Bring on the dancing scientists.

Most of the people who I know are involved in the education system at any professional level believe that it is in some trouble. Clearly the Guardian is struggling too, as it’s now publishing articles on education written by sixteen year-olds. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to the views of teenagers on education; in fact, we don’t really consider their true needs nearly enough. Perhaps though, they should be briefly challenged and encouraged to produce a nuanced edit before being published in a national newspaper.

I offer as evidence the sentence: “…Maybe it’s no surprise that this stigma exists: we’re in a society that is obsessed with living for the future.”  Well, yes. As we race towards extinction due to climate change, famine, war and the other horsemen of the apocalypse, we absolutely should be living for the future.

The article in question is by a lady called Orli Vogt-Vincent and, in her defence; it is, the odd phrase aside, a thoughtful and lucid piece about being forced into choices by her school and the fact that her option to take up dance is considered less valuable than science.

As a champion of STEM education, you might expect me to offer some rebuttal. I do not. I think that she’s quite right in many respects – the current administration does devalue the arts, does not encourage the study of subjects like philosophy which are the very underpinnings of civilised thought and is obsessed with shoving kids into academic qualifications in maths and science for which few are suited.

My problem with the article rests with the Guardian’s decision to publish it with no debate or discussion. Fair enough to not allow comments, I would not wish to subject any minor to the bile spewed in even the most respectable papers’ comment threads. But this article, which I assume will be read by a fair number of the nation’s more sensitive and enquiring youth, simply adds to weight to the idea that the arts and science are in some way adversarial.

My guess would be that Ms Vogt-Vincent probably has some great dance teachers and at the same time she has not been inspired by science. This is probably the case in many schools. I wholeheartedly encourage Orli to throw herself into dance and to get the most out of it. I would, however, urge her to apply the same iron discipline that a great dancer requires to her studies in science because there are issues around climate change, energy security, health, food, resource management and countless other areas that will require her to make decisions about her spending, her democratic choices and other vitally important areas of, yes, her future. Only a good quality science education will give her the foundation to understand those issues clearly.

So my problem with the way that The Guardian has chosen to present his piece is this: it is unhelpful. All the paper has done is pitted two areas of education against each other when they should be championed together.

The great failure of the current administration and of many authoritative voices in education is that students’ subject choices are simply seen as a pathway to qualifications and hence careers. This article is making the same mistake.

First and foremost, education should be equipping students to make good choices that steer them to a life of happiness, fulfilment and enable them to make a contribution to society. Not to turn them into career-obsessed wage slaves who will do anything they’re told if it will help them reach the next promotion.

This thing is, at present, it’s easy to study technical subjects and still enjoy the arts on a purely participative basis – no qualification required. A neurosurgeon may play piano in a jazz quartet but we (rightly) discourage professional musicians from dabbling in brain surgery.

We need an academic pathway that engages intelligent students deeply in the important issues of science so that their lifestyle and political decisions can be made on a sound basis without shackling them with the pressure of a qualification, enabling them to throw themselves into other subject areas if that is where their passion lies. A pathway that enables the dancer or the artist to have a road to Damascus moment, perhaps, and suddenly, at the age of sixteen, develop a love of organic chemistry. Or, equally, not.

The obsession with STEM education has come from a good place, Orli, I hope that you realise this. The planet is in a bad way and at the moment, we don’t have the engineers, the scientists and the doctors to fix it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need dancers and artists and musicians too – I’m an engineer turned educator and still the thing I’m most glad I learned is to play the guitar. The pressure you’re under to study physics rather than physical theatre is born of the panic felt by those looking over the parapet and seeing the approaching shadow. The message, though, has got lost in the obsession with economic progress at all costs because those technically-educated alumni, you see, also make a better regular return for their paymasters.

But for the Guardian – shame on you. You’re supposed to be looking deeper, doing some journalism and encouraging your readers to think more deeply about an issue, not to take a side in a knee-jerk debate that will ultimately leave the dancers and the physicists equally impoverished.

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Ebola – your questions answered.

In response to the entirely imaginary deluge of questions from concerned and almost equally fictional readers, I’m pleased to hand over the reins of today’s canter into the wandering paths of Ramblingshire to Dr Augustus Felch MD, PhD; head of Unexplained Gunshot Injuries, No Questions Asked at Abdul’s 24-hour Veterinary Surgery and All-Nite Takeaway, Wolverhampton. Dr Felch has been an expert on tropical diseases since last month’s ‘House, M.D’ boxset marathon and, in the light of an unexplained delay to this month’s ketamine delivery, is willing to answer your more frequently asked questions.

Q: Where did Ebola come from?

A: Way down deep in the middle of the Congo, a hippo took an apricot… no, wait, that’s Um Bongo.

The virus is named after the Ebola river, in what is now the DRC, near where the first outbreak was recorded, much in the way that Hepatitis is named after the Hepatitis Sea where you shouldn’t swim with an open wound. Evidence suggests that bats are the reservoir hosts, leading to widespread accusations against Batman and Dracula, one of whom already has a bad name, as the bridging agents to humans. It is more likely that the consumption of fruit bat, considered a delicacy in parts of Western Africa and a valuable source of supplementary protein by many of the private contractors providing school meals in the UK  (fortunately, the word ‘fruit’ is enough to put off most schoolkids) is to blame for transmission to humans. So far Kentucky Fried Chicken have yet to categorically deny using fruit bat in their restaurants.

Q: How is Ebola caught?

A: Ebola is transmitted through the body fluids of infected sufferers, particularly blood, faeces and vomit. Kentucky Fried Chicken have yet to categorically deny that these are three of their eleven secret herbs and spices.

Q: How likely am I to catch Ebola?

A: It depends how well you’ve cooked that fruit bat you’re eating.

Q: Can I get Ebola on the NHS?

A: Not at present. Ask your private healthcare provider. They’ll do pretty much anything for profit.

Q: I read in the Daily Mail that ISIS might use Ebola as a biological weapon. Should I start avoiding dark-skinned people on principle?

A: As a Daily Mail reader, you probably already are.

Q: Are the governments of the Western World prepared for an outbreak of Ebola?

A: You’d think so, given what they paid me to… what? Oh, yes, good point.  According to the Guardian:” Four major NHS hospitals are on standby to deal with a possible Ebola outbreak. …London’s Royal Free hospital …has the most sophisticated specialist high-level isolation unit in the UK, with two containment beds. Under NHS plans, further specialist equipment would be transferred from the Royal Free to units in Sheffield, Newcastle and Liverpool in the event of a larger outbreak”* so we’re prepared for up to two people to get it, after which precautions extend to spreading it to further hospitals across the country. Nothing to worry about there, then.

Q: I’m the CEO of a large, unethical pharmaceutical company, might I make a few quid out of this?

A: Almost certainly. If you’ve no objection to funding from the military or tobacco industry, crack on. Ignore the conspiracy theorists. They’ll always make trouble whatever you do. After all, it’s not like anyone suggested that drug companies were profiteering during the swine flu scare, or anything.

Q: Should I be worried? Is the world going to come to an end?

A: Yes and almost certainly yes. But probably not from Ebola, or not from Ebola alone. There are more infectious diseases and faster mutating ones – simple influenza is a far bigger killer than ebola. Ebola isn’t going to wipe us all out. Probably.

There are plenty of sources of existential risk and if you look at the biggest, the thing they have in common is us. It’s our greed, cupidity and stupidity that will end us.

Q: I’m terrified now, what can I do?

A: There are several easy steps to minimise the risk to your family. You can strive towards a more equal, enlightened society. Insist on proper education, get your news and opinions from somewhere other than the gutter press, educate yourself properly about healthcare, lobby your elected representatives to spend more on healthcare and less on warfare, lower your ecological footprint to help preserve resources and biodiversity… but that all sound like hard work, doesn’t it. So if you like you can go back to watching reality TV and let the world slide slowly into the hell that you’re contributing to…

Oops! It looks like it’s time for the good doctor’s own medication. So sorry to have to cut that off. In next week’s blog we’ll be asking leading economists of the UK and US why their grandchildren’s trust funds are invested in firms providing services to Morlocks and Eloi. Until then, stay healthy.

*http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/08/ebola-what-is-risk-in-uk

Where’s my flying car?

“Phasers to stun, prepare to beam down.” Gut sucked in, crouched ready for another universe saving bout of unlikely fisticuffs, William Shatner delivers another slice of the future direct to the wazzock lantern.

I loved Star Trek as a kid. Star Wars, too, and Tom Baker’s iconic Dr Who – the idea of climbing aboard a space craft or Tardis and blasting through space and time – fantastic.

The old Star Trek series now is an interesting window on what we thought the future might look like. When I was a kid I thought we’d have a moonbase, floating cities and robots. I thought that the year 2000 would bring technological miracles untold.

Science has let me down. I was promised a flying car, soaring freely above a technological paradise. Damn you, Tomorrow’s World.

Don’t get me wrong – there are ways in which the technology of today has outstripped the prognostications of Harlan Ellison and some of the other incredibly talented writers who penned Star Trek episodes. But if you’d asked me as a kid, which of the marvels available to Captain Kirk I thought would be best to have in the future… the transporter, the phaser… the last thing I’d have picked would have been the communicator. It was a flip phone. It didn’t even have Internet.

OK, wait, we’d not thought of the Internet (well, we had, of course, Ellison for one had cast the joined up machines as tormentor-god in a couple of stories, including the superbly chilling ‘I have no mouth and I must scream’) but even so, the communicator was just a phone with no wire, a walkie-talkie, basically.

I’m grateful for my smartphone, of course. It’s a marvel of the age and has aided me immensely in turning my life into an unmanageable barrage of ceaseless, disparate vocal and textual discourse, an electromagnetic schizophrenia navigated with the semiautonomous twitching of my right thumb.  But I want a transporter –  I’d rather beam into work and avoid the Bristol rush hour every day. Rather shower, change and step out of my home here and meet friends for a beer in California with no more effort than stepping into a public phone box. Brilliant as my Nokia is, getting badgered by charlatans offering PPI advice is a poor substitute for geolocational omnipotence. It’s like asking for a lift to the station and being offered a sandwich instead. Even if it’s a really good sandwich, it’s not getting me to my destination.

The somewhat less fatuous observation here is that the futuristic, online world of wonders that I inhabit is just as much a special effect as the Enterprise’s photon torpedoes or William Shatner’s toupee. The dark, satanic mills that blighted our green and pleasant land were supposed to have been done away with by gleaming, white, robot-buttling, matter reconfiguring technology. But my shoes are still made on the same crappy machines in the same filthy factories, it’s just that the consumptive urchins coughing up the fumes are in the Phillipines, making more room on the Dickensian streets of England for drug addicts and the people that our politicians make homeless. My clean nuclear fusion is too much of a financial risk compared to sponsoring a war to suck up a little tried-and-tested oil.

So it turns out that if I wanted a glimpse of my future choices, I should have been reading Orwell and Huxley, as if I’d eschewed Shatner’s flashy gadgets and pined for Newspeak, Soma, unending consumption and manufactured wars I’d have been tickled pink by now.

Soon, of course, Google will be driving my car instead of me. I expect every journey will be punctuated by regular thirty second stops alongside billboards for Google’s sponsors. So even if I do get my flying car, I doubt I’ll ever be free.

Psychosomatic Eschatology

(Yes a title for those of you who’ve bemoaned the dearth of fustian dissembling on my part in recent times, I’ve opted for a brief return to the bombastic sententiousness that’s caused much scuttling to dictionary corner.)

But I want to return to plain speech to briefly examine the latest set of scares currently being used to suggest four imminent rush jobs at the celestial smithy. The economic tribulations that led Jack Straw to start measuring up the Eurozone for a pine box last week are another sign that many will surely take as heralding the end of days. It’s an interesting point and I don’t for one second deny that the world economy is in for some major changes in the coming years.

However, I can’t help but think about the number of world-ending fears that I seem to have bumbled my way through.

As a child growing up in the seventies and eighties (or as some would have it, failing to grow up then and thereafter) I lived under the shadow of nuclear war. The whimsical ‘Threads’ and the harrowing “When the wind blows” looked forward to a cheery future of skin burns and vomiting, much like a week in Tenerife but without the cheap beer and many believed that we were just a dementia-induced tremor in Ronnie Reagan’s finger from annihilation. The decades that followed suggested that if AIDS and the Ebola virus didn’t get you then a mutant hybrid of influenza/anthrax and whatever caused Howard Jones’ hairstyle would. Astonishingly, by almost constantly wearing a handkerchief and keeping a condom pressed against our mouths, we were able to survive long enough to start panicking about climate change and the global terror alert going from amber to a rather fetching shade of fuchsia.

How will the world end – it’s a fine question and don’t get me wrong; I don’t underestimate the problems that we’re causing the environment, the misery that Peak Oil could wreak upon the world or the problems that a terrorist attack on Bristol would bring to an already vexing rush-hour. The fact that we’ve survived this long is no guarantee that we will continue to do so – as the dinosaurs found out when they spotted a huge lump of rock speeding towards the earth and realised that Bruce Willis was not going to evolve in time to save them.

The thing that I find interesting about the concept of a financially-triggered apocalypso, though, is that the money and the debt (i.e. the money) are both imaginary – as I (and others) have discussed before in this cyberspace council of elders. It seems an odd notion to think that we might plunge the world into a new dark age with nothing more than a bit of abstract mathematics. The thing about the nukes was that they were very real – well, at least the ones that weren’t propaganda and the same is true of climate change*.

But as time has gone on the threats to our survival seem to be getting more and more a product of imagination and hype – take militant Islam… no, please, take my wife…

The debates that need to take place on these topics are muddied and obscured to an insane degree by the sheer level of information and disinformation at our fingertips and the lack of time and ability to know one from the other – as much as I may try to wield Occam’s razor I’m in constant danger these days of cutting off my own nose (insert convoluted face-spiting pun here if you’re in the mood) and I consider myself at least in the ‘intelligent general reader’ category.

Whilst it may be easier to look at the state of the world – our ability to poison the planet and wreak mass destruction has never been greater and our greed and ignorance seem to know no bounds – and see naught but the eve of destruction (sorry if that’s given you Barry McGuire earworm, by the way) one has to try to see the other side of the coin. As a species, we’ve evolved to see threats as far more immediate than opportunities to learn and that was probably a good thing when being transfixed by thoughts of how a ladybird manages to fly could lead to being transfixed by the sabre tooth of the eponymous tiger. We seem to have transcended that level of survival-based existence, though, and perhaps now and again it behoves us to reflect that the technology that enables us to endanger the planet also gives us the power to save it, to learn and react to man’s inhumanity to man.

We’re not good with delayed gratification, on the whole, desperate to see world hunger ended, the Higgs Boson located and a television show feature an individual with actual talent. Perhaps even a car powered by poo. All of these things though, lie within our grasp just as surely as do the seeds of our own destruction. If we concentrate too much on the latter, we’re in danger of throwing away the former. Isn’t it a better idea to do what we can to create the world that we’d like to see, little by little? Ideas, like species, can flourish and multiply if survival is in their nature.

 

*Depending on the weight that you give to the IPCC’s opinion on the subject, I suppose – read the disagreement between Steve Jones and James Delingpole and make your own mind up, [then read a little more about Steve and James’ authority, if you wish…]

Rapture again? Or, how to fake your second coming.

Like many people, I’m entirely unsurprised that the earthly embodiments of Ned Flanders are still with us. Like many people (actually, in my case, probably more) I’m greatly tempted to make a few bad jokes about it and move on. In fact, I’ve already made a few and thanks to everyone who’s played along, laughed or risen to the bait.

I’m prompted to try a more thoughtful response having read this piece by a friend whose wisdom, compassion and talent are a great inspiration to me and would be remiss if I failed to point out that what I write here is simply another point of view that I feel worthy of similar consideration.

Should we indulge in a little piss-taking of religious zealots who hanker for the end of the world?

Yep.

Satire has always been one of the weapons of those seeking to overthrow the establishment, a means by which one can seek to diminish false or faulted authority. Make no mistake, in this part of the world; Judeo-Christian faith is part of the establishment. We are not secular nations. Try running for PM or office in the US and coming out of the atheist closet.

I know a fair bit about Christianity. In my youth I tried hard to be a Christian. I’ve read the good book, studied it in some detail. In particular, as it happens, the eschatological passages.

Since then I’ve been on something of a philosophical journey. I’m still on it. I’ve no doubt that my opinions will continue to change and evolve but at present I’ve remained on a pretty steady course in the direction of atheism.

Allow me to take a second to define my own atheism, as I think it’s important to the points that will follow. I believe that there is no being that created the human race with the intent of taking an interest in our individual spiritual existences. I don’t discount the possibility that there is a higher intelligence out there somewhere, pan-dimensional and incomprehensible to us or even (though I give the idea little real credence) that we’re being grown in a petri dish like a culture of streptococcus. If that is the case, then the scientist growing us cares no more for you and I than we do about the wellbeing of an individual bacterium. The idea does suggest that a fine sobriquet for the human race might be retardigrades. Oops, there’s the first tasteless gag of the piece. Pardon me.

So I think that it behoves those of us with reasoned, philosophical atheistic tendencies to poke a little fun and try to diminish the authority of religion on our everyday and political existences. Indeed, I think that we should be making a point that a truly pluralistic society should be a secular one.

I’m not suggesting that a secular society should be one which forbids or even discourages the practice of religion. If you want to pray to God, burn incense or cover yourself in woad and cavort naked in a stone circle then please, go nuts. More nuts.

But let’s take the UK. Should the laws of the land be influenced by religion? And if so, which one? Should the law be influenced by biblical writ, Sharia law and so in, in proportion to the number of believers? Because sooner or later those multiple sets of laws are going to conflict.

I’m not suggesting that our laws are perfect (Anatole France’s quote about one law forbidding rich and poor alike from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges springs to mind) but assuming that a reasonably just set of laws could be arrived at, they shouldn’t be based on the writ of someone’s imaginary friend.

While a significant proportion of the populace believe that this life is simply a passing phase to something more significant, will they ever live this life fully? How greedy. Isn’t this life enough? We are selfish beings by design, it was a survival trait in more primitive iterations and that urge to protect our own interests will naturally extend to our immortal soul. So why sort things out now when you should be feathering your heavenly nest? We could discuss religion as a tool for social control here but it’s a terribly well-trodden path.

Everything that happens, every thought you have, every action you perform, every emotional reaction, conscious or unconscious can be detected with an MRI scanner – at some level this demonstrates that there’s an energy change associated with it. When you die, your body stops respiring, it stops transferring energy. MRI a corpse’s brain and you get a pretty dull show.

If you’re going to live on it will be through the echoes you leave in this world, through the lives that you touch, the artefacts, the writing you leave behind (yep, a legacy of tactless nob gags. I’m very proud) through what you learn, teach, through the people that you love. Isn’t that enough?

The problem that I have with religion is that it’s a distraction from the day to day. Not the only one, by any means: take consumerism, self-image, war and a thousand weird cultural conventions and apply the same argument. Today though, I’m writing about religion. While this world is viewed as trivial, a distraction from the big, immortal questions (to which the answer may or may not be 42) then sleeves are not being rolled up, important decisions are being left to an imaginary deity, important shit is not getting done.

There’s some brilliant stuff in most religions – if everyone did as James 1:27 commends: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” then I’m pretty sure that the world would be a less shitty place than it is now. But there’s some pretty fucking stupid and offensive stuff in most religions too, magic and misogyny and the problem is that if you’re going to allow that it’s holy writ, you’ve got to take the shiny and the shitty together. If there was one bit of empirical evidence for the gods of the major religions then perhaps there would be an argument for religious influence on law. But there’s not. There’s faith – in Mark Twain’s words: “…it was the school boy that said ‘Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’”

The shadow of the end of the world is indeed upon us but it’s not the rumblings of a magic, bearded, Darth Vader character in the sky. It’s the endless stupidity and cupidity of our race. God can’t save us. But if we learn to face the facts and start concentrating on the problem we have the means to save ourselves.

So if you’ve been waiting for the rapture to take you up to heaven and woken up disappointed to find that it’s another quotidian vista of cornflakes and reality television: get over your delusions. If you want heaven, start making it here.

What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and…particle physics?

Dispatches from boffin central.

Yes, folks, I’m here in what may well be one of the brainiest places on Earth, at CERN, Geneva’s famous particle physics research station. It’s much like a university campus that happens to have the largest machine ever built buried 100m below it.
The Large Hadron Collider is what we’re here to see – 27km of particle accelerator, designed to smash together protons with energies not seen since the Big Bang. (note to fundamentalists and other idiots; if you don’t want to see the results for tonight’s ‘how did the universe come about?’ question, look away now…)
As you may know, the reason for all this rough treatment of largely blameless particles is the quest for the Higgs boson. Much of today has been spent in an attempt to explain to me and to the lovely boys and girls on my trip why the physics community as a whole has such an almighty broom handle for said sub-atomic particle.
I’m guessing that nobody who reads my blog (notice that I’ve avoided use of the phrase ‘no one in their right mind’ in reference to readers of my blog) is in the mood for anything like a formal physics lesson. Good job, as I don’t remember ever giving anything like one. However, here’s my attempt to put the quest for the Higgs Bassoon onto a bumper sticker:
We’re all taught at school that matter consists of atoms, which in turn are made from protons, neutrons and electrons. These are lovely for helping to make a lot of chemical reactions make sense but fall down rather badly when it comes to some of the questions faced by modern physics.
Many, many brainy people have gone to great lengths to explain some of those questions, such as what are we made of? How did we come about? What’s going to happen to us?
On a fundamental level, it turns out that what we’re made of can be broken down into bits smaller than atoms but that as we learn more about these sub atomic particles, more questions than answers are revealed. One of the major questions is ‘why do particles (and, by extension, anything) have mass when, upon close examination, they appear to be made of bugger all?
The particle that may hold the answers was proposed as a theory by Peter Higgs. If it can be found then it can only be found by this incredibly high-energy collision of particles. In a day of fairly intensive instruction in particle physics I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the likelihood of it being found any time soon. There are a couple of things, however, that can be observed at CERN without the need for hideously expensive laboratory equipment.
One is that the quest for the ‘God particle’ (misleading sobriquet, anyone?) is causing much less in the way of bloodshed than the quest for God. Here there may be disagreements about the science but they are contested through animated, passionate discussion and carefully manipulated mathematics, not diatribe and explosives on buses.
If anything, the quest for the God particle has brought together black and white, old and young, Arab and Jew in a mutual love of learning. Let me strain a metaphor (as I’m wont to do) and suggest that if there is a ‘higher purpose’, something to set us apart from apes and those pigs that scientists have taught to play video games then it is the love of learning, even if it may turn out to be learning for its own sake. Nowhere is that more evident than here. I’m not much for temples on the whole but if anything here is holy, it is learning and that is exactly what squabbling over religion isn’t. That’s insistence on dogma and the blind refusal to learn.
Something else that I’ve learned is that physics is even weirder and more fascinating than even I thought and when it’s well explained, even a mind as tired, battered, abused and underpowered as mine can start to get an insight into the work that has shaped our understanding of the cosmos.
What’s terrific here is that I’ve been talking, face to face with people who are leaders in the field of particle physics and they are not in the least dogmatic. They’re looking for the Higgs boson but they’re just as excited about the prospect of being wrong, of not finding it and of having to tear up the rules of physics and start again.
If only we could take the same approach with our politics. Our spiritual beliefs. Our communities and families. Look, listen, experiment – be willing to start over.

I’ve also been privileged to share this trip with a group of teachers who fill me with hope for the future of education in the UK. They are willing to listen and learn, to tear up the rule book. To realise that sometimes there is little more important than laughing until your sides hurt with new friends.

If you get the chance, visit CERN. Read a little quantum physics. It may make your brain hurt but what doesn’t kill your spirit can only make it stronger.

Neil out.