Spirituality

AMAZEMENT still strikes at our primitive emotions. When we are left in bewildered awe at a spectacle or new insight, it tugs at us in a manner that a reasoned scientific account can do no justice. It is, in many respects, a “religious” experience, but the word “religious” is bandied around in place of a slew of terms that could be used.

Such experiences are spiritual, being of matter (the brain still being a material object), yet insubstantial and deeply emotive. Whether it is some perception of a deity, or a new dimension of worldly understanding provided by science, these experiences are linked in their spiritual nature. In fact, I am with Carl Sagan in my belief that science is a profound source of spirituality.

In talking about spirituality, there is no implication of talking about religion. Spirituality is a sense of meaning (or purpose) and unity, but it does not have to be divinely inspired; it should not be confused with mysticism, which is concerned with magic, the occult and supernatural. The scientific journal Nature defines spirituality it as “An inner sense of something greater than oneself. Recognition of a meaning to existence that transcends one’s immediate circumstances”. It’s a good word, and one that we ought to take back, releasing it from its pre-scientific context.

Nature and the universe certainly put us in our place with the realisation that the atoms that make up your body are billions of years old, they’ve made many other things in their existence, and will continue to do so long after we’re gone; we are simply borrowing them for a while. Scientists, and readers of science, have a lot to be spiritual about. We have a particular impulse to understand the world around us. It is a great injustice to ignore the natural world in favour of an inferior and artificial facsimile in the form of the supernatural. Why ignore what is in front of your eyes, from the sub-atomic to the cosmos, and instead make it up?

Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it has more than any faith can offer me. Science has so many more questions that it will answer, whereas most faiths have said everything they have to say. Fortunately, as a rational human being, and a scientist, I don’t need anyone to agree with me to be comfortable in my reasoning. If a million scientists decided to recant on DNA being the basis of genetic inheritance, unlikely as that is, it would mean nothing. DNA would still continue to be the basis of genetic inheritance unless they had hard evidence to the contrary. It is this facility than enables freethinking, rational people to be truly uninhibited and unprejudiced.

So why is spirituality important? Science can, in a practical sense, only really deal with the material; though this “material” may extend well below the size of an atom, or may be as intangible as love or trust. We still inhabit physiologically stone-age bodies with minds hard-wired for day-to-day problem-solving, strategic planning and interacting with the physical world that our ancestors could see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Yet we managed to arrive at this state in the absence of both writing and mathematics. Most of what we’ve achieved since then has been achieved by co-opting these more primitive thought processes (the original “transferable skill” set) and applying them in a new direction: complex reasoning and abstract theoretical modelling, applied to science and mathematics.

It is no surprise, therefore, that much of what we have learned in science is difficult to process, especially when they are beyond the resolutive power our innate senses; we need things to have defined boundaries and exist at the right scale. We know there is a sense of change; that processes are shaping life, the planet and the universe around us. We are part of something shared, much greater than ourselves, and every time science offers a new awesome insight into this, we find a connection with our spirituality.

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Supernatural dilemma

[ratings]

SCIENCE is about falsifiability, an attempt to understand the world around us, and our place in it, to the point where the best sense prevails.

Usually, it is a case of the often-quoted Occam’s Razor, where, all things being equal, it is often the simplest explanation that is true. The point is to arrive at a reasoned explanation of the phenomenon, such as a ghost sighting, without resorting to fiction. It seems ludicrous to me that some people would rather accept an immeasurable “force” or “entity”, for which there is no shred of physical evidence, or requirement, when we are possessed of a human brain, the most sophisticated biochemical computer on the planet, which is more than capable of rendering highly vivid imagery, smells and sounds, none of which need actually exist in he external environment.

As much as possible, science aims to be rational, consistent, and predictive. The supernatural can be none of these things. Knowledge of them does not enable prediction of their occurrence, i.e. beyond coincidence; the observations are inconsistent, being highly biased upon the subjection of the observer; and they are by definition irrational. I also hasten to add that they are, by and large, immensely uninventive, almost uniquely anthropomorphic and require a degree of self-stupefaction that would never be entertained in other areas of people’s lives.

Believer’s belief supersedes any form of evidential support or logical rationalisation; such evidence is simply irrelevant. What I find objectionable is when believers hold they have rational grounds for their belief; the best thing we can do is to inform them that they are wrong in this. This does not mean to say that they are wrong, per se, faith is faith after all, but to attempt to legitimise their belief by logic and methodology is to pit their belief directly against rational and secular thinking, with which it cannot compete.
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Hogwash in science writing

I hate political correctness in scientific papers. It’s especially insulting given the readership of such articles. I especially hate the use of the term “sacrificed” or the one in the current paper I’m reading “euthanised” to describe the killing of test animals as part of an experiment. In the latter it was the killing of test chickens to look at the results of antibiotic trials on their gut flora. However, perhaps “killing” has it’s own connotations, but it’s semantically different from “murdered”. Perhaps “rendered dead” is the way to go?

I’m reminded of an excellent, if wax-lyrical, 1955 Nature article by John Baker entitled English Style in Scientific Papers. It was popularly received as it was one of those moments where someone sticks their head up and pull no punches when telling everyone that they’re behaving doltishly. His subject was the grandiloquence and foibles that “are the enemies of good English” and hinder the effective communication of science. [Those with subscriptions can see an online copy via an Editorial and recent reprint in the Journal of Biological Chemistry Classics series:l article via link].
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Stavros: GPS artwork.

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Virophage

[ratings]

IN today’s issue of Nature is an account of a virus that infects a virus, a virophage. We are all familiar with the ubiquitous plant and animal viruses. Many of us are familiar with the bacteriophage, viruses that specifically attack bacterial cells and are the most abundant organism on the planet; somewhere around 10 million virus particles in a drop of sea water.

Now we hear of a small virus, called Sputnik, which infects an enormous virus, called Mamavirus. This is a larger member of a class of giant viruses, originally discovered in 2003 in a cooling tower in Bradford. The original Bradford virus of that 2003 discovery, Mimivirus, was initially mistaken for a small bacterial cell such is its size. Viruses are parasites, incapable of replicating themselves without a host cell; a virus infects and subsequently usurps the cellular machinery of the host cell to make a virus factory, spewing out replica virus particles. The small Sputnik “virophage” is able to parasitise the large virus’s factory for its own ends.

Having realised that such parasitism exists, and adjusted their views to the sizes of particles involved, researchers believe that this phenomenon may be common in nature, and particularly important in oceanic plankton blooms; the knock on effects of which have implications in ocean nutrient cycles and climate, plankton being one of the major carbon sinks on the planet.

It is a fantastically interesting discovery by Didier Raoult and colleagues, from the University of the Mediterranean, and certainly raises some questions as to the nature of whether viruses are alive or not. If the large Mimivirus is capable of being mistaken for a bacterial cell, and being parasitised by a smaller virus, at what point to we conclude that viruses are a distinct living entities, all be it obligatorily parasitic ones?

The Big Chill

I recently returned from The Big Chill 2008, down in Eastnor, Herefordshire. Arguably one of the better music festivals, being far more easy-going, and with fewer numbers and more families. I thoroughly enjoyed most of it, particularly the performances of Beth Orton and Leonard Cohen; the Orb, however, were a little disappointing.

The Body & Soul area of the Enchanted Garden site was to my mind a microcosm of The Big Chill, and embodied the spirit of the festival well. Speak of which, the festival could just have easily been a food festival, such was the variety, and quality, of food on offer; I never ate at the same stall twice. On a moe reflective note, I didn’t enjoy the streak of ruthless capitalism at the festival site, fuelled by the monopoly that was in place; nor will I miss the endless queues for food, toilets, events. The Comfy Crappers though, expensive as they were, provided welcome relief from the dreaded portaloos!