Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Birthday, Bach, bad news and Turtles

Down to Cornwall with my brother to celebrate my mother's birthday. Sister (who lives down there) was teaching music until quite late but she stayed with us all on Monday and Tuesday nights, and we played music together. On Tues ran along the cliffs with Brother, surfed with Brother and Mother, and then we took her out to lunch at an excellent restuarant.

Various neighbours dropped in throughout the day to give her birthday wishes, and then Sister arrived, we all had dinner together, and played the Bach Double Violin Concerto.

The only damper on the day was that our paper has been rejected by Science. Following Bob's earlier dicussion with the Editors, we had made this a brevia submission but the referees complained that we had not gone into enough detail - and one had clearly not read the Supporting Material. As the first referee says the key idea is "very interesting and suggestive" but we will have to publish elsewhere.

Dipping into James Thurber's wonderful Thurber Country - I find his "My Own Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage" Near the end he remarks "the aggrieved wife may be tempted...to lock her bedroom door and kick her husband out for good. I suggest, however, a less stringent punishment. Put a turtle in his bed. The wife who is afraid to pick up a turtle should ask Junior to help her. Junior will love it"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

How does the Brain make the Mind - at the RI

At RI for the inaugural Friday Evening Discourse of the new series, given by Susan Greenfield, called "A Brain for Life". She begins with "how does the brain make the mind" and suggested that it was all about the unique individual experiences: "the mind is the personalisation of the brain."

Unfortunately this seems to me to miss the point entirely. Granted that the exact connections of your brain are unique and are changed by your life history, that still doesn't really get to the issue of mind/brain which is much more like the distinction between hardware and software. After all every organ is, at a sufficient level of detail, unique. No two eyes are completely identical.

Inevitably any discussion like this deals in vast over-simplifications, and she added a lot of speculative stuff about ideas in her lab. Given the fact (obvious of course, but not to the idiots formed in the "blank slate" ideology of the 60s) that thinking changes the brain, she is worried about the enormous fraction of their time that young people now spend living in 2D before screens, and playing computer games where, in a sense, actions don't have consequences and concepts like metaphors are hidden. This may of course partly be due to the limitations of the mentality of comuter games players - Marcus de Sautoy is promoting computer games for encouraging mathematical thinking.

Interesting discussion with two professors at the reception: one of neurology and one of history of science. One of them, who said that he was completely secular, felt very strongly that Dawkins had been a complete disaster for the secularist cause - indeed he wondered if Dawkins was a Christian mole sent to damage secularism: suggesting that his books had much the same feel as a Christian "fundamentalist" tract. Interesting...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Turner and the Masters


Party at the Tate to celebrate 50 years of McKinsey in London. Some fascinating discussions about philanthropy with some of the McKinsey allums who have either made serious money and are giving it away or working for charitable foundations.

Also had a chance to view Turner and the Masters, which is very interesting and impressive. It brings together Turners with other paintings that inspired him. Some of the pairings seem at first sight a little fanciful and often Turner takes a "sacred" theme and makes it secular. However there are of course some amazing gems - I particularly liked Rembrandt's Holy Family Resting on the Flight to Egypt and also could not fail to enjoy The Battle of Trafalgar which is shown next to The Glorious First of June.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Joy, Pain, Strategy and Cosmology

A delightful weekend celebrating Daughter's 18th birthday. We had a dinner party for some of her closest friends on Sat and then on Sun after church in the evening she took us for a drink in a bar - rather hoping that her right to purchase alcohol would be challenged (I had her passport in my pocket for this eventualty) but this was not to be.

I've almost finished The Selfless Gene which I think is very interesting though somewhat mistaken in thinking that pain and death are "optional extras". It seems to me that biology requires life, death, cooperation, competition, joy and pain and drawing up a clear balance sheet between the positives and the negatives is not very feasible.

Consider, for example, a finite world without death. Each ecologial niche would eventually become full (unless organsims could shrink without limit) and then there would be complete stasis of the population. Evolution would be very very slow. Without predation the development of complex life-forms would be highly unlikely because the only relevant factor to evolutionary success would be the ability to reproduce rapidly, and there would also be problems with energy and nurtients. It is not an accident that life-forms that do not consume other living creatures are plants. A finite world without death is one in which human beings could not evolve at all.

Pain is also fundamentally adaptive. Obviously we don't have pain receptors for fun, or at the whim of a malevolent creator. We sense pain mostly to alert us to danger, and it is a fundamental requiremnet for learning for animals - and probably for humans. If you want a finite world in which humans can emerge who can learn to chose to love, then pain and death are not "optional extras" but essential features: it seems very likely to me that it is logically impossible to avoid them - though I don't have time now to work out the proof and the axioms required. Of course there is far more life than death in the universe, far more pleasure than pain and far more cooperation than competition. To focus only on the negatives is a trick of perspective and gives a very unbalanced view.

But time presses: in the last 24 hours I've written a sonnet for Daughter's birthday, been asked to edit a book on strategy with contributions froma Head of State and various other eminences, and to write an invited paper for the Journal of Cosmology. Time to practice the piano!

PS I've now finished The Selfless Gene. The penultimate chapter is an ingenious detailed exegesis of the "fall" in Genesis. Charles's background as a lawyer comes very much to the fore here, he is pretty well cross-examining Eve! ("the woman got it wrong. The tree that was unambiguously in the middle of the garden was the tree of life"). He talks about "the only exegetially honest answer that tallies with the archeological record" and I can't help thinking that this is a category mistake. Even though the compilers of Genesis were undoubtedly very sophisticated, and inspired, going into the minute detail of what is, and is not, said seems to me to be beside the point - eg Man is not said to be "good" but the next verse everything that God has made is "very good". There is also a bit too much of "it is hard to see how X - therefore not X".

He is completely right, of course, that "almost nobody in evolutionary biology believes that things are as simple as Dawkins thinks they are" and right to draw attention to the fact that cooperation and altruism are everywhere one looks in the living world (I wish he had read Nowak) but I don't think he quite gets it right when he asks "how a wholly self-centred rpocess (natural selection) that normally sees and eliminates very effectively any self-effacting behaviour, could have allowed altruism to seed in the first place." (my italics). The whole point is that Natural Selection is not, contra Dawkins, "self centred" and anyway the process of "random" variations will seed all kinds of things: if on balance they are selected for, for whatever reason, they will tend to flourish. But no book of this scope and breadth can be perfect, and there are wonderful ideas and turns of phrase ("only a fool would exchange the unselfcouscious joy of a naked three-year-old for the angst of an expensively besuited fifty-year-old stockbroker"). Well worth reading and reflecting upon.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Freewill discussion at the RI

Interesting debate at the RI last night called Is free will an illusion, with Prof Patrick Haggard (UCL Neuroscientist) and Prof Al Mele (Florida Philosopher).

Haggard gave a standard presentation of the Libet experiments arguing that that the fact that action potentials start rising a few 100ms before people report that they made the decision shows that freewill in the classical sense is an illusion, but it is not an epiphenomenon because:
  1. Awareness of conscious intention precedes action - he notes that Fried et al 1991 showed that electrical stimulation of the SMA can cause people to report the urge to move their arm (etc..). {he cites this in his nice 2009 commentary article in Science, which he didn't discuss.}
  2. Consciousness allows for more sophisticated learning and feedback. He also suspects that even with the action potentials people are free to over-ride them ("free won't") and cited the v nice Brass & Haggard 2007.
Mele made the useful distinction between proximate and dystal intentions, and pointed out that even if action potentials precede decisions to act in Libet experiments there is no evidence that they don't also precede decisions not to act (these potentials are inferred by back averaging from the pushing of the button - or rasising of the hand in the original experiments). He also pointed out that:
  1. Social psychological experiments suggest that people who are primed to doubt free will are more likely to cheat or harm others.
  2. Reports of the time at which people make a decision are not necessarily reliable, indeed such reports can be changed by distractors after they have made a decision.
My contribution to the discussion was to point out that the brain is a non-deterministic analogue system and just because a rise of an action potential makes it likely that a decision will be made in x00 ms does not mean the freewill is over-ridden. There was also quite a good point from another questioner that joint decisions (eg "we decided to go on holiday to Corfu") do not correspond to any single brain event. Talking to Haggard afterwards he agrees (of course) that the brain is a non-deterministic analogue system. It would be very interesting to collaborate with him if/when the NCEAF project gets off the ground.

One of the problems in all this, as Haggard and I discussed, is that the concept of "when a decision was made" is not well defined. Suppose I have the choice between doing A or B and at time t=0 p(A) = p(B) = 50%. Suppose also that at t=1 I do A. Since the brain is analogue, p(A) will move continuously from 50% to 100% but if "the decision is taken" means the time at which p(A)=100% there will inevitably be brain activity preceding this which corresponds with p(A) rising. This cannot be incompatible with freewill.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Creation - the movie

Last night went to a screening of Creation organised by Premier Radio for church leaders - they had asked me to be on a small panel afterwards to discuss the film and the issues. My fellow-panellists were:
  • Charles Foster whose book The Selfless Gene which I have only started as yet) is endorsed by Simon Conway Morris and therefore must be basically sound, and
  • Steve Lloyd who has an MA and PhD from Cambridge and was a Fellow of Trinity Hall (working in Materials Science) before retraining as a pastor, and speaks for the Biblical Creation Society.
Never having met a scientifially literate "creationist" before I was very interested to understand his views. I was suprised to find that his objection to evolution was the idea that death had existed in the world before the fall (of Adam and Eve). He thinks that the world must have been created without death because "God saw that it was good" and also argues that if physical death was not the result of sin then Jesus would not have needed to die physically on the cross. It would have been interesting to discuss this further, but we only had 10 mins together for a drink before the film began.

The movie is well acted, with fine performances from Paul Bettany (as Darwin) , Jennifer Connelly (as Emma) and Martha West as Annie, and emotionally engaging. However I found it deeply frustrating. Darwin is portrayed as something of a maniac who is obsessed with his dead daughter Annie - he keeps seeing her and talking to her. It also plays up the "science vs religion" motif to an absurd extent: it is "clear" to all parties that Darwin's theories will "kill God". Huxley becomes a militant atheist (a sort of mini Dawkins) rather than the "agnostic" that he self described. There is also almost no science which is a great pity.

Characters are given lines which I just don't believe they could or would have said. Emma says to Charles "I think you are at war with God Charles. We both know it is a battle you cannot win" and Charles, in a letter to Emma, says "I shall endeavour to keep God out of it - though no doubt he will see it as a personal attack". Now I am not a Darwin expert and maybe there are such letters, but there are no ghits for these phrases and I think almost all the Darwin Correspondence is on the web - certainly letters between Charles & Emma. The movie is based on tbe book Annie's Box by Randall Keynes, who apparently advised on and approved the script, but nevertheless I really don't think these letters exist and the views are seriously exaggerated.

The focus is on the time period 1851-1858 there is not much chance to explore Darwin's own evolving views on science and religion. His very positive relationship with Asa Gray was a major factor in his clear view that "it seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist." Darwin explicitly denied ever having been an atheist, and I don't think this was just to spare Emma.

So in summary, a flawed movie that rather trivialises a great man and a great set of ideas for an atheistic agenda. A great pity.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Prom, Sasha and Ruth - updated 2

Sasha Siem, Ruth Palmer and I had arranged to meet up last night to go to the Prom, the Vienna Phil playing Haydn Symphony 97 and the Great C Major, under Nikolaus Hamancourt. However "the best laid schemes..." Firstly Hamancourt was ill and Franz Welser-Most took over at short notice, changing Symphony 97 to Symophony 98. And in the end Sasha met us for a drink but couldn't stay for the concert.

Sasha has just finished her piece for the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University and is off to Berlin where she has been commissioned to write a short opera. She's invited us to the premiere in April - tremendously exciting. It's great that her career is taking off so well, she certainly has the talent and the hard work and is really nice. Her brother is also a violinist so I suggested she should write a double violin concerto for him and Ruth.

The Haydn is a wonderful piece - one of the London symphonies with a virtuoso violin part for Salomon and a cadenza with fourishes on the cembalo for Haydn himself. But the Albert Hall is probably too big a venue, and if you are going to do it in the Albert Hall with modern strings you should definitely use a grand piano and not a fortepiano which was barely audible. Having said which, it is such an amazing piece. Tovey thought that the 2nd movement was a "requiem" for Mozart who had died the previous year. The programme note suggested that the theme was reminiscent of the Jupiter Symphony but I think it is more like Dove Sono.
Dove sono i bei momenti
Di dolcezza e di piacer?
a fitting epitaph for the departure of his brilliant friend.

As for the Great C Major - what an amazing outpouring of brilliant inspired simplicity! It was taken a a teriffic speed - over in 50 mins with all the repeats but the Vienna Phil on top form was more than capable of it. The main theme of the last movement.... words fail me.

Ruth came back to supper afterwards and gave us an advance copy of her new recording - the Bach D-minor Partita and the unaccompanied Bartok. Her performances of these are utterly amazing and when it is commercially released it will wow the audiences and critics. Ruth will be giving a concert including the US premiere of a new piece by Graham Simcock in New York on Oct 6th at NYU's Casa Italiana (in the Simcock she will be accompanied by Richard Rodney Bennett) and there will also be the World Premiere of In Search of the Messiah and then there is the UK premiere at the BFI BAFTA on Oct 23rd at 7pm.

Altogether a delightful and memorable evening.

PS Somewhat unfortunate, to say the least, that there are so few women in the Vienna Phil. Of the 36 Violins only 3 are women, and 2 of these are not yet full members of the orchestra.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A day at the Royal Institution


Younger Grandson & Granddaughter came to stay on Fri night and on Sat we took them to a Family Fun Day at the Royal Institution. This was about stars, including various simple fun demonstrations (dropping a ball into flour to simulate a meteor crater on the moon) and 3 30 min lectures with Q&A. The 2 we attended were excellent.

One was about star formation, introducing children to the idea of main sequence stars. The other was about exobiology by a young man who had just finished his PhD in this at UCL, describing some of the extremophiles that had been found on earth and speculating about forms of life that might exist on an earth-like planet with 4x the gravity. I would have liked to discuss some of this afterwards with him: I don't think he gives enough weight to convergence in evolution and also he doesn't believe in UFOs which seems illogical if you really think there is lots of life "out there". But he was really engaged in talking to the many children there. Excellent.

During some lulls I read some of the old books and journals that line the walls. In particular found:
  • A very favourable review in Nature No 100 (1918) of On Growth and Form by J Arthur Thomson (entitled "Foundations of Bio-phyiscs"). Towards the end he writes: 'When first we laid this book down, we were tempted to say "magnificent, but not biology," but wider reflections prevailed.'
  • An interesting article in Nature 228:21-14 (3 Oct 1970) about Big Bang cosomology by someone who had just come back from Louvain. He pointed out that both Friedman's paper in 1922 and Lemaitre's in 1927 were largely ignored at the time of publication (L didn't even know of F's work in 27 though he did add a ref to it in his 31 paper) and only when Einstein and Eddington found out about them did they get wider coverage. He also made the interesting point that if you have a random collection of objects moving at constant (but rnadomly chosen) velocities, then eventually they will obey Hubble's Law to arbitrary precision.
  • Feynman's wonderful Nobel Lecture, which begins: "We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or to describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on. So there isn't any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get to do the work"
Finally, I noticed the stone plaque which has been there for ages, which reads "In the year 1812 a ticket for the last four lectures delivered here by Sir HUMPHRY DAVY was given by a Member, Mr DANCE, to an apprentice named MICHAEL FARADAY" and in smaller letters at the bottom: "In memory of Gwendolyne Bragg (1846-1926) by Sir WILLIAM BRAGG Director"

As I think I have related elsewhere there is a slight family connection - my grandfather studied under the Braggs at Trinity and (accrording to family legend) did some work with them at the RI when he was in London. And Lady Bragg, Sir William's widow, lived opposite us in Gilmerton Court (we were in 52 so I think she must have been in 51) and was I think the first non-family member to babysit our son.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Advisory Board, Science and Questions of Truth

Well the Templeton Proposal is submitted, and subsequently we have acceptances from John Polkinghorne and Tim Crane for our Advisory Board. We now have 16 extraordinary members, all with international reputations. This will be truly amazing - I just hope the Foundation likes it enough to fund.

Spoke to Bob May yesterday - no response yet from Science but they don't move fast. Still a lot faster than Economics journals.

Too busy to get to Proms at the moment - which is a shame because the Shostakovich 10 which I heard on the radio was brilliant.

Amazon.co.uk have emailed me special offers on various books, the first of which was Questions of Truth. I hope lots of other people got a similar email: anayway we are now #12 in Science and Religion in the UK though only #25 in the US. We're also FWIW the #1 best-seller for our publisher on Amazon.co.uk (though only #48 in the US).

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Janie, Sailing and Freewill

Lots happened - too hectic to blog before.

Janie Dee gave a wonderful 1-woman show at the Prince of Wales Theatre. It was quite late (11pm-1am) so only I went from our family, having slept in the afternoon. We had our friends Dorit and Alan Haines round for supper beforehand. Janie gave many of her great numbers including QWERTYIOP which Ayckbourn wrote and Sailing. She concluded with an amazing dance routine in honour of Michael Jackson, joined by a number of dancer friends. Couldn't go backstage afterwards since I was sailing the following morning - came back on the Night Bus - an interesting experience!

Sailed with Daughter on Sunday - very windly and a "moderate" sea so quite challenging, and D decided we shouldn't do the 2nd race. Sailed also on Monday with wind much less than advertised by Met Office, which meant our boat was frustratingly slow but we still got one of our best results in the 2nd race and it was a great day.

Meanwhile have been working intensively with Hava on the Freewill proposal to the Templeton Foundation. This is finally complete and is in great shape: we have a 14-strong Advisory Board including Christof Koch who has been enormously helpful. Let's hope the JTF like it as much as some of the Board Members.