Sunday, September 28, 2008

Onora O'Neill and Prospect

Dinner with CEO, COO and Editor of publishers on Friday - the first time I had met anyone from their firm, it has all been done by phone, email and letter. Delightful people and we had a good discussion. The proof had arrived electronically that morning and I was able to bring a mock-up, with a front cover with "Responses" rather than "Answers" in the sub-title and some blurbs on the back. We're working on the launches in the US and the UK and we've agreed the approach in principle although we need to work on the details and be sure everyone is comfortable with them.

The immensely distinguished scientist who was going to chair our launch in the US now finds that his movements are too uncertain to be able to commit to this, so I've asked another very eminent professor who I know will be there at the relevant time - we'll see. I hope to see him when I'm in Harvard next week, and I'll also be meeting our proposed US publicist.

Thrilling news that Onora O'Neill has accepted our invitation to be on the Panel at the UK launch meeting. Naturally we made it clear in our invitation that appearing on the Panel does not constitute endorsement of the book - but it is our aim to ensure that the launch meetings are forums for serious discussion of the issues and no-one could be better from that point of view.

The Editor of Prospect got in touch - he now wants to run the joint article that Colin Howson and I wrote last year. He's sent though the proofs and we had an hour-long discussion to help him focus on how he wants to edit it. He says he'll send a revised version next week.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

V nice comments from McGrath, and a citaton already

Publisher sends me a very nice endorsement from Alister McGrath: "A wonderfully accessible, informative and authoritative guide to the big questions in science and religion. An ideal starting point for those new to the field; a great stimulus to discussion for those who are already initiated." I email to thank him and get a very encouraging email back. I do hope he can come to the launch.

Also an email requesting permission to quote a part of the website that appears in the book for an OUP textbook - great to have at least one citation before the book is published. Longish telecon with Denis Alexander trying to work out how we can work with the Faraday Institute on the launch, and two leading FRSs say they hope to come to the launch. All quite complicated and interleaving it with secular work is a challenge.

At Sunday communion had first sermon from very able female curate - about the Labourers in the Vineyard. She points out that God's amazing generosity and forgiveness is not at all cost free - we see the cost on the cross and need to live it in our lives, as well as celebrating His amazing love.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Calling,Truth and bad copy-edits

Very busy week on the work front and also fascinating financial turbulance. Am making progress with Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea and he is very interesting on the "Protestant Work Ethic". He draws attention to two aspects:
  • The rejection of the idea that there is a "sacred vocation" to things like priesthood and the monastic life that puts some christians "above" those who have merely "secular work". A corrollary of the Preisthood of All Believers is that all work can be vocational and sacred.
  • The changed attitude towards "usury" which was considered a serious sin until Calvin re-worked the idea in terms of charging excessive interest. On reflection this is a key point about The Merchant of Venice which we just don't get with modern eyes.
John Cornwell has put me in touch with a brilliant book publicist (related to a Nobel Laureate) who has worked on many major scientific books and we hope will work on Questions of Truth. She spotted a deplorable lapse in the copy-editing of Tony Hewish's introduction (which I hadn't checked because you don't monkey with the text of a Nobel Laureate) which turned "God made Man two thousand years ago" into "that god made humans two thousand years ago"!! We'll certainly be able to correct this at the proofs stage - and I hope they'll let us make a few small changes as well.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Beauty, Wisdom, Lucas, Ayckbourn and OODA loops

Down to my old school for a reunion day - and to meet Son and his family who are visiting to see if Eldest Grandson would like to go there (if he passes v tough exam). I had forgotten just how beautiful and inspiring it is. New Warden (Chairman of Governors) is an old business friend and new Headmaster was tutored by Geoffrey Rowell with whom I collaborated on the starcourse, so may points of contact. Also saw John Lucas and family who were there becasue John's father (re)founded a mission supported by the school in 1908. It was great to talk to John a bit more about freewill, and to tell him about Smolin's interest in A Treatise on Time and Space.

One of the Nobel Laureates who is endorsing the book has sent several pages of marked-up comments which would have been enormously helpful if they had arrived 3-4 weeks ago, but I'm not sure that we'll be able to react to them as they deserve for the first edition due to production schedules - at any rate if there is a 2nd edition we'll be able to take the points, and we may be able to address them somewhat in footnotes.

Ran for a bit with a young lady in PR who has a Physics Degree from Imperial and who thought the book would be really interesting and have a great media impact. I hope she's right.

Went last night to Table Manners - the first part of the Norman Conquests trilogy. A remarkable conceit to have 3 plays showing the action on 4 successive days in 3 different rooms. I wonder if it was in part inspired by the Alexandria Quartet?

Depressing rants from the anti-religious media (eg here) on the perfectly sensible remarks of Michael Reiss - wanting a witch-hunt to drive religous people out of the RS apparently.

Women are making a big impact on politics both sides of the atlantic. Whatever you think about Sarah Palin it is clear that the Obama camp and the Liberal Media have got their reactions badly (I originally typed madly) wrong on this. One can understand their fury - they thought they owned this election and they can see it slipping away from them - but getting furious with your opponents is never a smart strategy. There was a brilliant cartoon in the FT (of Palin arriving on a missile nose-cone which turned out to be a giant lipstick and Obama ruffling his papers) which seems to sum it up. And a perceptive article about Obama's OODA loop. There is also a very interesting piece in Edge which urges Democrats to understand how Republicans think even if they don't agree with them. Absolutely vital!

Meanwhile some (understandably) worried Labour MPs, mostly female, have gone public on the widespread disquiet (well despair really) about Brown's leadership. Whether this results in a new Labour leader we shall see...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Bound copies out - and more on free will


We've now printed and are getting bound some "pilot" copies of Questions of Truth to send to some of the Nobel Laureates who have agreed to read the book for comments but want it in paper form (one of them is already 1/2 way through an electronic copy). All seems very real!

Had a great time working with Hava, including a fascinating lunch discussion with Peter Dyan, who has pointed us to a number of papers relating to the neuroscience of free will.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Denis Noble, Hava and Camille Paglia

Fasincating dinner discussion last night with Denis Noble and Hava (who is over here and we're working together for a few days). Denis is giving a lecture on "Why an organism is not a Turing Machine" so they had to meet. He thinks Monod was misled by paper tape and likes Midgley's "The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone .. and metal and silicon and other things of his own devising".

We discussed the subtleties of the genome (if we define no of genes by no of mRNAs there are over 500k in the human genome, due to different readings) and I conjectured that the real "mechanism" is Super-Turing (which would be a great joint paper for the 3 of us!).

Book front cover has arrived although we have a tussle over whether the sub-title should say "answers" (publisher) or "responses" (us). We both want it to be as clear as possible that we are not laying down the law but offering some suggestions.

Superb article by Camille Paglia on Sarah Palin. The vituperation from the left on her has been very counter-productive as far as I can see.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Big City Voters won't help Obama much

The whole Sarah Palin situation continues to fascinate. Remarkably, the best analysis I have seen on this is Nick Cohen in The Guardian who roundly criticies Obama's supporters who, he says, "succumbed to a spasm of hatred and threw the vase, the crockery, the cutlery and the kitchen sink at an obscure politician from Alaska". Zogby is now showing a 4% McCain lead, and although each candidate gets a post-convention bounce there has never been a US Presidential election where the VP pick has been so signficant. I think it very likely that she will win the election for McCain.

The FT quotes John Binkley who lost to her in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary: “I underestimated her...It didn’t matter if we tried to attack her or if we tried to ignore her. She just connected with voters.” Now clearly many "liberal" graduates who live in big cities find her wierd or repellent. But where are the swing states that Obama needs?
  • Ohio (20 EC Votes): 21% graduate. 19% (2.2/11.5M) live in cities over 100k.
  • Iowa (7): 21% grad. 11% (0.3/3M) in cities >100k.
  • New Mexico (5): 33% grad. 44% Hispanic. 25% (0.5/2M) in cities >100k.
Florida with 27 EC votes is immensely important but Bush won by 5% there and it's not marginal in a close race. My conclusion: big city votes are not going to help swing this for Obama.

Which leads me to the conclusion that, on today's evidence, it look like Obama will loose. Here's the logic:
  1. Either the election will be a big Obama win, a big McCain/Palin win, or Close.
  2. Big Obama Win requires a dramatic change from the present position in Obama's favour. The only new factor is Palin so it requires Palin to implode. This won't happen becasue she is so well-known in Alaska that anything that might damage her in Alaska would already be known there. Nothing is impossible, but Big Obama Win now looks like p ~ 10%.
  3. Big McCain/Palin win is possible: who knows how high the Palin bounce will go? Let's say p ~ 20%
  4. But the most likely scenario is Close. In which case, for Obama to win he has to win Ohio and for the reasons above that seems very unlikely, say p~20%. Interestingly, even before Palin Ohio was polling 45:41 (or 48:43 with leaners) to McCain.
  5. So it now looks like Obama p~25% McCain/Palin p~75%
This is very different from the Spread Betting which has Obama 60% McCain 38% (presumably the other 2% is Palin). We shall see...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Amazing performances by Palin and Rattle/Berlin Phil

Another brilliant speech by Sarah Palin. Unless it all unravels, and anything is possible in politics, I think there is a real chance that there will be a substantial McCain/Palin victory. And Palin looks an outstanding candidate for 2012. If I were a betting man...

A tremendous performance last night at the Proms with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil. Brahms 3 and Shostakovich 10. The final chord of Brahms 3, held in perfection for what seemed like 5 seconds of more, was done to such a perfection that there was some element of "we're the only orchestra in the world that could do this, and we know it, and you know it, and we know that you know it".

The final post copy-edit MS of Questions of Truth went off early Tues am to the publishers. It is in their Jan list, and we plan to launch it in Feb at the AAAS in Chicago (date/time TBC) and on March 2nd at the Royal Society. Very high-profile scientists with global reputations have agreed in principle to chair the launches and in addition to the Nobel Laureate who has written the foreword a number of others have agreed to read it with a view to endorsing it - so as soon as I get the text back it has to go off to them.

Now back to work...

Monday, September 01, 2008

Sailing, Gumbel and Ward

Sailed on Sun with Daughter - our first outing this year on our little boat. Racing exposed some mechanical and rigging problems but we started and finished better than usual. V nice chairman of the sailing club helped us improve the rigging and I very much look forward to racing her again soon.

We both went to HTB in the evening, where the sermon was about the courage of Esther, and the preacher dwelt on the verse: "who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" emphasising that we are all, in our own particular ways, placed by God into specific positions at specific times where we may be called to do something for Him. I went down for prayer afterwards for the final finishing touches to Questions of Truth.

Daughter sent me down to the bookshop afterwards while she caught up with her friends, and there I bought and started reading:
  • Is God a Deluison? by Nicky Gumbel (who I have known, a bit, since we were undergraduates together).
  • Why There Almost Certainly is a God by the admirable philosopher Keith Ward FBA who , in addition to making serioius points, has gentle fun with Dawkins' manifest ignorance of (and misrepresentation of) philosophy.
For example Ward rightly describes Dawkins' trope "if you don't understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it" as "one of the most obviously false statements in the history of human thought. I fail to see how anyone who is concerned to get an accurate view of intellectual history, or of the history of science, could ever believe it, even for a moment. I cannot believe that Dawkins really believes it."

PS Politics interesting on both sides of the atlantic. Did Darling put down a big marker against further interference from Brown? Has Stephen Carter resigned? What of the Labour Core Vote? And is McCain's choice of Sarah Palin a masterstroke? Time will tell..