Kerpow !

The morning of 2nd Sept 2010 began for me as it usually did, by reading the front page of the Times, where the headline read “…. God did not create the Universe”. Reading on, I learned that a new book on popular science was about to hit the shops, and perhaps I might buy it. Perversely however, the book it put me in mind of was that 1970′s comedy classic “Monty Python’s Brand New Python’s Paperbok”, containing that little remembered gem “God’s School Report”. Laid out on a standard School Report document, we are informed of his progress in Latin “Quite the best scholar I’ve ever had” and Biology “Weak, thinks he knows it all, constantly rude about Darwin”; the one that I particularly recall however was Geography “Interesting ideas on rock formation, keeps going ‘Kerpow’ “.

Another book that apparently address notions of God, that I recall reading in the 80′s, has been described as “the most read, and least understood book of all time“, and since the author of that book was the subject of said sales pitch, this might be the moment to recall his words on that occasion “…In order to talk about the nature of the Universe and to discuss questions such as whether it has a beginning or an end, you have to be clear about what a scientific theory is. I shall take the simpleminded view that a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean)“. Those words come from A Brief History Of Time and were written in 1988 in Cambridge, UK by an English cosmologist. His name is Prof Stephen Hawking, then the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and one of UK’s most eminent scientists; and also a man confined to a mechanised wheelchair by advanced Motor Neuron Syndrome since his twenties.

If the truth be told, I m probably as guilty as most of the “most read / least understood” gibe, but I warmed to Hawking straight away as a scientist that I could do business with. Not just for the quality his science, but because its underlying philosophical framework recognised what science was and what it was for. Another man whose opinions I admire on this subject said “Let us imagine a white surface with irregular black spots. We can now say : Whatever kind of picture these make I can always get as near as I like to its description, if I cover the surface with a sufficiently fine square network and now say of every square that it is black or white …… [Mechanics] thus provides the bricks for building the edifice of Science and says : Whatever building thou wouldst erect, thou shalt construct it in some manner with these bricks and these alone“. Those words come from the Tractatus Logica Philosophicus and were written in 1918, in a POW camp near Cassino, Italy by an Austrian soldier. His name was Lieutenant Ludwig Wittgenstein, a man decorated many times for bravery, yet on the verge of suicide after hearing that his pre-war lover at Cambridge, an Englishman named David Pinset, had just been killed.

Alas that a few more of us cannot see this simple truth about science, obvious to Wittgenstein who had studied under Bertrand Russell at Cambridge, seventy years before Hawking; but perhaps that is too much to ask in a world where there will always those who desire to have their secularist opinions re-enforced by the latest scientific proof of the non – existence of God. And since these people have taken science as their world view or, dare I say it, religion; then it must also have something to say about the more interesting questions “who are we ? why are we here ? where did we come from ?”. Thus a sure way to sell books of popular science in the modern era is to trail a highly dubious tagline about God, preferably the non existence of. It’s all good knockabout stuff, indeed Prof Dawkins has made a tidy living for years with it, but is it really science ?. Since when did God become a matter requiring science’s attention ?

Without wishing to be unkind, I am about as likely to seek the opinion of Stephen Hawking on the subject of God as I am to get on the horn to Rabbi Sachs for a rap about M-Theory. If some choose to pit science against religion, then they will end up pitching it against Religion’s big brother as well – Philosophy, and that’s a different ballgame. Looked at from that viewpoint, I recommend going out into the back garden tonight and looking up at the night sky. From here, If I look south I can see a magnificent Jupiter, prominent and orange against the backdrop of stars, seemingly uncountable yet just a small spattering in an unremarkable galaxy among millions that exist, have existed and will exist at points in space and time throughout the universe or even the multiverse. In the face of such overwhelming evidence of the power and complexity of nature, what chance do you really think there is that any human, Scientist or Theologian, would have a real handle on where that lot came from or even what it really is ? In fact, what makes you think that such thing is even knowable by us ?

But actually, that isn’t what Hawking is claiming at all. Rather, I’ll take the “simpleminded” view that publishers know a good controversy when they see one and will promote the “God Abolished” angle for all it is worth. What he is actually saying is that scientific theories should be seen for what they are, mental abstracts designed to serve a practical purpose – but just what else did you think religion was then ? And so you can see that Science and Religion are really not so very different, and I mean that in the sense that each has two constituencies, those that believe it literally, and those that view it in the abstract. When Hawking talks about God it is important to understand what he is referring to. In saying that there is no place for a “God Moment” in his model, he may be just saying that there is no “light the touch paper” moment in his thinking, God in this conception being seen as the “Kerpow” provider; but this is a very limited conception of a deity, in the sense that a cricket umpire can gently ripple his hand for four just as well as he can raise a kerpow-like finger for out.

And so, no doubt, the silly season will prevail and pointless missiles will fly back and forth between science and religion, whilst the world continues to turn on its axis unperturbed by the tumult below, for in truth the existence of God isn’t our pressing concern right now. A solution to the energy crisis and peace in the middle east would seem to be way ahead of that on most people’s reckoning. And so a suggestion for Stephen Hawking’s next book, which I hope will be a best seller.

In august 1939, one month before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Albert Einstein and his colleague Leo Szilard wrote to Franklin Roosevelt to alert him to the fact that recent developments in physics had raised the possibility that not only was nuclear fission possible but that “This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.”. Well, nobody knew what such a bomb would look like at that time, so we can forgive him the error of scale; but his essential point was correct. A scientist offering his considered practical opinion on a thorny problem – how to stay safe from Hitler.

Our problems today are of a less violent nature, but they are no less serious. We need an alternative source of energy, not only to stop polluting the atmosphere but also to break our reliance on unstable parts of the world for expensive fossil fuels. I don’t pretend that that is going to be easy or that one scientist, even one as eminent as Hawking can solve alone; but, surely a man who has spent so much time studying the interactions of matter and energy on a microscopic as well as a cosmic scale must have some thoughts on how that energy might be generated. He isn’t going to come back with the solution on a plate, but I bet he could do a very respectable “starter for ten” to get the discussion going.

And that brings us from the realm of the Monty Python to the realm of cold hard reality. For we each of us know that a solution to the energy problem is also a solution to the middle east problem. We need science to be working that problem, and to be seen to be working that problem. So when the news report arrives from the Large Hadron Collider (assuming we haven’t all disappeared into a mini black hole by then) it isn’t trumpeted with headline about how the universe began, but instead tells us how it helps in the development of a replacement for nuclear fission. We need abundant, low environmental impact, energy and only science can shows us how. Concentrate on that and give us a “Roosevelt letter”, while the Philosophers worry about the God problem.

You know it makes sense

Copyright ©201o Savereo John

Der Prozeß

Someone must have been telling lies about Richard D, because when he awoke that morning, he was arrested. Two officers, whom he had never seen before, pulled him from the bed and allowed him to hurriedly dress, before applying the handcuffs and leading him from the bedroom. He was ushered through the living room, past his shocked looking landlady Mrs Grubach, who stood by a dining table where lay his freshly cooked breakfast. “What’s going on ?” he complained. “No time for that, sir” said one of the officers, as he was led through the house to the front door. As the officers opened it, Richard D stepped through and found himself standing in a small dock, set at the back of a spacious courtroom, packed with spectators. Before him, on the opposite side of the court lay the imposing bench, currently empty.

Still disoriented, he turned to one of the officers and was about to ask “but what about my breakfast, I was going to have kippers ?” when a hush settled over the court and an oddly familiar figure, dressed in judge’s robes emerged and took his seat.

An usher stood and announced “be upstanding in court for his Honour Judge Sir Alan Sugar”

“Alan Sugar ? ” said Richard D, incredulous

Sir Alan removed his wig to reveal a skull cap beneath “That’s Rabbi Sugar to you sunshine, and this is the only Kipah you’re going to see today. Mind you, there is a sentence that this court can pass that includes a free breakfast, but I doubt you’ll be wanting that.” He fixed Richard D with an inquisitorial gaze and continued “His Holiness was going to hear this one himself, but he’s off to have nosh with Her Majesty, so you’ve got an East End rabbi instead.”

Recovering his wits, Richard D said “This is an outrage. I don’t recognise the authority of this court – for a start you don’t have any qualifications in Law”

“You haven’t got any qualifications in Theology moosh, but that don’t stop you from passing judgement on God every bleedin’ five minutes”

“But what am I supposed to have done wrong”

“Well, let’s start off with your statement that the Catholic Church is Evil”

“The Catholic Church is Evil. It has tried to cover up child molestation and hastened the spread of AIDS by its pig-headed refusal to sanction the use of condoms; and anyway, do I really have to remind a man such as yourself of the centuries of anti-Semitism directed at you and your fellows ? That sounds pretty evil to me”

The rabbi unbuttoned his robe to reveal a rough hewn garment beneath with horizontal grey stripes “You’ve got no f*cking idea what evil is, mate. You can blame the Pope for Shickelgruber if you want, but you had better put Charles Darwin up there with him too. Your precious science of genetics led some to conclude that certain humans where more evolved than others and that they could kill such “lesser” brethren without compassion or consequence. No, Richard D, in a world that gave us Pol Pot, Osama Bin Laden and AIDS, there are infinitely more fitting candidates for the term Evil. As for your solution to the spread of AIDS (give everyone condoms and let them carry on as before), the church offers a simple alternative – which we can sum as “get married and don’t screw around”. History will judge which is the more effective remedy for the spread of AIDS.”

“But I have a perfect right to free speech ….”

“We’ve heard plenty of that from you, now it’s our turn. ‘Go home to your tinpot Mussolini-concocted principality, and don’t come back.’, those were your words on the Pope’s visit weren’t they ?  Is that how they teach people at Oxford, whose motto is “Dominus Illuminatio Mea”, to address a visiting foreign dignitary ? If it is I’m glad I never went there, sounds a bloody shambles.”

“What is it with people like you and religion, arnt there enough scientific problems in the world to occupy your mind ? Are there no books on popular science to write at the moment ? How about a book on how to rid the world of AIDS, or how to use genetic modification to create crops that will grow on marginal land for food or biofuel or modified bacteria that can break down refuse. Thats what the world needs from science mate, not your opinions on God or The Pope.” He adjusted his robe and sat up straight.” I think I’ve heard enough, I’m going to …”

“What ? …. What are you going to do”

“Something that you would never think of doing in a million years mate, I’m going to forgive you and send you back to Oxford to do something useful. I’ve already had to send one pillock home for calling the country of his hosts a ‘third world country’; I strongly suggest that you follow his lead and withdraw from this debate as you have little or nothing to bring to it. Then perhaps the rest of us can have a civilised debate in Peace. ”

Sheh-Elohim Yivarech Otcha. These proceedings are closed” he said and banged his gavel and rose to leave; as he did so, Richard D noticed for the first time the coat of arms above his head. It bore a image of figure from ancient Egypt, a man with the head of a ..

He awoke with start. “What is it, love, what’s the matter ?” said his partner

“Nothing” he said, “just a bad dream; there was a man, a strange man with the head of a ….”

“head of a what ?”

“It had a long snout and canine ears”

“you mean like a dog ?” she replied

Copyright ©201o Savereo John

Mostly Harmless

If anyone ever gets round to compiling a list of books that don’t exist, but should, then surely the first on that list would be the fictional Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy. A work that “contains much that apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate”, but scores out over the older, more pedestrian Encyclopaedia Galactica, in two important areas

  1. It is slightly cheaper
  2. It has the words “Don’t Panic” written on the cover

So it is not surprising that when Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia in January 2001, from the ashes of the online academic information resource Nupedia, containing a few hundred articles, that it underwent exponential growth within a few years to become a real-life HGTTG . The statistics speak for themselves, over 3 million articles in the English language version alone with 264 other languages supported as per 2009. There are estimated to be over 10 million articles in total, with 50 million unique hits each month. Its coverage is legendarily wide; ranging from this, which discusses the Tractatus Logica Philosophicus, to this which makes the scurrilous suggestion that its author was a “beery swine” .

It’s been called the most widely read information resource in the world. It’s also been called the most unreliable, mostly because of its founding ethos – to be a “citizen’s encyclopaedia”; a freely available, freely editable resource. What that means in practice is that anyone is free to add an article, or edit an existing one at any time. This creates a “self – correcting” publication, where an incorrect fact or statistic will be spotted by someone else and corrected until a consensus emerges that is stable. Wikipedia users with editor privileges act as impartial arbiters with a dispute resolution process available, in cases where consensus needs a helping hand. Or at least that the theory.

In reality, the accuracy of Wikipedia is rarely as poor as its critics claim. On the important subjects, with large numbers of informed contributors, it is as accurate as anything else is. I watched a popular entertainer on TV recently, getting very exercised over the fact that his Wikipedia entry got the name of his school wrong. Whilst this is obviously of concern to him, it is more proof of the fact that few people outside of UK have ever heard him, than of any institutional inaccuracy on the part of Wiki. To staunch defenders of Wiki, like me, such complaints get short shrift, after all, if it’s such an issue to him, why didn’t he correct it himself ? Perhaps he would care to consider the alternative; no entry for him in Wikipedia at all.

It comes then as a shock for me, who has always defended Wikipedia, to discover that a large section of its content on an important and high profile science topic has been the subject of an ongoing battle behind the scenes, where reasoned debate and consensus have been replaced by intolerance and incivility. Where articles have been fought over as one side attempted to insert edits and the other fought to keep them out, led by a small group of users with editor rights – supposedly impartial. As many as 5,000 articles may have been involved in this, with the whole topic area that they cover now with a serious question mark over the impartiality of its coverage, particularly in the articles related to individuals whose views do not accord with those of the Wikipedia editors involved.

The more perceptive among you will of course now be saying that that describes how many professions in our society function behind the scenes, and science is no different. There are the same petty jealousies and squabbles, frequently driven by the battles for grant funding from Governments, and that they come with the territory. In most cases it makes no difference because there are no major issues riding on them. Nobody’s taxes will be effected if Cosmology turns out not to, after all, have disproved the existence of God. In this case its different however; this science topic has been sucked into a political cauldron. It is, of course, Climate Science.

There have been instances of “edit – warring” (an endless cycle of edit / revert with no attempt to find common ground); “wiki lawyering” (use of Wikipedia processes and protocols to frustrate unwanted edits until the contributor gets tired and gives up); “sock puppeting” (use of multiple login ids to hide your identity and to make it appear that more users support your actions than in fact do); plus good old fashioned rudeness and incivility.

One of the bitterest rounds of this conflict occurred around the entries for a recent book entitled “The Hockey Stick Illusion”, as well as for its author Andrew Montford and for his climate sceptic blog BishopHill. The book lays out its author’s belief that the “Hockey Stick” version of climate history that figures heavily in Wikipedia, might actually be nothing more than a statistical artefact. For those unfamiliar with this, it’s the bit in Al Gore’s film when he has to get onto a mechanical lift to reach the highest part of the graph on the screen, showing how the temperature of the earth had suddenly skyrocketed in the 20th century; turning on its head the previous orthodoxy and the historical record, which both said that it has been warmer in the past.

This little reported piece of fallout from Climategate is now the subject of a current Wikipedia arbitration which is, in keeping with the Wiki ethos, fully open and can be seen here. In this document, detailing a set of complaints and a draft ruling, “WMC” is Dr William M Connolly, a founding editor of, acknowleged as the foremost site for the current othrodoxy on climate science, with regular contributions from working scientists in the field. He was also a former Senior Science Officer for the British Antarctic Survey, and has sat as an elected councillor for the Green Party. He is, or was, a Wikipedia editor with Admin privileges, the highest level allowed. Following a number of documented complaints about his conduct, he is facing a topic ban from editing any article connected to climate change for one year, and an indefinite ban from editing the personal articles on any living person connected with climate science or the climate change debate. In view however of his genuine belief that he was doing the right thing, and because Wikipedia believes in rehabilitation over punishment, the motion to permanently ban him was unanimously opposed.

By now it ought to be plain, that the politicised science of climate has become divided along political lines, into Left and Right, although Green and Grey might be closer to the mark, or maybe just idealists and realists. Wikipedia’s woes are same as our woes, after a generation of left / green the right / grey are in ascendancy. Perhaps now we can dispense with the fiction that we understand the climate in all its chaotic complexity, where what happens in space affects what happens on earth; and accept that it is not understood by us to a level that we can predict it or, ultimately, control it. We would be better off discussing instead how we adapt to nature’s changing climate.

If science’s attempt at playing politics has gone awry that’s simply because science doesn’t do politics very well, why should it ? Our scientists were put in the invidious position of having to answer government’s call for information on the problem, but discovered that the natural uncertainties of science don’t mix with the headline grabbing certainties of politics.

I discussed in a previous post another area that science doesn’t do very well, and that’s religion. Part of my problem with theories of physics that claim there is no place for a God, is that they tend to have a very limited idea of what Gods are and what they are for. This is perfectly understandable since western science grew out of Christianity, and shares many of its philosophical pre-conceptions about reality or, in this case God. Isaac Newton wrote more on the subjects of Christian mysticism and Alchemy than he did about physics. Judaeo / Christian / Muslim religions are essentially “Theory of Everything” religions, their Gods are omnipresent and omnipotent.

Personally, I prefer pagan Gods; they are infinitely more colourful and make no claims to omnipotence. So I offer instead of a “God” moment, a “Loki” moment. Loki is a Norse deity, not strictly a God as such, in fact he is a “Jotun” (nature spirit), who pops up from time to time to stir up the Gods and goad them for action. Colloquially, he is known as a prankster sprit. So what would Loki do ? Well, three things as it happens

  1. De-politicise science and get it back to doing what it does best, solving our problems instead of drawing ever more lurid pictures of the ones we have
  2. Wikipedia have a major task on their hands to restore confidence in its climate science sections. What’s needed is not just wide informed input, but also a sufficiently rigorous review process. In true Loki sprit I recommend that the quality review be in the hands of climate scientist Phil Jones and Blogger Steve McIntyre. Jones was head of Climate Research Unit at University of East Anglia and a man who has spent the greater part of his professional life studying this problem. Anything of significance on the subject of climate science in recent years will have passed his gaze at one time or another. Steve McIntyre is retired mining engineer and expert statistician. Before taking up blogging, he spent 30 years in the mining business frequently assessing claims on potential finds for viability. When it comes to statistical tall stories from scientists, McIntyre has heard them all before. Both must be satisfied with the result.
  3. In the midst of such name calling and incivility, it has been refreshing that one scientist, who supports the current theory, has called for calm and for reasoned debate. They have succeeded in winning the respect of the sceptic lobby by treating them equal seekers after truth, rather than “climate criminals” or “equivalent to holocaust deniers”. Her name is Judith Curry and she has started a new blog. She has said that Andrew Montford’s book “the Hockey Stick Illusion” is a litmus issue; you can either condemn it out of hand, or you can discuss it. She opts for the latter. If Montford is right, then the old orthodoxy that we all used to believe in before our obsession with CO2, that Medieval times, when Greenland was settled, were warmer than now, might also be right and the current conditions are in fact neither unusual nor unprecedented. Surely the best thing to do is the read the book and discuss it rather than burn it ?

Cartoon by Josh

Do you remember, Odin, when in bygone days
We mixed our blood together ?
You said that you would never drink ale
Unless it were brought to both of us

From The Lokasenna (“Loki’s quarrel”),
Medieval Icelandic poem

Copyright ©201o Savereo John