Why a little physics might make you happier.

Welcome, gentle reader, to this quiet, considered corner of the Internet. Think of it as a genteel bookshop nestled in a quiet clearing in a forest full of screaming, shit-flinging monkeys. If that helps.

My musings today are triggered by an unfortunate and inaccurate stab at the tuning buttons on my car radio, subjecting me to a few minutes of a caller to Jeremy Vine’s radio show (a phone-in show, for non-UK readers. Naturally, I swiftly found the ‘aux’ button and soothed myself with some music (although, by comparison to a modern radio phone-in show, the sound of teeth being drilled would be auditory balm…) but not before a train of thought had been shunted into ponderous motion.

It strikes me that perhaps one of the obstructions to reasoned, rational and meaningful debate in modern society over issues like who should be leaving which union of nations, paying for walls, healthcare or nuclear missiles and the like is a general inability for people to cope with cognitive conflict. In other words, to be able to maintain two points of view that show significant differences – for example: I think that we’d all be safer with fewer guns – you’d like more guns, let the vein-popping shouting match commence. In fact, both of us agree that we’d like to see fewer people shot, we’re just not very good at standing down and taking a rational look at each other’s arguments.

Here, someone making a good fist of teaching you the basics of physics might help. You might think that it’s all dull formulae and blocks of mass m being shifted short distances d against a force F. If that’s the case then I apologise on behalf of your physics teacher.

One of the skills (sadly, not one often enough taught) that’s vital to understanding physics is modelling. No, not learning to walk in high heels or getting high on Airfix glue whilst assembling plastic Spitfires (only one of which was a feature of  my youth) but understanding that there is not a final, ‘right’ literal answer to questions such as “What is stuff actually made of?”, just a series of models that explain, illustrate or enable prediction of some aspects of the way that the universe behaves.

Take your understanding (or lack) of the atomic world. You were introduced to the idea that everything is made of tiny bits called ‘atoms’ and probably (because they’re pictured this way in textbooks) visualised them as tiny balls. You may well, at some level, persist with this model without really realising it.

Later, if you were taught about the periodic table, you were encouraged to believe that your tiny balls (I’m so sorry, I grew up with the Carry On movies and went to an all-boys grammar school) were in fact, made of even tinier balls, some in the middle which you called protons and neutrons (you score half-credit of you got croutons and futons) and some electrons whizzing around the outside.

If you went further, this picture got complicated by s, p and d orbitals and if you got further than that then I’m probably preaching to the converted.

What a good physics teacher will get you to realise is that none of these models are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘how stuff actually is’ but simply tools to help us to predict what will happen in some interaction. (I realise that I’ve used an example that’s more, in terms of your school experience, about chemistry but it’s the most concise on to describe…)

The ability to hold multiple, sometimes conflicting models in one’s head, critically evaluate and use them appropriately is a core skill in developing a deep, transferable understanding of physics.

In addition, good physics instruction will encourage students to comprehend and contextualise very large and very small numbers (often through the use of techniques like Fermi problems) and to link together learning from other areas of science, so that we learn to understand everything else with the same tools. It encourages scepticism, rationality and the belief that anything can be understood. Contrary to some popular views, physics is not a dogmatic subject, far from it – the history of the subject is one of models being tried, broken and rewritten in the light of better evidence.

Many of the problems that society is  currently addressing through screaming, denial, accusation, muck-raking, name-calling and outright, frothing hysteria, revolve around complex issues that might be fruitfully explored by a nuanced exploration of the available evidence, whilst simultaneously allowing possibly conflicting explanations to coexist – allowing that both may be useful tools without representing a whole picture or an unassailable truth.

It works perfectly well in the world of physics. Particle physicists are well able to debate the various permutations of the Standard Model, String Theories and Quantum Gravitation without resorting to anything more impolite than impenetrable mathematics.

Personally, I’d trust Stephen Hawking and Neil Degrasse Tyson to run the world a lot more than Trump and Putin.

Of course, I learned some physics…

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Sometimes you really want to punch a Nazi

It’s been a long time since I put figurative pen to virtual paper. Sometime between Brexit and the overtures of Trumpaggedon the fire in my belly became bile in the back of my throat and I’ve had to sit very still for fear of what might emerge from me.

So let’s keep this fairly short and to the point. I’ve seen the social media reaction of my American friends, all of them compassionate, intelligent, liberal… wonderful people. I’ve seen the news and the reactions of our politicians.

And like a lot of people, I really want to punch a Nazi. In the willing association with times as dark as any in modern history there is something so abhorrent that it overrides my instinct to want to understand, to build bridges. I just want to punch a Nazi.

Fortunately, I live in Bristol, where Nazis are in short supply. Bristol, the pro-European, tolerant and laid back corner of England, where if I see a swastika it will be on a piece of vibrantly indignant street art.

So no punching. And if the pen is mightier than the sword, then perhaps the keyboard is mightier than my puny, middle-class fists? For all that anyone cares about my opinion then yes, I condemn the white supremacists, the anti-semites, the hatred mongers. I condemn the politicians who refuse to speak out and the media outlets that perpetuate prejudice, fear and hatred.

In the absence of Nazis to punch, I’ll raise my hands to fight in a different trench. We have a little revolutionary army here in Bristol. Helpfulpeeps was started by two Bristolians. A couple of weeks ago, through that community, I helped out for half a day working with a local charity; building furniture and getting a house ready for a family of displaced Syrians. Racists can march and spew hatred all they like. All it will drive me to do is to help people even more. I’m giving them all two fingers and they don’t even get to find out about it. That’s the wonderful thing about a community like that. Yes, there are people filling the world with hatred – but we can find other places to fill it with love, decency, kindness.

It may lack the Hollywood glamour of a fist to a bigoted jaw but I’m pretty sure that if I keep doing it, I’ll feel better eventually.

Take comfort in the knowledge that every day will present you with chances to make the world a better place. There might not be something to punch but there’s always a way to join in the fight.

Unlimited love.

RIP Rob Cook.

The world lost someone this week. His passing won’t be national news, perhaps a mention in the local papers, but it will be keenly felt by people like me, I’d imagine hundreds if not thousands of us, all over the world.
Rob Cook led a Christian youth group in Aldridge in the West Midlands. When I met him he was gradually taking a more prominent leadership role, one which he embraced and grew into in the years that I spent with them.
I was a teenager full of questions; like any young man, trying to sort out what it was to be a man. Rob remains to this day one of the yardsticks against which I measure myself as a man. He was a man of conviction, strength and wisdom – although I’m sure that he would have laughed to hear me call him wise, humble as he was. Smiling, patient, caring – he was like a father to so many of us. He passionately wanted us to follow him in his faith but never forced it on us and never gave up caring about those who didn’t. He saw the good in every one of us. It’s easy for those leading religious groups to lose sight of what it is like to be on the other side of the fence. Easy to be judgemental and puritanical. He was never anything but understanding and tolerant. His advice was always considered and realistic.
In a time when my relationship with my own family was strained and difficult, I relied on Rob, his wife Annette and the rest of that group; they supported me unconditionally. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.
Through that group and under Rob’s watchful eye I had countless opportunities to grow as a person, to be involved with charitable projects, creative endeavours and incredible adventures. I may not have managed to acquire his faith but I believe that he has a hand in my continuing desire to try to make the world a better place.
There’s a lump in my throat as I write this but also a smile on my face. I can see him now, beaming from a chair in a marquee in a field on the Gower. I can hear that distinctive laugh echo through the night.
Goodnight and God bless, Rob. You made the world a better place and each one of us for whom you cared so much carry a little piece of you with us into every corner of the world.

A misanthrope’s guide to saving the world.

Should you be taking spiritual advice from a misanthrope? What the hell are people like me trying to save the world for anyway? Don’t we think that people basically suck and secretly hope that someone pushes the button, the world goes boom and we can evaporate with “I told you so” lingering on our smug, whiskey-tainted[1] lips?

Think of us like rescue dogs… we might growl and bare our fangs, occasionally frighten your kids and we’re never going to be in a cute family photo but if you can win our trust, you’re doing something right. And if a misanthrope thinks there’s something worth saving, there probably is. It’s not like we’re prone to flights of romantic fantasy.

Anyway, if Mark Zuckerberg can write an essay about how he’s going to save the world with Facebook then, fuck it, everyone should be prepared to throw their hat in the ring. At least you know I’m not trying to sell you anything.

Really, the question isn’t “How can I save the world?” as, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re probably already doing your bit. Let’s face it; this is a pretty selective readership.

The more pertinent question is, “How can I encourage other people to save the world?” That question seems especially pertinent if, like me, you live in a bubble of like-minded folk who are all equally concerned about the way that the world seems to be going.

All I’ve come up with so far is that, at the fragile, iridescent edges of your bubble, there are those who can reach outside, reach into others’ bubbles. And so on. The better you do with your monkey sphere, the better your monkeys will fare on the outside.

So, monkeys within a critical radius, what can we do?

Try harder. Try to walk in the shoes of the people that we so easily offer contemptuous dismissal. Take it from an intellectually arrogant, judgemental dickhead: we’re never going to win over the people who are voting for the politics of fear with hectoring, high-horses and high-minded rhetoric. The liberal elite didn’t listen to the electorate in the UK’s EU referendum or in the US elections. You can’t win a debate without genuinely listening to your opponent’s argument – especially if they already think you’re a dick. Trust me on this – almost everyone thinks I’m a dick.

Check your… well, everything. Privilege, facts, friends, ethics… In short, think before you open your fat mouth. Or, more pertinently, post or share. Everything that we put out there that can be justifiably ridiculed weakens our stance. Stay credible or stay quiet.

Believe. A wise friend posted this wonderful article a while ago. It took me a while to really get my head around it. She’s right. We have lost something in our lack of belief. We don’t need gods or creeds or lists of rules. We need to have put enough effort into our own thinking that we can truly believe in ourselves, instead of parroting something that we’ve heard because we can’t be bothered to put the work in. We need to be prepared to admit ignorance, to ask questions, to do the hard yards and know our own minds. Take a few minutes and listen to a vox pop on the radio some time, or look at the comments section on a debate about immigration. Almost every time you see an argument that makes you think “bigotry”, you’ll see ill-matched phrases lifted from half-remembered arguments. Don’t be that guy. Know what you’re talking about.

Do something. Seriously… some time ago I posted “Spare half an hour to write to your MP or spare me your opinion.” I stand by that. If you’re not a member of a political party – or else forming your own or an active member of a protest group – then you’re just an Internet dilettante. You don’t have to go hair shirt – I could do a lot more – but there’s no true belief without action. If you can’t even be bothered to sign a few petitions, to write to your political representative, then why should anyone care if you’re not tickled pink with the status quo? Truly, if you’re not part of the solution…

Be nice. Yeah, I know. I’m hardly one to talk. Ask anyone who’s known me for a long time though and, I hope, they’ll tell you I’ve come a long way. But every day you have multiple chances to make the world a better, kinder place. If you don’t, why should anyone else.

Maybe I’m not the misanthrope that I used to be. Maybe misanthropy has made me the man I am today. I’d like to think that we can still save the world. If we can’t, then you’re welcome round my place when it all finally goes tits-up. Bring a guitar and a bottle of Jamesons.

Unlimited love.

x

[1] Maybe that’s just me…

It’s behind you! 2016 was just a panto villain.

Ding dong, 2016 is dead. We can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Everything will be ok now that awful year is over. 2017 should be less tragic, shouldn’t it? We must be almost running out of beloved celebrities to die prematurely.

I’ll admit: I’ve been on the bandwagon; it’s been a year that’s seen me pretty much stop writing. Whether you see that as one of the things to celebrate about 2016 or not depends on your perspective and tolerance for rambling diatribes interspersed with bad puns and balls jokes, I guess. There came a point last year where Thalia got caught in a weltschmerz riptide and carried away; it’s hard to crack wise about the state of the world when real life feels more like black comedy than anything you can conjure. But I’m back. Yay.

The depiction of last year as a celebrity-hunting bogeyman is probably quite apt. The good riddances bid on social and news media, though, have focused on lost luvvies and been light on the politics, bar some very vague references to war. It’s nice to have a clear cut pantomime villain to hiss and throw peanuts at. Like any panto baddie, we’re not really booing what we think we are. The villain in any drama is a projection of our own deadly sins; our wrath, lust and sloth as a cartoon caricature.

To shout “Begone!” at the year past because of lost celebs is to rail against simple probability. Some years will take a heavier toll than others; those we treasure will walk into the light and Rupert Murdoch will remain until the expiry of his Mephistophelean contract. Upsetting but inevitable. Simple chance, the random cosmos isn’t the bad guy.

As sad as it was to see such giants of the entertainment world as Ronnie Corbett[1] pass on, that’s not the reason that 2016 really sucked.

We were.

Choosing isolation over union. Choosing fear and selfishness over compassion. Choosing laziness over making a stand.

Britain decided to leave Europe. After all of the fuss, the lies, the accusations and the political point scoring, we chose to go backwards. Not to reform and try to improve a union whilst still seeking cooperation. We chose to go back and hide on our rainy island.  Lots of us were against it but we were too arrogant, too proud. We failed to listen to the other side, failed to understand and to engage.

The US election; the ongoing war in Syria; political posturing; post-truth news and politics; the rise in hate speech; the alt-right: I know from what I’ve read that I’m not alone in thinking that the world has become an uglier place over the last twelve months. But so many of us are complicit in all of these events. Each time we’ve convinced ourselves that writing to our MP doesn’t make a difference (it does if we all do it); each time we’ve voted mainstream because we’ve let mainstream media convince us that they’re the only credible alternative; each time we’ve let ourselves believe that a Facebook post counts as doing our bit – we’ve contributed.

It takes twenty minutes to write a well-researched email to your MP. Ten minutes to write a letter for Amnesty. Five minutes to add your name to a petition. You can find communities like helpfulpeeps  and perform a small act of kindness to make your community a better place. It takes a couple of seconds to think whether joining in with a joke in the office is making the world a better place or helping other people to think that casual prejudice is OK. No time and no money to not buy something from a corporation with questionable ethics.

2017 can be an amazing year. World-changing. It could be the year when our political leaders are forced to prize people over profit; when our companies are forced to take responsibility for what they do to the planet; when we make an effort to truly love our neighbours.

It would be nice to think that this time next year, a few beloved singers passing on is all that we have to feel bad about.

[1] Note for non UK readers: one of the Two Ronnies; a much loved comedian of remarkably diminutive stature.

This feels wrong… we shouldn’t get rid of Cameron.

Oh my, I think I’m about to defend David Cameron in writing. I feel sullied. Bear with me. I think I have a worthwhile point.

Here we go: if you train a dog to attack children in the street, is the dog evil? I have a horrible feeling that Cameron thinks that he’s trying to do the right thing. Like the dog. Maybe I should have gone with a foxhound…

If you shoot the evil dog for attacking children, are you making the problem go away?

Someone who trains a dog to attack children will just get another dog. You have to go after the owner. I think Cameron’s been conditioned by an upbringing of privilege. He has no idea what it’s like to be without money, or the accompanying confidence that things will be ok. He has no idea what it’s like to be truly dependent on the NHS, or your local school, or the support worker from the local authority. Just like you have no idea what it’s like to eat swan until you can pick your teeth and stuff a pillow.

If you kick out Cameron, you’re most likely to get Boris. Make no mistake: he’s funnier than Cameron. The trainer’s taught him some good tricks. He rolls over and dances on his hind legs and lets you rub his belly. He’ll still attack your kids.

The tax thing is a distraction. If we listen to the papers and fixate on the people we miss the point – and that’s playing into the hands of the system. If we get into an uninformed huff and boot out Cameron over doing what is basically the same thing as what you do when you stick money in an ISA, we’ll think we’ve won some sort of victory and let the country keep on getting run by a pack of dogs trained by the same sociopath. Vote for the Tories, vote for Labour – it doesn’t matter. It’s the status quo. The Establishment. The same little privileged club, running the country… not for themselves, not as they see it. Running the country the way that they’ve been conditioned to run it. The way they’ve been trained.

Sign a petition to get rid of Cameron if it helps to assuage your anger about the NHS or schools or benefit cuts if you want. Or because you want to cause a little mischief. But don’t think that you’re making the world a better place.

If you want to do that, then learn about monetary reform or TTIP or democratic reform. Bore your friends about it. If you can convince one other person to encourage one of their friends to do something to make the world a better place, then we can change the world together. That’s difficult, though, it requires perseverance; a sacrifice of time and the risk of making your friends uncomfortable. Signing a petition to boot out Cameron is easy. That’s why we shouldn’t bother. Nothing worth having comes easy.

Getting rid of Cameron won’t make the country better any more than pulling the head off a dandelion will improve your lawn. We’ve either got to be prepared to get the weedkiller out, do some digging and reseed, or get used to looking out of the window at a wilderness where only the fittest survive.

Reading festival? Have your own.

Yes, of course, I’m talking about reading, the thing you do with books (for youthful readers, a book is like a long series of Tweets bound in paper), not the annual celebration of rockular music, where popular beat combos cavort in front of stoned, cider addled fans in a field.

I would describe myself as an avid reader and possessed of minor bibliophiliac tendencies; I do love being surrounded by books and I don’t think I’ll ever prefer a reader to a real book. I don’t get obsessed with first editions and bindings, though: a new paperback is just fine for me.

I’m not massively well-read: I gave up a few dozen pages into Ulysses, can’t be doing with Dickens and failed to find any of Robertson Davies’ clever novels as captivating and funny as I was supposed to. Literachoor is all well and good but I find I enjoy a throwaway novel about superheroes fighting zombies far more as long as there are a few witty lines.

I say this as qualification because I’m going to recommend a couple of books and I don’t want anyone to think that you need to be able to quote chunks of Heidegger verbatim to be able to get something out of them.

Anyway, alongside the penny dreadful thrillers and comic-book plotted sci-fi that I’ve been enjoying over Christmas, I’ve been reading two slightly more serious books and I want to commend them both to anyone.

I’m a big fan of Ben Goldacre – partly because we share many of the same concerns about the presentation of science to the public, especially in the media and partly because I find his doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly approach amusing. He’s a lucid, witty communicator of really important ideas. “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Is perhaps a slightly off-putting title to some people but please don’t be put off. It’s a collection of essays and articles on the misuse and abuse of science in media, politics and commerce. The book deals with issues that affect us all but, because, as the title suggests, the details are more complicated than the headlines suggest, we are often misled.

The articles are short, easy to read and entertaining. Depending on your reading speed and diet you could easily make it through in three months of entertaining and enlightening (see what I did there?) shits. You will emerge from the lavatory wiser and, I hope, angrier.

Speaking of angry brings me to my second recommendation. Owen Jones’ “The Establishment: and how they get away with it” will divide opinion. It’s divided mine and I give you theWikipedia link rather than the Amazon link so that you can have a look at the reception for the book. Of course, one would expect skilled rebuttal as criticism from the right-wing press for a book like this, so, although many of the criticisms aimed at the book are certainly valid, they should also be perhaps weighted accordingly.

Jones looks at the way that a small part of society has come to wield disproportionate wealth and power and how they continue to protect their privilege and the cost to the rest of us. It’s an angry, passionate book although the observations that the author struggles with some of those ideas and is short of viable solutions ring true. Just because you don’t entirely agree with a book or that it doesn’t make your mind up for you is no reason not to read it, though (in fact, I’d tend to steer clear of books that do try to make your mind up for you rather than invite you to think), and I think that everyone should read this one, even if you end up skimming some sections. If it doesn’t make you angry, I’d be surprised and suggest that you’ve either given up or achieved independent wealth and no longer give a shit what happens to anyone else.

Read them both and agree, disagree, act, don’t act. I’m not making a call to arms here: that should be your call to make. But I think that these are two important, thought-provoking books. You’re welcome to borrow my copies if you wish. Happy reading.