Sunday, February 24, 2013

Look out for Corinne Winters - a wonderful Violetta

Went last night to the ENO La Traviata, on the strength of a rave review in The Spectator of the central performance by one Corinne Winters. This was entirely justified - she was very good indeed and is definitely one to watch.

Anthony Michaels-Moore was an excellent Gremont and Ben Johnson was a fine Alfredo. The production was just a bit too minimalist for my taste - when the singers have to mime drawing the velvet curtains that have been the motif and pretty well only props in the previous scenes, and when Violetta dies in a chair because they can't produce a bed... ah well.

Fascinating blog post from Max Tegmark about how he was vilified for posting the MIT Survey on Science and Religion ... by atheists.  So many of these "militant atheists" (or indeed Dawkins Defenders) are just determined to avoid truth whenever it is "inconvenient" to them. They really are pathetic.  (minor example on Wikipedia here).
PS on her Twitter feed Ms Winters says "Perfection is not necessarily getting it right, but staying totally present in each moment. #ENOtraviata last night achieved this. #grateful" Wise!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

An antidote to Bosh from Christof Koch

C elegans (source:Wikipedia)
A pity that Steve Chu has resigned as Energy Secretary. Very good of a Nobel Laurate to have spent 4 years serving his country in this way - must have been enormously frustrating.

Outstanding review of Ray Kurzweil's absurd How to Create a Mind The Secret of Human Thought Revealed in Science by the wonderful Christof Koch. He says that:
"Kurzweil correctly points out that the pace at which biologists accumulate data has increased dramatically over the years (although I only wish that his claim that "the spatial resolution of brain scanning … [is] doubling every year" were true). From this he infers that a complete understanding of the brain and the mind can't be far away.

Paradoxically, the endless data fields make it ever more difficult to distinguish the signal from the noise. Indeed, the torrent of data begets the illusion of progress. While data about the brain accumulate exponentially, our understanding increases sublinearly. Basic questions about cortical circuitry posed by future Nobel laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel in a celebrated publication in 1962 remain unanswered 50 years later. Functional human brain imaging has yet to affect standard medical practice (the upcoming [DSMV] does not even mention any [FMRI] diagnostic criteria). And even the lowly roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, a creature no bigger than the letter l and with exactly 302 nerve cells, is for now beyond the ability of computational neuroscience to comprehend. Kurzweil's claim that we will soon figure out how the 100 billion neurons of the human brain function on the basis of designed HHMMs is complete bosh."

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Back from US, protons and ctenophores

Back from a very productive time in the US, giving a talk in NY and visiting clients and collaborators and family in Boston/Cambridge.

Sadly all the discussions are un-bloggable in any detail but I think I can record that: An enormously distinguished bio-scientist greeted the news of Dawkins' defeat at the Cambridge Union with "I don't know why anyone is even interested in Dawkins' opinions"  What non-scientists don't seem to appreciate is that Dawkins is not really a scientist, and the last supposed "contribution" he  made to science was in 1982.Of course the Dawkins Defenders are trying to hide his defeat from the eyes of the "faithful" - I suppose atheism is fundamentally about hiding information but it is a bit depressing. If they really had confidence in their arguments the wouldn't need to suppress facts.

From Helen S. Margolis commentary on
Antognini et al.
Very interesting paper in Science (Antognini et al., see commentary here) about measuring the size of the proton, which looks as if it is very significantly smaller than previously thought (7 standard deviations away from the results of other measurements). A difference of 0.04 femtometers may not seem much, but it strongly suggests that there is something going on here we don't understand.  I wonder if it could eventually be related to my conjecture that the mass of the Higgs is a fundamental constant, which therefore doesn't need super-symmetric particles to prevent it from drifting to infinity due to quantum measurement effects?

There is also an interesting report that the nervous system may have evolved independently in ctenophores from the rest of the animal kingdom. Given how fundamental a nervous system is, and what survival advantages it brings, this isn't really very surprising. But most people are still stuck with the idea that evolution is "random" and find convergent evolution a bit counter-cultural.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Dawkins decisively trounced

I knew that Rowan would trounce Dawkins intellectually in their debate yesterday, but I wasn't sure how clearly the Cambridge Union attendees would recognise this.  In the end it wasn't even close: Rowan defeated Dawkins by wit, erudtion, widsom, truth, vastly superior intellect and 324 votes to 136 - a ratio of over 2.3:1. In fact there were also 85 abstentions so the vote was 59% against, 25% for 16% abstain.

Rowan reportedly said "Religion has always been a matter of community building; a matter of building precisely those relations of compassion, fellow feeling and – I dare to use the word – inclusion, which would otherwise be absent from our societies." He agreed that religions deserved to be scrutinised and added, looking at his opponent: "That is why if I say I thank God for Professor Dawkins, you will understand what I do and I don't mean."

The only thing reportedly memorable about Dawkins' speech was a puerile penis joke. Now that I've had a chance to look at the video (which came up long after this post) the reporting is unfair. In particular Dawkins seems to be quite sympathetic to the idea of an Ultimate Creator and has come to understand that there is a real issue about where the laws of physics come from. But he finds it incredible that a God who created the whole cosmos could concern himself with human beings.  It doesn't seem to have dawned on him that God is infinite. To an infinite God, it makes no difference whether there are 10^0 planets inhabited by persons or 10^10, and it makes no difference whether there are 2 x 10^0 people of 10^100.

Dawkins' main stated objection to religion is that it holds up scientific progress. But this is also nonsense. Indeed the only example I can think of where religious prejudice held up scientific progress in the last 100 years was the Big Bang theory which was opposed by atheists on the grounds that it was far too much like Genesis (and it's proponent was a Catholic Priest - albeit one who was clear that Big Bang did not have any theological implications).  

A very distinguished scientist told me that he had been at the last debate and that, in his view "There were some absolute howlers from the Dawkins side."

The Telegraph and the Independent managed to report this debate without mentioning the vote other than that the house voted to reject. Although to be fair the Telegraph then featured the fact that Dawkins' motion "was comprehensively defeated" in their lead editorial promisingly entitled "A Moment of Renewal for Church and Country".

The BBC don't mention the vote. A neat satirical blog I hadn't seen before posted that the Cambridge Union had decisively voted that "Dawkins has no place in the 21st Century"

A well placed source who was there says that a virtuoso performance from Charles Douglas Murray (a right-wing atheist apparently) helped secure the victory and having seen the debate I can see what he meant. There is an article in Varsity which bears this out and gives a rather fuller account of the debate. Apparently Dawkins 'told students that he would almost like to still believe in a god who was “God the physicist”, a “master architect” of the universe in its intricate complexity.' (see also my update above).

Of course the motion itself was absurd, so even thoughtful atheists could, and should, have voted against it, but that's the fault of the proposers.  An article in TCS tells us that 85 people abstained and remarks
Some students voiced that Dawkins was in fact "the least intriguing speaker" at the debate. One second year student told TCS: "He did not address the motion. His points focused only on debating whether religion is true, and ignored the question of whether it has a place in modern society." 
It is rather ironic that Dawkis cricises religion for "simplistic explanations" when it is becoming increasingly clear to people that Dawkins' dogmatic presentation of neo-Darwinism is in fact far too simplistic.