Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal wedding and the sermon for 2 (billion)

Watched the delightful Royal Wedding. We travelled in to the centre, joined the throng in the Mall (just getting through before the gates closed) but then retreated to Pall Mall.  We were going to the IoD but since there was such an enormous queue we stopped at the Sofitel opposite for some tea and were able to watch the wedding there. Looking in at the IoD afterwards that seemed a good decision.

Everything went splendidly. The whole occasion was a wonderful sermon in the best possible sense, clearly composed by the couple with deep faith, hope and love. And the great Richard Chartres, who has been closely involved in William and Harry's upbringing and spiritual formation, gave a tremendous sermon.  He was speaking to the two of them, very directly and clearly, but also to the probably more than two billion people worldwide who were watching: the largest live audience of any sermon in history.  For comparison the total human population at the time of Christ is estimated at about 200M, and the world population didn't reach 2bn until about 1870.

I imagine it was a happy accident that it is St Catherine's day, but the quote saying* "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire" is just perfect.  And the prayer they composed at the end was lovely.

This wedding offers faith, hope and love - as all Christian weddings do.  By contrast Dawkins and his miserable shrill atheists can offer none of these, and only discern that it is about sex, procreation and power.  As Blake says:
Mock on, mock on Voltaire, Rousseau
Mock on, mock on, 'tis all in vain
You throw the sand against the wind
and the wind blows it back again.

* I cannot find a source for this and I think it is a paraphrase. My friend Gloriana has found something close in Catherine's Letter 368 (to Stefano di Corrado Maconi - "a Sienese noble distinguished by a character full of charm and purity" who who joined the Carthusians and ultimately became prior-general) and JPII closed World Youth Day 2000 by saying "the Pope follows you with affection and, paraphrasing Saint Catherine of Siena's words, reminds you: "If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!"(cf. Letter 368)."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Beauty in Cornwall - and jobs

Delightful time in Cornwall visiting my mother.  Also had time for a sailing lesson at windsport near Falmouth.  This is based in Mylor Harbour and Mylor church boasts that Christian worship has been offered on that site since 411.

Cornwall is exceptionally lovely at this time of year, with sea pinks and other very seasonal flowers.

Preliminary UK GDP figures are somewhat disappointing but the strong growth in Manufacturing and Services is very good news.  UK Consumers have been on an unsustainable debt-fuelled binge for far too long, as has the public sector. Still I do hope that the remaining quarters of 2011 come in at or ahead of expectations.  We all need to think about job creation: we're doing our bit in our company but perhaps we could do more in conjunction with our church?

Monday, April 25, 2011

A joyful eastertide

Good Friday saw a Walk of Witness where we joined up with 9 other Churches in Hammersmith and marched from St Paul's to the local shopping centre where we had an ecumencial service. Police horses stopped the traffic so that we could march in silence, which was a powerful statement.  After that there was a meditation at the Church led by the Bishop of Kensigton, with the immensely talented Rachel Chaplian (nee Baldock) and her sister and husband providing the music.

Saturday I ran with my delightful running club and I was going to go sailing but no wind, so hung out with C.  Sunday we were at the 0830 communion, benefiting from a powerful sermon on the defeat of death by the Associate  Vicar which drew heavily on Lorraine's amazing witness in her dying, when she was leading her friends and family in worship and speaking words of comfort over them as they said goodbye. Then to Cambridge to spend Easter Day with Son and family, Daughter joined us for lunch and Elder Daughter skyped in for a bit.

Martin Rees kindly booked us a guest room in Trinity and we had a nice chat this morning. I do very much agree with him about Mars colonists: within the next 20-50 years there should be a series of 1-way trips to Mars to establish a viable human colony. Many people would be happy to volunteer - yes they will die on Mars but they have to die somewhere.  Certainly God's blessing and resurrection might can extend to Mars, and indeed to the furthest reaches of the Universe

Friday, April 22, 2011

Church Schools and spreading the Gospel

I know press reports should be treated with scepticism. But I am concerned lest there be any truth in the idea that the Bishop of Oxford wants to de-emphasise the link between church attendance and places in CofE schools.  Although this will win brownie points from the largely secular Educational Establishment, we have to face the facts that:

a. For many people in the UK it is only when they start a family that they really understand the prime importance of love, and the shallowness of secular individualim with pursuit of money, sex and self-indulgance.

b. Because church-going is in many respects deeply un-fashionable many families only start going to church when they have children because they think it will help them get into a decent school.

Reducing this link will therefore result in many families who would otherwise have come to church and been exposed to Chrisianity and God's redeeming love missing out. This will be bad for them and bad for the CofE.

He needs to consider the systemic implications of this policy, and not just look in the narrow context of the Educational Establishment.

An interesting light on the vital role of churches in the UK community is given in this report from the National Churches Trust - highlighted by an article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian.  The signatories of the report are Tony Hall, Richard Best, Professor Eamon Duffy, Dr David Kynaston, Ruth Lea, Kate Parminter, Dame Stella Rimington, and Sir Timothy Sainsbury

Fair bet therefore that they are all Christians - not widely known for some of them.  

Meanwhile Justin Brieley emails me details of a conference he is hosting in London on May14 about sperading the gospel, with John Lennox and others. Details are here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Alain Haines RIP

Our friend Alan Haines died in Charing Cross Hospital on Sunday at about 8pm.

We had visited him at 5 and he was sinking rapidly but still chatting. When we had seen him on Sat he'd asked for some Whisky, so with the nurse's permission we bought him a small bottle. I gave him some with 1:4 dilution but he said it was too strong, so I diluted it another 50%. This just hit the spot!  He had another sip on Sunday.

He is now in peace with his beloved wife Dorit. May they rest in peace and rise in glory - when they do they will be even more handsome/beautiful than ever.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Great trip to US

Enjoyable and stimulating visit to the US. We flew in to NYC on Weds for a meeting with Joe Stiglitz, who was as usual great and full of teriffic insights. My colleague although a UK/US citizen had never been to NY so after we had written up the meeting I took him to The View on the 48th floor of the MAriott - but the very low cloud rather limited visibility.

Thurs travelled up by train to Boston, working on the train which is much more efficent and enjoyable than flying with its dead time. Meeting and dinner with Martin Nowak which was great.  Also managed to consult another key Nobel Laureate adviser on the phone and again super advice and insight.

Friday was some client meetings and then gave a seminar at the Kennedy School - my old friend Malcolm Sparrow attened much to my surprise and delight.  Caught up with Elder Daughter and Youngest Granddaughter and now just about to board flight back.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Useful dialogue with a critic of Martin's

Quite a constructive e-correspondence with a very good scientist who has been reportedly quite critical of Martin's accepting the Templeton Prize.  He says is sole concern is that ny individuals or organisations that interfere with the ability of our children or indeed adults to recognise truth are acting immorally.

I don't see how Martin or the Templeton Foundation can reasonably be placed in this category.  But Dawkins certainly can.

Recognising (or perhaps better, discerning) truth is indeed vital. Not for nothing do John and I call our book Questions of Truth. There are certainly some very dogmatic religious people, but there are some very dogmatic atheists as well. My correspondent lists many benefits that (western) science and engineering have given us. Similarly I could say (western) religion has given us "schools, hospitals, universities, charity, government support for the less fortunate and the rule of law"

Equally we could both list some bad things that have been given to us by science/engineering and by religion, and we could both argue that these were not the "true" results of true science/engineering or true religion but deplorable aberrations. So both science/engineering and religion have had good and bad consequences. This is a truth that all religious people I know certainly recognise. But we can also say that, on almost any reasonable evaluation, overall the benefits of science/engineering have outweighed the costs.

However this is also true of Judaeo/Christian religion. Whether or not the core theological beliefs are true, the practical benefits for humanity of adopting Christianity have been enormous (The number of people who "adopt" Judaism is miniscule). Pretty much every serious historical or sociological study confirms this. And at the level of individuals the benefits to health, longevity and (in evolutionary terms) propagation of surviving children are very clear.

It may be that most of these benefits come from certain social behaviours rather than the theological beliefs, and that these behaviours may be beneficial whilst the theological beliefs are false. But beneficial actions to not require true beliefs, just beliefs that are "true enough" - Victorian sewers still work even though their ideas about "germs" are laughably inadequate, for example.

Dawkins and other shrill militant atheists are, in my view, firmly in the category of "individuals ... that interfere with the ability of our children or indeed adults to recognise truth" because they peddle the manifest lie that religion is "the root of all evil" (this was actually the title of Dawkins' TV series that led to The God Delusion) or even the weaker form of that manifest lie, that religious beliefs are clearly on balance harmful.

We'll be able to discuss this in person when we meet in a few weeks.

Meanwhile it is worth repeating that researches supported by the Templeton Foundation have produced more top-class scientifc research (as measured by papers in Nature, Science and PNAS) than all the "New Atheists" put together.

Some rather pathetic commentator on PZ Myers blog says that all these papers must be wrong because 'The "Templeton Taint" renders any produced publication fatally flawed'.  Funny then that Steve Pinker is co-author of two of them.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lemaitre Conference Pt 2

Back from final day of this conference. The Gala Dinner last night was most enjoyable and I sat next to Bernard Carr which was great. An Oxford PhD student has offered to collaborate on E[HELP} which is great and we spent some time after the dinner thinking through some of the approaches. On Sun I began with a run along the backs, delightful spring weather, and then went to St Benet's Church where Angela Tilby preached with great insight.

The two talks today were:
  • Robin Collins who spoke very interestingly about fine-tuning, pointing out that observers could arise as Boltzmann Brains in non-anthropic universes and therefore the observer-selection counter-arguments to anthropic fine tuning are invalid. He also talked a lot about discoverability, pointing out that this depended on a ladder of successive approximations which is an even stronger constraint. He asked for a link to my Discoverability paper which I have sent him.
  • John Polkinghorne then gave some concluding reflections, including some anecdotes about Fred Hoyle. He made the point that God is more veiled than hidden in this universe. He also called for more engagement of theologians in the science/theology dialogue, noting that theologians tend to think about "the world" as Earth and "the future" as a century or so, compared to the cosmological scale of scientists.
Altogether a very interesting and successful conference.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Lemaitre Conference Pt 1

At conference organised in memory of Georges Lemaitre. I was only able to join from Sat am so missed the earlier talks, including (sadly) one by Martin Rees, but I was able to catch up with him and congratulate him in person.  Key points for me:
  • Paul Shellard spoke on recent advances in "Big-Bang' cosmology.  He is rightly very excited about the extent to which observational data are enabling rigorous scientific tests of cosmological models like inflation, constraining the many different flavours on offer.  But there are plenty of enigmas remaining (he listed 9, many to do with fine-tuning) and he's understandably very sceptical of String/M-theory.  He thinks it is essential to distinguish between cosmology and what he calls meta-cosmology, and that many popular accounts, even by eminent scientsts who should certainly know better, fail to do so.
  • John Barrow then addressed Lemaitre's legacy, (with a capital Lambda!)  John's old colleague Bill McCrea had known him and thought he was the most brilliant of the old masters, with a deep physical intutiion that enabled him to use just the right amount of mathematics.  Lemaitre discovered the Hubble Constant 2 years before Hubble, and could have predicted inflation.  John also metioned his paper with Shaw that proposes that Lambda is in fact a slowly varying scalar field and which gives a very interesting an soon-testable prediction (Discussion in Nature here)
  • Don Page spoke up for the Multiverse view, and rather pleasingly gave a plug for QoT and for E[HELP]. It's increasingly clear to me that some variational principle is the best chance of "explaining" the value of the parameters, but Martin says that we are too far away from being able to do the calculations. I also think Don needs to take confidence intervals more seriously: prior probabilites and likelhoods cannot, ITRW, be given as single numbers.
  • George Ellis then warned hard against taking Mulitverse ideas too seriously. They were legitimate hypotheses but it is grossly misleading to suggest (as Martin certainly doesn't but Brian Greene and others do) that they or indeed string/M-theory are known reality. We go from Known Physics to Hypthetical Physics and only the latter requires any form of Multiverse. As for the idea that "we are all in a computer simulation" - this is completely ridiculous. No conceivable computer could do this, and anyway who built the computer etc.. I suggested that this was part of the extreme left-brain thinking that was so dysfunctional, plugging The Master and His Emmissary. George is in my view over-impressed with Lee Smolin's Cosmic Natural Selection and I'll send him my paper that debunks it.
  • Bernard Carr then emphasied the "cosmic omphalos" in which the largest scales (c10^33 cm) arise from the smallest scales (c 10^-30 cm) if a quantum fluctuation gives rise to the Big Bang. There are a whole wealth of anthropic coincidences and we seem to be at the centre of length scales. He is inclined towards the Multiverse view, but also is very clear that mind, consciousness and mind and spirit are fundamental realities in the universe.
An interesting panel discussion followed, and now for the drinks reception.

The fundamentalist atheists are mighty cross

One of the world's greatest philosophers emails me about the ventings of Dawkins, Grayling and co re Martin Rees getting the Templeton Prize:
"Yes -- the fundamentalist atheists are mighty cross.. to the extent of sounding rather brittle"
Ineed Mark Vernon the The Guardian writes that "Martin Rees's Templeton prize may mark a turning point in the 'God wars' Awarding the Templeton prize to Rees suggests science is rejecting the advocacy of the likes of Richard Dawkins."  This got a typically shrill and ill-considered response from Jerry Coyne.

Meanwhile I hear that the Veritas Forum at UCLA had over 1000 people and they had to turn over 200 away.  Desipite the new atheist propaganda there is a great hunger for truth.  I also see that the ludicrous Sam Harris has been panned (even by atheists like Simon Blackburn) for his absurd book The Moral Landscape:  he describes Harris as "a knockabout atheist" who "joins the prodigious ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it very badly", pointing out that "if Bentham’s hedonist is in one brain state and Aristotle’s active subject is in another, as no doubt they would be, it is a moral, not an empirical, problem to say which is to be preferred."

A review in the Evening Standard rightly describes Harris' idiotic hubris:"It's the most extraordinarily overweening claim and evidently flawed".  It also knocks for six another idiotic mediocrity AC Grayling, for his "the Good Book", referring to "his fantastic hubris ... The Good Book is unreadable, not merely just because it is boring but because it is nauseating."
You suddenly realise that what you are reading is nothing other than a dud translation of a poem you know well - by Horace, Leopardi, Goethe or Li Po - as channelled by Grayling himself, far from an inspiring writer at the best of times.

The parts where he appears to have made up the gospel of AC all by himself are even worse, Genesis starts thus: "In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit. Its fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world. From it he learns how the tree grows..." Even Chance the Gardener from Being There would have blushed.
 And these are the mediocrities who criticise Martin Rees.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Congratulations to Matin Rees (+ wonderful Terrible performance)

Warmest congratulations to Martin Rees on the Templeton Prize. There has been some carping from the usual suspects: Dawkins and Atkins whose contributions to science has been a tiny fraction of that of Martin's (or indeed of Martin Nowak's) and Harry Kroto - a great guy but a pretty militant atheist in his way.

Whatever one thinks of the Templeton Foundation there is do doubt that it funds some first-rate science. Here is a list of the papers published in Science and Nature that it has funded:
  1. Positive Interactions Promote Public Cooperation Rand et al Science 4 September 2009 1272-1275 [DOI:10.1126/science.1177418]
  2. The Right and the Good: Distributive Justice and Neural Encoding of Equity and Efficiency Hsu at al Science 23 May 2008: 1092-1095 [DOI:10.1126/science.1153651] 
  3.  Via Freedom to Coercion: The Emergence of Costly Punishment Hauert et al Science 29 June 2007: 1905-1907. [DOI:10.1126/science.1141588] 
  4. Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation, Martin A. Nowak Science 8 December 2006: 1560-1563. [DOI:10.1126/science.1133755]
  5. Stellar Production Rates of Carbon and Its Abundance in the Universe Oberhummer at al Science 7 July 2000: 88-90. [DOI:10.1126/science.289.5476.88] 
  6. Distant metastasis occurs late during the genetic evolution of pancreatic cancer Yachida et al. Nature 467, 1114-1117 (27 October 2010) doi:10.1038/nature09515
  7. The evolution of eusociality Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson Nature 466, 1057-1062 (26 August 2010) doi:10.1038/nature09205 
  8. Mutational robustness can facilitate adaptation Draghi at al Nature 463, 353-355 (21 January 2010) doi:10.1038/nature08694
  9. Indirect reciprocity provides only a narrow margin of efficiency for costly punishment Ohtsuki at al Nature 457, 79-82 (1 January 2009) doi:10.1038/nature07601
  10. Pleiotropic scaling of gene effects and the ‘cost of complexity’ Wagner et al Nature 452, 470-472 (27 March 2008) doi:10.1038/nature06756 
  11. Winners don’t punish Dreber et al  Nature 452, 348-351 (20 March 2008) doi:10.1038/nature06723
  12. Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language Lieberman, et al Nature 449, 713-716 (11 October 2007) doi:10.1038/nature06137
  13. A simple rule for the evolution of cooperation on graphs and social networks Ohtsuki et al Nature 441, 502-505 (25 May 2006) doi:10.1038/nature04605
PS: Also the following in PNAS:
  1. Transcript origin analysis identifies antigen-presenting cells as primary targets of socially regulated gene expression in leukocytes Cole et al PNAS 2011 108 (7) 3080-3085; doi:10.1073/pnas.1014218108
  2. Multiple strategies in structured populations Tarnita at al PNAS 2011 108 (6) 2334-2337; doi:10.1073/pnas.1016008108
  3.  From the Cover: Accumulation of driver and passenger mutations during tumor progression Bozic at al. PNAS 2010 107 (43) 18545-18550;doi:10.1073/pnas.1010978107
  4. Infants consider both the sample and the sampling process in inductive generalization Gweon et al PNAS 2010 107 (20) 9066-9071; doi:10.1073/pnas.1003095107
  5. Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks Fowler and Christakis PNAS 2010 107 (12) 5334-5338; doi:10.1073/pnas.0913149107
Also went to a wonderful concert on Sunday with Martin Nowak - LSO at the Barbican. This was all Prokoviev: his first Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz and then the oratorio Ivan the Terrible with our friend Catherine Wyn-Rogers as mezzo soliost and a remarkable young Russian bass called Alexei Tanovitsky. The conductor was the extraordinary Xian Zhan. I'll try to add more about this later - far too busy to blog at present.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Birbalsingh, Willetts, Rolston and Nowak

V busy so no time to blog. Much of this is working with Bob May and other colleagues on revising our PNAS submission in the light of referees comments.

Read Katharine Birbalsingh's wonderful To Miss with Love. She is setting up a Free School and people should pile in with support.

Just started, belatedly, David Willetts' The Pinch which is also fascinating about family structures: how the UK has always had relatively small nuclear families (except for a bit of a splurge in the 19th C). He also makes the point that family breakup directly leads to poverty and inequality (as man with wife and elderly mother go from one household to 3).  He has a delicious turn of phrase, eg:
  • Sometimes we may regret that England does not enjoy the advantages of ... clan-style families, and look back to an earlier age when supposedly we did. The earliest recorded example of this sort of nostalga is a sermon given by Bishop Wulfstan in 1014, in which he expressed regret that vendettas were not what they used to be, as family members just would not join in*.
  • The demographic transition ... can be summarised very simply - first we stop dying like flies, then we stop breeding like rabbits.
  • A welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men,

Piano lesson with Kathron Sturrock on the Brahms G Minor Rhapsody. She is amazing and it is such a privilege to learn from her.

Also got Holmes Rolston's new book Three Big Bangs which cites QoT, and looks very interesting. When I will get time to read it...

Martin Nowak is over to promote SuperCooperators - it will be great to catch up and go get the book, it's terrific!

* David quotes Wufstan as "too often a kinsman does not protect a kinsman any more than a stranger" though it can also be translated "Now very often a kinsman does not spare his kinsman any more than the foreigner"  The Old English says "Ne bearh nu foroft gesib gesibban þe ma þe fremdan" and my daughter (not an expert but at least studying that period in History at Cambridge) says "she'd go for protect".