Monday, 31 May 2010

Science on Television

There are a couple of series about science on television at present. "The Story of Science" fronted by a new face, Michael Mosley, on BBC2 on Tuesdays comes to an end this week, and I shall be interested to see what conclusions he arrives at. I hope there will not be some trite quasi-religious moral judgment. His emphasis has been on the influence of historical events, and the development of the necessary technology to make the scientific breakthroughs possible.

A new series "Genius of Britain" on Channel 4 is by contrast fronted by a series of familiar celebrities, each doing their bit for a particular character. David Attenborough did a good job for Christopher Wren, bringing out his influence on the founding of the Royal Society and his work in biology and astronomy before becoming the prominent architect of the period.

As someone who has studied the history of science intensively for many years I've found many little annoyances with these programmes, though perhaps I shouldn't complain too much, since they are aimed at a popular audience and are spreading the word about science which is all to the good.

For example in the BBC series Kepler's first law that the planets move in ellipses was mentioned, but not his equally important second and third laws. I presume they were omitted because they are of a more mathematical nature. In the Channel 4 programme the emphasis is on British science, but the studied omission of any mention of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and others of the giants on whose shoulders Newton stood seems rather pettily chauvinistic. The emphasis was also on Wren, Hooke, Boyle, Newton and Halley. Although the royal observatory was mentioned the first Astronomer Royal, Flamsteed, was air-brushed out of history. Other people active in the Invisible College at Oxford such as Wilkins and Wallis were similarly ignored.

The current fashion for the denigration of Newton was also apparent in the Channel 4 programme, in which the great man was presented to us by Stephen Hawking and Jim Al-Khalili. The allegation that Newton wrote his famous saying as a put-down, implying that Hooke was insignificant, and that he was behind the loss of the only portrait of Hooke, was presented as established fact, but is opinion, probably coming from Lisa Jardine's biography of Robert Hooke. Newton was also presented as an unsociable eccentric, but if so how could he possibly have been MP for Cambridge University and have held down the posts of Master of the Mint and President of the Royal Society if he was that bad at communication? And by the way, Principia Mathematica was written by Whitehead and Russell. The title of Newton's book is Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). The Natural Philosophy part of the title is important; that was what Science was known as at the time.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Afterlife Fantasies

The BBC Radio 4 programme "Start the Week" on Monday featured David Eagleman a neurologist at Baylor College in Texas who has written a sort of science fiction collection of short stories "Sum" which depict various alternative afterlife scenarios. Including one, for example, in which you relive your whole life but with repetitive episodes all gathered together. What puzzles me is that he seems to regard them all as being "possible". The BBC website also speaks of "the afterlife" as if there was no doubt that there was such a thing.

There was also an item on the PM programme in which Eddie Mair revealed the conclusions to the long-running TV series "Lost" and "Ashes to Ashes" which apparently both ended with the participants finding they had in fact all been dead all along and were living in some sort of pergatory or limbo. I've never watched either series, but it seems that dramatists are no longer able to write about reality.

As a rationalist who goes by the evidence available, the idea that there could be any sort of afterlife has always struck me as a particularly obvious case of wish-fulfillment, and incompatible with all the evidence of physics and chemistry. It is also shown to be fantasy by the total lack of consistency between alternative versions, as espoused by different religions. Of course, as with anything, there is no absolute proof of the impossibility of an afterlife, but neither is there any positive evidence for it, and most scenarios are manifestly absurd.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Report on our May Meeting

Thanks to Bob Churchill of the British Humanist Association for coming to talk to us last night (Thursday 13 May). There were 15 people in attendance, including four new faces. Bob began with an account of the philosophical basis of humanism which led to some interesting exchanges. There still seems to be lacking some simple sound-bite style statement of Humanist belief other than "for the one life we have". Bob gave some account of the history of the BHA, which goes back to the late 19th century Ethical movements, and its association with the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He also spoke about his own role at the BHA and of the current range of campaigns and policies. Regarding local humanist groups he noted that some were getting together to arrange larger events that might attract people from a wide area. However our nearest groups are those in Canterbury and Brighton, and transport communications between us are not easy. Probably any joint meeting would have to be held in London, which the BHA already caters for. This year's one day conference at Conway Hall will be on 26 June 2010 and is devoted to "Humanism, Philosophy and the Arts".

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Electoral Global Consciousness?

The BBC's "Thought for the Day" on Tuesday 11 May, by Akhandadhi Das, was particularly weird. Here is the text. He explains that the election result according to the Sunday Times "could have been engineered by a demonic troublemaker" namely that "averaged-out super-entity, the Electorate".

Das tells us that this is "one form of the notion of Co-creation in which a single picture emerges from a totality of varying viewpoints, subtly influenced and moulded by each of them." That rather sounds like evolution by natural selection to me!

He goes further: "it is also the process behind the creation of the universe as described in Hinduism's ancient Vedic texts". He maintains that: "The sum total of all these souls' subliminal desires provides the underlying information input that guides both the emergence of the physical world and its on-going development."

One of my contacts on facebook points out that the idea of events being influenced by what the masses of us think is being "scientifically" investigated, by the Global Consciousness project. Their website states: "Our purpose is to examine subtle correlations that may reflect the presence and activity of consciousness in the world. We predict structure in what should be random data, associated with major global events."

I suspect a little data massaging.

Barry Norris on facebook summed up the election situation succinctly:
We are all Con-Dem'd!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Justice Laws Judgment

The judgment by Lord Justice Laws in the recent case of a Relate counsellor who refused to advise a homosexual client, although rather technical, is worth reading for the much wider implications of his ruling, including his response to the witness statement provided by the former archbishop George Carey.

From Section 24: "We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion — any belief system — cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens, and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic."

Predictably the usual suspects such as former Bishop Nazir Ali are maintaining that this is all against our "Judaeo-Christian" heritage or even unconstitutional.

However there are also cases occurring where the law seems to be coming down too heavily against free speech. For instance a man in Cumbria arrested for "using abusive or insulting language, contrary to the Public Order Act", while preaching to people from the top of a ladder. This is the other side of the coin from the Harry Taylor case reported here a few days ago. Surely we ought to be able to put up with this sort of public argument.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Early Publicity

I was surprised to find a small notice of our May meeting in Friday's Hastings Observer, which I bought this morning. It is at the bottom left of page 9 in the "News in Brief" section. I was expecting it to appear in the 7th May issue. The text has been edited qute a bit. The heading is "Humanists hear from expert", and Bob Churchill has been promoted to "Head of the London Offices" of the BHA, but I don't suppose he will mind. At least the main details of time and place are correct.