Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Two Equation test!

Some of you will know that I have a fairly technical background and work on a big science project.  People often therefore assume that I understand all about physics.  Unfortunately they are wrong.

If I can claim any useful role whatever in science, it is very much more at the level of communicating science to the general public with enthusiasm, often using kitchen analogies (which might be wrong, but they are still useful).

Even some of my colleagues (only some!) make the mistake of attributing me with greater technical knowledge than I deserve.  I guess this is because I can apply technical rules and rationale in the operation of complex plant and I have a broad range of technical knowledge, rather than much depth on any particular topic.  This means that I will soon get out of my depth on any one topic, but I might spot surprising parallels with other related topics - things that are not visible to those who specialise.  I might also be more aware of some of the common logical fallacies than most people - including many of those with more science training that I have had.

My skills do not lie in mathematical analysis or deep familiarity with many of the complex concepts that physicists find useful when they are building models to explain how the universe works.

This is exemplified by the first question that I always ask, in the event that someone invites me to proof-read a technical article.

How many equations are there in it?

Most people who hear this for the first time will give me a quizzical look and then give a tentative answer.

I ask it for a good reason.  As a rule of thumb, if any article has more than two equations to back up its reasoning, then it is unlikely that I will understand it well enough to do justice as a proof-reader.  My mind just doesn't work that way.  On the other hand, if you give me a bit of text to read for logical consistency, and spotting of spelling and grammar errors, then I feel that I might be able to contribute.

To many scientists this might seem intellectually sloppy, and it is something that I find slightly embarrassing.  Since I work with so many intelligent people, I'm glad to say that it is not completely disabling.  A colleague who is a specialist on the study of neutron spectroscopy (or something like that) recently said to me

"The trouble with inviting you to design reviews is that you always ask really difficult questions."

That compliment made my day!  I think he really means that I ask pragmatic or practical questions, but I'm glad that at least someone thinks they are good ones.

Small note: I mention the two equation test because I have been reading Victor Stenger's book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning.  More on that later in the week!

Monday, 30 July 2012

More Causeway controversy!

Not many weeks ago, the National Trust was in the news for one of the exhibits in its new visitor centre at The Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.  It seems that they have included a deluded creationist account of the formation of the stones in their exhibition.  Apparently God did it!  You can read a bit more about it here, in The Guardian.  Maybe they are now 'reconsidering', but until they have completely corrected the offensive error they should be treated with great suspicion.

Making a visit to the site this week I would say that the organisation is also treading dangerously close to a legal dispute that has been going on for over a century.  If it was anyone other than the highly respected National Trust I am sure that they would be on the losing side of the argument too.

Giant's Causeway, hexagonal columns of basalt, visit it free!
The Giant's Causeway - amazing hexagonal columns of basalt.

I have been to the causeway many times before, and noticed that the National Trust's strangle-hold on one of the candidates for the title of 'the eighth wonder of the world' has been tightening.  Now you might reasonably say that the maintenance of the site must be paid for, and I would generally agree with that.  But the cost of maintenance can't possibly be as much as they are now asking people to pay.  Arriving at the entrance to the car par, you find that there is no option simply to park and pay a reasonable fee as there used to be.  The parking is apparently covered by the entrance fee. Now that deal sounds very reasonable until you know some of the background (and the magnitude of that fee for services that you do not need and might not want).

Giant's Causeway, hexagonal columns of basalt, visit it free!
The Giant's Causeway - open access!

It turns out that free public access to the Causeway has been a hot potato for much more than a century.  Local people have of course wanted to cash in by selling their services to the visitors and nobody can blame them for that.  However, various attempts have been made by consortia to buy the land over which access must be gained, trying to monopolise the benefits.  In each case there has been something of an uproar.

In 1897, one lengthy legal battle between the syndicate known as the the Giants Causeway Company and local people went to the High Court of London. The court ruled that the road to the stones had existed for public access to the foreshore, proof came in the form of contractual documentation between Antrim Borough Council and a contractor for the upkeep of the stretch of the road between Dervock and the Causeway Stones. Read on.

So it seems that you have a right to access the Causeway legally and free, but The National Trust has to be congratulated for the way that it hides this information.  Using clever weasel words it implies that the visitor MUST buy a ticket to the new visitor centre in order to reach the famous site itself.  If you read their web site, there is very little if anything to suggest that this is not the case.  In fact, the only clues are in the gaps - the things that they do not say.

Now don't get me wrong.  I wouldn't object to paying a fiver to park the car for an hour or two.  That would cover my contribution to the upkeep perfectly equitably.  If I wanted to visit their creationist-friendly visitor centre and read the pseudo-science posters aimed at primary school children I might even be prepared to pay the going rate. 

But I didn't want that.  I wanted to go down to the coast and see this remarkable thing and not to be misled by a supposedly reputable organisation.  This is not an option that they make easily available.  Instead, for a group of four adults to visit, The National Trust would like you to believe that there is no other option than to pay £8.50 each.  That is a total of £34 to park for an hour or two, in order to see something free!  Even Central London car parking is not as expensive as that.

So - if you are visiting, the trick is to get someone to drop you by The Causeway Hotel, or to spend the £30+ getting a nice lunch there.  Alternatively, get the Park and Ride bus from Bushmills.  Whichever way you arrive at the site, walk to the Coastal Path which you can find by going to the left of the hotel.  Walk round the back of the hotel and down the steps to the road down to the Causeway.  It is perfectly legal and there is no reason to be ashamed of doing it.

Then you get to see an amazing site like this . . .

Giant's Causeway, hexagonal columns of basalt, visit it free!
The Giant's Causeway - open access!

without being ripped off by an organisation that has gone way down in my estimation this year.

Another tip - look up the time of low tide and visit within 3 hours of that time if you want to see the full glory of the Causeway as you can see in these photos.

Do visit! Support local businesses - but boycott The Duplicitous National Trust if you can!

Related post:  Includes a view of Fingal's Cave - according to legend it is the other end of the causeway and it is equally impressive.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Sunday Selection 7

Continuing a new series where there is little additional content from me, but I simply share a few items, new and old, that have pleased me this week.  As almost every week, I see items on the web that I find interesting, amazing or  or amusing.  This disjointed ramble might be on any of my normal topics - or on other topics entirely.  My thanks go to the friends who helped me to find them.

First:  Boris Johnson (Lord Mayor of London) on the Olympics

Next: Sanal Edamaruku says, “NO.
The latest on the story of a rational man who is under threat of prosecution in India for the crime of being right!

Best news of the week:  Twitter Joke Trial 'victim' found not guilty at last This is one of the most exciting developments of the year, in the fight for freedom of speech!  The goalposts have been moved in the right direction, making the Director of Public Prosecutions look suitably stupid at the same time.  Now it is is time for real justice as the pathetic performance of the police and prosecutors is examined in detail!

Tweets of the week: The things that man calls science God refers to as insignificant details--ie He made the stars also. Gen1:16
from @Patrumed - must be a Poe!!

Believers like to characterise Atheists as abandoning morality but our strongest objections to religion are always on moral grounds.
from ‏@Good_Beard

Life science of the week: Young Gorillas Observed Destroying Poachers’ Traps, and amazing account of the intelligence of these magnificent creatures.

Atheism article of the week: Vicar condemns hotel after it replaces Gideon Bible with 50 Shades of Grey

From a favorite movie: The "2001 Code" - Clarke & Kubrick's last puzzle.
See what you make of the observation on this blog post by Shane Mckee, and win a trip to Jupiter (or was it Saturn? and did the book use one planet and the movie another? and many other questions come to mind about one of the greatest but most puzzling sci-fi movies of all time?)

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Things Christians say, part 26: Evidence of the bible

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

All the evidence you need is right here in the bible.


The only polite way that I can respond to this is to suggest, respectfully, that you might go and read something else.  Something modern would be a good starting point.  By 'modern' I really mean almost anything written in the last 200 years.  I think you will find that there is a lot of human knowledge that is not contained in the bible.



This is one of the most worthless and (frankly) irritating arguments used by Christians.  The strange thing is that it is true - albeit not in the sense that it is meant.

Just open your bible and read it.  Yes - really!  I don't mean to suggest that you just read all the nice fluffy bits of the bible that you are told about in church on a Sunday.  I mean read it properly and compare its different parts.

There is no need for me to point out specific inconsistencies, but just to take one rather large and obvious example that ought not to take you too long, especially if you are a bible-reading Christian.  Just read all four gospels and compare them.  In particular, compare and contrast:
  • The consistency of stories contained in each of the gospels
  • The order of events (in the cases where the same stories are told in several places) - each gospel weaves the stories into a narrative of its own
  • The 'historical claims' as against the archaeological facts that form historical evidence - such as the non-existence of the town of Nazareth at the time.
  • The key events (e.g. the resurrection) that are not told in all gospels
  • The huge differences in the character of Jesus in each

Having done that, and without even looking at any of the epistles or the Old Testament, you might have spotted that there is no shortage of disagreement.  The more of the bible you read, the more desperately you have to cling to faith in order to rationalise the cognitive dissonance that you are feeling.

Just admit it!  The evidence of the bible is very clear - it more-or-less proves that the bible was not inspired by God!

Last week: I have a personal relationship with Jesus - it is not a religion
Next week:  Atheists just don't want to be held accountable for their own actions

Friday, 27 July 2012

Army pipe specifications

The following entertaining engineering specification sheet from the archives makes fun of the UK Army's tendency to state the obvious in order to ensure that the soldiers are unable to claim ignorance of the rules, and demonstrates their condescending attitude to contractors.  given the nature of some of these contractors that is not unreasonable!  I'm sure other armies do something similar.
  1. All pipe is to be made of a long hole, surrounded by metal or plastic, centred around the hole.
  2. All pipe is to be hollow throughout the entire length — do not use holes of different length than the pipe.
  3. The ID (Inside Diameter) of all pipe must not exceed the OD (Outside Diameter) — otherwise the hole will be on the outside.
  4. All pipe is to be supplied with nothing in the hole, so that water, steam or other stuff can be put inside at a later date.
  5. All pipe is to be supplied without rust; this can be more readily applied at the job site.  NOTE.  Some vendors are now able to supply pre-rusted pipes.  If available in your area, this product is recommended, as it will save a great deal of time at the job site.
  6. All pipe over 500 feet (150 m) in length should have the words “LONG PIPE” clearly painted on each side and end, so the contractor will know it’s a long pipe.
  7. Pipe over 2 miles (3.2 km) in length must also have the words “LONG PIPE” painted in the middle, so the contractor will not have to walk the entire length of the pipe to determine whether it is a long or a short pipe.
  8. All pipe over 6ft (1.83m) in diameter must have the words “LARGE RIPE” painted on it, so the contactor will not mistake it for a small pipe.
  9. Flanges must be used on all pipes.  Flanges must have holes for bolts, quite separate from the big hole in the middle.
  10. When ordering 90 degree or 30 degree elbows, be sure to specify left-handed or right-hand, otherwise you will end up going the wrong way.
  11. Be sure to specify to your vendor whether you want level, uphill or downhill pipe.  If you use downhill pipes for going uphill , the water will flow the wrong way.
  12. All couplings should have either right-hand or left-hand threads, but do not mix the threads, otherwise, as the coupling is being screwed on one pipe, it is being unscrewed from the other
  13. All pipes shorter than 1/8 in (3mm) are very uneconomical in use, requiring many joints They are generally known as washers.
  14. Joints in pipes for water must be water-tight.  Those in pipes for compressed air, however, need only be air-tight.
  15. Lengths of pipes may be welded together or soldered together.  This method is not recommended for concrete or earthenware
  16. Other commodities are often confused with pipes.  These include: Conduit, Tube, Tunnel and Drain.  Use only genuine pipes.
  17. Scottish Regiments in the Army use Army pipes in unusual ways.  These are not approved of in engineering circles.
Bagpies!  Pipes - not approved in army engineering circles.
Pipes - not approved in engineering circles.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

38 degrees to start an avalanche

Did you now that 38 degrees is said to be the critical angle at which a bank of snow can become an avalanche?

38 degrees - the angle required to start an avalanche.
38 Degrees - help start an avalanche!

38 Degrees is also the name of a campaigning organisation with over 1 million members, working across party-political divides for just causes. As they say in their FAQ page:

Is 38 Degrees connected to a political party?
Definitely not. We are not connected with any political parties, and are funded by donations from members. Our independence means that we can campaign on issues that we feel passionately about and that we decide on together. We are driven by issues and outcomes, and judge all politicians by the same standards.

I like that!

I'm one of the million members and I regularly take part in their campaigns and make donations towards their costs.  I look at it as being worth so much more than putting a donation into the collection plate at church every Sunday!  (I haven't been doing that for several years now - and even when I did do it I tended to think that it was going to the wrong causes!)

Donations come from all over the UK to support their work.  Do they make a real difference?  It is hard to measure success, but I would like to think that they punch above their weight in UK.

Nolympic tax dodges! 38 degrees.
Nolympic tax dodges!

One of their successful recent campaigns was against the tax dodging options open to the companies who sponsor the Olympic Games.  The UK public have already paid much too much to fund this financial 'black hole'.  Our campaign has shamed the CEOs of most of those companies into a positively ethical position.

If you are in UK, why not sign up for their e-mails, and have YOUR say!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The German circumcision problem

What can you do when a decision is clearly right, but unpopular?  Worse still, what if the decision is unpopular for the wrong reasons?  (e.g. Namely because people are frightened to hold an opinion that has wrongly been associated with some terrible part of history.)

A German district court ruled on June 26th that parents have no right to circumcise their children without medical justification, and surprise surprise, this has kicked up a bit of a storm.  People are wrongly concluding that this was an anti-Jewish ruling, but in fact it was centred on life-threatening bleeding when a four year old child of muslim parents was circumcised in 2010.

Here we see several of the issues.  First, as Richard Dawkins says, the child is not yet a muslim, but a child of muslim parents.  Second, the child could easily have joined the dozens of others who - every year in the 'western world' - either die of blood loss or contract STDs during the ritualised removal of a perfectly good bit of his body.

The decision to take this risk was not his own, at an age where he could have given consent.  It was taken for him, by his parents while he was still helpless.

Doesn't a child - boy or girl - have a right to be protected from being mutilated in this way?  In my view the answer is an emphatic YES!

Britain's Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, complained to the German ambassador in London about "this appalling decision".

"Did the court know that circumcision is the most ancient ritual in the history of Judaism, dating back almost 4,000 years to the days of Abraham?" he wrote in the Jerusalem Post.  [I wonder why he didn't write it in a German paper, or a British one, or indeed mention that the case was not about Juduaism?]

"Do judges in Cologne today really not know what happened the last time Germany went down that road?" [This very sentence shows that his argument is a weak one and has to be backed up by ridiculous rhetoric.]

He said the court was, in effect, telling Jews: "If you don't like it, leave." [Or maybe the court was telling everyone to abandon dangerous, life-threatening, pointless bronze-age rituals and join the rest of us in the new millennium.]

So now you see that Lord Sacks has immediately and wrongly assumed that it is a case of persecution of the Jews.  He has also used a ridiculous argument from Old Testament times to support the continued abuse of these children, when surely he should recognise their right to be protected from activities like this.

Germany's formidable Chancellor, Angela Merkel has now weighed-in on the argument, and quite clearly on this occasion she is firmly in the wrong.  She is trying to smooth the waters simply to be politically correct and offer positive discrimination for semitic cultures.  I thought she was above that sort of thing.  I wonder what would happen if this became a referendum issue in Germany.  I don't think it is overwhelmingly probable that she would win it.

Why can't everyone see the justice in the court's ruling?  All children must have rights, whatever the circumstances of their birth.  One item of hope remains, whatever new law Merkel would like to introduce.  She will find it very difficult to find the words to allow the genital mutilation of boys without allowing the same for girls.  Even if she succeeds, that same law should be open to a challenge on the basis of gender equality.

I'm sure the story will continue, and that it will be reported in the National Secular Society's newsletter.  Here's a link to the latest edition, and one to the subscription page.

At least there is hope of progress . . . in the right direction!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012


Summer has arrived in Oxford, reaching a scorching 30 degrees celsius this afternoon.  What a lovely evening to give up on the planned activities and simply go punting, followed by a meal in an English country pub.

Punting in Oxford, Cherwell boathouse
Punting on the Cherwell, Oxford.

This is the nearest thing I saw to a traffic jam while punting on the River Cherwell (pronounced Charwell by the way), this evening.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Is Evolution Predictable? Richard Dawkins speaks.

You may like to view this newly published video of the talk given by Professor Richard Dawkins at Culham Science Centre in February 2012.  The narrative is quite close to that in his book, Climbing Mount Improbable, but it was a pleasure to hear him speak on the subject.  If you like it too, buy the book.

Small reminder to self:  I promised to write an article about fusion for his web site! Perhaps next week while I'm on holiday I'll do it.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Sunday Selection 6

Continuing a new series where there is little additional content from me, but I simply share a few items, new and old, that have pleased me this week.  As almost every week, I see items on the web that I find interesting, amazing or  or amusing.  This disjointed ramble might be on any of my normal topics - or on other topics entirely.  My thanks go to the friends who helped me to find them.

First: Do Atheists Have Deathbed Conversions?
In short - there were two answers from different studies.  But if the sample of those surveyed is a group of young adults, would anyone expect their views to have hardened?

Next: Atheists More Motivated by Compassion than the Faithful
At least we get this right!

Podcast of the week: Pat Condell's Godless Comedy (audio or video of Waiting for Jesus.)
I'm usually a bit unsure about admitting to following Pat as he is much more forthright than most.  A friend once said, she didn't like his frothing-at-the-mouth approach.  But some of his challenges are worth a listen.

Tweets of the week: From @Twisty58.  Whether you accept it or not, the Bible IS my evidence...so it's up to you. ALSO...go read Isaiah 17 regarding Damascus...
She seems to think that the prophecy about the destruction of Damascus is happening at the moment. You have to have sympathy.

Life science of the week:   The Mystery of the Missing Chromosome
How the missing human chromosome is not evidence to support the ideas of creationists.

Atheist blog post of the week:  No Faith In The Bible
Another great post from Rosa Rubicondior, pointing out that all the prophets in the bible had seen evidence of god, but the rest of us are expected to rely on faith.

From the archives: Christopher Hitchens Epic Last Words R.I.P 1949 - 2011
Moving words from the great Hitch as he received the Richard Dawkins Award last year.

And finally . . .

Favourite places: North Yorkshire Moors Railway - one of the best places to see vintage steam in action in UK.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway, NYMR, Goathland, Black 5
NYMR, at the top of the long, steep climb to Goathland.

Incoherent Comments

I like to get your comments and thank anyone who takes time to write them.  However, I've decided to make a small change to my policy on comments on Something Surprising.

Don't worry - everyone can still contribute.

Recently I have had so many comments of the following ilk:

Cool blog . . .   I don't know how I ended up here . . .  (or My cousin recommended . . . )  I'll be visiting often in future . . .  I wish I could write as well as you . . .  How do you focus your mind before writing . . .  I wish people would write more on this topic . . .

Almost always they end up with a spurious link to See my site at . . . [this location].

They usually get automatically marked as spam and don't appear on the blog post, but they still fill my e-mail inbox and they arrive often enough to annoy me.  So now I have set blogger to request the contributor to recognise a word.

To those of you who have left comments that have been erroneously marked as spam, please don't give up.  I patrol the spam folder once every few days and with this new policy there should be fewer real spam messages to sort through to find the real gems.

Today's real post is coming later.  this one is just a news update.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Things Christians Say, part 25: Being rebellious

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

Atheism is the thing you do when you are being rebellious.


Some young people might indeed take up an atheistic viewpoint in order to rebel.  Perhaps they are rebelling against their parents views, or perhaps they are doing it so that they stand out from the crowd at school or college.

In general though, I think that middle-aged adults tend not to rebel in the same sort of way.  For me finally realising the impossibility of reconciling the claims of Christianity with the way I see the real world that was the final straw.  I didn't think of changing to any other religion, but my awareness of their very existence helped me to realise that none of them seem to offer more in the way of explanation.

Besides rebelling against people or institutions is one matter, but in order to rebel against gods one would have to believe in them.  By definition, the one that that atheists have in common is the lack of belief in gods, so how can they be rebelling?



Ask a buddhist.  Buddhists are religious atheists.  Do you think they are rebelling too?

Last week: I have a personal relationship with Jesus - it is not a religion
Next week:  All the evidence you need is right here in the bible.

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Right Madonna!

I drove 80 miles and parked at the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham (UK), ate an expensive (and cold) burger and took my seat.  I said hello to the nice young lady in the seat next to me.  Olga, from Petersburg, who had grown up and studied in Latvia, asked me whether I was a big fan of Madonna.  I can't blame her for being surprised when I said that I hadn't bought any of her music until this week, and I couldn't really claim to be a fan.  However, I had obviously paid for rather a good ticket to see her show, and didn't have any family or friends there to blame for it.

As regular readers will have noticed, I am very much less of a fan of the official Catholic Madonna.  The official Madonna is sometimes said to put on amazing shows all around the world but that they are never repeated and barely (if at all) believable.  I'll leave it the gullible in the Catholic Church to believe in those.

Meanwhile, 'the right Madonna' definitely also puts on barely believably but amazing shows, and yesterday evening I had the great pleasure of seeing one of them.

Even though I had never bought any of Madonna's albums until this week (when an administrative error led me to buy the album MDNA** twice!) I haven't failed to notice her.  Recordings of her live shows on TV are such a spectacle that I have said for several years that I would like to see one of them.  Last weekend, completely by chance, I happened to notice that there was a UK tour on at the moment and that there were still some tickets available for the Birmingham performance.

Madonna MDNA tour, NIA, Birmingham, 2012
MDNA - a full house at the NIA

I bought the new album and played it enough times to be familiar with the songs.  All of them are 'accessible' to say the least, and I liked almost all of them and was looking forward to the experience of the show.  And after an uninteresting support act (who might be skilled but hardly deserves to be named for the single theme and rhythm of his music for night clubs), Madonna was on stage at about 21:45, and performed for us for over an hour and three quarters, with 5 or 6 changes of costume.

The amazing set with multiply movable lighted platforms had obviously arrived in a fleet of large black trucks which were parked outside.

Madonna MDNA tour, NIA, Birmingham, 2012
Madonna on tour - a massive exercise in logistics.

The show started off with a religious feel - or maybe an anti-religious feel.  As it got going, the background image turned into a wall of falling shards of glass as the concert started off with the song 'Girl Gone Wild'.  The backdrop has been claimed to be the largest screen in the world.

Madonna MDNA tour, NIA, Birmingham, 2012
MDNA tour - the opening set. 
Just before the amazing breaking glass scene.

After a while Madonna told us that there had been a 'technical problem with her motel'.  (You can see pictures of it on the Wikipedia page for the MDNA tour.)  I had wondered what the barely visible neon sign had been, behind the movable backdrop/screen, but the performance was professional and flawless in spite of technical failure.  Many of us (non-fans) wouldn't have noticed but the die-hards probably had.

What else can I say about the performance?  It assaulted the senses!  The sound was almost overwhelming.  In some ways it might have been a little too loud in the quieter pieces.  I'm not saying that as an old fuddy-duddy, but the album has a bit more contrast between the louder and quieter passages, making favourite songs like Turn Up The Radio much more stunning.  I can only marvel at the technical aspects of the design of the set and the light and sound system.  I could only speculate about the cost of creating such a spectacle.

Amazing!  It was well worth the cost and effort. 

Madonna MDNA tour, NIA, Birmingham, 2012
MDNA - at the NIA in Birmingham

I got back to the car at 23:40, waited patiently to get out of the car park, was on the road by 00:20 and home by 01:50, still buzzing from the experience.  I wrote most of this with a can of beer to calm down enough to go to bed.

If you had told me a week ago that I was going to see this I would have been skeptical, to say the least!

Would I go again?   Not this year, but in future, yes definitely!

**Small note: Being unaware of the illegal drugs scene, it hadn't occurred to me until today that the title of the album and tour must be a clever reference to two things.  Only today I realised that there is a drug called MDMA and that the chant MDNA is featured in a song called addiction.  I had already spotted that Madonna shortened to MDNA is analogous to shortening Yahweh to YHWH.  Maybe I'm showing my ignorance in both cases - or maybe not.

Another note:  Now I have spotted another gap in my knowledge about religions, and will have to read up about this Kabbalah that Madonna is so keen on - from a skeptical point of view of course!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The role of Pi in engineering

My Facebook friend Steve Zara posted a comment recently to say that

"My husband has worked out an effective formula for how long I will take for any software engineering task: I work out in some detail how long I think I will take, and he multiplies by 3. Never fails."

Steve and John have stumbled upon one of the great mysteries of the universe here, and he has clearly used appropriate rounding to come to this conclusion.

Having been involved in engineering, project management and costing for longer than I care to remember, I have used that trick regularly.  Even this week I found myself explaining my method of costing to an apprentice.  Although it seems slightly random and spurious to do this, a healthy dose of pragmatism has taught me to trust it, but only in the right circumstances.

For ordinary, 'low risk', projects and for purchases of bespoke items, I have always taken a few moments to consider how long it might take and how much the materials might cost, then added those values together and then . . .  multiplied by the well-known mathematical constant, Pi (or 3.14).

Some 'scholars' tell me that I am being unnecessarily pessimistic, and that instead I shouldn't use Pi.  They usually suggest the use of another universal mathematical constant, namely e (which has a value of 2.72).  However, this hardly matters, because being a pragmatic/engineering physics type person - I work to one decimal place and usually try to encourage the clever people around me to do the same.  I'm not always successful.

One trick that I use when presented with a 5 digit result from a complex engineering calculation is to challenge one of the first few digits.  e.g.  faced with a number like 5.6789, I might ask "Are you certain that the second digit is 6?" and when they look surprised I might back up the question by choosing one of the numbers that they used as the basis for their calculations and ask where they got it from.  (Something like - "What value have you used for the emissivity of stainless steel at that temperature?" might do it.)"  After that it is often sufficient to know that the answer is 'about 5 or 6', not 5.6789.  This is not as imprecise as you might think.  Knowing that it is 5, and not 0.5 or 50 is often very valuable.

This brings us back to the estimate of 3!  Perhaps now you can see that it is close enough, because the errors in everything else are bound to be bigger, and from experience, people are usually optimistic in their estimates - even if they know that people are usually optimistic.

Incidentally, for more risky projects this rule breaks down.  If the planned work is something that has never been done before, then I might go for a different factor such as Pi squared (or 10).  Once again, one can argue about the accuracy of this rounding to 10, but at a value of 9.87 it is much closer to 10 than you might have expected, and definitely more accurate than almost any of the assumptions that you might use in your estimates.

From experience, since many people shy away from risky technical projects it is often possible to get an order for something that appears to be blatantly over-priced.  However, from having managed projects like this sometimes in previous roles, I would say that the few cases where you beat the risk and make a killing barely cover the many cases where you encounter such great difficulties that you lose your shirt. That is why risky one-off projects sometimes seem expensive.

Of course none of this works in a mass-production environment.  I remember a story about the development of the Ford Fiesta (which was sometimes known as the Ford Fiasco in the early days).  I think the first car cost £500,000 to build.  (In the late 70s that was a lot of money!)  Then the first batch of 10 cost £40,000 each.  Ultimately the selling price of the vehicles came down to around £5000 or less, so it is clear that the build cost was lower.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012


Here is an illustration of the bullshit management expression 'ring-fenced'.

Car ring-fenced by shopping carts/trolleys
Car surrounded by shopping trolleys - ring-fenced!

What they don't tell you (I speculate) is that, like in the management equivalent, the fence does not actually meet at the other side.

This gives the illusion of safety but belies the chance that your resources will be allowed to escape before you finish the project after all.

Experienced project managers develop ways to cope with disappointments like this!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Zachariah's legacy

Most of us have 16 great great grandparents, unless we are a family where (e.g.) cousins tend to marry each other.

Why do I mention this obvious fact?  Because, according to the bible, the sins of any one of them might be affecting me, personally, at this very moment in time.  If we were brought up as Christians and we took the time to listen to what we were taught, or we became atheists and took even more time to learn about the 'secret' inconsistencies in the bible, then we know that the sins of the father will be visited upon the children until the third or fourth generation.

Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.  Exodus 34:7.

That distinction in itself shows how precise the definition is.  The fourth generation will have many more people in it than the third, and yet omniscient gods are apparently unable to tell us whether or not they will have been affected by the actions of their forebears.  As usual, the infallible bible does not fail to be completely unclear about the intentions of the god who inspired it.

I'm fairly sure that I know the names of all my great grandfathers, having done a study of my own family history in some detail a few years ago.  I have no idea how well they behaved, but given that there were 16 of them, I can't help but worry that one of them did something so terrible that the consequences affect me.

I seem to remember that a kindly gentleman named Zachariah Blanchard Beaver's birth certificate did not reveal the name of his father.  (There is probably a clue in his middle name.)  It is just as well that his missing father was five generations back!  God's disapproval of the consequences of his conception therefore ought not to be the reason why I had such a bloody awful week!

Aside from that - in what way can I be blamed for the sins of my father, let alone his great grandfather?

God might move in mysterious ways, but this isn't mystery. Its just insane and if it were true, typically unfair behaviour.

Monday, 16 July 2012

St Swithun's sign for the 'Nolympics'

We have had an unusually wet summer in England - so far.  Yes - even for England it has been wet, ever since the fateful day when the local authorities and water companies announced that we needed to have a hose-pipe ban -  or for American readers, that's a hose ban.

Since April, we have had the wettest drought on record.  Now as the Olympic games approaches, people around me have actually started hoping that yesterday's weather might be a good sign.  Yes really!

The reason is that yesterday was St Swithun's Day.  There is an tradition in olde-England that if it rains on St Swithun's Day it will rain for 40 days, and if not, then the weather will be much drier. 

I can't speak for the rest of the country, but here in my part of rural Oxfordshire it did not rain.  That is not to say that we had clear skies.  We saw the sun sometimes, but at a few times throughput the day it looked very much as though it was going to pour with rain.

As for me - I don't mind whether it rains through the Olympics or not.  I'm so disgusted at the amount of money squandered on them that I am past caring now.

Rumour has it, that for the amount spent by the UK government on the Olympics, they could have afforded to send everyone in the country to the Bahamas for a two-week holiday. I'm quite sure which option I would have preferred, but nobody asked me for my opinion.

Looking on the bright side:
  • It is the rain that makes England green - I'm happy with that.
  • The cultural benefits of the Olympics are apparently worth the cost.  Yeah - right!
Of course there is a technical term for this old wives tale, as has been shown by the observation that it rained for much of the day today.


Sunday, 15 July 2012

Sunday Selection 5

Continuing a new series where there is little additional content from me, but I simply share a few items, new and old, that have pleased me this week.  As almost every week, I see items on the web that I find interesting, amazing or  or amusing.  This disjointed ramble might be on any of my normal topics - or on other topics entirely.  My thanks go to the friends who helped me to find them.

First: Existence of Atheists Offends Christians
Via the Richard Dawkins' site.

Next: The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things
If you like Something Surprising, you might also like this site. It tends to be less controversial and not to dwell on anti-theism as much as I do. But the range of topics covered is quite fascinating. e.g. this one about cleaning an elephant skin.

Cleaning an elephant skin
Just one interesting find at the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting things

Podcast of the week: This has to be The Pod Delusion, episode 144, which just gets better and better.  This week they cover some important topics including:
  • O’Dwyer Extradition (1:51) by Kate Russell (ft Julia O’Dwyer)
  • Creationism with Government Approval (13:13) by Jonny Scaramanga
  • Nature Libel Win (20:25) by Liz Lutgendorff (ft Tim Appenzeller)
  • Control Theory and Lords Reform (30:41) by Sean Ellis

Tweets of the week: Can we please stop calling the Higgs Boson the God particle, now that there's actual evidence that it exists?

Atheist blog post of the week:   What is it with the 'Ten Commandments'?
Rosa Rubicondior at full strength. Although she neglects Exodus 34, she lists two inconsistent biblical versions of the ten commandments and explores the inevitable consequences.

Physics of the week: Trying to explain the Higgs field here and the Higgs Boson, here.

Controversial atheism site of the week:
Hitchens makes it to the gates of heaven and causes a bit of a stir. 

And finally . . .

Favourite places: The amazing Anderton boat lift
Designed to lift or lower canal boats between between two navigable waterways: the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey Canal, in Cheshire, England.
Anderton boat lift, Trent and Mersey Canal
The Anderton lift - unusual view from the top


Your comments and preferences will help me to decide whether this is a good idea or not.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Things Christians Say, part 24: Personal relationship with Jesus!

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

I have a personal relationship with Jesus - Christianity is not a religion.

For both of the following answers, let's get one thing out of the way.  By any real definition, Christianity IS a religion.  I covered my take on the topic in this post, Not a religion? a few months ago.  So now let's look at the 'relationship with Jesus' part of the above claim.


Some Christians tell me that they know Jesus.  They are in contact with him on a daily basis.  They don't believe that this is just in their minds but they can't explain how they can do this when there is no doubt that it is not managed by a great number of other Christians.

I'm genuinely interested to hear something that might make me understand this claim a bit more, and compare this with testimonies from other people who talk to me about different spiritual experiences.

Just this week a friend from a Portuguese Catholic background explained to me how she is aware of spirits in the world, told me how she interacts with them and how she has learned to drive them away.  (I tend to think that these can't be Catholic spirits by the way.)

Also this week, an Muslim colleague has talked to me about 'djinn' - spirits of the Islamic world.  I think she was surprised that I knew something about the idea.  

I have to treat both claims with the same amount of respect as that of having a relationship with Jesus.  It doesn't mean that I necessarily have to believe any of them, however much I like the people who tell me about their experiences.

I don't see how these three claims are mutually compatible, and I don't see why I should treat one of them with greater favour.

However, I'm still listening if you have a good answer.  I'm not holding my breath though.



I like evidence.  If I see evidence I tend to accept things much more easily.

So if we break this down to the basics:
  1. You claim that there was a Jesus - and yet the only 'reliable' evidence for his existence is in the bible and the non canonical texts that failed to make it to the bible.  The documents that we do have are mutually inconsistent, were written decades after he is supposed to have lived and are impressively unclear what Jesus might have been like.
  2. You claim to be in contact with him, with enough certainty that you not only know him but have a two way conversation with him.  Yeah right!  Get back to me if you can provide evidence for that surprising claim.
So if Jesus didn't exist, then I fail to see how he can exist now.  Even if he did exist and was resurrected, I still don't see how he exists in the natural world now.  And if he does exist, I don't understand the mechanism for the communication.  That doesn't mean that it doesn't happen of course, but I have to say that I don't find the idea to be overwhelmingly probable.

Last week: The banana
Next week:  Atheism is the thing you do when you are being rebellious.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Why is the 'God particle' relevant to me?

Following on from yesterday's analogies about the Higgs Field, in The incomprehensible Higgs! , let's move on to the Higgs particle.  The big issue for many people is this.

"If it takes so much money and energy to prove the existence of this particle, how can it possibly be relevant to me?"

The answer is more interesting than you might expect.

Yesterday I mentioned a few 'fields' that you must have heard of.  The gravitational field affects all of us every day and the magnetic field is one that we are familiar with.

It turns out that there are other 'fields' in the theories of particle physics that you might not have heard of.   Each has been shown to exist, and almost all of them (not gravity so far) have been shown to be associated with something called a 'virtual particle'.  This is a particle that pops into existence, perhaps incredibly briefly and then disappears again.  e.g. In the last century, the so called 'weak force' and its associated particle was predicted and then shown to exist by high energy experiments (like those at CERN) in the 1970s.

This association between fields and particles is not obvious, but almost everyone reading this will be familiar with Einstein's famous equation.


The reason that this is important in modern physics is that it shows how energy (E) can be turned into mass/weight (m) and back again.  In the sub-atomic world, this is happening all the time and everywhere.  Even in a perfect vacuum, tiny but real particles are created from 'nothing' and destroyed, annihilated, to go back to nothing.  This is happening continuously, un-noticed.

In order to do this, energy is 'borrowed' to make mass temporarily, and (VERY) soon afterwards the mass might be turned back into energy.  This mass takes the form of particles called bosons (and I will resist the temptation to demonstrate my ignorance by explaining what that means).  Some bosons created in this way last for the life of the universe, while others only survive for a brief instant before turning back into energy.  Electromagnetic fields produce 'particles' called photons - they can (but usually don't) live for ever.  You perceive them as light and use them as radio waves and microwaves.

Some of the other sub-atomic fields produce W and Z bosons which were predicted decades before their actual discoveries as mentioned above - they always have very short lives.

In the case of the Higgs field, which acts on us all the time in our daily lives without us realising it, the associated Higgs boson has been christened "The God Particle" for reasons that I find much more inexplicable.  (Yes I know who coined the term, but not why they thought it relevant.)

It turns out that the Higgs boson is really heavy.  Physicists had predicted its weight by doing some complicated maths, and they had therefore estimated how much energy was needed to make one of them, (by using Einstein's equation above).  The disturbing answer was that it needed much more energy than could be provided by the world's biggest accelerators, and so they persuaded European governments to join together to fund the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.  It was designed to accelerate particles to higher speeds (and therefore higher energies) than have ever been made by humanity, and to collide two streams of these particles, travelling in opposite directions, therefore doubling the amount of energy involved in the collision.  As they smash together, the energy of the particles is briefly turned into a 'soup' of known and perhaps (hopefully) unknown, short-lived particles.

The trick is to find a way to spot these virtual particles as they disappear back into energy or turn themselves into other particles.

This is what the various experiments at LHC/CERN have been studying.  Two huge detectors, called ATLAS and CMS have been used to study the microscopic contents of the soup.   The physicists studying the data are trying to filter out the things that are already known and spot things that they can't already explain.  One of the 'filters' available to them is to vary the energy of the collisions, so that they can concentrate on the predicted range to see whether they can find a new phenomenon.

Now we hear that they've spotted something often enough to be absolutely sure that it is a new particle.

At the moment it looks as though this is probably the predicted Higgs particle.  It has the right energy - and therefore the right mass.
  • If it is, then there is likely to be a Nobel prize for some people.  
  • If it is not the Higgs, then physicists will have an exciting new mystery to solve, and someone else will win the coveted prize.  

Nobody loses!**

Now there is only one remaining mystery.  If you were a pedant, where would you put the apostrophe in "Higgs boson"?

** Not even the tax payers who funded this adventure!  It costs much less than an average bank!  You are only reading this because of the internet, and that was more-or-less invented at CERN.  I have no complaints about the scale of the investment.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The incomprehensible Higgs!

For the last week, friends have been asking me about the seemingly incomprehensible Higgs revelation and what it means.  I've tried to admit to them that I really don't know enough to contemplate understanding the issues involved.  I have asked colleagues at work who are much better physicists than I ever aspire to be.  "What do you make of all this Higgs business?"  Most of them are in the same state as me, and feeling equally guilty about it.  Most agree that the scientists at CERN have been unusually unsuccessful at explaining why so much money has been spent on their project.

As it happens, I don't think £10 billion is a lot of money (on the grand scheme of things, compared with banks, oil rigs and the 'Nolymics') and I don't think it has been spent unwisely either.  So - I'll have a go at explaining the topic of the Higgs with my usual kitchen analogies.  They work very well when trying to explain fusion to non-technical people.  Wish me luck!  Its not that I'm superstitious, you understand!  It is just outside my normal area of experience to try to explain this topic.  Depending on how this goes, I might update it to incorporate other helpful analogies and metaphors that you, my dear readers, might provide.

Initially I'm going to cheat and plagiarise a little(Perhaps I should say 'quote' rather than 'plagiarise'?)  In 1993, the UK Science Minister, William Waldegrave, issued a challenge to physicists to answer the question 'What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?' on one side of a single sheet of paper. The winning entry starts like this . . .

"Imagine a cocktail party of political party workers who are uniformly distributed across the floor, all talking to their nearest neighbours. The ex-Prime Minister enters and crosses the room. All of the workers in her neighbourhood are strongly attracted to her and cluster round her. As she moves she attracts the people she comes close to, while the ones she has left return to their even spacing. Because of the knot of people always clustered around her she acquires a greater mass than normal, that is she has more momentum for the same speed of movement across the room. Once moving she is hard to stop, and once stopped she is harder to get moving again because the clustering process has to be restarted."

I think I need to take one step back.  What is mass?  Non-scientists find this difficult.  In terms of kitchen physics, mass is weight.**  In the analogy above, you can see that Mrs Thatcher effectively gains weight from the cluster of people around her.  Being 'heavier' it is harder to get her moving again if she stops, just as a wheel barrow full of gravel is harder to move than an empty barrow.  (Sorry for moving from the kitchen to the garden!)

Those clustering people do not represent the Higgs boson - the so-called 'God particle'.  We'll come to that later.  They represent something called the 'Higgs field'.  Now I need to explain what a field is.  In kitchen terms I can do that by asking what happens when you drop something.  It falls to the floor because of the Earth's gravitational field.  It is something intangible but undeniable.  Stop believing in this field at your peril.  Without the gravitational field that attracts you to the Earth you would float off into space.  If you ignore it you'll be surprised when you fall and hurt yourself.  The force of gravity comes from the interaction of mass with the gravitational field.  (Sorry - I have to use the word mass here instead of weight, but if you don't know the difference please ignore that.)

Since this is a difficult concept and I promised kitchen physics, cast your mind to fridge magnets.  Magnetism is the result of another field.  Magnets attract or repel each other because of a magnetic field.  No particles are involved.  The North pole of a magnet attracts South poles (and fridges) but repels other North poles.  We have all played with magnets and been amazed by the powerful effects of a magnetic field.  So without realising it, we intuitively know what a field feels like.

A few decades ago, Peter Higgs and a few others realised that mass (or 'weight') could actually be explained if there was another kind of field in the universe.  This field has been called the 'Higgs Field'.  Nobody knew whether it existed or not.  It was just a really good explanation of the observable facts.  The big question was whether it could be shown to exist.

The way that this can be demonstrated is by looking for a particle that is associated with the Higgs field.

Tomorrow - Why is the 'God particle' relevant to me?  I'll try to explain where the Higgs particle comes into the picture.

Meanwhile perhaps someone can tell me what this has to do with God?  The biggest mystery to me is the source and rationale for the ridiculous name "The God Particle".

**Actually, strictly speaking, what we think of as a weight of 1kg is really the force that the earth's gravitational field exerts on a mass of 1kg.  But that's just scientific pedantry to show to other semi-scientists like me that I know!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Take two apples . . .

One of the age-old questions is:

"Take two apples from three apples.  What do you have?"

What are the possible answers to this question?  Surely it is just obvious isn't it?

See the comments below for some possible answers.  Maybe you have some better answers.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Shakespeare's Surprising Psalm

Some people claim that William Shakespeare assisted with the poetry of the psalms when they were translated for the King James Bible.

Their evidence rests on an interesting coincidence - or else Shakespeare secretly embedded his name in a psalm.

It is a surprise to find that the following is actually true.  If you go to psalm 46, and count from the beginning, the 46th word is 'shake'.  Counting back from the end, the 46th word is 'spear'.

See for yourself.  Psalm 46:
  1. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
  2. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
  3. Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
  4. There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
  5. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
  6. The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
  7. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
    Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
  8. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
  9. Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
  10. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. 
Numerology is everywhere!

Small note:  'Selah' is sometimes translated as something like the more familiar Alleluia, if that makes more sense.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Index Librorum Prohibitorum - questions for Catholics

Many of us are disturbed by the Roman Catholic church's strangle-hold on much of Christianity, and its effect on the lives of all who live in countries with even a few Catholics, like here in England.  You might ask what effect such a minority can have, but you should rest assured that it infuses government.  The present Prime Minister is not a Roman Catholic, but Tony Blair was - and worse still he was a Catholic convert.  Those who are converted to a different viewpoint are often the greatest zealots - much as I have taken the opposite view and spend a lot of writing against religions of all flavours.

However much they may deny that their faith has affected their political views, this claim simply must be in doubt.  Science is now strongly indicating that everyone always starts from what they believe and then finds ways to rationalise those views to minimise their own cognitive dissonance. 

A few times recently, I have taken up the challenge suggested by Richard Dawkins.  At a barbecue that I attended, I found myself speaking with a lady who came from the town where my father was born.  In the first ten minutes of conversation, she had told me twice that she had converted to Catholicism when she got married, and had brought up her children accordingly.

Each time I hesitantly hinted that I had parted from Christianity, and that it had been largely thanks to the overtly Catholic activities of our previous Anglican vicar in my village.  Usually I use the phrase "These days I'm a member of the church of Richard Dawkins" and watch for the reaction - which is commonly the smile that I aim to get by making that comment.   She seemed not to be offended - a good start - and a after I had answered a few questions about the subject I asked whether I might venture 'the Richard Dawkins question'.

"Do you actually believe in transubstantiation?"

Now this is a question that I have asked of colleagues who come from various 'Catholic countries' from Poland to Portugal.  I'm glad to say that all of them still speak to me, because if I found that they were avoiding me because of my questions then I would have to stop asking them.

My mother has asked it of Roman Catholic friends too and she reports that their answers show that they seem to regard their faith as a religion of convenience. 

The answer I got at the barbecue fell very much into the normal catalogue of possible responses to any of 'the difficult questions' which include:
  • Well - everyone's journey of faith takes them in different directions.
  • That is not actually one of the teachings of the church [Oh yes it is!] 
  • In our country we look to the church for guidance, not for absolute rules
  • The bible tells us that . . .  [and usually it doesn't]
  • That is left very much to our own conscience.

I've been wondering what other questions might be lined up for Catholics.  Some of them are obvious, but not necessarily the type of question you would ask people unless you know them well.  To each of these I have heard variants on the above replies.  What are your views about birth control?  Do you think the church should tell lies in African countries, saying that condoms cause AIDS? Is the pope infallible?  Why are you more likely to pray to Mary and the Saints before you pray to Jesus?  And do you agree that the pope is criminally liable for covering up crimes against innocent children and failing to cooperate with police?

Here is one that I have never yet asked.  "The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was only 'repealed' within the last half-century.  If you had had chance to read any of the literary works that were forbidden by the Index, would you have taken an interest?"

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum is/was a list of works that, in the view of a bunch of hysterical, elderly, male virgins, might adversely affect the morals of the ordinary people.  The Roman Catholic church must have wanted to keep the world's immorality within the church itself, and it has to be said that although it has failed, it has at least fostered extreme immorality in its own ranks without revealing enough about it to the rest of us.

The Index was only abolished by the Vatican in 1966.  Some say that a form of censorship is still in place, in that the Vatican libraries store many ancient manuscripts that can't easily be found elsewhere.  Putting these documents in the Index would have got them on the radar.  Leaving them off, they might disappear into obscurity and anonymity and never be allowed to cause embarrassment.

Fortunately there is already enough evidence to embarrass the church, and the bible itself is a good foundation for that evidence.

"The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief - call it what you will - than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counter attractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course." -- A. A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh).

Any more questions for Catholics?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Sunday Selection 4

Continuing a new series where there is little additional content from me, but I simply share a few items, new and old, that have pleased me this week.  As almost every week, I see items on the web that I find interesting, amazing or  or amusing.  This disjointed ramble might be on any of my normal topics - or on other topics entirely.  My thanks go to the friends who helped me to find them.

First:  'Hotwheels double loop dare' - although one son tells me that 'everyone has seen this, the other one hadn't.

Next: I just love the tango used in Arnie's humorous movie, True Lies.  The Movie version is here, and another version of the whole of Carlos Gardel's beautiful, passionate Por Una Cabeza can be found here.  Just seeing that makes me want to watch the movie again - worth a good smile!

Podcast of the week:  Radiolabs Podcast 'Talking to Machines'
Maybe some of us find ourselves talking to machines without realising it.  This podcast from June 2011 had some interesting surprises.

Atheist blog post of the week: Dear Atheists, We Ex-Muslims Are Waiting For You”, from The Friendly Atheist.  I think you can follow my 'Creeping Islam' tag to see that I'm supporting his campaign to some extent, at least.

Physics of the week: This has to be the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson.  You can't have missed that.  Here's Lawrence Krauss's take on it.  The question is - what does it mean?  I feel that this is too difficult a concept to explain in terms that we can all understand and since I don't get it myself, I'm not going to try.

Parody of the week:  Homeopath to start offering ‘assisted-suicide’ remedy.
" . . . as proof of its effectiveness, last week a man came in having a heart attack. The remedy was so good that he died before we could administer it.’  Read on and laugh out loud

Controversial atheism site of the week: Somehow, the most religious people in Israel seem to think they are too pious for the army, and yet they expect the more secular Israelis to risk their lives on their behalf. 

And finally . . .

Favourite places: Fingal's Cave

Fingal's Cave, Staffa, other end of Giant's Causeway
Fingal's surprising cave on the island of Staffa.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Things Christians say, part 23: The banana

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

The banana!


The banana is sometimes seen to be evidence of the existence of god.  Some people claim that bananas:
  • Are shaped for human hand (just like the grip of a pistol then?)
  • Have non-slip surface (unless you stand on a discarded skin)
  • Have outward indicators of inward content: Green - too early, Yellow - just right, Black - too late (true, I hear)
  • Have a tab for removal of wrapper (although some cultures - and chimpanzees -  start from the other end)
  • Have a perforated wrapper (well - strictly not perforated as there are no holes in the skin)
  • Have a bio-degradable wrapper (but have you seen how slowly they degrade?)
  • Are shaped for the human mouth (and for inappropriately suggestive in photographs of people sucking them)
  • Have a point at top for ease of entry (see previous comment, but aside from that, the point is no use after it has been bitten off!)
  • Are pleasing to taste buds (although not universally - I can't stand the taste or texture)
  • Are curved towards the face to make eating process easy (except when you turn them round, when they are curve away and become much more difficult to eat)
Apparently, to say that the banana happened by accident is even more unintelligent than to say that no one designed the Coca Cola can.

Has anyone heard of Poe's Law?



I just roll on the floor laughing!  Even if it is true, which god does it prove?

Last week:  The evidence is all around you. Just look at this world.
Next week:  I have a personal relationship with Jesus - it is not a religion

Friday, 6 July 2012

India and third-world superstition

India is one of the world's most powerful nations.  It has nuclear weapons, has launched successful satellites and it likes to get involved in high technology projects.  There is no doubt that it has been successful in many ways.  It is strongly contributing to solutions for the impending energy crisis in ways that many 'first-world' countries are not yet committing themselves to.  e.g. It is developing thorium reactors as a cleaner, greener alternative to uranium based fission, and it is one of the partners in the international fusion project, ITER.

But now, India has let itself down in a big way!

Secular India still has punitive blasphemy laws, admittedly based on the laws it inherited from colonial Britain at the time of independence.  These laws effectively prevent some people from telling the truth - even when it is a matter of public health.

If you have been following the news about religious matters at all during the last couple of months, you can't have failed to notice this story.

In a Catholic church in Mumbai, water has started to drip from the feet of a statue.  "Its a miracle", they claim, after an irrational and unscientific investigation by the church.  People have been taking away the water as a sort of sacred relic and cure-all.

Sanal Edamaruku - the crime of honesty!
Sanal Edamaruku - the crime of honesty!

It just took one rational man, Sanal Edamaruku, Head of the Indian Rationalist Association, to investigate this question and provide an explanation.  It seems that the statue is dripping fluids from a drain, aided by capillary action, and that it is more of a public health threat than a miracle.

And now that one man, far from being lauded for his good work, has been threatened with arrest.  Fortunately, the latest news is that when the police went to his house to arrest him this week, they found that he was away 'travelling'.  Good for him.  However, it seems that he relishes the legal challenge even if not the arrest.

His lawyers are asking the High Court in Mumbai to intervene to stop the charges going further, but Mr. Edamaruku also plans to make a separate challenge to the blasphemy law in the Supreme Court in Delhi.  Read on.
We can all see that this is partly the result of a long campaign of rationalism, and that Sanal hardly could be said to shy away from controversy, but I think you have to admire the way he stands up for rationality and justice.

What does this say about rationality and freedom of speech in the world's biggest democracy?  It is hard to think that anything good can come of this unless he wins his case.

Shame on India!  Best wishes to Sanal.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Universe from Nothing

A friend and colleague (and regular reader of Something Surprising) lent me a book last week - and I finished it in just a few days.  At the time he said that he needed to read it again to get the most out of it and I have to agree that the same applies to me.  That is not to say that I failed to learn a lot from it.

The book in question is "A Universe from Nothing" by Lawrence Krauss.

Krauss reminds us how much humanity has learned in the last century.  Just a hundred years ago we did not even know that there were other galaxies outside our own.  We had no idea that the universe was expanding and the idea of the big bang was decades away.  Much of our astronomical knowledge was not known, and controversies that now seem to be quite old were raised and argued out within much less than the last hundred years.

He takes the reader through the concepts of dark matter and dark energy.  He also explains in a coup-de-grace diagram that the abundance of light elements in the universe today is the clinching evidence for the big bang.  The amounts of hydrogen, deuterium, helium-3, helium-4 and lithium-7 are precisely as they should be if there was a big bang - and the universe is at the current estimate of 13.7 billion years old.

He tells us how the cosmic microwave background, this is the radiation that is left from the big bang itself, provides irrefutable evidence that the universe is flat - a strange concept in three dimensions - but meaning that (at least on average) light travels in straight lines right across the universe.  He also tells us the surprising estimate that there are a billion photons in the microwave background for every atom in the universe, and suggests that this is evidence to explain the mystery of the predominance of matter over anti-matter.  An imbalance of one part in a billion in the creation and subsequent annihilation of matter/anti-matter pairs would be enough to describe this unexplained fact.
One of the most interesting concepts also comes from the evidence of the cosmic microwave background's degree of lumpiness.  I was aware that people often question why the universe is not perfectly uniform - and therefore they wonder how the galaxies formed.  Part of the answer lies in the idea that the speed of light limits the degree to which different parts of the rapidly expanding universe can have any knowledge of each other.  Beyond a certain distance, the particles are simply unaware of the other side of the universe.  Krauss does not make the following analogy, but I think it demonstrates it well.  Last year I featured a set of photos of a bubble bursting - in slow motion.
Bursting bubble - an analogy to the early universe.
Bursting bubble - an analogy to the early universe.
(Photo from here)
In this picture, the skin of the bubble on the left hand side is still spherical as if the bubble was complete.  It is blissfully unaware (to anthropomorphise a physical object) that the other side of the bubble has gone.  In the case of the bubble, that information travels at the speed of sound, and the signal has not travelled far enough to tell the bubble that it is no longer stable.  The universe therefore can become lumpy, just like the right hand side of the bubble.

I have no such graphic analogy for the predicted end of the universe - big and cold and lifeless.  I can only be glad that in 1 trillion years I will not feel very upset about it.

Nor do I fully understand the assertion that before the universe came into existence, the nothingness was unstable, and it just had to become something.  Next time I read it I might understand a little more.

As an after-thought I note a small point with a little smile.  Krauss writes in long sentences - unusually so for this century.  Some of them are the kind of sentence that I know my own editors would want to break up into several small chunks.  And yet Krauss makes them clear and comprehensible.  Take this one example (from page 56):

"Indeed as early as 1995, I wrote a heretical paper with a colleague of mine, Michael Turner, from the University of Chicago, suggesting that this conventional picture couldn't be correct, and in fact the only possibility that appeared consistent with both a flat universe (our theoretical preference at the time) and observations of the clustering of galaxies and their internal dynamics was a universe that was far more bizarre and that hearkened back to a crazy theoretical idea Albert Einstein had in 1917 to solve the apparent contradiction between the predictions of his theory and the static universe he thought we lived in and which he later abandoned."

108 clear words, and I have no problem understanding it.  Nor have the two non-technical people I read it to.  However, I thought it was funny that he (presumably) misquoted the classic and almost archetypal long opening sentence of a Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, making the first two clauses into short sentences.

"It was the best of worlds.  It was the worst of worlds."

Ironic humour I think!