Saturday, December 25, 2010


A very merry and blessed Christmas to all.

The Pope was very good on Thought for the Day. Naturally The Guardian gave poor Dr Dawk a platform to moan, though the comments he got suggest that his hold over pop culture is indeed declining:
  • Hold the front page! Richard Dawkins isn't a catholic. In other news: Pope revealed to be a catholic.
  • Happy Christmas to you too Dawkins. Shame goodwill doesn't appear to be high on your agenda.
  • So The Guardian gets celeb-atheist Richard Dawkins to do a Christmas message. How unpredictable

A very good article in Prospect by Martin Rees discussing the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. He thinks that within 20 years we'll be able to see a lot more of the planets that we presently merely detect, but it rightly unsure whether there is intelligent life anywhere else. Scientifically, The Earth could be very special indeed in galactic terms.

Whether or not there are other intelligent life-forms in the Universe, it is clear that there is only one God, and that His love is infinite, and shown most perfectly in His Son. May we all grow in love and understanding over the coming year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Encouraging young scientists

Hats off to to Dr Beau Lotto who has encouraged a group of primary school children (one of whom shares his name and may be his son or daughter?) to do some lovely research on bees and published their results in Biology Letters. The first author is PS Blackawton, where PS stands for Primary School.

A delightful interview with Peter Plesch, now 90, the son of Dr Janos Plesch who was Einstein's physician, about the time when Einstein discussed his physics ideas as a teenager. My grandmother often spoke of Dr Plesch who had been her doctor in London before the War, but I had no idea of the Einstein connection.

A memorial to Gordon Squires, a Fellow of Trinity who died earlier this year, quotes the striking piece he wrote about Trinity physicists for the forthcoming Trinity, A Portrait.

By common consent, the four greatest physicists in history are Archimedes, Newton, Maxwell and Einstein - and two of these were at Trinity. No doubt Archimedes would have come here if Henry VIII lived before him, but Einstein was a late developer and would not have been admitted with the present admission standards.

Strategy Across the Spheres is almost finished, send a draft of the MS to the publisher and to the very distinguished Chairman who is writing the foreword.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Brembs on Freewill

Reading Bjoern Brembs' v interesting paper "Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates" recently published in Proc Roy Soc B. This is an interesting mixture of some very good science (with which I wholly agree) and some rather poor philosophy - hardly suprising since Brembs is a scientist.

Scientifically, he argues that there are clear evolutionary advantages of freewill, that it is perfectly clear that the universe is not deterministic, that there is ample evidence that even in invertebrates there is a considerable level of unpredictability in behaviour which he attributes to nonlinearity in brains (even of fruitflies) "suggesting that fly brains operate at criticality, meaning that they are mathematically unstable, which, in turn, implies an evolved mechanism rendering brains highly susceptible to the smallest differences in initial conditions and amplifying them exponentially" (The reference he cites is a 2007 paper co-authored with him and George Sugihara) He correctly sees that:

The Humean dichotomy of chance and necessity is invalid for complex processes such as evolution or brain functioning. Such phenomena incorporate multiple components that are both lawful and indeterminate. This breakdown of the determinism/ indeterminism dichotomy has long been appreciated in evolution and it is surprising to observe the lack of such an appreciation with regard to brain function among some thinkers of today (e.g. [2] a paper I have always thought especially misguided NB). Stochasticity is not a nuisance, or a side effect of our reality. Evolution has shaped our brains to implement ‘stochasticity’ in a controlled way, injecting variability ‘at will’. Without such an implementation, we would not exist.
A scientific concept of free will cannot be a qualitative concept. The question is not any more ‘do we have free will?’; the questions is now: ‘how much free will do we have?’; ‘how much does this or that animal have?’. Free will becomes a quantitative trait.

He also makes a very interesting argument that: "in order to understand actions, it is necessary to introduce the term self" pointing out that even flies respond differently to stimuli (otherwise identical to external ones) that come from their own actions. And he points out that "The scientific understanding of common concepts enrich our lives, they do not impoverish them."

So a lot to agree with, and indeed FWIW Appendix B of Questions of Truth makes some similar arguments, and indeed suggests a possible mechanism for the amplification of small quantum-level changes and points out some of the evolutionary advantages of freewill. (including a point that Berms may have slighlty missed, that nondeterministic algorithsm can be much more efficient for solving complex problems.

My philosophical quibble is that he confidently states that "any metaphysical account of free will is rightfully rejected" What I think he means/may mean is "any account of free will which claims that it is a property which has no physical basis whatsoever"* but of course that is not what metaphysical really means at all. Metaphysics is like Prose or Interpretation: we do it whether we think we are or not. It is perfectly reasonable to ask: "what does free will mean, at a level beyond the physical?" and scientific understandings will inform, but cannot completely determine, the responses one gives.

Still a very interesting paper, with fascinating references (esp perhaps Heisenberg's essay in Nature) and well worth reading.

* PS Dr Brembs says that is indeed what he meant. I think maybe he needed to say these somewhat "unphilosophical" things in order to get past the strong prejudices of much of the modern scientific establishment.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Three dunks for Dr Dawk, and "God" is indeed back

Denis Noble has sent me a link to the published version of his brilliant paper "Neo-Darwinism, the Modern Synthesis, and Selfish Genes: are they of use in physiology?" which is being published in The Journal of Physiology. This amounts to a comprehensive demolition of the "Selfish Gene" nonsense. As he rightly says:

"gene-centric interpretations of evolution, and more particularly the selfish gene expression of those interpretations, form barriers to the integration of physiological science with evolutionary theory...The selfish gene idea is not useful in the physiological sciences."

This is the third published blow to the dwindling credibility of Dawkins' absurd metaphor. The first of course is Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson, and it is interesting how quiet the enraged critics of this paper have gone. Quite soon I think the correspondence around this will be published in Nature and I suspect that it will be clear to everyone who is mathematically literate and scientifically competent to follow the arguments (does this include Dawkins I wonder? probably not) that the criticisms of the paper are misguided. By contrast there is an interesting profile of EO Wilson in Discover Magazine discussing these issues.

Mary Midgley's wonderful book The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene (which I am pleased to say is the #1 on Evolution in was the second blow. Basically the Selfish Gene can now be seen to be nonsense from every point of view: evolutionary dynamics, physiology and philosophy.

Martin Nowak has also sent me advance online version of "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books" which is coming out in Science. This allows one to explore the frequency of usage of words or pairs of words in millions of books. There is an online search tool and other fun stuff at My only quibble with this paper is that when they show a graph of the frequency of God from 1800 to 2000 as Fig 5H with the quip '"God" is not dead, but needs a new publicist' they ignore the fact that He seems to have obtained one in 1979, who really got into his/her stride in 2001.

Graph showing frequency of "God" in Google Books by year of publication.
In fact "God" is at highest level since 1889 and probably still increasing.

PS: God and Jesus are by miles the highest scoring proper names. Furthermore Jesus is rising rapidly, much faster than Mohammed.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Rivals, and just avoiding a travel disaster

Last night to The Rivals with Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles. A really fine Peter Hall production.

Today had a lucky escape when we had a meeting in Frankfurt and just as we had got on the plane we heard from my assistant that the person we were meeting had decided to fly to London early and would participate in the meeting by Videoconference. BA were very nice and let us off the plane (even though the doors were shut) so we had the meeting in London. The plane back was cancelled so it would have been a disaster.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

PNAS Paper Submitted, and Gems from McGilchrist

"Individual and systemic risk: the regulator’s dilemma" by Nicholas Beale, David G. Rand, Heather Battey, Karen Croxson, Robert M. May & Martin A. Nowak has just been submitted to PNAS, and Joe Stiglitz has kindly agreed to be the Prearranged Editor!

The Master and his Emissary is terrific (at least so far!) Listen to this:
"Is consciousness a product of the brain? The only certainty here is that anyone who thinks thay can answer this question with certainty has to be wrong...the one thing we do know for certain is that everything we know of the brain is the product of consciousness...we do not know if mind depends on matter, becasue everything we know about matter is itself a mental creation" (pp19-20)

or this:

"when we come to look at brain functions...We are not 'just' looking at things in the world - a lump of rock or even a person - but the processes whereby the world itself, together with the rock or the person, might be brought into being for us at all, the very foundations of the fact of our experience, including any idea we might have about the nature of the world, and the nature of the brain, and even the idea that this is so... What possible context is there in which to place the foundations of experience of all contexts whatsoever? And what kind of thing are we to see it 'as'? The answers are far from obvious, but in the absence of an attempt to addres the question we do not give no answer. We answer with the model we understand - the only kind of thing we can ever fully understand, for the simple reason that we made it: the machine" (p29)


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Polkinghorne, Geim and McGilchrist

Polkinghorne very kindly invited me as his guest to the Smith Feast which is the principal annual feast for Queens' College. The first part in in the modern Hall and met a number of fascinating people including Ioanna Sitaridou who has been exploring a hitherto unknown variant of Greek currently spoken by 10-15k people in Turkey, and Jackie Scott who has been a prime mover in the British Household Panel Study. We discussed the astonishingly un-scientific prejudice that used to exist against including information about religious practices and beliefs in European social science.

John also told me about one of his meetings with Heisenberg, who was very keen on a non-linear extension of QM. Pauli initially went along with this, but then decided it was wrong. John went to a conference at CERN chaired by Pauli at which Heisenberg presented his ideas, and Pauli would repeatedly interrupt from the chair ("this is not so - I told you this some months ago"). He thinks no-one will ever know whether Heisenberg deliberately miscalculated the critical mass required for an Atomic Bomb. But two things are clear. Heisenberg was no Nazi, though he was a German patriot. And even if they had understood the technology, the production facilities were so large and visible that they would have been bombed to pieces.

We also talked to some leading theoretical physicists/cosmologists, who were very sceptical indeed of the recent Penrose paper - saying that the concentric circles are almost certainly artefacts. I still think that the current ideas about Inflation (and M-theory) will prove to be mistaken, but that there will be some fascinating new concepts needed to understand what's going on.

Listening to the Nobel interview with Andre Geim. His comments on patenting (c 22:30 in) are interesting, with the arrogant multinational representative ("the whole of the GDP of your little island trying to sue us" - NB the largest multinational company in the world has a turnover of $300bn, the UK's GDP is about $2,200bn). His banquet speech is also interesting. And what he says about the fact that 2nd tier universities do have a chance of Nobel-winning research, but 3rd and 4th do not.

Also starting to read The Master and his Emissary which shows every sign of being as fascinating as I would expect, given the brilliance of the author.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

NY, La Scala and Darfur

Collected Daughter from Cambridge on Sat, so lots of driving in less than ideal conditions. But it's great to have her back home. Sun eve flew to NY for an intense and very stimulating series of meetings: the morning un-bloggable but the afternoon included really productive sessions with Joe Stiglitz and then with Ned Phelps. Flew back overnight Mon greatly enthused and with a great many ideas to develop and follow-up further.

Yesterday pm saw Simon O'Neill's astounding and magnificent debut at La Scala, as Siegmund in Die Walkure. I'd been hoping to get to Milan next week but now too busy, however Simon had emailed his London friends about a live relay to the Odeon Covent Garden. Before the performance Barenboim addressed the audience including the President of Italy saying how concerned he was about the future of culture in Italy and indeed Europe. Then after the anthem(s) a tremendous performance began. The orchestra was magnificent and from the moment Simon falls onto the stage with "Wes Herd dies auch sei, hier muss ich rasten" it was clear that he would be utterly brilliant. Act I is a 3-hander and Simon was partnered with two of the greatest singers of the late 20th C: Sir John Tomlinson and Waltruad Meier Meier has a tremendous voice and acted really well although of course is 15 years older than her "twin" Simon but that's opera for you. Tomlinson (Wikipedia article ridiculously short) was the greatest Wotan of his generation.

Simon really inhabited the role and you could entirely believe in him as the tremendously powerful fighter, reminiscent of Boromir. His voice is quite amazing, with astonishing power but also great musicality and tenderness. Of course Siegmund is meant to have some aspect of "I can hardly believe this is all happening, but I am really up for this" and to make your debut at La Scala in such circumstances is perhaps ideal for making this feeling a reality. But it takes an extraordinary singer with an extraordinary voice to do this with conviction. Bravissimo!

I should also mention the fine Wotan of Vitalij Kowaljow (who sung with Nicole in the video of La Boheme) and Nina Stemme as Brunhidle.

I then had to rush to the Kids for Kids Christmas concert which we were sponsoring. This was just in time to hear Ruth Palmer's exquisite performance, and Patricia Parker's moving speech about conditions in Darfur. The world's attention has moved on and foreign aid workers find it too dangerous, but K4K now as two Sudanese staff in Al Fashir so is able to help people directly. They are seeking £60k to help fund 261 families who have moved from the camps to some of the 53 villiages which Kids for Kids is supporting. Both Alistair Stewart and Eamonn Holmes are great supporters and patrons: Alastair was compereing and Eamonn brought a celebrity choir including Jacquie Beltrao. Dinner afterwards with some of our guests, John Cope and Ruth Palmer - Patricia joined us later.

Friday, December 03, 2010

R&D Quantitative Easing

In a fascinating paper at Ned's conference, Aghion et al 2010 showed that industries with relatively heavier reliance on external finance or lower asset tangibility tend to grow faster, both in terms of value added and of labour productivity growth, in countries which implement more counter-cyclical fiscal policies, based on a careful analysis of industry sectors across 15 countries. The model in this paper suggests that the problem is that cash-constrained firms tend to cut back on R&D in bad states of the world, and this is mitigated by counter-cyclical policies. The implication, is that, even in situations where government expenditure is having to be reduced, it would be highly desirable to provide targeted measures to reduce the extent to which companies in the appropriate sectors were credit constrained. This could be achieved for example by a suitable mix of government loan guarantees or possibly allowing banks to benefit in certain circumstances from R&D tax credits.

One possibility worth consideration would be R&D Quantitative Easing whereby the Bank of England effectively underwrites a scheme that allows companies to borrow to finance their R&D expenditure at very reasonable rates. This might work roughly along the following lines:
  1. Banks that benefit from QE would be invited to participate in this scheme. It should be put to them that it would be unwise in the current circumstances to wish to charge fees for this.
  2. Any company that invests in R&D in the country concerned could borrow up to 90% of its current R&D expenditure from a participating bank, at a low interest rate (say 1.75% over LIBOR) giving as security a charge over its current and past R&D.
  3. The Central Bank would take 95% of these portfolios onto its balance sheet as per QE, so the banks retained only 5% of the risk. They would however retain 1.25% of 1.75% as a buffer against loan losses (hence up to 25%). If losses exceeded this by more than 25% of the banks total bonus payments they might be allowed to claim R&D tax credit against the losses. It would be put to them that revenues from the successful businesses that they had helped through R&D QE would also offset any losses that might be made through R&D QE.
  4. The Central Bank would retain 0.5% and be exposed to losses, but these would be indemnified by the Treasury as part of the QE arrangements (and “in the noise” thereof.)
  5. It is well known that R&D expenditure has large positive externalities. In addition c. 80% of it is in labour costs of relatively highly paid labour, so the tax element of £100M of R&D would typically be c.£36M. Therefore even in cash terms there would only be a net loss to the Treasury if the overall recovery rate was less than 60%, which is unlikely.
Clearly the details would need a fair amount of work, but the principle should be to ensure, as far as possible, that no companies which have genuinely high NPV opportunities to invest in R&D are prevented from doing so by short-term cash constraints. This has clear benefits for the short, medium and long-term and would have a negative net cost to the government.