Sunday, October 31, 2010

Harvard, Christianity & Contemporary Politics

Back from a few days in Harvard, including meetings with Bob May and Martin Nowak and the Director of the Veritas Forum. We've decided to send our paper to PNAS rather than Science because it is faster, open access (for a modest fee) and more certain. An ambitious list of suggested reviewers including two Nobel Laureates who we know are interested in the work.

Intruiging but un-bloggable developments in the NTW controversy - it will be very interesting when the correspondence in Nature (several letters) and the NTW responses are published. Martin likes my "principle of biology".

Was also able to see Elder Daughter and Younger Granddaughter, who is now 5 months old and just starting on solids. Also got my paper with Bob Pollack in final form and it comes out in USQR next month. On Friday morning after starting work very early I went for a long run along the Charles, from the Science Museum to the John Weeks footbridge: the weather was delightful for a few days.

Terrific sermon tonight from Luke Bretherton who I learn has a book out called Christianity and Contemporary Politics. If the book is as good as the sermon it will be well worth reading: I've ordered a copy.

Terrific sermon in church

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Always more complex than you think

Just as large IT projects almost always take longer than you think, even when you allow for this effect, so biological systems are almost always more complex than you think, even when you allow for the fact that they are more complex than you think.

Striking illustrations of this come from three recent papers.

One, in Nature is a article about the genetic influences on stature, ie how tall people are. It is well known that this has a strong hereditable component. If there were such a thing as “a gene for altruism” there would certainly be “a gene for height”. Allen et al bring together the impressive results of a large number of studies, and show that over 180 genes have been identified as having a role in stature. But the striking statistic is that all these 180 genes predict only about 10% of the variation in stature, which is nevertheless 80% hereditable, and the authors estimate that unidentified common variants of similar effect sizes would increase this figure to approximately 16%. So the other 64% is presumably accounted for to a large extent by epigenetic and other biological effects that are not part of the “selfish gene” worldview. And naturally none of these genes acts alone, they are all embedded in massively complex networks.

All of this was moderately well-known, with Allen et al I suspect making much less progress than had been hoped. But this Science paper shows an effect that was new to me (though it was identitifed in a 1974 paper by Maynard Smith & Haigh quoted as a ref in the Perspectives article). Rockman & al carefully measured the levels of hereditable variation in populations of C. Elegans, and found puzzling differences in the rate at which hereditable traits propagate. After trying various models they seem to have identified the main factor as being where the genes (Qualitative Trait Loci) are on the chromosomes, with QTL being more likely to be on the arms of the chromosomes. The explanation seems to be ‘genetic hitchhiking” in which “a variant present in one place on the genome can spread through the gene pool because it “catches a ride” with a closely linked DNA sequence variant that is under selection’ (to quote from the Perspective article).

Finally there is a very interesting "Hypothesis" paper in Nature which suggests that the unique event of the evolution of the eucarytic cell is absolutely central to the development of complex life, due to energetic considerations. No possibility of "a gene for mitochondrial symbiosis".

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fibonacci Sequence: Mozart, Beethoven & Schubert

Cover of one of the Fibs CDs
Sister came to stay last night. She is a violin and recorder teacher in Cornwall who gets extraordinary results from quite ordinary kids. We went to the Conway Hall to hear Kathron Sturrock's Fibonacci Sequence: in this case Kathron with Zoë Beyers and Benjamin Hughes.

Zoë is a talented violinist who studied at the RCM with Dr Felix Andrievsky (who also taught Ruth Palmer) won the Tagore Gold Medal, and was recently appointed Associate Leader of the CBSO - who lend her a Guarneri. Benjamin is a principal cellist with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

They began with a sunny rendition of Mozart's Trio in G K564. It is always wonderful to hear Kathron, whose utterly compelling and beautiful playing appears effortless. The closing allegretto was particularly delightful and uplifting. Kathron says that Mozart should be thought of in terms of song - in particular opera - and the players all sung to each other, and the audience, beautifully.

Then Beethoven's extraordinary C Minor Trio Op 1 No 3. Beethoven studied a bit with Haydn and it is said that Haydn was rather cautious about Beethoven publishing his Op 1 Trios and Op 2 Piano Sonata. I think Haydn might have been worried that they would give Beethoven a reputation for being 'difficult'. It cannot be true that he failed to appreciate them: not only was Haydn a very great composer he was extraordinarily innovative. But Op 1 No 3 especially is a decidedly radical work. Again, with exquisite musicianship and deep feeling they brought out the depths, sunlight and virtuosity of the work. The prestissimo Finale is in many respects the most remarkable movement, with the emphatic opening theme to the extraordinary pianissimo finish.

After the interval we had the Schubert Trio in B Flat D898. The textbooks seem puzzled by Schubert's return to String Trios after a gap of 15 years. But as soon as you hear the Finale it is obvious that this is a tribute to Beethoven, with audacious adaptations of both the Eroica theme and the wonderful finale of the Kreutzer Sonata - and I think I even detected echoes of the 9th symphony. Indeed without knowing the date (sadly no programme notes) it was obvious that this had been composed just after Beethoven had died. Schubert is of course decidedly expansive in his melodies: if Mozart is opera then Schubert is a tremendous outpouring of Lied. Again this was beautifully captured by the trio.

Great to see Kathron afterwards and to meet Zoe - she and sister had an interesting (to violinists) conversation about vibrato.

The Conway Hall is a nice-sized venue which is owned by the South Place Ethical Society. This started off as a spin-out from a Baptist sect but became resolutely secular, and went from an "Appointed Minister" to an "Appointed Lecturer" the most celebrated of which was CEM Joad. The "proscenium arch" is decorated with "To thine own self be true" - though where Polonius is really a viable prophet is open to question. And behind the performers is the solemn notice that this paneling was given in memory of a stalwart member of the Society.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Language and grand strategy

Hectic days at work so no time to Blog. Did manage to hear Andrew Roberts give the first Lees-Knowles lecture whilst working up at Cambridge (UK) on Thurs, about the forming of the grand strategy of the Anglo-US alliance 1941-45.

He made the point that there was almost no coordination between Germany and Japan in WW2 - the first the Germans knew of Pearl Harbor was news reports on the radio, and if the Japanese had coordinated attacks on Siberia with Hitler's assault on Russia this could have prevented the 17 divisions from Siberia arriving to reinforce Moscow at the critical time. But (as I said to him afterwards) what language would they have spoken and how would they have met? It is impossible to imagine Hitler travelling to Japan and spending weeks there as Churchill did in the USA, and the difficulties of the Emporer travelling to Germany would have been even greater. Hitler spoke no Japanese and I suspect the Japanese leaders spoke no German.

Even with good command of language dangerous misunderstandings in strategic dialogue can occur. I'm reading Roy Jenkins' masterly biography of Churchill, which is full of gems, and he says that when the then French PM Reynaud asked what would be the British attitude to France's inability to continue the struggle, Churchill reportedly said 'Je comprends'. It was then suggested that this constituted his implicit support for such a course of action. As Jenkins says "The episode was a classic example of the dangers of speaking at a critical moment in a language of which the speaker is not in perfect command".

Very sensible letter from Karl Sigmund in Nature saying that "concerns that [Nowak Tarnita and Wilson] could threaten research funding and provide ammunition for creationists should not be allowed to mute scientific debate." So far I'm the only person to have commented on it online (I quite like: "The scientific community should no longer give tacit support to 2nd or 3rd-rate scientists who set themselves up as anti-Popes delivering ex-cathedra pronouncements, and elevating metaphors and rules of thumb into Dogma") The fact that no-one else has commented suggests that the 100+ biologists crying Heresy may be realising that their reactions are overdone.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bunk from Shand and wisdom from Silk

Adsurd article in Think by some associate Prof at the Open University called John Shand purporting to show that God cannot exist. The "argument" goes:

(1) Limitedness is required for thought
(2) God cannot exist as a limited thing
(3) Therefore God cannot think
(4) If God cannot think he is a limited thing
(5) Therefore God cannot exist.

Shand has a first in philosophy from Manchester and a PhD from Cambridge but clearly hasn't studied logic very hard. In the first place the whole 'argument' depends on a trope of the form "God cannot do X, therefore God is limited, therefore God does not exist". Put any X in you like ("sneeze", "have cancer", "make $1M" for example) and you can see how absurd it is.

Secondly, God is not a thing but a being. To say that God is omnipotent means "God can do anything that He chooses to do" If it were true that "Limitedness is required for thought" then God could choose the limitations that were necessary. After all limitedness is certainly necessary for incarnation. And I would argue that God limits his Omnipotence and Omniscience so that we have freewill and can love. Limitedness in a certain sense is necesary for any creation: you choose to create one thing and not another.

But John Shand's argument for his premise (1) is hopelessly flawed as well.

Firstly he confuses a motive for thinking with an ability to think. He is essentially trotting out the ridiculous argument that God can take no actions at all because He has no motives for doing so. This would only work if (i) all actions require motives and (ii) all motives need to be caused by constraints. (i) is debateable and (ii) is obviously false.

Secondly, he seems to be 'arguing' that because we can only think about a few things at a time it is logically necessary that any thinking being can only think about a few things at a time. Clearly any finite being can only think about a finite number of things, but you are offering no argument why an infinite being couldn’t think of an infinite number of things. And indeed there is nothing logically incoherent about the idea that the number of thinking beings in the universe might tend to infinity as t -> infinity, which strongly suggests that the limiting case of an infinite set of thinking beings would be able to think of an infinite set of things at once.

I've tried to email him but the OU doesn't seem to have public email addresses.

Meanwhile Joe Silk has done an excellent review of The Grand Design in Science. Gems include "M theory predicts the existence of ten spatial dimensions. We observe three. This ought to be enough for any rational person to say M theory conflicts with nature...Unfortunately, M theory has hitherto made essentially no testable predictions in the limit of low-energy physics...This ought to provide an indication of the reality of the hyperspace inhabited by the theorists. To be fair, however, M theory does take one important step toward unification by removing the infinities that plagued earlier theories of quantum gravity."

"M theory predicts the existence of some 10500 universes, one of which we inhabit. This seems an improbable situation." and he concludes "A century or two hence, should we survive that long, I expect that M theory will seem as naïve to cosmologists of the future as we now find Pythagoras's cosmology of the harmony of the spheres, Ptolemy's cosmology of epicycles, or Kepler's cosmology of the five Platonic solids."

Quite.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A fabulous Faust

Popped round to the Handy's to collect the Still Lives portraits that Liz had kindly done for my birthday earlier this year. Great to see them so well. Also saw Shelley and Richard Olivier who run the extraordinary Olivier Mythodrama.

The in the evening to the last night of Faust at the ENO. This is an extraordinary production, built around the idea of Faust as an atomic scientist involved in developing the first nuclear bombs, who is then in his Mephistophelian pact transported back in time to WWI. We had come to see Toby Spence who gave a searing performance in the title role: he really is a tremendous singer. Edward Garnder conducted brilliantly, and Iain Paterson, who played Mephistopheles was also a really commanding performance. The two worked together brilliantly, and the whole cast was good: Anna Grevelius is also very much one to watch. The production is moving to the Met in a year or two and you should definitely catch it there if you can: sadly without Toby.

Afterwards went to dinner at Sheekeys with Toby and Alex Jennings and his delightful daughter: really charming, interesting and intelligent people. Toby and Alex had worked together in Candide and it was fascinating to listen to a great actor and a great singer comparing notes. Toby will be doing The Mikado in Chicago in Dec/Jan and Alex My Fair Lady in Paris. The 'small world' characteristics of opera and theatre amply illustrated by the facts that I could bring Alex greetings from Janie from last night, and that Toby was in fact at the Sahsa/Mutter/Davis LSO concert on Tues: and really enjoyed Sasha's piece (he also really liked Miranda and is pleased to know there is a next series being filmed). In addition the Lyric Chicago is where Nicole comes from, and Edward Gardner will be conducting Nicole in Carmen at the Met.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Month in the Country

We caught up with Frieda Hughes for lunch on Thurs and had the happy thought of inviting Emma Darwin: they hadn't met and we all got on really well. Fascinating discussions about writing, including the need to read your work aloud to understand whether it really stands up. I tried to coin the phrase "tell that to Shakespeare" to deal with people who nit-pick the details of historical novels. And perhaps the website of a book would be a place to explore some of the interesting divergencies between what you can and should present in a novel and what would be in a history book.

Yesterday went to Chichester to see Janie in the wonderful production of A Month in the Country. She gives a searing performance, as a woman used to being the centre of attention and in control of events, with a husband and a devoted admirer, whose life "in control" spins out of control. The nice conceit in the design of having branches extending all along the cieling of the auditorium, so that we already feel part of the set, is very engaging. And the whole ensemble was excellent. Phoebe Fox plays the juvenile very well, and Kenneth Cranham. It occurs to me that this role has certain elements of both The Litte Hut and Woman In Mind.

Popped round to see Janie afterwards though had to dash to catch the last train. Patricia Routledge also came round and like me greatly admired the performance. The last time we saw her, she was playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest when we took our Daughter and some of her friends on her 8th birthday, and she kindly looked in on the girls afterwards.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Amazing artistry, and a bogus argument from Coyne

What an evening! Started with the Private View of our friend Frieda Hughes' exhibition at Gallery 27. Frieda, who all her life has been a brilliant figurative artist, has now turned to abstract art and exhibits extraordinary sequences which have a sinuous dreamlike quality reminiscent of luxuriant organic forms: somewhere between lush vegetation and networks of neurons.

But I couldn't stay long because the LSO were performing Sasha Siem's Trickster. This had long been in my diary as Sahsa, LSO but I discovered to my joy and delight that Anne-Sophie Mutter was then playing the Dvorak Violin Concerto. I have hugely admired her work for over 25 years - and have met her briefly a couple of times. In addition it meant that the concert was pretty well sold out, so a big audience for Sasha.

Trickster was, and was meant to be, fun for the players and audience. Sasha handles the very large orchestra with great flair and aplomb, creating vast boisterous effects and moments of eerie stillness. It was very well received and she should definitely be encouraged to write a symphony, to use her command of the orchestra on a larger scale. It was great to meet Sasha's parents again and also her brother Charlie who is off on a substantial tour with his Strad.

So to Mutter and the Dvorak, with Colin Davis conducting. Mutter is such an extraordinary artist in her maturity. The first movement of the Dvorak is pretty rumbustuous and she created, and sustained throughout, the extraordinary dialogue with the orchestra, and with the audience, that characterises a great performance. The finale also has something of the qualities of the trickster, being based on the Furiant, a Czech dance known for its unstable metre.

After a drinks reception in the interval we had the Glagolitic Mass, and the second delightful surprise of the evening was that the brilliant tenor Simon O'Neill whom I had met in Edinburgh was one of the soloists. I had never heard this before and what a piece. Janáček aims to create a cathedral of sound although, unlike the cathedral that Bach creates in the Solo Violin suites, this is populated with a mass of excited, almost ecstatic, people with a fervour that is more nationalistic than exactly religious. Colin Davis conducts with sparse economy (he is after all 83) but deep feeling and got tremendous gusto from the orchestra, chorus and soloists. The Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova has a lot of the "heavy lifting" in the first part of the Mass, and then Simon's tremendous voice comes in - much of it fortissimo against the massed choir and orchestra. Although a great work by a fine composer the Glagolitic Mass is obviously not really in the same league as Mahler 8 in terms of the quality and depth of the music or spiritual engagement, but precisely because of this, the extraordinary qualities of Simon's voice became more apparent. Simon's career has justly become stratospheric. He is opening the season at La Scala singing Siegmund under Barenboim, doing a Lied von der Erde at the Carnegie Hall in Jan and then Siegmund/Barenboim in Berlin.

There is a curious science and religion connection in that Janáček was a Choral Scholar at the Abbey of St Thomas in Brno from 1865-1874 where Gregor Mendel was the Abbot from 1868-1884. Mendel had entered the Abbey in 1843 had conducted his experiments on peas that led to modern genetics between 1856 and 1863. He may even have helped to inspire in Janáček his love of nature, and Janáček's sense that, although rejecting much of the catholic teaching which he saw as obsessed with death, there were deeper connections between God's love and exuberant growth.

A far less able scientist that Mendel, Jerry Coyne, has published an absurd rant in USA Today saying that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. The utter absurdity of his position is shown by his "argument" that "the incompatibility of science and faith [is] amply demonstrated by the high rate of atheism among scientists. While only 6% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, the figure for American scientists is 64%" Now this certainly shows that scientists are more likely to be atheists or agnostics than the US population as a whole. But if the remaining 36% are religious believers this is a very large minority and certainly shows that science and faith are not incompatible. Indeed the % of US scientists who are female is almost certainly much less than 36% - and even Coyne would not dare to argue for "the incompatibility of science and femininity." I suspect BTW that the % who are atheist will be less than 36%, more will be agnostic.

It's interesting to consider why rates of atheism and agnosticism are higher in professional scientists. This is partly because they are predominantly male and also you need a certain level of arrogance for this work. But also I think there is a selection effect. If you are an atheist or an agnostic you will generally believe some version of the "science is the only way to find truth" trope (a self-refuting idea of course, since the truth or otherwise of this statement cannot be determined by science). Therefore you are more likely to believe that "being a scientist is the most important thing I can do" and prefer to focus on this rather than on alternative careers. At least some atheist scientists see themselves as a secular priesthood, and to state the obvious, alternative careers in the priesthood are somewhat closed to them. Thus it is not just that scientists are more likely to be atheists, but that atheists are more likely to be scientists.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dame Joan Sutherland and other greats

The great Joan Sutherland has died. We only saw her once, which was her very last performance at Covent Garden.

We used to know Peter Rose (he had sung at my late father's Memorial Concert) and we wanted to see him for his Covent Garden debut. The only time we could go was the very last night. The audience went wild, flowers rained down by the truckload on the stage from the boxes, and by the time we had gone round backstage the applause and curtain calls were continuing. As we waited for Peter, Dame Joan swept past and we shook her hand as "devoted admirers" - though in fact we hadn't come to see her at all but to see Peter. He deadpanned beautifully: "I have realised that I shall never get such an ovation as I receieved tonight".

The only other Legend of the Past I saw was Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, at her last concert at the Wigmore Hall when I was a student. I think she was 60, and as she sung Scubert's great Gretchen she became a 17-year old girl. Completely amazing.

Of the "scientific" Nobels, counting economics as a science, the UK has done amazingly well. By country of activity we have 4 laureates who have won 2.33 between them, the US has 4 winning 1.33 and Japan has 0.33. On the other had by country of birth it is UK 1, Russia 2(1), Japan 2(0.66), US 2(0.66) and Cyprus 1(0.33) which continues to underline how important international flows of labour are.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

George Williams - how science has advanced since 1966

Dawkins's obituary for George Williams in Science makes interesting reading. 'Williams published books, rather than articles in "high impact journals"; he never won huge grants, did not head a big research group, and seldom used mathematics, yet he became one of the most respected figures in late–20th-century evolutionary biology' Well he shared the Crafoord Prize which is pretty good, though only two of his papers and one of his books have more than 1,000 citations on Google Scholar.

Dawkins uses the article to swipe at 'The loose, intellectually shoddy idea of "group selection"' which Dawkins thinks Williams 'dispatched'. Interestingly Williams described his proposal that adaptation is a special and onerous concept that should only be used where it is really necessary as a "ground rule - or perhaps doctrine would be a better term".

He puts forward as Holy Writ the argument used by Williams that "The natural selection of phenotypes cannot in itself produce cumulative change because phenotypes are extremely temporary manifestations" (Socrates is dead etc..) and that "If there is an ultimate indivisible fragment it is, by definition, ‘the gene’ that is treated in the abstract discussions of population genetics."

This is perhaps pardonable confusion for 1966 but it really will not do in 2010. If you define a gene as "an ultimate indivisible fragment of inheritance" then Williams' statement is a tautology, but it begs the question of whether, and in what sense, "ultimate indivisible fragments" of inheritance actually exist. If a "gene" is a mathematical abstraction then it doesn't really exist in the real world, and indeed one could give an equivalent ontological status to a "voxel" (which is the 3d equivalengt of a pixel) and argue that in some sense voxels were the ultimate indivisible fragments of body shape.

In 1966 Williams supposed, along with most scientists, that there was a simple 1-1 relationship between genes in the abstract mathematical sense and the sequences of DNA (or RNA) in the genetic code: this was the era of Jacques Monod and the simplistic and misleading analogy of a paper tape computer program for living cells. But we now realise that the relationship between (mathematical) genes and DNA is much more complicated. Williams' abstract genes do not correspond directly to any specific physical objects. Socrates' physical genes no more exist than his physical body does. Characteristics of his physical genes are shared by many presently living creatures, as are characteristics of his physical body. And indeed his ideas, which are far more influential. (And lets not forget that mRNA is just as "immortal" as "genes" but is only passed on from the mother)

The fact is that evolution occurs in many dimensions, and an attempt to isolate one of them and propose that all the others are irrelevant is simply wrong, scientifically. Dawkins and co should accept that sicence advances and not cling on to ancient "ground rules" as if they were Doctrine.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Hidden Acoustics - and Dorit Haines

Dorit and Alan Haines
Wonderful concert by Ruth Palmer yesterday in her Hidden Acoustics series. She used the amazing acoustics of Temple Church to full effect, playing from the gallery of the round part of the church, then in the round part and then at various places in the Nave. Hisham Matar gave an introductory talk.

Today we attended the funeral of our much loved neighbour and friend Dorit Haines (1922-2010) the wife of Alan Haines. She was born in Vienna, but her father Bernard was involved with anti Nazi campaigns so they had to flee to Bratislava. Dorit was then sent to England by train. She was educated at Fulneck Girls School, Pudsey and Esmee Church's Bradford Theatre School, and although she had the opportunity to read English at Cambridge, she followed in her uncle Friedrich Feher's footsteps and became an actress, moving to London and living in the Theatre Girls Club.

Her stage name was Dorit Welles and her first professional role was Viola in Twelfth Night. She played with many great English Actors including Robert Donat (Murder in the Cathedral) at The Old Vic (also recorded). She also played Rebecca (Mrs de Winter), and worked with Wilfred Lawson in 'Barrets of Wimpole Street'. On Tour Dorit played Polly in 'The Boy Friend' and worked with Lupino Lane in 'Me and My Girl'. For BBC Radio Drama she worked with Ralph Richardson (The Heiress), Sybil Thorndyke (in Melba), Jessie Matthews, Donald Wolfit, Dudley Moore, Prunella Scales and Timothy West (in Princess Ida), Carleton Hobbs (in the Hound of the Baskervilles). Her first BBC drama role was in "Emergency Ward 10" in the 1950s.

She met Alan on a station as they were travelling to different theatres, and they married in 1962.
She began to volunteer at Charing Cross Hospital in 1972 and served for 39 years, being their longest serving volunteer.

A lovely woman - may she rest in peace and rise in glory.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Appeals for calm on NTW in Nature - will people listen?

The discussion on NTW (Nowak, Tarnita & Wilson) advances a bit. Samir Okasha has an Opinion piece in Nature suggesting that the disputes over kin selection are "holding back the field". He says that "In allowing a plurality of approaches — a healthy thing in science — to descend into tribalism, biologists risk causing serious damage to the field of social evolution, and potentially to evolutionary biology in general."

This is, I think, a fair criticism of the c.130 biologists who have written protesting at the NTW paper, and at the antics of arch-Dawkins-Defender/Hagiographer Alan Grafen. It would be ridiculous to say that we should stick with the epicycles of "kin selection" when there is a proper mathematical treatment that goes beyond them. Kin selection is a rule of thumb that works reasonably well in a fair number of simple cases. Elevating it into Holy Writ complete with Pope Dawkins and its own Dogma (the selfish gene) was always misguided, and to react to NTW as if it were heresy simply underlines the foolishness of this approach.

Nor is it reasonable to defend Kin Selection by saying "the theory makes correct predictions, it must be right". The Ptolomeic model of the universe made vast numbers of correct predictions, at least within the limits of measurements available at the time. And if you add enough epicycles you can make it perfectly in accord with any earth-based observations.

As Michael Doebeli says in a letter in Nature: "Despite the indignant response of the inclusive-fitness crowd, there can be no doubt about the fundamental tenet that, with or without the concept of inclusive fitness, in principle we have access to exactly the same amount of evolutionary knowledge. Personal modelling preferences may vary, but there is nothing magic about bookkeeping techniques." Van Veelen & al also ask "Why are numerous reactions to the Nowak et al. paper (Nature 466, 1057–1062; 2010) so ferocious?"

We shall see what happens to the heated correspondence. Maybe the Dawkins Defenders will think again. If not they will make themselves look very foolish. We shall see.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Excellence in Science and Music

Late breakfast with Nicole which was delightful. They will be broadcasting the final performace of the Pearl Fishers - catch it if you can. She'll then be singing in Carmen at the Met - get there!

And while we are on excellence in music - do catch Ruth Palmer's Hidden Acoustics programme if you can. And if you are in the US, consider inviting her to do the tour there.

At the end of the Science Nobels, we find that 1 + 2 halves have been won by people at British Universities, 2/3rds by people at US Universities, and 1/3 in Japan. It also underlines how international science is: only 3 of the 6 laureates are working in their countries of birth. And indeed Negishi was born in China, in a part which was then occupied by Japan. BTW there is a terrific interview with Andre Geim, where he emphasises the value of "late evening or Friday night experiments where you try something very elementary and try to go into one or another direction" and that "you don’t need to be in a Harvard or Cambridge, in one of the universities which collect the smartest people and the best equipment. You can be in the second or even third rated universities in terms of facilities and, whatever, prestige, but you still can do something amazing and something which, I hope, this is an example, which brings more enthusiasm to young generation of inspiring scientists, that they can do something without being at the best place at the best time"

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Pearl Fishers and Nobels

Wonderful concert production of The Pearl Fishers at Covent Garden last night. Our friend Nicole Cabell was playing the lead (and only) female role, of Leila the irresistible Hindu priestess, who is beloved by the king of the pearl fishers and by his best friend (though not by the Hindu priest, who is neither wealthy nor "a wolf to say the least" in this musical production). Pappano is a superb conductor and with Nicole, Gerald Finley and John Osborn he had an utterly superb set of principals. Bizet was only 24 when he wrote it and although it contains some wonderfully beautiful and evocative music the plot and libretto are pretty awful even by the standards of 19thC Opera. However Nicole completely excelled in the virtuoso soprano arias, and was deeply moving in her duets. {I've subsequently found a pretty reasonable review here}

Afterwards we went backstage to see Nicole and her justifiably proud (and delightful) mother and met Finley, Osborn and Pappano. Finley says we must come and see him for the first performance of Anna Nicole and Osborn will be doing Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville.

Great news about the Nobels, it means that all 3 Nobel Laureates so far this year are based in the UK. Though curiously neither of the Physics Laureates appears to have been involved with Cambridge. Novoselov is 36 which makes him one of the younger laureates, though William Bragg still holds the record at 25.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

As a grain of mustard seed

Took Daughter to Trinity Cambridge yesterday: she is I think the 10th member of our direct family to go there (or 11th if you count in-laws - there may be more if you go back beyond Bertram by great-grandfather: I have no idea whether we are descended from William Beale who was also at Trinity, or for that matter from John Beale).

Sermon this morning was on Luke 17:5 but alas the preacher misread the text. Although the NIV has "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed" the Greek is "If you have faith as (ως) a grain of mustard seed" Now the only other time mustard is mentioned in the Bible (other than the somewhat parallel passage in Matthew) is in Luke 13:18-20 and parallels (Mark, Matthew) and the point of a single mustard seed is not that it is a small quantity of faith - twice the size of half a grain and half the size of two grains - but that it "grows and becomes a tree, and the birds of the air perch in its branches".

The word for "increase" is προσθες- this comes from prostithemi which means "add to; increase; (or occasionally proceed to)" It is used in Matthew 6:27 and Luke 12:25 ("which of you by taking anxious thought can increase his stature by a cubit?") and then in Luke 12:31 ("seek the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you"). God gives the crops increase (though in the NT prostithemi is not used in exactly that context - most of the refs to this are in the OT and I don't have a LXX concordance so I can't easily check how it is used there) and the point is that faith grows organically under God.

Back now to thinking about the Netome...