Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wrongful arrest and misconceptions

The arrest of Damian Green and the searching of his office in the Commons is a constitutional outrage. It has always been understood that Parliament is protected by Parliamentary Privilege, and it seems likely that those who undertook the raid or authorised it could be held in Contempt of Parliament and indeed imprisoned. Shami Chakrabarti is as usual spot on about this, and an issue that unites Tony Benn, David Davis, David Blunkett, Nick Clegg, David Cameron etc.. is pretty fundamental. I'm reluctant to blog about politics now but this clearly transcends party politics, and strikes to the heart of UK democracy. As the Sunday Times rightly says, this "shames the government and the police."

I see that AC Grayling had made a fool of himself on science and religion, trying an ad hominem attack on Justin Barrett's science whilst clearly demonstrating that he knows nothing of the relevant literature. An anti-religious magazine is sending him Questions of Truth to review - it will be interesting to see what he says about it. He also repeats the idiotic tropes that there is no evidence for Christianity and that the Templeton Foundation does not fund real science. There are a significant number of papers published in top scientific journals (such as Nature and Science) funded by the Templeton Foundation. In Science alone I can find:
  1. The Right and the Good: Distributive Justice and Neural Encoding of Equity and Efficiency (23 May 2008 320: 1092-1095)
  2. Via Freedom to Coercion: The Emergence of Costly Punishment (29 June 2007 316: 1905-1907)
  3. Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation (8 December 2006 314: 1560-156)
There will be others in Nature and PNAS I suspect.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Royal Institution and the Elements

Lunch yesterday at the Guildhall (the Ward Club entertains the Lord Mayor) in the newly refurbished Old Museum - the first lunch there since it re-opened. Then dinner at the Royal Institution to honour the Duke of Kent who has been President for c34 years. This has also been stunningly refurbished and is immensely futuristic inside in many ways, although they have kept some of the beautiful old rooms. They also have a restaurant called Time and Space which was having its Opening Party at the same time.

In the reception before the Dinner I met Prof Clive Coen who is on the Council of the RI and a good friend of our friend Susannah Fiennes. The Director, Susan Greenfield, then arrived in great excitement that Joan Armatrading was downstairs in the restaurant, so Susan led a number of us to meet her. The Duke arrived, we went in to dinner, and to my complete astonishment I found that I had been placed next to Susan (whom I had only met once before many years ago) so spent a very convivial and interesting evening. Afterwards Clive showed me the exhibits including a Periodic Table which sang the wonderful Tom Lehrer song and you had to try to press the button corresponding to each element that had been discovered at the RI.

Reading the Bible this morning I noticed some interesting things about Ephesians 6.
  • "be strong in the Lord ... put on the whole armour of God" is "endunamousthe ... endusasthe"
  • "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" is a bit of a mistranslation, because the "which" is neuter in Greek and this means it agrees with Spirit and not sword ( machaira) which is feminine. And indeed the Greek in v17 can be read as continuing that point in particular - so that Paul is saying the sword is prayer in the spirit. Clearly he is not talking about the Christian scriptures which have not been circulated widely at that time.
===Here is the Periodic Table song - I'll try to link to the elements discovered at the RI==
{so far it seems that Davy was the first to obtain elemental potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, and magnesium, and obtained boron simultaneously with Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. He also showed that oxygen could not be obtained from the substance known as oxymuriatic acid and proved the substance to be an element, which he named chlorine, and Lord Rayleigh discovered argon.}

There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium,
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium,
Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium
And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium
And gold, protactinium and indium and gallium
And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium.

There’s yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium
And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium
And strontium and silicon and silver and samarium,
And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium and barium.

There’s holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium
And phosphorous and francium and fluorine and terbium
And manganese and mercury, molybdinum, magnesium,
Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and cesium
And lead, praseodymium, and platinum, plutonium,
Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium,
Tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium,
And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium.

There’s sulfur, californium and fermium, berkelium
And also mendelevium, einsteinium and nobelium
And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc and rhodium
And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper,
Tungsten, tin and sodium.

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard,
And there may be many others but they haven’t been discovered

Sunday, November 23, 2008

V busy week - Hay on Wye etc...

V busy week with 2 secular projects I can't blog about, though one involves the great fun and privilege of collaborating with Bob May - in fact we both gave a seminar on Weds.

Book website is ready to go live - the prototype is here but it will soon be at - comments welcomed. Our UK publicist has begun to send information out. One magazine is giving it to AC Grayling to review: it will be interesting to see what he makes of the science. We've also been invited to the Hay on Wye Literary Festival.

Quite cold Sun morning cycling to church with snow/sleet gently falling. The sermon was about the Sheep and the Goats - exploring the interesting question of whether "these my brothers and sisters" refers here to Christians or to all God's children.

Other interesting progress - more and more sites reference QoT including and

Monday, November 17, 2008

Chess, Latin Mass and AAAS

To Cambridge on Sat evening to take Elder Grandson to a chess tournament on Sunday. Lovely chance to catch up with Son and his family, though we were both so tired after a highly enjoyable meal that we didn’t have as much chance to talk as we would have wished. His work as a Registrar is very demanding.

Chess tournament went OK, EG blundered a queen in a winning position and thus scored 4/6, coming 3rd= in score. We then went to the Latin Mass in Cambridge, the first time I think I have been to one. Setting by Palestrina and (fortunately) the readings and sermon are in English. It was the parable of the Talents: no new insights but always worth remembering. I made some progress on my Neuron paper while I was there during the games, and ran some nice initial simulations of another aspect of this on the way back.

Submitted Questions of Truth Workshop Proposal to AAAS and also sent copy to Jim McCarthy who has kindly said he'd find us a suitable Chairman, and hopes to attend. I read the impassioned Science piece by Jim's predecessor David Baltimore based on his Presidential Address - very interesting. Progress on the book's website continues as well.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

On sale in 11 countries, and finished A Secret Alchemy

Bound UK copies of the uncorrected proofs of QoT arrived yesterday - these have an index and a few more corrections than the US copies, including an extra endorsement (from Francis Collins). Our UK publicist will be sending them out over the next couple of months, until the "real"copies are available.

The 8 online outlets have been joined by Barnes & Noble,,,, and penelope, and it is also available in most Amazons, for example, (and there is now much more detail on some of the Amazon sites, though the french site is better than the german one in this respect for some reason) and, so I guess we can say it is on sale in 11 countries, though it's a bit moot since no copies have actually been sold yet!

We've drafted the invitation for the UK launch discussion at the Royal Society in March and are submiting the workshop proposal for the AAAS launch in Feb. There will come a blessed moment soon I hope when all these preparations are finished and I can focus my "unpaid work" time on such activities as updating the website and finishing the paper on neuroscience.

I've finished A Secret Alchemy which I like a lot. It's a very clever and absorbing book, and certainly makes me want to know more about that fascinating period in history. I think Emma really brings her 3 central characters alive, and she draws the contemporary and historical strands of her narrative together in a really pleasing way. She also has the delicious conceit of giving one of the minor characters the same name as her main protagonist in The Mathematics of Love. Some people may find the book over-complex - the sort of people perhaps who don't like Love's Labours Lost. But if you want a rich and rewarding book, exploring the many facets of history, love, relationships and family, absorbing, enjoyable and making you think on many levels, this is a great book to read.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Loves Labour Lost - and broken "Social Services"

Last night to the Rose Theatre in Kingston for a superb performance of Love's Labour Lost, directed by Sir Peter Hall. Our party, organised by the RSA, had a reception and a brief talk from Sir Peter beforehand - due to pressure of work I just missed the talk but arrived just as C and Daughter were talking to Peter - such a lovely man and he signed Daughter's programme/text.

The Rose is a wonderful performance space, and despite the concrete and breeze-block construction has the feel of a Shakepearian theatre. The cast were uniformly excellent, clearly working together brilliantly as a company and really allowing the text to sing and dance. In Berowne and Rosaline we can see elements of Benedick and Beatrice (Much Ado remains my favourite of all plays) and the death of the King of France has some of the same "temperature dropping" of "kill Claudio". Interesting that they are able to laugh at Don Adriano De Armado, "A fantastical spaniard" in a play probably written around 1595, about 7 years after the Armada posed a real threat to England.

The appalling tragedy of "Baby P" sheds more light on the broken-ness of large parts of British society and the supposed welfare apparatus. The devastating incompetence and bureaucracy of much of social services, esp in a notoriously PC and badly run borough as Harringay, is beginning to come to light. According to the Evening Standard, Harringay social services has 80 social workers, and a budget of over £100M per annum. That's £1.25M per social worker - an amazing inversion of priorities. I would guess they have at least 800 employees, and spend vast amounts of time in useless internal meetings, filling in forms, hitting "targets" etc... 400 people of which 200 were social workers would do a much better job I suspect, and with the money saved you could fund a massive outpost of Kids Company.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Already a "Bestseller" :-)

Amazingly Questions of Truth is #3 on the "Hot Future Releases in Books: The bestselling new & future releases in Science & Religion. Updated hourly" with a sales rank of 425k, and 207k in the US. Since there has been almost no publicity (yet) and the book isn't out until Jan in the US and Feb in the UK this is great.

Very interesting lunch discussion with our UK publicist, who I have met for the first time. An outstanding science publicist with deep understanding of the UK scientific and literary scene, it will be great working with her. We've finalised the back cover and the launch press release. It all seems very real.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Publishers Weekly!, and a small erratum

Small review for Questions of Truth in Publishers Weekly. The reviewer appears rather lukewarm - the only judgement given is: "While many of the questions and the authors’ answers are informed by Christian assumptions, topics such as human consciousness and suffering are of universal interest. Many readers will welcome this accessible format, but some may find the blurring of science and theology confusing." Of course a true marketeer would quote this as "of universal interest. Many readers will welcome this accessible format" However the main point is that there are only 43 such non-fiction reviews and about 1,000 non-fiction books produced each week, so to get a review at all puts us in the top 0.5%.

Rodney Holder has found an error in Note 4 on p 156 - that is to say, the note is right but the estimate, correctly quoted from his book, is somewhat wrong. It turns out that the relevant "anthropic concidence" is that αG ≈ α12 (me/mp)4

The left hand side of this equation ≈ 5.906 x 10-39 whereas the right hand side ≈ 2.2 x 10-39.

See Barrow and Tipler, p. 336; Paul Davies The Accidental Universe p. 73; Brandon Carter ‘Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology’, in M. Longair (ed.), Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observational Data, p. 297.

The upshot is that what is really required is that both numbers in this equation turn out to be near 10-39 or thereabouts. That’s not the same as the gravitational constant changing by 1 part in 1040, more like having to be close to that in absolute value.

Elizabeths - Machonchy and Woodville

To LSO St Luke's last night for a performance of Elizabeth Machonchy's Héloïse and Abelard with my friend Carola Darwin in the title role. Maconchy's daughter Nicola Le Fanu gave an introductory lecture.

It is in many ways a powerful and interesting work: she clearly found the character of Heloise very inspiring and it is full of remarkable coloration. Her husband William Le Fanu was a classicist and they collabroated closely on the text, drawing from original sources. There are many striking effects and it was performed well. But the "modernist" aesthetic within which it was written seems to prevent Machonchy from writing anything that remotely resembles a tune for her soloists, and they are thus left declaiming the most tremendous words in a completely non-lyrical setting. The work was performed twice when commissioned and this was apparently only its third public performance.

Emma Darwin was of course there as well and kindly signed my copy of A Secret Alchemy which although officially not published until the 19th is available on Amazon. Another one of her multi-layered narratives, set in the time of Richard III and in the present day, and exploring the remarkable lives of Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville. To my shame I was not aware of either of them, though Elizabeth became wife of Edward IV, mother of Edward VI and her daughter Elizabeth married Henry VII and thus became the mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I and ancestor of the present monarchs (through her daughter Margaret, Queen of Scots). The whole thing is very complex but gripping and I'm enjoying it immensely so far.

Friday, November 07, 2008


Discussing with my daughter and our excellent "office junior" (in her gap year) the memonic for English Kings and Queens. The version mainly on the web is not quite what I was taught which was:

Willie, Willie, Harry, Ste,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry three;
One two three Neds, Richard two,
Henry four five six, ... then who?
Edwards four five, Dick the bad,
Harrys (twain) and Ned (the lad);
Mary, Bessie, James the vain,
Charlie, Charlie, James again.
Will and Mary, Anna Gloria,
Four Georges William and Victoria;
Edward seven, George and Ted,
George the sixth, now Liz instead.

That is 40 reigns (counting William and Mary as one) since 1066 - and the US has just elected it's 43rd individual as President (Cleveland served 2 non-consecutive terms). Obama seems an amazing character and I wish him well - though I wish he weren't so unsound on abortion. The remarkable line from McCain's speech "he was my opponent, he is now my President" really encapsulates a fundamental difference between the UK and US systems - with the President having many of the attributes of the Soveriegn (he is, after all, Head of State as well as Head of Government). The idea though that this represents a fundamental repudiation of all "conservative" values in the US is completely wrong (eg the high pro-Obama turnout in California seems to have passed Proposition 8), and it is very much to be hoped that Obama governs, as he has said clearly he will, as President of the United States and not just of the Blue States. Let us hope and pray.

I'm working hard on Brahms' 3rd Violin Sonata - Ruth Palmer will come round next month to supper and play. I'd forgotten how wonderful it is - utterly sublime. But difficult.

Work continues to be amazing and hectic, with a second major consulting project now well under way. And we have started to work with another very great scientist - who spent much of the afternoon with us and the team on Tues. Tremendously stimulating, and really keeps us on our intellectual toes.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Dorothy L Sayers on the Gospel of John

Read a wonderful essay from Dorothy L Sayers called A Vote of Thanks to Cyrus which includes her devastating put-down of the standard arguments against the authenticity of John. "Suppose, for example, Mr Bernard Shaw were to write a volume of reminiscences about Mr William Archer. Would anyone object that the account must be received with suspicion because many of Archer's other contemporaries were dead?" She imagines a brief newspaper review:

Memoirs of Jesus Christ. By John Bar-Zebedee; edited by the Rev John Elder...
The general public has had to wait a long time for the intimate personal impressions of a great preacher, though the substance of them has for many years have been familiarly known in Church circles. The friends of Mr Bar-Zebedee have frequently urged the octogenarian divine to commit his early memories to paper; this he has now done, with the assistance and under the careful editorship of the Vicar of St Faith's"

She refers to "Mr J Mark's brief obituary study and the subsequent biographies of Mr Matthews and Mr Lucas ... But hitherto, all these reports have been complied at secondhand." and says "With great good judgement, Mr Bar-Zebedee has refrained from going over old ground, except for the purpose of tidying up the chronology that, in previous accounts, was conspicuously lacking...Many new episodes are related; in particular, it has now become possible to reveal the facts about the mysterious affair at Bethany, hitherto discreetly veiled out of consideration for the surviving members of the Lazarus family."

She says: "the most interesting and important portions...are those devoted to Christ's lectures in the temple and the theological and philosophical instructions given privately to his followers. These, naturally, differ considerably in matter and manner from the open-air "talks" delivered before a mixed audience."

Monday, November 03, 2008

Ensembles and "kind and gentle death"

Sat went to wedding of our lovely Christian ex-model friend whose first husband was killed in an air accident. They had the wonderful hymn by St Francis “All creatures of our God and King” in full, including the penultimate verse:

And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Really made people think.

The theology sounds just a trifle odd, but it is of course a versified translation (by William H Draper) of St Francis' Il Cantico di Frate Sole (The Canticle of Brother Son) written shortly before his death, but only published 400 years later. The relevant verses in the Italian go:

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale
da la quale nullo omo vivente pò scampare.
Guai a quelli che morrano ne le peccata mortali!
Beati quelli che trovarà ne le tue sanctissime voluntati
ca la morte seconda no li farà male.

I don't understand enough Italian and made a bit of a mess of the translation - my friend Gloriana has helped and I now think is says:

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister bodily Death
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those who will be found in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Annoyingly two other dear friends had a wedding celebration (they had been married in Sydney) at almost exactly the same time.

On Sun went with Ruth Palmer to the celebration of 50 years of the Countess of Munster Trust at Glyndebourne. This has supported many outstanding young musicians and they were all invited, each with a guest. Fascinating insights into the dynamics of ensembles: two scratch octets of very talented players but one, despite the best efforts of the most senior player, was dull and had no shape - obviously the players had scarcely played together whereas the other, despite the senior player being deservedly retired, played with greater coherence and gave a much better performance. The highlight of the evening was the final piece, Serenade to Music by Vaughan Williams, for 16 soloists and orchestra, with amazing soloists including Felicity Lott. Jane Glover conducted very well and it was a lovely end to an interesting concert.

Work continues frantic and further interesting developments with/re Questions of Truth. I find that gets about 210 hits per day so over 70k per year - not nearly enough but more than I expected.