Saturday, January 31, 2009

Acting, illusion, and launch looming

Our delightfull office junior (E.) left today to go on her "gap year" travels. We all went to the Criterion for a farewell dinner. E. had to go early to catch a train, but as we were leaving we saw the amazing conjorer Fay Presto getting ready to perform, and we greeted her and got her first performance. Even having seen her tricks before, they are quite amazing. She gave us as a souvenier the Hildon bottle she had used, with the card signed by one of us "magically" in it.

Finished Peter Hall's brilliant Exposed by the Mask. Tremendously insightful discussions of Shakespeare and Mozart, and of Beckett & Pinter (though I don't know nearly enough about them). Pinter once rang Hall up and announced a re-write. "page 37 ... cut the pause". Hall is also surely right that, in great drama "If the actor feels uncomfortable with the text once he has found the motive, then the motive in wrong, not the text".

On Mozart, he points out, for example, that his theatres were small and both the audience and stage were lit by candles. So "when Figaro walks on stage and announces that it is very, very dark, the audience accept the fact...they can therefore also understand and appreciate all the mistaken identities in Act Four." He is also very good about the ensembles, a form unique to opera in which 4 or more people can say the same thing but mean differently by it. "No singer must out-sing another. But he must, if the drama is to work, actively try to out act the others"

He concludes with a lovely story about Checkhov and Stanislavski, in which Checkov points out that, if you added a real nose to a picture of faces, "The nose would certainly be real, but the picture would be spoiled"

Questions of Truth is at last in stock at Amazon.com. Amazing how long this took. With the launch only two weeks away that is just as well. We have details of the time and venue for the talk John is giving at the University of Chicago (Thurs 12th Feb, 7pm at the Biological Sciences Learning Center, Room 115) and we're working on the final logistics for the US launch. Lots to be done, it seems very close, but it will be great to see it all in action.

Over here acceptances are coming in for the Royal Society launch event, and we still have to send some invitations (E. before she left was great in getting addresses etc..) and also see if we can pin down the RI meeting. Alas the 2 best dates for us don't work for Robert Winston or Simon Conway Morris.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Truth in theatre, science and religion

F1 from Semple and Taylor. Frequencies of nucleotide substitutions and
indels >1 nucleotide long fluctuate along a region of DNA (top)
and mirror positioning of nucleosomes along the DNA. 2 models
could explain the periodic substitution-rate fluctuations.
(Middle) Mutations (red) occur randomly along DNA, but natural selection
preferentially removes those located in linker regions (pink).
(Bottom) Substitution mutations preferentially occur in DNA wrapped
in nucleosomes rather than linker regions between nucleosomes.
In this model, the selection pressure is constant across the region.

Started reading Peter Hall's brilliant Exposed by the Mask - based on a set of lectures he gave at Trinity College Cambridge about the theatre. Daughter is acting with Peter's youngest daughter in their school play - the 3rd time they have appeared together. Meanwhile Rebecca Hall is wowing audiences in her films and about to open in NY in the Winters Tale and The Cherry Orchard. Peter is very interesting about the concept of truth in a performance: even though of course everyone knows that the theatre is "unreal".

Looks as if Questions of Truth will get a review in Nature - and lots of other interest as well. Developments in the US not so clear, and the stock of the book still hasn't reached Amazon.com. Lots to do, but lots of secular work as well.

Further fascinating discoveries about epigentic marking and its hereditability in Science. Also people are increasingly realising that the Solar System is (probably) highly a-typical of planetary systems ("we have discovered that our own solar system is in no way typical of what can form in the universe." Science 323.p 335) although this is of course somewhat biased by what can be detected.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A living room for the US launch

Weekend of birthdays: Younger Grandson and Elder Daughter. YG celebrated by skating at Somerset House. I skated as well - the first time for about 40 years I think, but managed to remember some of it and only fell over once - when Elder Grandson (who was zooming about) fell just in front of me and tripped me. We went to a model shop and YG enthusiastically accepted an Electricity and Magnetism Experiment Set (endorsed by Cambridge). They tried a few of the magnetism experiments over tea and I hope they will get into it over the coming year.

In the evening we went to a little Burns Night supper. I tried out two verses of my Psalm 119 rendition: you learn a lot by reading things aloud. It needs more work, and I made some progress yesterday evening.

Making the arrangements for our Chicago launch: we have a little 10x10 booth and I'm trying to make it a bit like a small sitting room, with a sofa, a few chairs and a coffee table, as well as a bookshelf and (hopefully) a whiteboard. We're next to the Templeton Foundation stand and I hope they will be able to help by actually selling the books that John and I will sign. The Diocese of Chicago has also offered to field volunteers. We should have books from WJK and from Yale University Press.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dvorak, and a post-Dawkins phase

I've been listening to the Dvorak Stabat Mater: a wonderful piece which brings tears to my eyes in places. I haven't heard this since C sung this with the Bach Choir in London and Jerusalem about 24 years ago. It was extraordinary for me to go there and find that there really was a road called Via Dolorosa. We visited Masadah and the Sea of Galilee and floated in the Dead Sea reading a paper (got salt in my eye - painful!) It was just after Christmas and we spend New Year there - the celebrations of New Year Jerusalem time were good and the celebrations at London time were even better. John Scott was the organist and I still remember walking into a church just as he was starting to play the Prelude in E Flat (St Anne) which we had at our wedding.

I've been asked about writing a piece explaining why we are moving into a post-Dawkins phase in terms of the Science and Religion discussion. I think this is partly for religious/philosophical and partly for purely scientific reasons. In particular:
  1. The idea that religious belief is harmful from an evolutionary point of view is simply false. Whether or not the tenets of (say) Christianity are true, there is overwhelming evidence that Christians have, on average, more children (surviving fertile grandchildren is really the acid test, but I don't think there is data on this) than atheists, as well as living longer and being healthier etc..
  2. The idea that evolution acts pretty well exclusively at the level of the gene is also simply false. Not only is there increasing evidence for a vast array of epigenetic phenomena, the whole concept that genes are the programs of life turns out to be fundamentally mistaken. Denis Noble is of course wonderful on this. Evolution also works at the level of groups, and cultural and linguistic evolution are enormously powerful influences on the development of populations.
  3. The idea that everything can be reduced to scientific questions is also palpably absurd.
I'm not sure when/whether I'll be able to expand this into an article.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

No NYAS Launch - but great paper from Denis Noble

Sadly the NYAS launch is not going ahead. Paul Nurse was happy to do it and so was I but neither John nor Francis nor Bill Phillips can now make it. We tried our best. Very nice note back from Ellis Rubinstein - hopefully we'll do something else on another occasion. The AAAS launch is on, of course.

This disappointment somewhat counteracted by Denis Noble sending a draft of a brilliant paper he has been asked to contribute to Phil Trans A to celebrate the 350th Anniversary of the RS. He has asked for comments from Hava and me - I have offered a few in my very limited area of semi-expertise and I hope they are helpful in a small way. He relates how at the 300th Anniversary Hodgkin and Huxley stood out in a sea of red (PhD) gowns wearing black becasue they had never done PhDs. My father was also rather proud to be BA, FRS.

Denis references a book called Reviving the Living: meaning making in living systems which sounds fascinating but it costs £100! This is amazingly greedy of the publisher.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Psalm 119

Too ill to work yesterday or on Sunday, so I did something I had long been considering, and rendered Psalm 119 into a form similar to the original, where each line of each verse begins with the same letter. My Hebrew is almost non-existent, so I was working from other translations. Finally finished this morning - felling much better and ready to work today.

Starting is not too hard:
Ah, blessed they whose way is blameless: who walk in the law of the Lord.
Always observing his decrees, they seek him with a whole heart.


and surprisingly the last verse (Y - it is only possible because there are fewer letters in Hebrew than in English so we can leave out J, X and Z) was not too difficult, not least because of the Divine Name. I conclude:
Year upon year may my soul live to praise you: and may your laws sustain me.
Yet zealously seek out your servant, wandering like a lost sheep: for I have not forgotten your commandments.


Sometimes I had to leave holes and come back. I found K really tricky - indeed it was the only time I had to use a dictionary, for v 78, but eventually it becomes:
Knock down the arrogant with shame for defaming me: while I meditate on your precepts.

I'll try and post it at some point - but first I have to transfer it from my MS to the computer.

The dictionary search brought me "kakistocracy: rule by the worst sort of people" a word which is new to me but which may come more current (though it has 44k ghits).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Not quite in stock yet

Book is now "out of stock" at Amazon.com - apparently their books haven't been delivered yet. Hopefully all these glitches will be sorted out in the next couple of weeks, we want them in the shops before the official launch - 4 weeks and a day away. NYAS launch has various complications, we will only know for sure if it is going ahead next week. US publisher and publicist think the Library Journal review is "great" / "excellent" respectively: they are professionals and so understand the nuances. AFAIK no interviews have been set up in the US yet but we'll have to see what happens - in any event it will be an education. UK publicist has arranged a number of good things.

Actual printed copy of our book arrived in post from publisher, together with a letter from their Editorial Director which I'm sure is perfectly standard but is full of redolent phrases that only Americans can really pull off.

Dinner party last night for the parents of various school-friends of our daughter, while our children went out to a pizza restaurant. Great to catch up with a nice bunch and gently compare notes - not that we spent that much time discussing our daughters.

Good article by Michael Portillo on why it would be a bad thing to disestablish the CofE.

And I see that Janie Dee will be opening in Woman in Mind in London with previews staring on 29 Jan.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

US Launch in one month's time

US Launch in exactly one month's time, and the book ships from amazon.com tomorrow. Library Journal carries a short review of QoT, describing it as a kind of antidote to Richard Dawkins ... intriguing ... a thought-provoking work”. Replies continue to come in for the launch at the Royal Society: we should have a good number of FRSs and FBAs. I've made a somewhat more "scientific" predictor of the numbers: it looks at present as if we'll have 30-80 FRSs and 15-35 FBAs, so there should be a good amount of room for others.

Elder Daughter and son-in-law flew back yesterday - we just made it back from our client meeting to see them off at the tube station.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Family, forgiveness and place in the universe

Family celebrations continue with a party on Sat and then a lunch on Sun, where we had all our descendants, their spouses, and my mother (my only living ancestor). A friend brought her cousin who is an architecture student and talented photographer so we got a number of family photos.

Went to the 10:30 service with Elder Daughter and Son-in-Law - haven't been to this one for ages and it was great to see and sit with several members of our Life Group. The worship strikes a great balance between old and new and between adult and "all-age", and Simon, the vicar, was full of enthusiasm and combining anglican liturgy and innovation. The theme was forgiveness and fresh starts. Wish we could have stayed for longer but had to dash back for the family lunch.

Interesting questions coming in about the place of freedom in the universe (from an orthodox jew, explaining the concept of tzimtzum) and about the place of the earth in the universe. There is a huge backlog of questions to go on the polkinghorne.net site but we need to revise the site first I think.

The 2nd question causes me to reflect on the 3 possible senses of "place in the universe". The questioner seemed to be interested in coordinate systems, but more interesting is the location of the earth relative to the right kind of star (in the right place in the galaxy). Clearly many many stars have planets but it is impossible to know whether the peculiar conditions that seem to be required for intelligent life to evolve exist anywhere else.

Of course the most fundamental aspect of the earth's place in the universe is that it is the only place where life is known to exist, and where God has revealed Himself in Jesus.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Invites, talks, gearing up

Elder Daughter and husband arrive for a short visit - lovely to see them. Secular work is also rather hectic, but we have managed to get a total of 561 invites out to FRSs and FBAs, and I suspect we'll get a further 150 or so to more FRSs. Of the replies the acceptance rate is now 20% overall. Shipping date on Amazon.com is now 16 Jan which seems more realistic than the 7th. The books should at least be in the shops in the US well ahead of our launch.

John will be preaching in Washington on Tues Feb 10th at St Paul's K Street on "The Cultures of Science and Faith" - so there should be books for him then. There should also be plenty of books for our stand at the AAAS and the talk at the University of Chicago on the 12th.

Increasingly scary thought that the launches are 5 and 8 weeks away.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Over 400 invitations out to FRSs and FBAs

I've now sent over 400 invitations to FBAs and FRSs for the launch. Replies are starting to trickle in: many academics are of course on holiday. Some gems include:

  • I greatly appreciate this invitation, and very much wish that I could have come. But I am myself publishing a book ... in March, and am embroiled at that time in commitments at this end, as there are all sorts of things to do on it, so I am afraid I must decline. But of course I hope that it all goes well.
  • Thank you very much. I would be interested in attending, so am grateful to you for the kind invitation.
  • To my great regret I shall be unable to attend this important meeting as I shall be returning from a visit to the USA on March 2nd. I would indeed like a signed copy of the book. Please send me one and invoice me.
  • Thank you for your kind invitation. I regret that, because .... it will not be possible for me to be away from ... and I must, therefore, decline to attend, much though I would have liked to.

So far, of the replies, over 35% are acceptances but it is far too early to extrapolate, except to say that there will be a very significant set of outstanding minds present, as one would anticipate. We also have interest from one of the UK's most important radio programmes: ideally this would run on the morning of the launch. The publicity teams in the US and the UK will do much more.

Apparently the book has started shipping from Amazon.com although since this is pre-launch it is beginning very slowly.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Peer Discussion, in teaching & life

Interesting paper in Science on "Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions". At first I thought this would be a bit of a non-paper (and it would be better if it were not confined to one course in one university) but it does offer an ingenious exploration of whether it is group discussion pre se or simply transmission of the right understanding from the people in the group that know to the ones that don't that matters (the former, since you ask). Small group discussion is of course heavily used in things like the Alpha Course (and indeed the Star Course) but in evangelism we are dealing with more personal matters and faith is much more than academic knowledge.

Much interest at a party last night (with many lawyers and political figures) in Questions of Truth - I really hope it has caught the moment. One couple whose son has been bamboozled by Dawkins may need something more urgent: possibly the article by David Sloan Wilson on why Dawkins is wrong about religion (from a purely evolutionary PoV) will help.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Nice replies re the RS Launch

Started sending invitations to the FRSs and FBAs for the Royal Society launch of Questions of Truth. These are "hand emails" so take a while. Lots of quick replies, and so far over 20% of these are acceptances. The regrets are nice as well, eg
  • (from a brilliant FBA philosopher) "Thank you, but argh--I'm giving a talk to--of all things!--XXX that very evening...Congratulations on the book!"
  • (another FBA) "I'd be honoured to take part. But I'm afraid that it's not possible for me to be in London on the evening that day."

In terms of intellectual horsepower it will clearly be the premier Science and Religion dicsussion in the UK this year. Meanwhile, according to Amazon.com the book start shipping in 2 days time.


Eye is much better which means I can blog, ut also that I must catch up with the increasing pressure of secular work....

Friday, January 02, 2009

Vision, Bach, Tweflth Night and Questions of Truth

In the sad absence of the Church Watchnight service we got ticets for 12th Night on NY Eve. Unfortunately I woke up with a pain in my eye which got so much worse that we had to leave 1/2 way through a brilliant production and go to the Hospital :-(

Notoriously you only really reflect on vision when you are deprived of it, and of course the Gospels are full of the imagery of visn/blindness and light/darkness, as of course is Twelfth Night. We say that the Gospels and portraints and not photographs but photographs are also works of art and artifice. I've been reading/looking at Karsch's book of portraits, with his delightful anecdotes about Bernard Shaw and Jung.

Not being able to see well I spent much of NY Day playing the Piano, and played the whole of the 48 Book 1 - which I ahev never done before and indeed I had to sight-read 3 of the fugues which I had unaccountably missed. I think it was Bach who died after a btched eye operation - a deaf coposer is in many ways more feasible than a blind one.

2009 will be, first and foremost for me, the year of Questions of Truth. Let us hope, and pray, that it makes a real and positive impact. We have an application in to a foundation to get some addditional funds for marketing support, and one of the expert reviewers we have nominated has replied "You don't need to send me the MS - I will certainly get the book! It looks a really good initiative. Congratulations - and a very happy New Year"