Three cups of tea….

[ratings]

A Pakistani friend of mine recently lent me a book called ‘Three Cups of Tea’. At the time I had absolutely no idea how famous this book now is, it’s been on the New York Times best sellers list for 109 weeks. Reading it has been a formative experience.

It is the story of Greg Mortenson who, in 1993, after a failed attempt on K2, wandered accidentally into a small Baltistani village in the Karakoram mountains. The name of the village was Korphe (Kor-fay), and his experience here would change his and, by dint of this, tens of thousands of people’s lives in this impoverished region of the North-West frontier of Pakistan. The kindness of the Korphe villagers, their willingness to give Greg so much, when they themselves had so little, truly humbled him; thus prior to his departure, upon seeing how the children of the village were forced to write their lessons in the soil with sticks, he promised to build them a school.

The book describes how Greg returned to California, broke and living out of his car, to raise the $12,000 required to build the school. From humble beginnings, to patronage by the late multimillionaire scientist Dr Jean Hoerni and the formation of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), Greg has directed the building of 80 schools, women’s community centres and student hostels in North-West Pakistan and Afghanistan. This could only have been achieved with a very loyal team of local contacts that Greg has a natural faculty to draw towards him. The schools are built by the people of the villages with the full support of the village communities.

The emphasis of CAI schools is on the education of girls, an idea captured by the maxim, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual; but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’ (Mahatma Gandhi). This lasting and indelible educational structure is at the core of improving healthcare and welfare of villagers, but furthermore, will reduce the number of illiterate and uneducated people who would otherwise provide cannon fodder for radicalism by fundamentalist clerics; a mother is less likely to give her blessing to her son’s jihad, a strong social requirement, if she is educated and literate.

The byline of the book is, ‘One man’s mission to promote peace…one school at a time’. It is a noble cause and one that I will happily support. I highly recommend that everyone read ‘Three cups of tea’. If you enjoy the book, also read some of the CAI publications (Journey of Hope), which provide updates and fantastic photography of the current and ongoing projects.

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The state of art…

If you take a photograph of art, is that art too? Or is it just a photo of some art? When does it stop being art? Do you have to manipulate the photo before it becomes art; a change in the original intended emphasis of message?

What about if you then take a photo of the photo of the art, does that then make it art? I think it might, but then why does taking more photos of the photos of the art make it more art than just the original photo; surely the latter is “closer” to the original artwork than the 2nd+ generation photo?

But then, is it the degradation and graininess in the 2nd+ generation photos that makes it artsy? Why, if the original artwork is degraded would this be more artistic? What would that mean for the original artwork? Was it not degraded enough, or are we now talking about something different? If so, where was the disconnect? Was it capturing the light of the art on a film or CCD? How is this different from capturing it on your retina? Is it the depth of field that makes the experience better, you can achieve this with a photograph; what if it is the smell?

Would it mean that the original artwork needed to be more degraded to be art?

I’m just a scientist tying to make matter do what it doesn’t want to do, but clearly it seems that art is doing what matters.

“Two plus two makes five” – Winston Smith, 1984.

IF enough people believe it, or if it is illegal not to believe it, will it be true?

I spend a lot of my time, probably too much, waging a battle of wits and reason with the truly and irredeemably unreasonable. The usual subject is the scientific theory of evolution. I preface the noun “theory” with scientific so as there is no mistaking exactly what we mean by theory.

Whenever I hear the words “Just a theory….” levied at a scientific theory, it sends a shudder down my spine. As I’ve mentioned before, and I will undoubtedly continue to do so, a scientific theory is not speculation or opinion, it is a comprehensive, logical and above all testable model that represents the best means of explaining the evidence. Furthermore it facilitates predictions that can be tested experimentally to continue to verify the reliability of the theory. The theory of evolution is just such a theory:

The theory of evolution explains that variation exists between individuals within a species, it explains how natural selection can act to drive this variation and it shows how, and describes why, some organisms display characteristics that make them better suited, i.e. fitter, for life in the environment in which they live. It explains how these “fitter” organisms are the ones more likely to survive and pass on their characteristics to offspring. It explains how, over time, these characteristics become a trait in all members of a species, and how less favourable characteristics can be lost. Ultimately, the theory of evolution explains how a species, over this long period of time and subject to much genetic change steered by natural selection, can be very different from its ancestors.

Now, the above paragraph is qualitative, and largely non-technical. However, bound up within the above is some impressively complex science. The debates that rage amongst scientists is not about the validity of the above, it’s about the specifics of how they’re achieved. Part of what I aim to do with this blog is not re-write any of the perfectly excellent books on evolution that are available, but to tackle those areas that are taken advantage of by religious fundamentalists. Science is a dynamic subject; by the time it is written up in a book, it is already out of date. As I mentioned before, there is a battle of wits going on out there, between scientists or other such rational free-thinkers, and religious fundamentalists (which for want of a better term, I call “Fundies”).
Continue reading ““Two plus two makes five” – Winston Smith, 1984.”

Hope

I used to attend creative writing classes, if anything to attempt to undo the damage wrought by years of technical writing. Technical writing robs you of certain freedoms: to make mistakes as you write, to use active verbs, present tense, embellishing adjectives and superlatives. Technical writing is precise, well crafted, but passive and impersonal. It is utilitarian and functional “nuts and bolts”, to the “heart and minds” of popular prose.

Exercise (warming up the mind and fingers): write anything within 5 minutes (from an old class):

Small vortices caught dust on the desert floor, swirling them into the face of the oncoming Touareg, peppering his face, mapping his sweat with a glittering foundation.

A haze of flies danced in the grains of sand, a mesmerising display of light and dark. The nomad, oblivious to this battle between light and dark, trudged his way along the fading track of his leader, hating every step, but enjoying the thought of sweet water at journey’s end.

Upon his mind, stripped bare by days of relentless heat, was the Bedouin girl he’d seen at the bazaar. Her face a mystery, only her crystal green eyes telling of heretical beauty.

Such thoughts open holes for hope to fill, but if not filled allow despair to flow in hope’s stead. Such thoughts are wasted, when the day is hot and you are robbed of your life energy.

Rocket leaves prevent alien abduction!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just make stuff up and have it be true?

All those years spent in diligent study, working hard to understand difficult concepts, essay after essay, exam after exam for year after year. You might then decide that you’ve done enough and leave it there, commit to yet more study and yet more work. All that time, we fools, we could have just invented a subject, a discipline, a theory, a fact and use the following reasoning to support it:

1. If you disagree with it, then it is doubly true (and if you tell me that I can’t say that, then it’s triply true! Nah, nah, na, nah, nah).

2. I believe in it, I have faith in it, and if you say anything against it then that’s intolerance.

3. Give me 32% of your salary and I’ll give you all the secrets.

It’d be great! You see, I’ve found this weed that grows between the paving slabs next to the road of my house. People call it Rocket (other people call it Arugela), and it’s become very fashionable in cook books recently. Now, if you eat a single one of these leaves, every day, for the rest of your life, you will never be abducted by aliens.

It’s true, I shit you not! It just came to me, I’ve been reading all around these hollistic food websites, and I realised they were all talking crazyspeak; obviously it’s called Rocket for a reason, noone seems to know why, but I knew that I had the answer, call it a revelation. It seems so clear to me that it was seeded on the Earth by a benevolant alien race to prevent others in their government being able to take us!

So go forth and eat Rocket, and just watch how you’re not abducted by aliens!

Violence

[ratings]

SO, in a complete parody of the light-heartedness of yesterday’s musings, today I have also been coming to grips with Slavoj Žižek’s “Violence“, which I finally finished reading (I have six books on the go, it’s a work in progress). I spend a lot of time reading academic literature, mainly in the sciences, thus pure philosophy is always a little antagonising.

Having practise at academic reading is useful, and the usual formula applies: skim read the whole thing first, get an idea of what the premise is and basic structure, so you know what to look for on your next scan. Read the introduction and conclusion too, this will help you identify the lines of evidence/reasoning you require to agree/disagree with the premise. Then you have to read it in some detail, if you’ve not already disregarded it, all the while juggling the lines of reasoning, often over several pages, until they drop into place. So it’s never really bed-time reading, and some writers are better than others.

The main subject of the book can be paraphrased reasonably well from the author’s own introduction, and the blurb on the dust-jacket:

The premise of Žižek’s theory is that the subjective violence we see – violence with a clear identifiable agent – is only the tip of an iceberg made up of systemic violence, which is essentially the catastrophic consequence of the smooth functioning of our economic & political systems.

He uses some rather contentious rhetoric when describing the different forms of violence in society: “subjective”, “symbolic” and “systemic”, but this is largely a means to clear the way so that he can get to the guts of his argument, that of “systemic violence”.
Continue reading “Violence”

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.