Sunday, 9 December 2012

Sir Patrick Moore

Not long ago I came across the news that Sir Patrick Moore has died.  For as long as I can remember he had been one of the constants in my life.  I encountered him first on the BBC coverage of the Moon landings and picked up on his eternal monthly programme The Sky At Night.  As a bit of a dilettante astronomer, indulging my habit less frequently than perhaps I would have liked, I did not catch every programme but when I did it was never less than a fascinating watch. 

I guess the show will go on.  In recent years there has been a co-presenter, Chris Lintott, who does a sterling job, if slightly staid.  That's not a criticism because in a way Lintott was Wise to Moore's Morecambe - the straight scientist to the amateur eccentric.  Moore was never going to be just a presenter, just an astronomer because he was never just anything.  I think anyone who came through the war as he did saw things a lot more differently than those of us born into the concrete and asphalt world of the post-war dream. 

Over the years, as you might expect, I picked up a number of Patrick Moore books.  One I recall was Can You Speak Venusian? which somewhat inspired my interest in the skeptical side of things, killed any incipient beliefs I might have had in the Von Daniken/UFO world and made me a more critical thinker.  The book itself is the usual rapid and entertaining romp through some of the weirder beliefs on the fringes of science and pseudoscience.  Others have covered much of this ground in more detail, or more academically, with footnotes and references, but this book is entertaining and worthy.  It should be up there on the skeptics reading list along with The Demon Haunted World and Unweaving The Rainbow.

Inevitably too there were the more serious books on astronomy, the annual Yearbook (hat tip to my brother for getting me the first I ever had as a present for Christmas 1974), an edition of The Amateur Astronomer that is still a reliable source of information 20 years on, and many others.  Sometimes you didn't even notice that it had his name on the cover - you just took it for granted that it had to be.  It was astronomy, after all, and no one else wrote books like he did.

I shall not put any video clips here.  Search them for yourself because you will find so much to enjoy, so many hours of vintage TV from when TV was not thrust into your eyes but which you were invited to view.  The Sky At Night remained old fashioned because the sky will still be there tomorrow.  You don't have to rush it now.

In a way I had Patrick Moore in my blood from the moment I was conceived.  My dad tells me that he and my mum would watch The Sky At Night, then go outside to try to see what Patrick had just been talking about.  Lucky was I to have two parents who were both so enthused that when my enthusiasm flickered into flame, they knew where to point me to get the most out of the interest.  They point me towards Patrick Moore.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Gonna change my way of thinkng

After books and albums, individual songs

1 I Feel Fine - The Beatles

I grew up with The Beatles.  Almost literally.  We had a radiogram, a vast plywood cabinet with a valve radio on the left, full of the sorts of dials that said Hilversum and Luxembourg, and a record player concealed by a sliding door on the right.  It was one of those record players that you could stack a bunch of singles on the spindle and sit back while they played in order, dropping with a dull thud onto the turntable.  It scared the hell out of me.

Dad got it about the same time he got me, so there were no records before the middle of 1963.  What we did have was a run of Beatles singles and EPs, She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand, the Twist and Shout and All My Loving EPs, Can't Buy Me Love and We Can Work It Out.  We did have some other singles, including my all time favourite, Fuzzy Wuzzy Wuz A Bear (on orange vinyl, 78rpm) and other things like the theme from Fireball XL5 and the Flintstones (another on orange vinyl that met a sad end when I sat on it and cracked it).

I Feel Fine didn't enter my consciousness until the sixth form when the BBC showed a season of Beatles movies over Christmas 1979.  I watched the Shea Stadium film and heard I Feel Fine there and on Radio 1 a day or so later.  I couldn't get it out of my head (I'd had a similar reaction to Nowhere Man a few years before) and decided, in the way that you do, to hear some more Beatles.  It led to buying Magical Mystery Tour a few weeks later and the rest, as they say, is history.

2 Refugee - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Having listened to a whole range of stuff from 1980 up to 1985, I think I was ripe for discovering Tom Petty, so to speak.  I hadn't knowingly heard of any of his songs to this point, although I did see the video for Stop Dragging My Heart Around in about 1981 but didn't pay it much attention.  After the UK end of Live Aid had ground to a halt, the US end got in full swing and the first act post Wembley was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

My first impression was of how weird he looked.  My second impression was how great the song was.  I haven't changed that opinion since.  Refugee is a great song and the Live Aid version was, and perhaps still is, my favourite version of it.  Having seen him live twice (once backing Dylan and once on his own tour), I can confirm he is a consummate performer and definitely one to go and see.  Oh, and he has a sense of humour, which is a good thing in the Sellar and Yeatman meaning of the phrase.

3 It Makes No Difference - The Band

The BBC used to have a themed night of rock music on BBC2 once a year.  One year they showed The Last Waltz.  I had already heard of The Band, and had a couple of albums by them, but I didn't listen to them much because they didn't quite connect with me.  I think I wanted something a bit more rocky at the time and this was quite old fashioned music played in an unassuming and modest way.  The Band did not shout look at me.  They whispered come inside and have a listen.

It wasn't until I saw the film of their 1976 farewell concert that I "got" The Band.  The interview sections certainly helped.  What perhaps helped even more was this song.  It is one of the rare love songs they recorded.  It's a tear jerker, sung in the plaintive voice of Rick Danko.  The Band were five times blessed: they had three of the greatest voices of rock music, they had five of the greatest musicians, one of the greatest songwriters, had one of the luckiest breaks when they were invited to back Bob Dylan and got Martin Scorcese to film their break up gig.  The Last Waltz is the best concert film bar none that I have ever seen.  And this song is, in my opinion, the best bit of the entire show.

4 As Cool As I Am - Dar Williams

Try as I might, I cannot fnd the original, more rocky version, of this song on YouTube.  So I've had to put an acoustic version on instead which slightly negates what it was that drew me to the song in the first place.  It is quite a bouncy little number, folky rather than country though I discovered it through the defunct music channel CMTEurope.  It's also rather ambiguous, deliberately so in places.  Make your own mind up.

Dar Williams is moderately successful in the US and little known in the UK.  No hits, no albums that have more than scraped into the bigger record stores, but she deserves better, I think, because she writes intelligent songs, songs that have a point other than to sell songs.  Therefore she has no chance of being successful, you'd think.  Well, I can't see her having a hit but you never know.  Stranger things have happened, but with the charts pretty much made up of forgettable pieces of fluff, and the odd bit of grit, it's unlikely. 

5 IDTTYWLM - Loudon Wainwright III

Even worse that the Dar Williams clip, the one I wanted wasn't on YuTube either, and nor is one of the great Loudo playing and singing this song available.  Instead, you have the album version, played on piano, rather than the fantastic guitar arrangement that I first heard on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1983.  I include this song here because it just lit up my laughter neurons at a time when I wasn't finding too much to laugh about and I feel I can alwys go back to it and get that same warm and fuzzy feeling each and every time I hear it. 

Loudon Wainwright has been a very productive man: singer, songwriter, new Bob Dylan, actor (in MASH no less), wit, raconteur, husband to a famous folk singer, father to two more singers.  How does the man fit it all in a still have time to make jokes.  Find and listen to his Talking New Bob Dylan, then go and buy the album. 

I think humour is very important.  I'm glad there is someone who makes funny songs out of the grim reality of modern life.

Honorary mention

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Albums that changed my life

Here are five albums that changed my tastes in music and  my outlook on life.

1.  Magical Mystery Tour - The Beatles

I had grown up with The Beatles.  My dad liked them and had a number of the early singles and EPs and I remember collecting the Yellow Submarine bubblegum cards from the shop over the road.  We watched A Hard Day's Night and Help! when they were on the TV.  Then I stopped and it was the BBC showing all the Beatles films in one week that reawakened me.  Emboldened, I went around the record shops to find the one I wanted to listen to first.  The one I chose was Magical Mystery Tour because I recognised many of the titles.

Boy was I in for a surprise.  This isn't a cosy, moptop pop album.  It is full out weird from start to finish.  I had heard nothing like it and it truly took me to another place entirely, away from the conventional rock and pop I was hearing in the charts.  The first songs I gravitated towards were "Hello Goodbye" and "Your Mother Should Know" but the ones that fascinated me were "I Am The Walrus" and "Baby You're A Rich Man".  It took me a long time to work out how to do what The Beatles did here.  At least I did it by pure thought and without the help of the underground chemical industry.

2. Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan

I had been listening to Dylan for about a year before I bought this album in the autumn of 1982.  HMV were doing some sort of promotion in their shops and several Dylan albums were reduced in price.  I knew the reputation of the record so I bought it.  I first heard it while lying back in the bath at my digs.  All I know is that when I got to the end of the first track I said, aloud, to myself that if the rest of the album were as good, I was in for a real treat.

Mind you, it is hard to be as good as "Tangled Up In Blue" across ten tracks but Dylan almost did.  In many respects this is the perfect album.  The pace and texture of the songs, mostly simply played with acoustic guitars and subtle rhythm sections, has enough variety to keep the ear from going numb.  The melodies are subtle, twisting, delightful, and the lyrics are caustic and biting in the main.  Over familiarity means, and the shuffle button on my MP3 player, means that this isn't an album I listen to as a piece so often, but it is one that I can return to and find still fresh, still interesting.  And "Tangled Up In Blue" is a true masterpiece.  That song leaves me breathless at the end, as I should imagine it did Dylan himself after the frenetic harmonica solo that plays the song out.

Other standouts for me include the acidic "Idiot Wind" and the soothing "If You See Her, Say Hello".  Dylan's marriage at the time was falling apart and the songs reflect it.  If he has ever been so naked on the grooves of a vinyl release then I don't remember it.  There is no way you can miss his pain, nor the sheer humanity of his response.  Unlike so many other break up songs or albums, which usually look back wistfully with a touch of bitterness, Blood On The Tracks smells of revenge.  He doesn't say it, although "Idiot Wind" gets close, but Dylan wants to get his own back.  I don't know what happened in the marriage, and probably I don't, but the vengeful Dylan of "Positively Fourth Street" and its ilk from ten years before is returned and taking it out on the mother of his children.

Standouts are most of the songs, but most especially "Tangled Up In Blue" and he's still playuing it (see this video from 2012).

3 Hejira - Joni Mitchell

Like Blood On The Tracks, this is a stark album with little that might be called pop on it.  It is also long and wordy and utterly brilliant.  Forget the early Joni Mitchell, the folky.  This is the epitome of Joni Mitchell in my opinion.  It distills the folk narratives, her growing fascination with jazz and the idea that sparsity is most often more interesting than kitchen sink arrangements and production and supports it with alluring and interesting songs.

The standout songs are the opener, "Coytote", "Amelia" (ostensibly about the pioneer female flyer Amelia Earhart) and "Song For Sharon".  The songs dissect relationships through the idea that humans are restless beings, always moving on.  Mitchell does this from both sides of the gender divide.  "Coyote" has the theme of the predator and its prey - male and female respectively in this case.

The cover has a road on it for a good reason.  The album was written on the road and has travel running as blood through its veins.  It does not sit still.  Its feet are eager to get to the next destination.  I was lucky to be introduced to it at university and played in endlessly for months before playing it to anyone who would sit and listen.  I hope I turned some people on to Joni Mitchell as a result.

4 Lone Justice - Lone Justice

I had never heard a note by Lone Justice before I bought this album.  I got it purely on reviews alone and I was not disappointed.  Just like the Dylan album above, I can remember the first time I listened to it.  I sat through the first couple of songs but then pricked my ears up well and truly when I heard the third, "Ways To Be Wicked", and it just kept going.  This album is just stunning and it was the first time that I had thought of country as a music form I could listen to.

Not that Lone Justice were strictly country.  Their's was a more new wave version of country and they sure rocked when they wanted to.  And their were tender songs too, especially "Don't Toss Us Away".  But already there were the signs, if I could have read them, of their own downfall.  "Sweet Sweet Baby" is corporate rock with a punk-country flavour and is a forerunner of the second Lone Justice LP, Shelter.  By then, lead singer Maria McKee was enthralled to Waterboys/U2 big music and Christian themes.  Oh, dear.

So this is the purest mixture of Lone Justice you can get legally, although some early live bootlegs capture the real legend of the band and tell you why they were hot property, and why so many were let down.  And if you can get to see some of the live clips on YouTube of Lone Justice, do so, because they show more of a band than the 1986 Shelter vintage act that was pretty much Maria McKee solo in all but name.

Some years later, I did get into the sort of country act that this album bred: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams and Kim Richey for example.  Although they don't appear to owe too much to Lone Justice, perhaps they do, because the idea of a rocking country female singer wasn't one I can see before 1984.

My favourites here are probably "You Are The Light" and "Ways To Be Wicked".   But I offer you a live "Don't Toss Us Away" because it was the song that opened that particular door for me.

5 Who's Gonna Save The World - Cindy Lee Berryhill

OK, I think you knew at least three of the first four artists, but if you know this one then you are doing well.  Not that you should, of course, because obscurity is pretty much her middle name, and hits are certainly not associated with her.  I think I remember hearing her once on the radio and pretty much nothing else.  I came across one of her albums by accident in the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street when looking for something else, not knowing she had even released anything in the last five years.  Not that there's that many Cindy Lee albums to go chasing down.  About half a dozen in a career spanning the better (or worst) part of a quarter century. 

But I urge you to listen to this one.  It is brilliant.  I kept playing it to friends who, as usual, weren't that interested in it to start with, but it has such wit, such verve and such a quirky style that it is nothing short of a masterpiece in my humble opinion.  And wit is truly it's defining quality.  This is like the early Dylan comedy songs spiced with a bit less stand up comedian routine than those songs but still played for fun rather than for serious effect.  Cindy Lee Berryhill deserves greater recognition.

Stand out tracks are the title track, "Damn I Wish I Was A Man" and "She Had Everything" which is a bit like "Save The Life Of My Child" by Simon & Garfunkel but not much.  What I took from this album was its energy.  Later releases became less energetic, shall we say, and much more intriguing for their musical style.  Anyone who can write a song called "Radio Astronomy" deserves an award so if no one else will, I shall.  Cindy Lee Berryhill, have a certificate for the greatest song about astronomy in wavelengths other than visible light.  There you go.  Keep the speech short, the commercial break is coming up.

Her career seems, from this side of the pond, to be about playing in small venues and looking after her severely ill husband, the rock writer Paul Williams.  Visit her blog about herself and his travails.  It is certainly moving.  Paul Williams was one of the most perceptive writers on Dylan.

Five albums, five artists.  I could have chosen many more (so some of the contenders who didn't make the cut include Sound Of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel, After The Goldrush by Neil Young, Music From Big Pink by The Band, Relics by Pink Floyd and Suzanne Vega's eponymous first album.  And so many more.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Books that changed my life

I thought I'd do a list of the five books that opened my eyes scientifically.  These aren't textbooks although I could have listed ten of those.  These are books that you can read quite comfortably.

1  The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out - Richard Feynman
A pleasure of a short book in the authenitc voice of a pioneer of science from the last century.  If you want to understand science as a process, this is the book to go to.  Superb in its brevity and depth.

2 Unweaving The Rainbow - Richard Dawkins
It might be more fashionable to mention others of Dawkins's works, but this one is the one that encapsulates his almost poetical thoughts on science itself, rather than evolution or creationism or the more technical works.  Dawkins himself reads as easily as any writer of fiction.

3  Ever Since Darwin - Stephen Jay Gould

I could have chosen any one of Gould's books but I chose this since it was the first time I read him.  He got more verbose and perhaps a little too long winded towards the end, but there was no stylist writing in science better than him at the time, roughly the mid-70s through to 2000.

4 The Cosmic Connection - Carl Sagan

This was the first grown up science book I ever bought, age 11.  Surprisingly, I found it in the local Woolworths - I certainly had not expected that result.  It was a bit much at the time, I wasn't experienced in science sufficiently to follow all the examples, but it astounded me that there was so much I had yet to learn.

5 The Life Sciences - PB & JS Medewar

I read this at an influential time in my life, sixteen, on the threshold of O levels and dating a girl whose father was the chief scientist in the UK.  Again a real eye opener, showing that there was so much in my chosen field that I had yet to encounter.  Another stylish writer too.

 I realise many people are not interested in science, which is a shame, but were they to pick up some of the foregoing books, I am sure they would come to realise that what they have missed is immense and awe inspiringly wonderful.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

A tale of two Armstrongs

Since I am off to see Buzz Aldrin tomorrow, a little thought scintillates through my mind about two very different American heroes.

This week has seen the US Anti-Doping Authority release its evidence and reasons for castigating Lance Amrstrong as a cheat.  He was, apparently, in the middle of the web of drug using and supplying and the evidence I have read suggests that the USADA was right.  His behaviour, on the other hand, does not seem to me to be one of someone totally clean and innocent. 
Lance Armstrong 1993
I have become heartily fed up of the never failed a drugs test claim.  There was a sort of failed test in 1999 and retesting of samples from that year showed his blood contained EPO which wasn't testable then.  Even when a test came in, it appeared that the scientist who developed the test was advising the cyclists on how to beat the test.  Incredible.  A shiny apple on the outside and a rotten core - I watched the Tour De France during those years and admired the skill and strength of the cyclists.  It is a shame to know now that it was inflated by a chemist's lab.
And again in 2009 - been working out
The claim I just mentioned, about never failing a test, was exploded by the methods Armstrong apparently used to avoid being tested. It included dropping out of one event, filing travel plans on the day he travelled (through a third party management type set up) and not answering the door when the testers rang the  bell.  I get the vision of wiry cyclist and Sheryl Crow hiding under the kitchen table so as not to be seen.  If he were so clean, he wouldn't have needed to do these things, would he?

I heard a pathetic interview with someone involved in professional cycling in Texas, Armstrong's home state.  It was pathetic because it used the same tame excuses that Armstrong himself has made.  He will continue to have his defenders but he will go to his grave knowing that his reputation is not for wonderful philanthropic things or defeating cancer (and I have seen one despicable comment on one website that we might not be able to accept all he says about his cancer), but for being the biggest sporting cheat so far uncovered.

The other hero was Neil Armstrong.  To have made a contribution to history even more significant than peddling well (in more than one sense, Lance), Neil Armstrong was a duly modest man.  I never met or saw him and can believe that he was driven and at times not a pleasant man to be with, though I have never actually heard such things.  Of all the astronauts to have been chosen to be the first to stand on the surface of another planet/moon/asteroid/etc, he could not have been bettered.  To have recognised that he owed it all to other people, that he was in the right place at the right time, etc, and to have consistently said so, that could give Lance Armstrong a severe lesson in how to be a better person.  Perhaps to his family and friends, the cyclist is a wonderful person.  I don't know that man.  I just know the one who would not stick to the rules.
Neil Armstrong, off duty (sort of) in 1969
They say rules are there to be broken, though I don't know of any that do say it who agree with themselves when they are cheated out of a win, or some money.  Rules are there to ensure we all have a chance to succeed.  If we take it it is because we want to succeed, we want to try, we want to win.  We don't have to break the rules to win.  Cyclists now are slower, at least on the climbs, than they were ten years ago.  Doesn't that say something?

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Meeting Buzz

In a couple of weeks I am off to Autrographica to see, amongst others, Buzz Aldrin.  I've met him before, shook his hand, paid for his autograph and seen the look on his face when Brigit Nielsen leaned over his table to have a chat with him.

This time I am taking my granddaughter.  After all, though she's not quite three, she probably won't have many opportunities to meet or even see someone who has walked on the Moon.  There are only eight left and three will be at Autographica 12-14 October. 

I'll stick any photos I take on this blog.  The last time my granddaughter met anyone famous it was Upsy Daisy from In The Night Garden and she hugged and kissed her and tried to take her home.  Buzz, here's your warning.

Believing Weird Things Too

I used to love Horizon when it was on BBC2 on a Monday night and it was about science and not presented by a celebrity.  I used to sit there with my mum and we'd watch it together.  About half way through I'd ask her if she understood any of it and she would say a resigned no.  My mum, you see, preferred soap operas to science.  To each their own.

What my mum didn't do was stop me watching it, or Tomorrow's World or any other science programme that came my way.  I am sure she never understood more than the opening credits but she dutifully sat there because she knew that was what I was interested in.  And I took it all in, mouth agape and mind a sponge through my teenage years. 

It was through Horizon that I met a thing called the Anthropic Principle.  Briefly stated, as far as I understand it and I am sure someone will correct me, it says that the Universe is as the Universe is because if it were different then it wouldn't be the same.  Oh, and it's that way because it suits us.  And if you really want to get deeply into it, it is that way so that there must have been us to consciously view the Universe and therefore, in some strange quantumish sort of way, create the Universe.  Confused.  Don't be.  I think it is twaddle.

Not the bit about the Universe being different if things were different.  That is trivial and obviously true.  No, it's the deeper bits.  Those are based on what Richard Dawkins would probably label the as being based on personal incredulity.  Since some of the fundamental (we think) constants (we think) of nature are as they are, then we get the Universe we get as a result.  Fiddle with those and the whole house of cards tumbles spectacularly to the ground.  The Universe lasts for a twinkle of an eye or nuclear fusion never gets going or something like that.  The important point is, and I always wonder if anyone else gets this, there is only one Universe (if anyone goes on about multiverses I shall throw a sock at them) and only one planet with life so we don't really know whether life of any conceivable type could exist in any other conceivable universe.  No, we just don't.

What we do know about life is that once it gets going it is pretty hardy.  This planet has undergone a global snowball and countless meteorite strikes, losing many of the glorious species (I wish there were still trilobites) but life still goes on.  NASA even managed to transport some snotty nose germs (by accident) to the Moon and back in the sixties and they were viable when they came back. 

The central arguments for the Anthropic Principle rest on those constants.  Do they really make so much difference if there is a tweak or two?  Victor Stenger did the sums and says no and I am inclined to believe him.  Why?  Because the Anthropic Principle sounds like wishful thinking and it does so because those that most want it to be true shout loudest but seem to think the least.  It leaves the realms of science and becomes a theological argument very quickly.  And did it have to be human consciousness?  What about my cats?  Can't they be the conscious ones responsible for bringing all of this creation into being? 

I reckon it is bad science when you only have one data point.  When you have two, as my chemistry teacher always said when he plotted a graph on the board, you have a trend.  Let's at least find some more examples of life before we take this idea seriously but what do I know?  Sometimes you have to examine you own biases.  And the Templeton Prize is awfully tempting and so much easier to win than a Nobel because much of what you have to say doesn't even have to be proved.

PS  Before anyone should accuse me of not being fair, I've read more books on the AP than against it and I still don't believe it.  I read Barrow and Tipler's increasingly incredible book (top picture) and disagreed vehemently back in 1989.  Stenger merely told me why I didn't believe it.  And it is shorter and bereft of theological nonsense.  Omega point for goodness sake.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Believing Weird Things

Every year about this time, when I tell people that I got into science because of the Moon landings, I get told that they were faked and no one has ever been there. Luckily, I've had the chance to do some things that those people haven't, although of course they could have done if they had wanted to.

The first of those is to watch the television coverage of the landings themselves, the raw footage that NASA recorded and which is easily available.  Spacecraft Films have boxed the lot up in individual mission sets which you can order from the comfort of your own armchair.  NASA have stuck much of it on the internet.  Those edited down and overdubbed with narration clips you get on the documentaries on the Discovery Channel (other documentary channels are available), don't convey the full nature of what is available.  Much of it is unremarkable, prosaic and mundane even, except that it was filmed 250,000 miles away.

I've heard how those excited by the conspiracy theory that we never went to the Moon have watched every inch of film and scoured every photo.  If they have, they didn't do a good job of it.  I've heard one those people going on about how the astronauts couldn't have taken such good photos under those conditions.  Once again, NASA has opened the archives and you can see that the good shots made the glossy magazines, the rest still moulder because they were either documenting the science or were just plain no good.

The second thing is that you can actually meet the men who went to the Moon.  I've been lucky over the last few years to have met Buzz Aldrin, Al Bean, Dave Scott and Gene Cernan who all walked on the surface, and Al Worden, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Tom Stafford who all went round it.  Ask them if they went to the Moon and they will give you the true answer.  Aldrin once backed up his answer with a fist.  These are all highly intelligent, independent minded people.  You couldn't keep a conspiracy of that magnitude under cover for that length of time.

Of the twelve who walked on the Moon, until a few weeks ago, nine remained.  On the car radio ferrying my wife and I from Terminal 4 to the car rental pick up at Heathrow Airport on 26 August, I heard the news that Neil Armstrong had gone from that exclusive list.  By noon that day it was old news but fresh to me since I had been in transit for fourteen hours.  When I picked up a copy of the Observer that afternoon, the young women serving me said that her dad had mentioned that Armstrong had died but she hadn't known who he was.  The greatest human endeavour ever and it is passing not only from living memory but from the memory we pass to coming generations.  What are we doing?

Actually, it is the young who ask about the conspiracy and not the elder folks.  The young did not live with it, get taken in by someone shouting the loudest and don't always stop to hear the evidence.  Evidence, you see, gets in the way of a good story.  Just as Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F Kennedy, Neil Armstrong was the first person to put a shoe print in the dust of a celestial body.  The evidence is all there.

And part of evidence is this photo.  It is the only one of Armstrong in full on the lunar surface.  Whether Buzz was still in a snit about not being first out (as some have alleged) or the plans for the photos were really low down on the list of priorities, doesn't matter.  It's a poor shot and was forgotten about for ages.  It got back in the news the other week because of the fact that it was the only shot and it was just an accident that Armstrong was in it.

Just in case you think I was making it up about the quality of the photography, try this one.  Please play spot Neil Armstrong with it (there is no prize aside from the satisfaction of a job well done): those gloved fingers still couldn't get all the photos right and they dind't belong to David Bailey.  So, conspiracy folks, that's another piece of your "evidence" heading firmly down the tubes.

That won't stop many people believing in the conspiracy theory but at least no one has died as a result of this mistaken belief. And if you are still unconvinced, take a look at this site which has photographic evidence for Apollo on the way to the Moon.

Prime and back up crews for Gemini 8: Dave Scott, Richard Gordon, Charles Conrad and Neil Armstrong (three Moon walkers and one who merely orbited)
In the meantime, remember how brave you had to be to get in one of those spacecraft and allow yourself to be at the mercy of any of the millions of things that could have gone wrong.  We should be thankful that all twenty-four of the travellers who went to the Moon came back alive, including the twelve who got to stand on the surface and gaze in wonder.  That requires no weird belief, just the acceptance of eyewitness testimony.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

I'm not on a retainer

I'm currently reading in what little spare time I have, the second edition of David Woods' book How Apollo Flew To The Moon (Springer Praxis).  I read the first edition a few years back when it came out and although I have taken a few months to get hold of this edition, it was worth it.  The additions fill out the story that the first edition didn't have space for.  But most of all, it is even better than the best book on Apollo I've ever read.  And that was the first edition.
The landing of Apollo 15, my favourite Apollo of all time

 I thought I knew a lot about Apollo (though I know I am a bit behind a good many space fans out there), but I am learning so much from this book that is totally new to me.  Putting on the spacesuit in the confines of the lunar module was, I now know, like a choreographed Jane Austen style dance.  I have a good idea of where all the valves were in the spacecraft and what they did.  And I reckon I would have loved flying to the moon myself.  As an eight year old, that was what I wanted to do.

Playing in the veg patch, kicking up the dust, wearing the American football helmet that Mr and Mrs Nussman had got for my brother.  Well, they came close to being on the moon but there was something that wasn't missing.  There was too much gravity.  I couldn't walk like the astronauts, even if I could do a lot of the noises.  

The boat has been well and truly missed.  But I have got to meet a few who walked on the surface of another celestial body: Aldrin, Bean, Cernan, Scott.  And they are all wonderful gentlemen.  My current bedtime reading matter is a truly worthy tribute to those who ventured the quarter of a million miles in a tin cone of oxygen and clambered into a spiny lander to meet the lunar dust.  

If you do want to kow more, here is David Woods' site

Sunday, 27 May 2012


Marcel Proust, who famously (according to Monty Python, had a haddock, is remembered mostly for an enourmously long book that few have read and for a tiny part of that book referring to a cake:
      "No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt LĂ©onie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea."

For me, my madeleine moment comes each summer as I sit to mark exam papers.  There is no need to break a confidence here, so my bosses at a major exam board need not have apoplexy, because it is not the students' responses that matter but the question papers themselves.  Upon seeing them I am transported back to a hot and airless room where I am sitting trying to delve deeply into the recesses of my memory for facts about chemical equilibria and electron spins, aldehydes and ketones and, well, anything that had been drilled into me by my chemistry teachers for two years.  For some unknown reason it is the chemistry exam that I recall, and in exquisite detail.

I can remember the desks, giant wooden ones with a slight slope and holes for ink wells at the top right hand corner.  They are varnished and a honey glaze colour.  There is a board at the front, for chalk, with the start and finish times on it.  Because it is a lengthy paper, the finish time is after normal school finish time and the rush for the bus home.

I can remember the light on my right but although it is a sunny day, the northern aspect means I don't get it directly.  Just as well as it is warm enough already.  And I remember the fact that my girlfriend of the time will be waiting in the corridor outside for me when I finish.  We shall be going to her house straight after.
The memories of the exam room (it was the only time I sat a paper in this, a maths room normally so perhaps that is what makes it stand out) widen into the broader brush strokes of that exam season.  There is the music: George Harrison's Somewhere In England, the Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon (which I initially found dull), Simon & Garfunkel, Beach Boys, The Byrds and The Beatles.  There is sitting in the local park between papers one day.  And going to see tennis at Queen's Club with John McEnroe throwing a tantrum, because he was bored (as was I - it was one sided game).  Oh, and England were doing not so well in what became Botham's Ashes.

The George album is one of my favourites, even today.  I love it not just for the music but the memories it evokes too.  That summer was a glorious time: Charles and Di's Wedding, the end of school and the promise of university, the Ashes, discovering all sorts of new music (and heading distinctly the opposite way to my brother's soul fixation).

The thing is, why does my memory, and everyone else's I believe, play this trick and bring forth a vivid memory from a tiny stimulus.  I think the answer is a simple nobody knows.  Partly, I think, because no one really has got to the bottom of how memories are stored, whether chemically, in DNA or RNA or as circuits of neurons.  The teleological answer to the why question is almost certainly because a similar situation can require a similar response, and the stronger the original emotional investment, so to speak, the more likely it is to get a deeper and more detailed memory.

So my biology papers never evoke this response because I was better at those and the chemistry was the one I really wanted to get right.  But memory has a habit of being so elastic that it can get stretched out of shape.  Did I really go through those things I described?

In this case, the answer is pretty much a yes.  But one memory I have and which differs markedly from my dad's recollection of the event is the first moonwalk.  I saw bits of it on later rebroadcasts during the day of 21 July 1969.  My dad is adamant that I was awake for it, even though I know I wasn't.  I went to bed after the lunar module landed and have no recollection of anything until I awoke the next morning at normal time.  I was brought down to watch but I was so tired it made no difference.

So in true memorial fashion, perhaps we should have a where are they now item to finish up.

I suspect my chemistry teachers are well retired, possibly still with us.  The old girlfriend left me for a marine (honest) eighteen months later.  George Harrison died in 2001 and my dad is still with us.  Unlike Ian Botham, my dad never got a knighthood.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

This ever changing world in which we're living

We are led to believe that before Galileo no one believed that the cosmos, the realms beyond planet Earth, could change and that all celestial bodies were perfect and incorruptible.  History books also tell us that everyone thought the Earth was flat until that pesky Columbus said, No, 'tis round and luckily I know a short cut to the Indies.

What Galileo did was point his telescope at things of interest up in the sky, the Moon, Jupiter, Venus and so on, and demonstrate to anyone with at least one working eye and a modicum of open mindedness, that things in the heavens weren't always quite the same as they were the day before yesterday.  And the single most corruptible of those heavenly bodies turns out to be the Sun.

One of Galileo's sunspot sketches
Before Galileo there were reports of sunspots.  But you can't just look at the Sun and see them, so those reports are very rare.  Only at sunrise and sunset do the intensely bright and damagingly hot rays of the Sun become ameliorated enough to be able to bear them for more than a split second.  Then you can see the odd blemish on the surface of the Sun with your unaided eyes.  Galileo wisely did not peer down his telescope (HEALTH AND SAFETY GONE SENSIBLE: DO NOT EVER EVER EVER LOOK AT THE SUN THROUGH A TELESCOPE, BINOCULARS OR ANYTHING ELSE WITH YOUR OWN EYES (UNLESS YOU HAVE A PROPER SOLAR FILTER OVER ALL THE LENSES AT THE OTHER END OF YOUR DEVICE) projected an image and then drew what he saw. 

SOHO-large-sunspotI used the same method myself yesterday.  I have a small, 3 inch reflector that's very handy for deep sky objects but also works nicely for projecting the late afternoon Sun onto the ceiling of my porch.  I did it to show my granddaughter something she won't see too often - a naked eye sunspot.  This one is called AR1476 and it is very big indeed, and active and could interfere with communications and electricity grids down here on the good Earth.  The NASA image left shows how large, in comparison to the size of the Sun, this sunspot is.  It was clearly visible on my porch ceiling and the grandaughter left having seen it going "Sun, mummy, spot."

 My limited technology does not extend, sadly for the moment, to solar filters and the like so I was deprived of having an even closer view.  As might have been guessed, sunspots have structure so large magnification reveals the spot to be a roiling mass of fingers of superhot gas, trained by the rippling magnetic fields of the Sun's inner structure poking through into the visible sphere.  So this photo from David Maidment in Oman (via captures even more wonderment and delight than the NASA picture:

If you have a small telescope or a pair of binoculars, take the occasional safe look at the Sun.  It is not just a yellow circle up there to warm and tan you.  It is a fascinating object in its own right. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Slime Moulds

If I were asked for the identity of my favourite organism, I might be tempted to say slime moulds.  So, hands up all those who have heard of slime moulds.  Hmm.  Thought there might not be too many hands.

There's a reason for that.  Slime moulds just aren't famous.  They don't have any PR, unlike the tasty or toxic mushrooms, the annoying pin moulds and the ubiquitous yeast.  But then slime moulds aren't moulds at all, because they aren't fungi.  They are protists, single celled organisms, and can grwo very big for microbes.  Some slime moulds occupy an area of several square metres and have a mass of up to 30g.  Look for them on fallen logs where they chomp on the bacteria that are part of the decay process and look like brightly coloured slime patches.

The reason I love slime moulds is because they are just so odd.  Most people now no longer encounter nature so readily as they used to.  My family, for instance, had never seen a weasel until we saw one while visiting my mother's grave one day last year.  For city dwellers, wildlife is often birds and foxes and little besides.  That's a shame but I was brought up to turn over logs and stones to see what was beneath, and I spent a summer investigating the ponds and streams around my village, mostly in search of my second favourite life form, the planarian flat worm.  But slime moulds are odd.
From daviddarlinginfo

Some of them consist of a single cell with hundreds of nuclei.  Sometimes they group together to form a slug-like entity that moves away and forms a fruiting body that releases spores.  So there is an element of multicellular life in there and the evolutionary importance of such behaviour has not been lost.  Not that we have entirely worked out the evolution of these things. 

I first came across slime moulds when I met the UK's chief scientist of the time, John Ashworth, through his eldest daughter.  She loaned me his slim book on slime moulds, The Biology Of Slime Moulds in the good old studies in biology series that Unwin published in the sixties and seventies.  I read the book as a sixteen year old then bought my own copy when I visited Nottingham University a couple of years later.  I have since lost the book sadly.  It's not much of a read but it's not meant to be.  It is an overview of what was known about these strange creatures at the time.  I could get it for a penny at Amazon if I wanted.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about slime moulds is that they can solve puzzles like mazes in a most efficient way.  All in all they should have better PR.

Anyway, look under or on logs in the future to see if you can find some slimy looking patches.  They might be slime moulds.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Some thoughts on Levon Helm

A sad moment, last week, when Levon Helm, the heart and soul of The Band, passed.  A truly great voice of American music is gone.  I don't think I've been so sad at someone's death in a long time, outside of those people I knew personally that is.

It is a strange thing, mourning a celebrity.  There's a scene in the John Lennon film Imagine where a delusional young turns up at Lennon's mansion.  John is kind hearted but blunt enough to point out that the songs aren't about the young man.  If anything, they're about John and Yoko.  I never felt for one minute Levon and The Band were singing about me.  They just seemed to be having so much fun.

The Band were five master musicians, three superb singers, one great songwriter and a fantastic bunch of men.  When the world was going day-glo crazy, they decided that a monochrome world was much more interesting.  No Sgt Pepper for them.  Instead, they turned on a whole bunch of more famous muicians, Clapton, Elton, George Harrison amongst others, to the possibility that songs could be quiet, played with wooden instruments and rely on the soul of the musicians to make them special.  They did just that.

I came to The Band in the way that many others must have done over the years, through the music of Bob Dylan.  The Band, while known as the Hawks, back Dylan in 1965-6 on the tours that are famous for the booing and the Judas shout.  Levon backed away from that so he's not on the famous 1966 bootlegs.  He didn't come back until 1967 after Dylan had fallen off his Triumph and cracked his neck and his campadres were doing quiet but soulful things in a basement with a four track tape machine.

In 1968, The Band emerged in their own write with Music from Big Pink, an album so out of synch with the times that it could have been from another planet.  But it is also chock full of classics, "The Weight", "I Shall Be Released", "This Wheel's On Fire", "Tears Of Rage" and so on.  If you're going to buy one Band album, then this should be your second purchase.

That's because the follow up, the brown eponymous album, is even better.  I won't list the tracks to look out for.  Just buy it.  It's a classic and better than anything you'll find on the album charts this week by a huge distance.  Those three singers, rather than fill up the song Mariah Carey style, know when to sing and when to leave alone.  That's my mark of a great singer.

And Levon was a great singer.  A rich southern accent gave him a distinct singing voice.  Better than that, he was the pivot of the Band.  Not quite as steeped in alcohol and partying as Richard Manuel or Rick Danko, or as studious as Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson.  Without Levon The Band might not have been worth listening to.  He gave the group a soul that the others could swing around.  And he did most of it from the drummer's stool.  There are few drummers who sing, let alone do both at the same time so well as Levon did.  And that loose drumming is distinctive and all his own.  Levon, like Ringo, played the song, not the drums.

After the second album, The Band fared less well and it is convenient consensus that says they never regained the heights but there is a bootleg of a concert a few weeks before their break up Last Waltz gig that is required listening.  Luckily they were taped for a radio station and the results were superb.  I won't tell you how to get it but if you do, you'll know why it is recommended.  But in those six years The Band did not let their true selves become lost.  The music was still as true as ever, with highlights on lesser albums that most groups would give arms and legs to have: "It Makes No Difference", "Stagefright", "Arcadian Driftwood" and so on.  When they split, it was in style, and with Martin Scorsese's cameras in attendance.  Buy the movie.

Like I said, I came across The Band when listening to Bob Dylan.  That was 1982.  The first album I bought was a best of.  It took me three years to get down to listening to them properly and now I wouldn't be without them.  I stayed up half the night to watch The Last Waltz on BBC2.  I even got the reunion albums in the 1990s.  I didn't appreciate The Band until I was grown up.  And that in the end may be the greatest compliment to them.  They made grown up music in a world of screaming teeny boppers.  When The Beatles grew up and grew apart, they did so as a clone of The Band.
The Band 1969
The Beatles, last photo session, 1969

Monday, 9 April 2012

Saturn V

Let's be honest.  Who wouldn't have wanted to see a Saturn V launch?  A million people turned up to see Apollo 11 launch and I'm sure they didn't waste their time.  When they lit those F1 engines at the business end of the first stage and they reached 7.7 million pounds of thrust, the ground shook.  I wish I'd been there.

I nearly was.  Well, I tried to be there the only way I knew how.  I entered the Look-In magazine competition.  Look-In was for young teens and revolved around pop music and ITV programmes.  It was entertaining in its way and I took it for a number of years but the important thing about the Apollo 16 competition is that I didn't win.

So my first look at a Saturn V in the flesh was when I saw those F1s above at the Kennedy Space Center the first time I visited in 2003.   It doesn't matter how many times I've been back - those F1s get me every time.  How on Earth did they balance a 363 foot tower upright, then get it to get off the ground?  Stunning.

For those of us who have an urgent need to see Saturn Vs on a daily basis and who don't work at the Kennedy Space Center (I'd love to), then we can make do with the work of Mark Grey and Spacecraft Films.  He sensisbly realised that there was a market for those of us who want the physical throb of that behemoth lifting from Pad 39A (and once from 39B) by putting together three DVDs of archive footage of all the Saturn V launches (that's Apollos 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and Skylab 1), in the minutest detail, with all those glorious engineering cameras mounted in all those nooks and crannies on the launch umbilical tower....  Wonderful.  I've linked to the right to Spacecraft Films so if I have whetted your appetite, then go there.  The Saturn V set is a snip and well worth having.

And if that is not enough, take a look at this video.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Giving up childish things...

I stopped believing in Father Christmas when he failed to bring me the one thing I most wanted in all the world: the 1/144th scale Airfix Saturn V.  No matter that I got it for my birthday a couple of months later.  The damage was done.
That was about 1971-2.  I can't be sure.  In 1994 I made the model again, this time with the benefit of paints and patience, and the fact I wasn't making a model that I would play with.  So I made it better, though not as well as some of the wonderful modellers could have made.  Try this site for some brilliant examples of spacecraft models.

Anyway, I've gone and bought the Saturn V model again, though this time I have bought the recently introduced Airfix Skylab variant.  It has the bits in it to mak the normal version, more or less, but I've only just begun and these days, with the eyes being a little less keen on small parts, it will take more patience and a set of new paint tins.  You see, having been to see the real thing in Florida (several times), I now want accuracy. 
I shall be looking over my holiday photos to check on the colours.  I took a pile of reference photos a couple of years back.  I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

World Domination

Back when I was an undergraduate, I and a fellow student declared independence for Essex.  For some unknown reason, our declaration gost in the general background noise of news but we made it anyway.  Possibly not in public but that doesn't really matter.  We knew that Essex was the centre of the universe.

The evidence was plain.  The top cricket team in the country at that time was Essex.  West Ham United had recently won the FA Cup.  The up and comingest band in the world were Depeche Mode.  The drummer from Blur had just left school.  Obvious really.  Seems odd that no one else had joined up the dots.

Actually, it is even deeper than that.  We're talking 1983 here and Essex was a large part of the then political universe.  It was, in some eyes, Essex what swung the 1983 general election (my friend campaigned for the SDP that year - I don't do doorsteps) and gave the second Thatcher administration a landslide.  Sitting on the opposition benches was Jack Straw, later an integral part of successive New Labour Cabinets.  He was born in 1946 at Buckhurst Hill, Essex.

In the cinema that year you could go and see Monty Python The Meaning Of Life.  It doesn't include 17th Python, Neil Innes.  It should, because he was not only a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and therefore appeared in Magical Mystery Tour but also wrote one of Oasis's best melody lines in "How Sweet to Be An Idiot".  And he was born in 1944 in Danbury, Essex.

While the political colour of the country was getting bluer (and redder as opinions became polarised), a Dylanesque (TM) album arrived: Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy by the Bard of Barking (c) Billy Bragg (born 1957).  In those days, the music was stark, just like Freewheelin' era Dylan but there has been a slight mellowing over the years although Billy (yes, we're on first name terms) is something of a sage these days and is certainly a more thoughtful musician than most of those that arose from the punk generation.  (NB On Boxing Day 1983, Channel 4 screen the entire uncut edition of Dylan's "movie" Renaldo And Clara which I stayed up to watch.  Hmm.  Four hours of my life I won't get back.)

One of the hottest TV series of the time was The Young Ones, starring, inevitably, Essex born (Harlow) Rik Mayall.  It was certainly a series that got the TV common room packed in my hall of residence whenever it was on.  Mayall later appeared in Blackadder which debuted in 1983.  See, it is all connecting.

At what might be thought of as the other end of TV we had the Late, Late Breakfast Show, starring Noel Edmonds.  Edmonds was born in Hainult and was for many years the first voice that millions heard when they woke up - his breakfast show on Radio 1 was legendary.  My memory of his TV show from the year was when he premiered the Paul McCartney/Michael Jackson single "Say Say Say", or the video thereof, on his show.  Well, underwhelmed was my opinion.

Eight years old in 1983, but no doubt giving someone the benefit of his opinions, was Clavering born Jamie Oliver.  At the time he was known as the School Uniformed Chef for bringing cup cakes and Victoria sponges to the school fete.  In time he would become the most important celebrity chef, responsible for feeding the entire school population of the world.

Also in shorts was John Terry.  Now, there was a John Terry at my school but it wasn't the same as the famous footballing, name calling (allegedly), team-mate's wife escorting former England captain.  He was born in 1980 so he may well have still been in nappies, but for my purposes it was his birthplace that matters - Barking.

Back to something intellectual.  Roger Penrose, born in Colchester in 1931, is a brilliant scientist and mathematician with interesting ideas on, for instance, consciousness, and who should have won a Nobel Prize long ago (but my opinion doesn't count).  This man worked with Stephen Hawking so he must be a genius.  Oh, and did I mention he's an Essex man too.

I could go on but I think you get my point.  Essex has contributed so much to the world that it should, in all honesty, be recognised as an independent nation now.  In fact, our aim in 1983 was to have a seat at the United Nations by 1987.  Well, nearly there.  Our outreach ambassadors have been doing a sterling job and I am sure world domination will be ours.  So those sons and daughters of Essex that I haven't mentioned but I am about to list will be rewarded: Russell Brand, Denise van Outen, Alison Moyet, the one with glasses in Depeche Mode, Tony Adams and Tony Parsons, Richard Littlejohn (I've put him in charge of community affairs but I'm not sure he's cut out for the job),  Richard Ingrams, Kenny Ball, Joe Pasquale, Alan Davies, Sandie Shaw and finally, but most not leastly, Dick Turpin.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

That's the way to do it

Charles Darwin was born 203 years ago today.  Unlike, perhaps, Michael Faraday or Marconi, you can get away without having Darwin's discoveries impinge on your lives.  Not.  Electricity and radio communications notwithstanding, Darwin helps us understand why we can feed 7 billion people, and that matters.

For reasons that I don't quite understand, some people regard Darwin as a figure of hate.  They blame him for the rise of Nazism, and abortion and who knows what else.  As if a simple scientific theory (yes, a proper theory, tested and shown to be good) can be the root of all evil.  The twisting of it can, of course.  The wrongful application of it can.  Just as the atomic bomb and nuclear power stations are two sides of the same coin, eugenics and artificial selection of plants and animals for profit are two sides of the same coin. 

Here is not the place to go into why Nazism bolted on science rather than grew out of it, or to discount creationist myths.  No, here we should celebrate Darwin's true achievement.  He took an idea and worked at it until he was convinced that it was as watertight as he could make it.  Even then he was not ready to publish.  He realised what a left field idea natural selection was and probably would have held out as long as he possibly could were it not for the fact that a friendly rival, Alfred Russell Wallace, had the same idea and wrote to Darwin to explain it to him.  Darwin's friends persuaded Darwin to break cover, go public and let the world know of his theory.  In 1858, when the theory was unveiled at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London, the world's reaction was.... nothing.

It took another year, during which time Darwin assembled the manuscript of On The Origin Of Species out of the much larger manuscript he had been writing, before the idea truly reached the public and there was a reaction this time.  Scientists, on the whole, accepted the idea.  The public was a bit more ambivalent.  The church mainly hostile.  Predictable perhaps.  Darwin's book was a best seller, and a piece of pure scientific research.  The reason why science could accept it was because Darwin had done his work. 

Here was a novel idea, backed up by superb research, including experimental results, collected from around the world.  Darwin also realised that there were gaps that would need to be filled in and that others would do that for him.  He wasn't so arrogant as to criticise his critics for their ignorance.  He listened and reworked his ideas on that basis.  He was wrong on inheritance but right on so much else.  The stack of evidence collected in the 150 years since is huge.  It is wrong to go against the idea of evolution by natural selection on the basis of science.  Those that deny it do so for other reasons.

But Darwin was much more than the evolution man.  He could lay claim to founding modern biology.  After all, he gave it a unifying theory.  He virtually invented psychology, plant physiology, sexual selection and much besides.  His works were many and varied and he is usually charicatured by those who have read little beyond a potted biography (like this one).  I say virtually back there because I am sure others will lay claim to inventing those fields too.  But Darwin did so much, he is rightly lauded as a great scientist.

A few years back there was much excitement in certain quarters at the revelation that scientists were actually arguing about evolution.  Books were written about it.  It was knock me down with a feather territory.  Scientists argue about all sorts of things.  It is part of how science makes progress.  If everyone agrees in a scientific field, it becomes stultified.  What really happens is that scientists examined assumptions, go back and test ideas, try new things, use new techniques to find out whether they got it right or not.  One textbook piece of science, the natural selection of the peppered moth, Biston betularia, came under scrutiny.  In short, the Industrial Revolution made trees sooty, and this favoured the dark form of the moth rather than the lighter form.  Birds would see the light form resting on trees.  Those light ones would then get eaten.  The original research suggested that dark forms would prevail and so they did.  Recent research, in the light of the suggestion that the results of the original research were not, let's say, entirely valid, has shown that, knock me down with a feather, the dark ones will prevail on dark backgrounds because the moths do actually sit on tree trunks at dawn and get eaten by the birds if they can be spotted.  One up for Darwin.

My post yesterday on ignorance is balanced by this one.  I thought of calling it knowledge but it is subtly different to just knowing stuff.  It is about being right, for the right reasons and with the right evidence to back it up.  Science can encompass speculation, and does, if it has a basis in fact and if it is interesting or testable.  Science does not encompass those speculations that rely on chucking out so much valid, tested and reliable evidence that it is like starting again.

Saturday, 11 February 2012


I've been busy for the last few weeks but now I can come back to the keyboard, a couple of things that have drifted across my consciousness in that time can now occupy my time a little bit.  They both add up to what I think can only be called ignorance.

I am not proud of my ignorance but on most subjects I am ignorant.  I know little about many things.  I couldn't tell you much about the mineral wealth of Finland, for instance, or name the team members of the 1947 FA Cup Winners.  This is the sort of incidental ignorance that comes from not needing or wishing to know those things.  If I did want to know them, I am sure I could find them out.  After all, I am writing this to add to the general sum of things that make up the Internet which is where I would research what I needed to know.  I don't distrust the Internet's ability to give me the truth, but I do check to see if unrelated sites will give me supportive information or not.
Charlton Athletic, winners of the 1947 FA Cup (courtesy of

Anyway, to the first of the signs of ignorance that lies beyond me.  It is an accidental ignorance masquerading as knowledge.  It is Rupert Sheldrake's latest volume, The Science Delusion.  It is the latest of two lines, one running through Sheldrake's work and one running through a line of previous authors.  It is the attack on "materialism", the idea that the Universe runs according to naturalistic rules, that nothing is actually predetermined and that matter doesn't really want to do anything.  Matter follows the laws of nature.  Simple.  Sheldrake wishes to assign a form of consciousness to matter and not just to living things.  It is hard enough to know where consciousness ends amongst the animal kingdom.  I don't know how, for instance, you can detect consciousness in, for instance, an argon atom.

I am sure that Sheldrake and all the others who get hot under the collar that science doesn't admit that there are mysteries which we cannot understand and therefore there must be something else, are totally genuine and honest in their beliefs.  I am also totally certain that they are wrong.  Not that there might be something else that we don't understand, etc, but that they are wrong on this idea of materialism.

If any subject of academic life is willing to be open to the fact that there might be something else it is surely science.  To have been alive between 1890 and 1920 and following closely the discoveries of physics must have been like being in those swirly cross fades between scenes in certain tacky sixties TV shows.  After all, much of what we now take for granted was unknown before 1890 and pretty certain by 1920: radio communications, x-rays, radioactivity, quanta, general and special relativity, the Noble Gases, the electron and proton, the atomic nucleus, radium and europium amongst other elements.  Keeping up with all that must have been a dizzying experience.  And biology was a similar melting pot.

And since 1920, science has continued to put out ideas to be shot down - the Big Bang, multiverses, strings and branes and dark matter and energy.  Some are pretty well served by a tranche of evidence and some are pretty speculative, but they are testable.  And better than that, they have a whole lot of maths behind them and, as we all well know, the equals sign means just that. 

But amongst all this are some spectacular failures - N rays being one that gets trotted out because it is a good sign of what Sheldrake is a purveyor of.  Some call it pathological science rather than pseudoscience and this is quite a good term.  Pathological science is science that is genuine and honest but just wrong.  I feel that Sheldrake's morphogenic fields are this.  He believes them, as do some others, but the evidence, no matter how high it stands as a stack of paper, doesn't add up to a convincing argument as far as the majority of scientists are concerned.  Scientists are a bit like politicians in one important respect - they try to solve the solvable.  There is no point trying to test the untestable, or going back continually to retest something when it has failed to yield worthwhile or even positive results.  Mainstream science, a rather boring epithet, does not spend a lot of time on, for example, cold fusion, though some may pursue it.
Read this book

You see, science is not averse to the unusual.  If it were then making progress would be slow or non-existent.  It is, perhaps, best described as semi-conservative.  What works well, what describes reality well, is preserved unless and until something better comes along.  That something better may never come along. If you want to know more about these matters, you could easily read the books of Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, Brian Cox and many others. 

The second piece of ignorance is not the fingers in the ear I'm not listening kind outlined above.  It is the confrontational I have heard but I know you're wrong type.  Over at Why Evolution Is True is the story of a college newspaper article getting it totally wrong on evolution and the nature of scientific theories (  This was dealt with at essay length by Stephen Jay Gould when Ronald Reagan made a comment about evolution being only a theory.  A theory in science should be sufficiently well tested that it would be irrational to deny the theory's truth.  But of course scientists are a little vague in their use of theory.  String theory may or may not be true but at the moment the evidence is insufficient for mainstream science, although definitely interesting and certainly promising.  But perhaps the word theory should not be assigned to it.
One famous theory
Anyway, amongst Biblical creationists, the assertion that evolution is "only a theory" is meant to disparage the vast pile of evidence that supports it, and the logic and maths that goes with it too.  Many people don't realise there is plenty of maths associated with evolution but there is.  And it isn't hard to find this evidence.  But that doesn't stop creationist arguments tending to repeat themselves again and again.  Even creationists have got a bit wary of repeating themselves.  That doesn't stop them, or stop those who have picked up half of the idea repeating them.  I have, myself, had the fun of answering the "if we evolved from apes, why are there still apes" argument. 

But to come back to my original point, there is no reason for ignorance in the developed world any longer.  There is the Internet and it is dead easy to find information out.  If you can't find a web page, or if you want to read the entire text of, say Richard Dawkins latest but don't want to hand over cash, you can go to a library.  It's not difficult.  But the writer of the article in the college paper is at a college, where they will have a good library, and has started a biology course (as part of her aim to be a teacher, I understand).  She has no real reason to be ignorant about what we mean by a scientific theory or what we mean by evolution, and certainly with respect to the evidence for evolution.  And it's not as if the evidence is difficult to read - some of the best of modern science writers (Gould, Dawkins, Coyne, Sean B Carroll, Stephen Jones and so on) have put pen to paper to give the general reader the evidence for why evolution is accepted by science.  And these writers are so good you can delight in the prose if you don't want to stick too closely to the logic and the science (though, of course, you should).
Read these books

So, to sum up.  You can believe what you want but please don't resort to science if your ideas have no basis in evidence.  There are plenty of fields of life that don't require science but it is so powerful as a method of finding out what really is that so many fields cloak themselves in science, or at least scientific language.  And please don't let your ideas of science get ahead of the evidence.  You will be found out very quickly because there are true experts out there.  When cold fusion hit the headlines in 1989, and there was a rush to repeat the experiment, but some were already sceptical.  The reason - nuclear fusion was well understood and a form of cold fusion known about.  What was missing from the modern claim was the expected results that should have happened had nuclear fusion actually transpired. 
Read this book as well

Rupert Sheldrake might well be right.  Atoms might have consciousness.  There might be something else.  But "materialism" is so powerful, an idea that provides such wonderful results and gives us such a beautiful and fitting understanding of reality that it is likely to be impossible to dislodge.  Furthermore, it enables us to tell the difference between opinion and fact, and that is an important arbiter.  Scientists adopt the materialist point of view because it allows science to avoid the trap of being one person's word against another.  Without that, what is the point of science?