Thursday, November 01, 2007

Astronomy: my first non-disappointing comet

Went to the astronomy lecture and viewing at the
Institute of Astronomy last night with my son, and queued up with many others to see Comet Holmes, which has undergone some kind of terrible bad hair day and is half a million times more fuzzy than it was last week -- and now an easy naked eye object.

Fan of astrononmy though I am, I have to admit that most objects in telescopes are a bit of disappointment -- Mars, the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn are about the only really good ones. But this here comet Holmes was definitely the most non-disappointing comet I've seen. Here's some pictures.

Lived faithfully a hidden life

Just finished listening to an abridged version of George Eliot's Middlemarch. The abridgement didn't bring out all it could've -- especially the book's modern-sounding theme, that noble ideals sometimes lead to disappointing lives -- the noble outcomes being subverted by naivety, pride, mistakes, or unforgiving convention.

The abridgement kept Eliot's original ending in full, which was a kind of resurrection for this subverted idealism, and a lovely quote:

that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to
the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Science and religion: Polkinghorne at the Royal Society

I've listened to this three times. It's really good.


Here's roughly where it goes, from the introductory blurb to the lecture.

'Science and religion are both concerned with the search for truth, attainable through well-motivated beliefs. The aspects of reality they investigate are different - in the case of science, the impersonal, physical world; in the case of religion, the transpersonal reality of God. Neither can tell the other what to think in its own domain, but their insights have to bear some consonant relation to each other.

'Science tells theology about the structure and history of the universe and, in particular, emphasises its evolutionary nature.

'Religious insight can set the laws of nature in a more profound context of understanding, so that their deep order, rational beauty and anthropic fine-tuning become intelligible features and need not to be treated as brute facts.

'As a consequence, there is a vigorous and enlightening intellectual exchange between the two."

Spaceflight: The beagle is grounded

Went to a lecture by Prof Colin Pillinger last night. All the times I've seen and heard him, I never realized that he was disabled, hobbling around on two sticks. What a fighter.

  • He did Beagle not because it was easy but -- in the Kennedy-like cliche -- because it was hard
  • The UK is the fifth richest nation on the planet, but spends on space like we were the 17th richest
  • Two-thirds of probes to Mars have failed. The Public Accounts Committee told Pillinger that they didn't want British taxpayers' money involved unless a project was 99% likely to succeed (so why did they let us go to war against Iraq?)
  • Beagle II aimed high, briefly caught the imagination of a nation, fired up a new generation of scientists, and increased the £5bn contribution that space already makes to the UK's GDP. Not bad for a failure that cost us less than a quid each.
  • The folks at the European Space Agency said they'd help pick up where Beagle left off. The date of this proposed mission has shifted from 2007, to 2009, to 2011, to 2013 and now to 2015. ESA, by the way, criticized Pillinger's management skills.
On the other hand: one elderly, crippled, eccentric scientist, against all the odds, nearly pulled it off -- nearly put a probe on Mars, nearly dug into its soil, nearly got to a point where it could have made the greatest scientific discovery of them all.

Beagle cost £55m. When I got home, I read that Cambridge County Council has just put a bid in for over £400m of government money, in order to improve Cambridge's congested traffic.

I am beginning to think I may not walk on the moon, after all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rolling Back Malaria (not)

The British Medical Association (back in 2004):

"We have the three tools we need to curb malaria deaths—bed nets, effective combination treatment based on artemisinin, and insecticides. What we urgently need to do is make these tools much more widely available to affected communities, which are almost always too poor to pay for them themselves."

"But even with Roll Back Malaria's best efforts [This is a World Health Organization campaign, started ten years ago], only about one in seven children in Africa sleep under a net, and only 2% of children use a net impregnated with insecticide."

State giving to Roll Back Malaria is running at about 10% of the $1bn or so needed per year that would have halved malaria deaths between 1998 and 2010 (and now won't).

Here's how we can buy and distribute some bed nets, at the bargain price of 10 for £27.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Social Justice: The importance of early years

Just read that

'A child’s education developmental score at 22 months can accurately predict educational outcomes at the age of 26.' (Source: the Social Justice Policy Group report Breakthrough Britain set up by David Cameron, overview, p 8.)

So if you assess a 2 year old, you can predict whether in 24 years time they'll have no qualifications at all or just be tidying up the final draft of their PhD.

Here's some data from the same source about marriage, cohabitation and the welfare of very young children:

  • Nearly one in two cohabiting parents split up before their child’s fifth birthday,compared to one in twelve married parents
  • Three-quarters of family breakdown affecting young children now involves unmarried parents
  • If you have experienced family breakdown, you are 75% more likely to fail at school,70% more likely to be a drug addict and 50% more likely to have alcohol problems.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A thanksgiving prayer for the ability to urinate

Not found in common books of liturgy, I reproduce it here with thanks to the peerless Neal Stephenson who puts the prayer into the mouth of Samuel Pepys. (Lithotomy is of course the removal of a gall stone.)

'Lord of the Universe, Your humble servants Samuel Pepys and Daniel Waterhouse pray that you shall bless and keep the soul of the late Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, who, wanting no further purification in the Kidney of the World, went to your keeping twenty years since. And we give praise and thanks to You for having given us the rational faculties by which the procedure of lithotomy was invented, enabling us, who are further from perfection, to endure longer in this world, urinating freely as the occasion warrants. Let our urine-streams, gleaming and scintillating in the sun's radiance as they pursue their parabolic trajectories earthward, be as an outward and visible sign of Your Grace, even as the knobbly stones hidden in our coat pockets remind us that we are all earth, and we are all sinners. Do you have anything to add, Mr Waterhouse?'

'Only, Amen!'

(Neal Stephenson, The Confusion, p500)

I am reading Stephenson's vast Baroque Cycle, made up of the books Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, historic novels based around the people and the times of the Scientific Revolution -- and I've been reading them for several months -- with something approaching sheer delight.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Humour: anagrams, continued

Here's a couple more:

The London Olympic games = Logical to spend money? H'm.


The Department for Education and Skills = Daft kids learn, on hated Intel computers

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Humour: the fine game of nil

I am enjoying some of these wonderful anagrams from this site:

The countryside = No City Dust Here

Astronomers = Moon starers

Evangelist = Evil's Agent

The cockroach = Cook, catch her!

The Morse Code = Here Come Dots

Slot Machines = Cash Lost in 'em

Conversation = Voices Rant On

Software = Swear Oft

Eleven plus two = Twelve plus one

The Meaning of Life = The fine game of nil

To be or not to be: that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. =

In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.

and some of the names:

William Shakespeare: I am a weakish speller

Tony Blair, MP = I'm Tory plan B

Virginia Bottomley = I'm an evil Tory bigot

Florence Nightingale = Nigel, Fetch an Iron Leg

Monday, May 28, 2007

Society: how to really, really, really govern badly

Cost of the national probation service: £860m per year

Cost of the headquarters of the National Offender Management Service (into which the entire probation service was folded in 2004): £899m per year.

The probation service had its origin in work done by Christians and churches.

Government took it over in 1907 and it has steadily grown and changed since, providing more and more ways of dealing with offenders other than by jailing them. Between 1910 and 1930, thanks to Probation, the number of people in prison in the UK halved.

In 2001, our government gave the probation service a huge once-in-twenty-years' shakeup.

In 2004, they did it again --merging prison and probation together into the NOMS.

And in 2007, plans are afoot for yet a further epoch-changing restructuring, to allow for private tendering of probation work.

After these three major efforts, they should have got rid of most of the good people by now.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Society: An invisible hand

Four visits in the last month:
  1. A tour round Jimmy's Nightshelter in central Cambridge
  2. Taking some furniture to be recycled at the Emmaus community north of Cambridge
  3. Buying some fairly traded food at the Daily Bread Cooperative in the North of Cambridge
  4. Popping in to see the manager of our own St Martin's Centre for the elderly.
Each place exuded peace and a kind of a quiet well-ordered-ness. Each place runs through the hands of many volunteers and a number of full-time staff who are not paid well. Each fights almost daily battles with bureaucracy and politics that threaten to capsize the whole ship. Yet each provides a vital service to a large part of a city.

Each is an expression of Christian faith that is unsung, long-term, wholly appropriate for the 21st century.

Then I read this quote:

'Alongside the political, economic, social and technological revolutions ... which have commanded enormous media attention and coverage ... there has been this far less trumpeted, but equally important revolution in the status and standing of worldwide Christianity. Few have taken on board what is happening.' (Kenneth Hylsom-Smith To the ends of the earth ISBN 978-1-84227-475-0.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A little glimpse of a new world

'... It's a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life.

'It's where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup, and the elderly for someone to chat to. It's where you'll find people learning to pray, coming to faith, struggling with temptation, finding new purpose and a new power to carry it out.

'It's where people bring their own small faith and discover that when they get together with others to worship the true God, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. No church is like this all of the time. But a remarkable number of churches are partly like that for quite a lot of the time.' Tom Wright Simply Christian (ISBN 978-281-05481-7), p. 105.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Giftedness: the sweet spot


My friend's eyes lit up when he saw the chairs, so we asked him about them. These were chairs that had somehow tumbled down through the generations of my wife's family and ended up with us. He picked one up.

'Aw, this would have been made somewhere between 1860 and 1880. Mahogany? No: rosewood. Lovely. Balloon-back rosewood dining chair. Put a little bit of detergent in water and they'll come up lovely. Very easy to take apart, reglue, beautiful job, last you another 100 years.'

He picked up another.

'But this one, ugh, look, someone's put some screws in here.' (The screws too were probably antique). 'See, here too. Goes right through the tenon joint and splits it. Bodged job, no wonder it's unsteady. Probably was steady for about half an hour after they screwed it.'

'Can you fix it?'

'Oh yeah. But it's a lot more difficult.'

The original job for which we'd called him in (fitting some doors) was forgotten as he lifted and turned and scrutinized the antique chairs with something like love in his eyes.

What a wonderful world.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Famous for 15 seconds



Millions of British eyeballs and ears are glancing at the street next to mine as I write this. The person who mailed letter bombs over the past few weeks, lived, if the allegations are true, about thirty paces from my house.

Outside an hour ago, I saw three different reporters lining up in front of TV cameras, ready for the six o'clock news. and I watched a radio reporter filing her copy, which I am just hearing on the BBC. 'Neighbours are shocked', apparently.

You can tell who the journalists are, oddly enough, because they look young and normal and are unusually eager to catch your eye and engage in conversation. So next-door-but-one was interviewed by the TV, as was the teenage girl next door on the other side. I bumped into the Sun and a local stringer, while I was out taking photos. My wife Cordelia met a couple of others, and it is slightly wierd being able to go to the BBC website or the Daily Telegraph website (to name the only two I tried) and see photos of my estate. Coming back from a car trip, we had to pass a p0lice check-point to go to our house.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Science and Religion: the sane enter the debate

Cambridge is a rare city in that (as well as cinema multiplexes and the odd theatre) you can attend free lectures many days a week.

The Faraday Institute, based at St Edmond's College and, I suspect, newly flush with funds from the (very rich) Templeton Foundation, is an organization set up to provide some coherent and sane thinking about Science and Religion. Thank goodness. As an ordinary punter you get fed up of the they-just-don't-get-it 'Intelligent Design' and Creationist lot in the States and equally fed up, though more entertained, by the as-zealous-as-a-convert Richard Dawkins in Oxford. I think they should all be locked in a room together forever and the resultant warm air used to heat a nursing home or something.

Enter the Faraday Institute, made up of people whose science and thinking would be respected whatever their views: Cambridge-based discoverer of the pulsar, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, for example, Theoretical Physicist turned Anglican priest John Polkinghorne; superstar theologian Alister McGrath, and a bunch of alpha-males who can strut their Chairs and Fellowships and CBEs with the best of them. Oh, it's great.

Better still (and the reason for this blog) is all their courses and lectures are now available as podcasts. Like living in Cambridge only without the house-prices. Here's the link:

www.faraday-institute.org
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