring to the people in the newspapers, radio and TV just as 'the media'

Monday, 10 October 2011

Quaternary rainbow observed

Only a few weeks ago I was caught in a heavy shower with a beautiful double rainbow visible over St Martins in the Field.  I explained to a friend some of the physics of rainbows and explained that the third order rainbow has never been seen, but that this was partly because people have been looking in the wrong place.  It is not (theoretically) where you might expect, just above the second bow, but actually it would be behind you, quite close to the sun.  What's more, the chances are that the scattered white light from that part of the sky would be brighter than the bow, making it invisible to the naked eye.

And now this!  This really is something surprising.  The third and fourth order bows have been captured in a photo (albeit an enhanced photo).  They still haven't been seen with the naked eye, but a quick google search shows that people have been successful in their search for the tertiary bow a few times using some legitimate photographic techniques.  (I hadn't realised that.)  This one is remarkable because the tertiary and quaternary bows can be made out, albeit faintly.

Note one difference between these and the first two bows.  Like them, these appear to be circular and their colours are reversed relative to each other.  But they are centred on the sun itself, not on the point opposite the sun.  I wasn't surprised by this, because it seems obvious but after I thought about it for a moment I couldn't quickly work out why.  I suppose the best anaolgy that I can draw is that all the bows are centred on the line in space that passes through the centre of the sun and through your eye (or camera lens) and beyond.

See the BBC article (probably not to be trusted, but then I'm biased against the government's propaganda wing, as you might know)

Optics Infobase (almost certainly to be trusted) has the original information.

Related posts:

See my introductory post about the basics of rainbows yesterday, in Ever thought about rainbows? 

and see 

Glory be! - not a rainbow but it looks like one.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Ever thought about rainbows?

I suppose that as an ex-physicist I look at rainbows in an untypical way.  I forget that I take for granted a few things that others do not notice about them, and this is at least partly due to having some friends who are better at physics than me.  Some people have a true knack for explaining physics and I only aspire to pass on some of the fun in an accessible way (without the maths which you can find in Wikepedia's article if you like)!

I contend that rainbows are more fascinating and beautiful to me than they are to a christian who endows them with other meanings about promises from god.

If the sun is shining and you are standing in the rain, there's almost certainly a rainbow to be spotted.  Lets look at a few of the most interesting features.

What shape is it?

Does that seem a silly question?  Actually the rainbow is circular.  Normally we don't see the whole circle because the ground gets in the way, but if you are on top of a mountain, on a high building, or in a plane, you can sometimes see the whole circle.  Sometimes you see two bows, both circular, both with their apparent centre at the same place but one is a larger diameter than the other.

Obviously this one is artificial, created with a garden sprinkler, but you see the whole circle and the shadow from the camera position is at the centre of the circle, leading me to ask . . .

Where is it

Now you know that the bow is part of a circle, imagine where its centre would be.  It is always opposite the sun (and therefore always below the horizon).  Stand with your back to the sun and the centre of the rainbow will be in front of you.  A low sun gives a high rainbow (because its centre is opposite the sun, and therefore high)  and high sun gives a low rainbow.

That's why a rainbow in the evening will always look taller than one at mid day, just as this one would be if you could see all of it.

Part bows

Sometimes, as above, you only see a small part of a bow, not even the whole arc of the circle that is above ground level.  That's because you only see the light scattered from places in the sky where there is rain.  No rain means no bow.  The following picture illustrates this beautifully.

Who's rainbow is it?

You may be standing next to a friend looking at what appears to be the same rainbow, but actually you have your own personal rainbow - mine is my own too.  That's because the rays of light that reach your eyes come from different raindrops than the rays seen by anyone else.

How many bows?

When you see a bright rainbow you almost always see a second bow at the same time.  Have you ever noticed that the order of the colours is reversed?  Some people look for a third bow outside the second but they will never see it where they instinctively expect it to be.  In the laboratory the third bow can be seen but it is actually behind you, very close to the sun, and almost nobody has ever seen one without photographing the effect and then enhancing the photos.  (Back to this newsworthy topic tomorrow).

Here you see a double bow and its reflection.  I did once see a photo with eight bows (multiple reflections), but the person who presented it was not prepared to give me a copy.  I'll continue to search the web and post it if I can. 

More bows?

Don't despair.  You actually can see more  bows quite often, even though the third order bow is not obvious.  Look underneath the brightest (inner) bow, somewhere near the top.  If its a good rainbow you can see the 'supernumary bows'.  These are not as bright, and again the colours are reversed and a bit harder to make out.  Often you don't see all the colours.  I leave the physics of supernumary bows to someone cleverer than me.  I more-or-less understand the optics of the ordinary bows but these are beyond me!


Sometimes you can spot a fake rainbow photo very easily.  Look at the background sky.  You will always find that it is brighter inside the bow than it is outside, as you can see on some of the pictures above.  Its because more white light is scattered from the raindrops in that area to where you are.  Not all producers of fake photos know about this, but now you do.

This one might not actually be a fake, but the bows seem not to be concentric and the sky is not brighter inside the inner bow.  Let's just say that it has signs of not being genuine.

Pot of gold?

Next time you see a good rainbow with clear ground in front of you you might see where it reaches the ground.  I remember seeing a rainbow in front of some very close trees.  Your 'pot of gold' is nearer than you think, but the downside of this discovery can be inferred from the above.  As soon as you move to reach it, your own personal rainbow moves with you and you have to run VERY fast to get there. 


Numerical ray tracing by a programme called BowSim shows that departures from sphericity in the raindrops by a mere 1-2% noticeably distort the primary bow. We have to marvel that rainbows are ever seen!

That's all for now. I hope you enjoyed a brief tour of the fascinating facts behind rainbow.

Related posts:
Quaternary rainbow observed
Glory be! - not a rainbow but it looks like one.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Faith healing

Sometimes people comment on strands that are not altogether related to the topic of the comment.  (The previous post was spawned by such an event.)  Nonetheless, these comments  are often interesting enough to be worthy of  further attention.  It is my general policy to air these subjects again in a separate post, and I always appreciate the opportunity of interaction.  One such tale of apparent Faith Healing arose in the comments on my post about Harvest Festival Fun a few days ago.

Reinhard Bonnke - a remarkable healer?
It was about the amazing tale about Jean Neil, who was healed miraculously by a faith healer, Reinhard Bonnke, after suffering terrible ill-health for many years.

Read it here

That's a truly remarkable story. It is so utterly remarkable that it is difficult to believe it, and I must say that I my gut instinct was to distrust it.  Forbsy said that her best friend witnessed the event, but that's not quite what I would count as evidence. Carl Sagan famously claimed that he tried not to think with his guts, so I decided to follow up with a little investigation.  You know how stage magicians can perform amazing tricks that totally bamboozle their audiences? Some similar people earn a living as psychics or similar professions, including perhaps faith-healing. I'm sure you are aware of the possibility that people even lie sometimes.

The briefest Google search shows that the name Reinhard Bonnke is not altogether unbesmirched.  This link describes a slightly different version of the same story which was thoroughly investigated by another christian surgeon.  It appears to me to suggest the opposite version of the story of Jean Neil's remarkable healing.  Another amazing event claimed by Bonnke is the resurrection of a Nigerian pastor.  You can read a version of that (alleged) fraud here.

Internet 'link mining' is not evidence of course.

Given the somewhat anecdotal style of the evidence (both ways), not to mention the sheer quantity of remarkable features claimed, and given that this lady might have recovered from at least some of her ailments I still don't feel compelled to believe in a loving god who, after all, put her through all that pain for years and years before curing her miraculously.

I have to ask myself what is the most likely explanation of this story and I answer myself that I'm not convinced that it is altogether true. I think it could be a perfectly valid testimony of what someone believes to be true.  But . . . it is not 'evidence' in any sense that medical science would recognise, and I am not convinced on the basis of the current testimony that it is true.

Memory is not fixed and firm. Memories are modified every time you recall them, on the basis of your learning in the intervening period.  This leads to the gradual 'improvement' of stories.  I can't say for certain that this is what has happened in this case or in any of the many other cases that people have presented, but it is a mechanism that has to be considered when reading such remarkable tales.

Sorry Forbsy.  Claims have to be investigated, at least as far as a Google search.

Your comments are welcome.

2011-10-08 -- Adding a link to a relevant file that was rather hard to find, this document, Diakrisis Australia, December 1999, from a christian organisation called TA Ministries in Australia appears to contain the report from the surgeon who investigated the case of Jean Neil.  Naturally I make no personal claim to know about the details and wish her well - preferably well without god.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Anthropocentric fine tuning

Is the universe designed for mankind or is mankind evolved to be fine-tuned to make the best of a rather hostile universe?  This is one of the old questions of life and the universe.

The evidence suggests to me that life has evolved to make the best of the rather hostile universe that existed already and that no creator was necessary.  Indeed, the existence of such a creator would require further explanation in itself.  Considering the difficulties that life has faced, I think it has fine tuned itself remarkably well to cling precariously to the edges of a safe environment, 'knowing' that at any time it could be totally wiped out.  (At least, humans know this even though the rest of life is innocently oblivious to the fact.)

A recent (almost entirely unrelated) post William Lane Craig to visit has attracted a lot of comments that have strayed off the topic of the original post.  So I take one of the comments from that post and present it here so that the discussion can continue in a more appropriate context.

My friend Derby Sceptic, author of "The Sceptical Curmudgeon" blog,  presented a paragraph from Douglas Adams which I had never seen before.

'... imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' 

This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.'

Comments are welcome, but . . .

Don't expect to be taught the basics of evolution or about the origins of life.  You can read that in a lot of worthy books and there is no point in anyone wasting their time trying to distill fascinating topics into easily digestible 'soundbites' for you here.  I'm happy to build up a reading list here for those who need a gentle but exciting scientific education.

Lets start off with Victor Stenger, who covers the topic of fine-tuning rather well:

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Feynman on 'honours'

Not everyone likes Richard Feynman's style, but I came across this today and found myself empathising with it.  He was taught by his father to have 'disrespect for the respectable'.  That sounds like one of my late father-in-law's Methodist sermons.

I suppose it could be a sign that my inner anarchist is very active this week, largely provoked by nonsense and bureaucracy at work.

Incidentally - if you follow that video link to Youtube you can  see parts 1 and 3 of the series.  All of them are great.  This one just resonated with me today.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Most atheists ARE also agnostics!

Haven't I said that before somewhere?  Atheist and agnostic are not just different degrees of atheism.  And yet religious people continually argue that it is not true, as if they would necessarily know anything about the subject.

Here is a link to a great article on the subject in the Irish Times by the Irish atheist, Michael Nugent. 

We atheists will change our minds if evidence shows we are wrong

On Facebook Michael says:

Here is the first of a series of five articles that I have written for the Irish Times about atheism and its relationship to reality, morality, faith and Jesus. The other four will be appearing on the next four Tuesdays.

In the Irish Times article he writes:

Some people divide atheists into different types. Strong or positive atheists actively believe that gods do not exist. Weak or negative atheists passively lack a belief that gods exist. And pragmatic atheists simply ignore the idea of gods as being in practice irrelevant to their lives.

What about agnostics? Is it not reasonable to say that you don’t know? Yes it is, and most atheists are also agnostics. Atheism is about what you believe, and agnosticism is about what you claim to know. So if you believe that gods do not exist, but you do not claim to know this, then you are an agnostic atheist.  Read on . . .

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

We want Jefferson . . .

Thomas Jefferson's 1777 draft of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom has still not been implemented in UK, in Europe, Africa, Asia, or Australia.  (Antarctica doesn't count, but it isn't in universal use there either.)

The final paragraph:
Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Don't our human rights deserve that it is implemented for us too?

Did you notice that I highlighted an important phrase?  It suggests that religious people do not have 'a right not to be offended' and that they are expected to defend their corner.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Indecisive neutrinos

Update, one year on from this original post, sience has moved on.  See the two links at the end of the post for the answer to the mystery.

The 'neutrino problem' keeps coming up in conversations, wherever I go.

For the few readers who don't know which problem this is, I am referring to the recent reports that a European experiment to observe oscillations in neutrinos has accidentally noticed that the neutrinos appear to travel faster than light.   That seems to break one of the fundamental and best established 'laws of physics'.  You might know that neutrinos come in three different flavours and they tend to change flavour sometimes.  Indecisive little blighters!  This is what they were trying to study.

If it turned out to be true that the light barrier has been broken it would be really exciting.  Physicists love a good mystery.  Imagine how much more we could learn about the universe if we found something that we did not fully understand and therefore were forced to look at the universe a little harder.  It might appear to non-scientists as though this is a threat to science, whereas in fact it is more of an opportunity.

Sadly it seems very unlikely that these observations will turn out to be true.  Almost everyone expects that a flaw in the measurement will be found when it is adequately reviewed.

Besides that, we already know how fast neutrinos travel.  Perhaps the most sensitive measurement was made when a supernova was observed in 1987.  The event was known as SN1987A.  After the optical observations were made, astronomers asked neutrino observatories around the world whether they had seen an increase in the number of neutrinos detected, and the exciting news was that they had.

Neutrinos are detected by the track of Cerenkov radiation from a bath of water - meaning that the neutrinos are originally travelling faster than light could travel in the same medium and they cause light to be emitted as they slow down.  The tracks give a clear indication of the direction of the source. Amazingly the source was in the correct direction to be from the supernova.  To confirm the observation, the energies observed were also consistent with current physical models of supernovae.  (Reference publication here, albeit not a formal peer reviewed publication in the classical way.)

These neutrinos did not arrive at exactly the right moment, but after traveling across the galaxy [see correction below] for 168 thousand years they arrived just 3 hours before the light.  If the new CERN measurements were true they might have arrived many weeks earlier.  (The small discrepancy of 3 hours is explained by some physics that I don't understand by the way.  It is something to do with the fact that the neutrinos do not interact much with the surrounding matter, but that the light does.)

A famous scientist's recent offer to eat his boxer shorts on live TV if the CERN observations turn out to be true seems very cautious in the circumstances.  He could have offered something much more unpleasant in the confidence that he will not have to do it.

Let's hope that the neutrinos are not undecided about how fast to go too.

[Small correction added 2011-10-10: SN1987A wasn't actually in our galaxy but in the Large Magellanic cloud, which is a sort of satellite galaxy to ours.]

You might also like "How many neutrinos does it take to change a light bulb?"

Update 2nd October 2012, someone kindly pointed out that this had been solved, not realising that this post was a year old.  So here are the links to two later posts on the same topic.

Not so fast with the neutrino mystery! 

Enforcing the cosmic speed limit

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Harvest festival fun

One of the joys of living in a rural area of southern England is that a few of the festivals of the local church have an almost secular air.  One such event is Harvest Festival which appears to be more to be an excuse for a village party rather than an opportunity to thank god for his goodness, although if I remember correctly, that is not what the farmers were doing this spring when it was unusually dry!

You might not expect that I would go to such an event, being a confirmed non-christian as I now am.  But it was great value for money and a great chance to catch up with some of the lovely local characters who don't see me in church any more.

Perhaps a greater surprise though, is that two of the three ordained clergy who were present were on the same table, and that I (possibly the only 'out' atheist in the room) found myself sitting between the two of them.  That is not to say that there were not other atheists there.  They just keep quite and enjoy being 'social members' of the club of christians.

The current vicar has been in the parish for a couple of years and I have found him to be very interesting to talk to whenever I have met him.  (Apparently his sermons are not entirely scintillating, but then again I only ever heard one or two that were.)  His newly arrived colleague was less easy to talk to and we stuck to 'safe' topics of where he had lived before and tales about children who are at university age.

I found myself muttering darkly only once (having survived the opening prayer and saying of grace unscathed).  There was a quiz and one of the questions was about the origins of the concept of Harvest Festival.  Apparently it is a pagan festival, and it was only adopted by the Church of England in the 1800s, originally in Cornwall. Some were surprised.  My only surprise was this had been adopted so recently.  I nearly completely managed not to say anything when the answer "it was originally a pagan festival" was revealed - even though I wanted to shout out "just like Christmas and Easter!".

After the main course had been enjoyed, the vicar wanted to ask a physics question - as several people already had asked before the meal started.  Yes, you guessed it!  'The neutrinos question' - do they really break the laws of physics?  I might return to that tomorrow but the answers are everywhere on the internet and it was a great opportunity to make it clear to the non-scientists that physicists like nothing better than a really good mystery.

And then the discussion gradually moved around to a more religious topic and I was very surprised to feel that I was at the very least able to hold my own in a discussion with a 'man of god' on his own subject.  Having discussed the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the theory of evolution etc, agreeing on each of them in turn, we came eventually to the question of the reality of god.  He seemed generally surprising that someone might not have a concept of the reality of god - since I am sure he has noticed before that I am not a practising christian.  He said that he was genuinely pleased that someone had asked him what evidence he had for the existence of god.  I had already acknowledged that some people feel that they have 'encountered the living Jesus' and that although this might be evidence for them, it is not evidence for me.

Ultimately of course we came to one of the old favorite questions, and he asked what would count as evidence for me.  An interesting question!  Richard Dawkins' comments came to the rescue as the answer that (for me, at the moment) is the most winning.

If studies of the efficacy of prayer discovered that, say, Catholic prayer worked better than Protestant or Muslim prayer then that would be a thing that is worth investigating scientifically.  That might ultimately count as evidence.  At the moment, the best studies show that prayer can actually be bad for you, especially if you know that you are being prayed for.

I look forward to the next encounter with the vicar.  I actually suspect that he does too.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Entitled to believe

This post is inspired by an article by one of my regular commentators, Forbsy, who wrote about "The ‘new’ atheism" a few days ago.  I am unable to leave comments there but I have some things to say about what has been published.

Forbsy has been reading the blogs of a number of atheists, and I am not writing this response in self-defence as I think she is mainly aiming her comments at those who are much less polite than me.

It is my view that anyone is entitled to believe.  They are free to believe whatever they like and this right is now more-or-less enshrined in human rights legislation.  The problem comes when they feel that they are entitled to follow their beliefs and to intervene in the lives of others.  When I say 'intervene' I don't mean 'saying things'.  I mean literally interfering in people's lives in irreversible ways - ways that go counter to the Confucius version of the golden rule:

"Do not do unto others what they do not want to be done to them"

Where did the concept of human rights come from?  Last week I asked a human rights lawyer and she tried to assure me that they came from the bible.  However, even the first few questions about that claim showed that she was not able to support the idea and she agreed that must have been other sources (although not actually accepting that the bible was not one of them). 

The concept of human rights certainly did not come from the Koran either.  It seems to come from secular philosophy.

Most, but not all, atheists are also agnostic and would be prepared to change their views in the event that sufficiently strong evidence came to light.  Some of us would need stronger evidence than others, and in a few cases the most hardened atheists actually claim that they can think of nothing that could convince them.  In my opinion, just thinking deeply about the topic would not lead me towards a belief in god, and indeed, deep thinking has had precisely the opposite effect on me.  I feel that this is consistent with most people's experience.  Two weeks ago at the march for a secular Europe I saw a man wearing a tee shirt carrying the slogan

"Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church"

Personal revelation (or 'an encounter with the risen Jesus' as Forbsy puts it) is one of the types of evidence most often claimed.  People who have come to know god personally clearly have had evidence that has convinced them.  Their faith is not blind as they have had this experience.  Sadly though, this type of 'evidence' is only evidence for the individuals concerned.  I can't deny that they have experienced it, but it does not convince me in any way at all.  I can think of other explanations for the experience which are based on science and neurology.  I don't say that they are psychologically ill but I would say that the word 'deluded' describes the situation adequately without being offensive.  This really is not intended as an offensive term.  We are all easily deluded all the time.  For example, the TV picture appears to be moving when it is in fact a series of still photos played just fast enough to delude everyone (and no faster than necessary, as that would be wasteful).

Moving on, the terms 'militantly aggressive' and 'evangelistic' only make sense to most of us because they are the familiar techniques of many religions.  Christians are positively required to evangelise, and they have many ways of doing this.  Granted, on the whole they tend not to be as militantly aggressive as their islamic counterparts these days, but over the centuries they certainly have been.

When we call an atheist 'militantly aggressive' we mean that they have said something that you didn't like.  Some of them are rude, some highly offensive, but many use their words in a carefully measured and intelligent way.  In my opinion it would be clearly wrong to equate faith and lack of intelligence.  (You can see my further thoughts on this topic in Faithful Genius - a contradiction?)  When we say that religious apologists have been militantly aggressive we mean something quite different which shows that atheists are mere amateurs when it comes to the profession of aggression.

All the old arguments might indeed have been rehearsed over the history of religious thought in theological circles, but the arguments from science have not had such a good airing.  The religious have to resort to regurgitating the same old stuff again and again in repost, claiming that nothing is new in the world and that all the arguments have been settled long ago.

But if this were really true then the atheists would not keep bringing them up again.  Within the paradigms of any specific sect of any specific faith it might be true that they are 'settled', just as it was probably settled at some time exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (or was it the point?).  Today's rational paradigm is different though.  Rationality has moved on and the arguments have to be repeated in the light of a new understanding of the world.  We have also noticed at last that the many different faiths can't agree within themselves, let alone between themselves.  There is no way to rationalise these differences. 

This means that most people on earth, across the whole of time, are wrong and will suffer the eternal consequences of their deliberate or accidental lack of faith in the right deity.  This will be true even if one of the faiths does turn out to have the right answer.