Thursday, March 29, 2012

Super-Earths and self-debuking atheists

The latest reports of c10bn super-earths in this galaxy alone seem to me to lend some further suggestive support to E[HELP]. But the fact that they are around Red Dwarfs which "are known to be subject to stellar eruptions or flares, which may bathe the planet in X-rays or ultraviolet radiation" means that they are themselves unlikely in my view to the HELPs.

John Polkinghorne and I have had an interesting enquiry about appropriate Christian attitudes of hospitality if we do make contact with other intelligent persons. We have no theological problem with the idea of intelligent life on other planets . John has written elsewhere that if there are “Little Green Men” then God might well have taken Green flesh. My own guess is that we are probably the first evolved persons in the galaxy and that the mean time between evolution of persons may be of the order of 10^5-10^7 years. On this timescale many things can happen including of course extinctions and colonisations. The chances of two species of persons meeting when they are at roughly comparable stages of scientific development (say within 10^2 years) seems very remote. Our most important duty would be to love these other persons in the most appropriate way, respectfully sharing the best of our cultural heritage and most importantly the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Roger Scruton has a very good essay debunking some of the neuro-X nonsense. It's fascinating that the aggressive atheists are now arguing against the existence of free will.  First Dawkins and co pretend that the ultimate purpose of life is genetic success, and have many fewer descendants than religious people do. Now their whole ethos is based on the idea that individual freedom is the "highest good" but they argue that it is non-existent.  So they debunk their own fundamental tenets without apparently realising it. How sad.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Nicole in A Child of Our Time

To the Barbican last night to hear Nicole in A Child of Our Time, conducted by Andrew Davis.  Daughter came too at the last minute which was very nice.

The first half was the London Première of Hugh Wood's 2nd Violin Concerto, which he wrote for Alexandra Wood whom he taught at Cambridge.  For some reason it was not played by her but by someone called Anthony Marwood, and although it was unfair to suggest that he Marred the piece it didn't on the whole come off very convincingly, although there were some enjoyable flourishes and the 2nd movement had some good moments. The composer is 80 this year and was present which is always nice. It is however something of a scandal that the Dedicatee was not invited to be the soloist - with the best will in the world no 3rd party is likely to do such a work justice.  It seems that this is another example of the distorting power of connections/agents.

Then the amazing Child. I had imagined that it was composed just before WW2 but actually Tippett started it when war was declared and finished it in 1941 so our backs were to the wall and for the first time in ages the mighty British Empire could identify with minorities like Jews and Blacks who were being persecuted. I still think, as I did when I sung in it as a schoolboy at Winchester, that Tippett was a much better composer than writer, and it's a real pity that he didn't persuade TS Eliot to write the libretto. I greatly admire Jung and some of the ideas in the libretto are very good: the fact that the persecutors and persecuted, the oppressors and the oppressed are two sides of the same coin.  However the music ranges from the fine to the unbelievable.

Nicole excelled herself - surely no-one on the planet could sing this better. The famously heart-rending moment at the start of "Steal Away" brought tears to both our eyes, but throughout she was utterly superb.  Matthew Rose was a wonderful Baritone (he's doing Sparafucile in Rigoletto at Covent Garden soon) - sadly our friend Toby Spence was indisposed: John Mark Ainley stepped in who is a wonderful Tenor but not at all youthful whereas Toby can look and sound like a young apprentice.  We saw Nicole afterwards backstage and then gave her a lift back to her hotel - she has to fly back to the US today.

The performance will be broadcast by the BBC on Easter Sunday (and I think goes out to a wider - catch it if you can!

Friday, March 23, 2012

St Andrews Opening with Archbishop Rowan

Last night to our local church (where C and I both worshipped for many years and served as Churchwardens) for the official opening of their redevelopment by Archbishop Rowan.  Although somewhat unprepossessing from the outside it is very striking inside: they have kept the late Victorian interior of the front of the church but turned the "brutalist" 1970s interior church hall into flats and office/community space, including a new centre for IntoUniversity.

Rowan was on brilliant form, beginning by saying that he was pleased to be described as "the outgoing ABoC - I thought I was rather shy." Other gems included:
  • A Church should be like the Tardis, always bigger on the inside than the outside.
  • We can't see the wind but we can see how it shapes the world.
  • Satan fell by the force of gravity (GKC) we must not take ourselves too seriously, we need to be held aloft by the Spirit, like a kite.
  • Open to the endless possibilities of the love that made the heavens and moves the stars.
He dedicated a rather striking "kite" sculpture which as the artist explained is both a depiction of the  crucifixion and the resurrection - and which as Rowan noticed can also be seen as suggesting the Dove Descending.

The CEO of IntoUniversity also made a short speech pointing out that their work started in a CofE Church and all their centres so far are in partnership with Churches.  We also had Baroness Eaton (who gave a short and moving speech) the Mayor of Hammersmith, and other local dignitaries, with the Villiers Quartet and the Choir providing the music.
Saw many old friends - a very good occasion.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Shrew at Richmond

To the RSC Taming of the Shrew last night with Mother, Daughter and a niece. It's a very difficult play to bring off esp with present sensibilities and on the whole I think the Director, Lucy Bailey does well. The cast is strong with good ensemble although there are no truly outstanding performances.   Much more is made of the "play within a play" than I have previously seen. Sly is on-stage the whole time, manages to expose his bottom a lot, and occasionally wanders around muttering "I am a Lord". I would guess that originally Sly would double for Petruchio.  This would allow the interpretation that he is dreaming of "taming" a woman, possibly the bar-maid.

If it was written in 1592 then Elizabeth the Great (as I would prefer to call her - and I find there was a book of that title about her) would have been 59 so the question of her marriage would have been safely (forgive the pun) put to bed.  Whether Kate is any reference to Catherine Howard also seems doubtful since this is so long in the past, although memories of "bad" names do tend to linger.

The Niece had seen almost no Shakespeare and really enjoyed it, so that's a positive point for the production.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Archbishop Rowan standing down

I'm sorry that Archbishop Rowan is standing down. I don't wholly agree with everything he has said, but what does that matter? He is a wise, godly and enormously intelligent and learned man. Surely one of the most intellectually gifted Archbishops of Canterbury in history. Not at the level of St Anselm and his prose is not as great as Cranmer's (although you could make the case that Cranmer wasn't exactly such an intellectual polymath) but you'd have to go back at least to William Temple. I have an enormous regard for Richard Chartres and he'd be a wonderful Archbishop of Canterbury, but it would be a great shame to lose him from London and the ABoC is an almost impossible job. Appointing Sentamu would be a very good witness and might make it harder for the ultra-liberals in the US who are causing so many of the problems. Long gone are the days where the traditional English Gentleman supposedly "didn't have any theological opinions of his own, but believed in whatever it was that the Archbishop of Canterbury believed in". I got an email for John Polkinghorne from someone in the Vatican addressed to "The Most Revd John Polkinghorne". Lovely idea that the Pope might consider John to be an Archbishop - though sadly it was from a researcher who probably as learned that this is a safe form of address because very few clerics would mind being addressed as an Archbishop even if they were not.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Yundi and Chopin in Paris

To Paris yesterday by Eurostar for Yundi's concert in the Salle Pleyel. It was completely amazing and well worth travelling over 1,000 miles for, let alone 212 miles.

He began with five wonderful Nocturnes (Op 9 Nos 1 and 2, Op 15 No 2, Op 27 No 2 and Op 48 No 1) played with immense feeling and musicianship - you almost felt that Chopin was at the piano though of course the instrument was more modern and powerful. Then the Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise op. 22, a more obviously showy piece but again Yundi combines superb technique which appears effortless with a deep insight and expressiveness of the heart of the music, and a staggering mastery of the multiple layers of sound.

After the interval we had the monumental "Funeral March" sonata, again a truly revelatory performance. The sheer relentlessness of the of the first Funeral theme was handled particularly well, and the second subject of that movement, which I tend to see as an expression of hope beyond the grave, was played by Yundi with an almost unbearable wistfulness looking backwards on the lost life: perhaps this is much closer to Chopin's own views. A Pole of that era would have been deeply imbued with catholicism and I think he was a devout and rather conservative Catholic until his 10-year-relationship with George Sand.  There is an account of his deathbed conversion but I don't know whether it is reliable.

Then four Chinese pieces:Pi huang (Peking opera) Colourful clouds chasing the moon (by Ren Guang), Sunflowers and In that place wholly faraway.  After three sets of rapturous applause there was a dazzling Chopin encore. Yundi then had a record signing and I guess over 100 people queued up. It was a delight to see the interaction with his fans, and the thrill of people being photographed with him. After that we went backstage and he invited me to come to supper with his friends at one of his friend's appartement. The other guests were a couple who had flown from Japan to hear this concert, and were then travelling to Munich to hear him tonight.

Our host was immensely knowledgeable, with a great collection of Brahms memorabilia, and a long association with world-class musicians. Indeed when he was a teenager he corresponded with Bruno Walter shortly before his death.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Very busy Thursday included a televised interview with the Xinhua news agency about China and the global financial system. It will be interesting to see when/if they use it.

On Friday my wonderful piano teacher came round for a lesson on the Schubert F Minor Fantaise for piano 4 hands. It's such a great piece and she is such a great player it is a delight and joy to learn from her and to play it with her. So much work to do!

On Saturday we went to the Bar Mitzvah of the younger son of one of my oldest friends (we've known each other for over 40 years) at the Finchley Reform Synagogue. This was a delightful event, a charming community led by a very engaging Rabbi who is I believe the daughter of one of the pioneers of Reform judaism. The service books have the text in Hebrew, English and transliterated Hebrew so that we could sing along (most of the service is sung) and it was very striking how much of the Christian liturgy is rooted in Jewish traditions. After lunch at our friends' we went to Cambridge to see our Son and his family and our Younger Daughter.

Interesting to reflect on the parallels between Jewish and Chinese culture. Both of course are very old and have strange scripts to Western eyes. There are perhaps 2bn ethnic Chinese in the world and there are about 15M Jews. Nevertheless Jewish thinkers and writers have had an impact on history that is utterly disproportionate to their numbers: not only through the Abrahamic faiths but for example in the fact that about 22% of Nobel Laureates are of Jewish ancestry (rising to 27% if you exclude Peace and Literature).

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Rowan, Chesterton and The Lancet

Last night to Lambeth Palace for the AGM of the Lambeth Partnership. This began with evensong in the Chapel, and a wonderful sermon from ABp Rowan. He pointed out that it was the eve of the feast of Sts Perpetua and Felicity and that such stories of triumph over suffering and adversity were sent as "food parcels" of spiritual nourishment - gifts of encouragement between Christian communities in the early church. What do we, as the CofE, have to offer our brothers and sisters in other churches by way of such "food parcels"?

Sadly I had to leave after the service since we were entertaining 6 company Chairmen and a leading Investor for a fascinating (but unbloggable) Investor/Chairman Dinner.  But I was able to congratulate Rowan on his excellent discussion with Dawkins, and tell him about Martin's appearance on The Life Scientific.  Rowan is of course a great fan of Martin's.  The only reliable way to get from A to B on time was by bicycle so I cycled over Westminster Bridge in the evening which was indeed rather magnificent.

Greatly entertained by this letter in The Lancet about risk of mortality - a point I have often made though not so elegantly!  And there is much wisdom in this post about Chesterton's Fence.

Now back to work....

PS - am now watching the full Dawkins/Rowan discussion which is here.  Two very striking phrases from Rowan: On Genesis: "they were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know" and "A God who is a combination of love and mathematics."

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Great interview with Martin Rees

Great interview with Martin Rees in "The Life Scientific". He was asked about the controversy around his acceptance of the Templeton Prize, and he said words to the effect that "I thought you'd be able to count the objectors who were prominent scientists on the fingers of one hand, and so it proved".

Asked about Dawkins' criticisms of him he replies "Well I'm not the only one who is criticised by Richard Dawkins". He rightly believes in peaceful coexistence between science and religion.

On the multiverse he thinks it's an open question, which we may be able to settle in the next few decades.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Good national governance matters

Busy but not very bloggable week. However we're making good progress for the launch of In Business and Battle which should be fairly spectacular.

Delighted that Martin Wolf has picked up my idea for reform of the House of Lords and featured it in his column in the FT today. This has recieved good feedback from a number of crossbench peers, and hopefully Martin's column will give it legs. Governance is really important.

En route from a meeting yesterday was walking down Piccadilly and saw a crowd with cameras gathering outside Fortnum & Mason's. It turned out that The Queen, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge were all about to emerge from a visit to the store. We didn't really see the Duchess of Cornwall but both the Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge looked great.  The idea that the Royal Family is in some sense a drain on the national resources is laughably ignorant. Quite apart from the fact that the income from the Crown Estate (which goes to HMG) is vastly in excess of the Civil List, the Royal Family bring vast benefits in terms of tourism, trade and diplomacy. Tourism is obvious. In terms of trade, almost every senior person anywhere in the world would drop/re-arrange anything that wasn't absolutely vital for a meeting with the Queen or a top Royal - compared with the apathy that rightly greets most politicians.  But of course the biggest advantage of The Queen as Head of State is that it stops us from having a politician in this role.  And look at the mess they have in Germany over their President.