Saturday, June 29, 2013

PM, Colloquium and Bill Phillips

WCIT Colloquium at House of Lords
What a week!  On Mon went to a dinner function with the PM. Grant Shapps was on our table who was quietly impressive and the PM in good form.

Weds however was a much bigger day from our PoV as we held the 5th Colloquium on the Ethical and Spirtual Implications of the Internet at the House of Lords. We have been organising these under the auspices of the WCIT since 1997 with essentially the same format: two initial speakers one from the business world and one from the ethical/spiritual and then an interactive discussion. This year we had Vittorio Colao and Rowan Williams as the initial speakers, and Onora O'Neill chairing it. An amazing line-up and some very distinguished participants.  Chatham House Rule so I can't blog the details but there will be a suitable report on the WCIT website and we are considering how best to follow it up.

Bill Phillips at the RI
Then yesterday Bill Phillips was in town, giving a wonderful Friday Evening Discourse at the RI. Although he had kindly written an endorsement for Questions of Truth we had never met and it was great to meet him and present him with a signed copy.  It was also a great pleasure to meet his delightful daughter.

His talk involved much splashing about of Liquid Nitrogen but also of course had the serious purposes of making us think about atomic clocks and getting us to understand a bit the physics and purposes of ultra-cold atoms. It's striking how old some of this is. The future Lord Kelvin wrote his paper proposing a temperature scale beginning at Absolute Zero in 1848 and the concept of the Atomic Fountain was proposed by Zacharias at MIT in 1953.

Two of the most enjoyable parts of Bill's narrative were when he related how in 1988 they found that the temperatures of their optically cooled atoms were 6x lower than predicted "A serious violation of Murphy's Law" and when he described clocks with an accuracy of 3 parts in 10-16 as "good enough for Government Work".  He was also wonderfully effective in responding to questions from the audience, including a young kid of about 10 who asked a very good question about neutron stars.

He did however begin with the statement that Einstein realised that "time is what clocks measure."  I've long thought that there is a fundamental misconception about the nature of time, supposing that it is linear when in fact it is clearly branching in some sense - the topology of time is essentially given by modal logic. John Lucas's classic great book A Treatise on Time and Space should be much more widely studied. When we finally get the right concepts to deal with the problems of fundamental physics I strongly suspect that they will be rooted in a deeper understanding of the nature of time.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Brilliant results from Nowak and Vogelstein etc..

Fig 5 of Bozic et al.
Martin Nowak sends me a brilliant paper of which he and Bert Vogelstein and co-authors, just published in ELife, called "Evolutionary dynamics of cancer in response to targeted combination therapy."

The key figure (for me) is Fig 5 which shows that if there is even a single mutation that confers cross-resistance to both drugs, then sequential therapy will fail in all cases (A). With simultaneous therapy, 26.3% of patients can be cured under the same circumstances. In the remaining patients (73.7%), cross-resistant mutations existed prior to the therapy and their expansive growth will ensure treatment failure whether treatment is simultaneous or sequential (B). If the two drugs have no resistance mutations in common (n12 = 0), then simultaneous therapy is successful with a probability of 99.9% (D) while sequential therapy still fails in all cases (C).

It is a beautiful classic in the application of Evolutionary Dynamic calculations to real medical problems.

Daughter coming home today - turns out that her First in her history finals was very solid indeed, and her results were well inside the top 10% of her year.  We're organising another Colloquium on the Ethical and Spiritual Implications of the Internet tonight at the House of Lords, with Onora O'Neill charing and Vittorio Colao and Rowan Williams as initial speakers, so no time to blog in detail.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Back from Beijing and delightful news re Daughter

Seminar at CUFE
Fascinating and largely un-bloggable trip to Beijing which included giving a seminar at the Central University of Finance and Economics. I also spent a weekend there and so again worshipped at the South Cathedral. They are short of tenors and basses for the English Choir so I volunteered (explaining that I was a regular visitor but was only in Beijing about 2 weekends every couple of months) and after an audition was accepted. So I spent 2-hours after the service in Choir practice, one of only 2 westerners present.

Was planning to be in Beijing on Sun but got all the meetings done so was able to fly back on Sat. Delightful news that Daughter got a First in her History Finals at Cambridge so dropped bags at home, went straight to Cambridge for dinner with her and other family members, and then was driver back with all her things from her room - half dead when we had finished unloading, the body is just not designed/evolved for heavy work after an 8 hour timeshift.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Eloquence in Changing Banking for Good

The UK Commission on Banking has produced its report Changing Banking for Good.  It's too close to my day-job for me to blog about it extensively and I haven't had the chance to read it in detail.  But I can't resist quoting this paragraph:
"One of the most dismal features of the banking industry to emerge from our evidence was the striking limitation on the sense of personal responsibility and accountability of the leaders within the industry for the widespread failings and abuses over which they presided. Ignorance was offered as the main excuse. It was not always accidental. Those who should have been exercising supervisory or leadership roles benefited from an accountability firewall between themselves and individual misconduct, and demonstrated poor, perhaps deliberately poor, understanding of the front line. Senior executives were aware that they would not be punished for what they could not see and promptly donned the blindfolds. Where they could not claim ignorance, they fell back on the claim that everyone was party to a decision, so that no individual could be held squarely to blame—the Murder on the Orient Express defence. It is imperative that in future senior executives in banks have an incentive to know what is happening on their watch—not an incentive to remain ignorant in case the regulator comes calling."
I cannot help feeling that one of the advantages of having an experienced preacher on such a panel is that you can get such turns of phrase!  Probably lots more examples in the report. It will be interesting to see the reaction, and what happens.

PS Have now read the whole summary (ie down to para 254). Lots of excellent stuff, though I'm not sure I agree with everything.  The section heading "Physician, heal thyself!" is a nice touch.  Let me conclude by quoting the ending:
By making constructive use of the recommendations of this Report and by supporting their spirit as well as the letter, the banks can, over a period, earn the respect of the public, and thereafter regain their trust. Everyone can be the beneficiary. Implementation of the agenda we have set out for higher standards will lead to an industry which better serves both its customers and the needs of the real economy. It will also further strengthen the position of the UK as the world’s leading financial centre. If implemented, our proposals can change banking for good.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Niche Construction and Denis Noble

A rough idea of Niche Construction Theory
Denis Noble sends me some fascinating e-correspondence with John Olding-Smee who is one of the key proponents of Niche Construction Theory, a very neat idea which integrated ecology and evolution in an interesting and productive way.  There is a very interesting 2013 paper by Olding-Smee et al called "Niche Construction Theory: A Practical Guide for Ecologists" which gives a helpful overview, and there is a website which has many other helpful resources, and a 2003 book Niche Construction: the neglected process in Evolution. which has a nice commendation from Bob May.

The basic idea is that, in contrast to the implicit assumption in neo-Darwinist discussion that the environment is fixed so you have millions of years for genetic adaptations,  ecological niches are most always constructed/modified by organisms and the niches evolve at a similar pace to the organisms. Therefore it is no good to take a simplistic "gene's-eye view" you have to consider the whole interacting system of genes, organisms, and the niches they create and modify. Interestingly this can be seen as a generalisation of the "Extended Phenotype" idea proposed by Dawkins, except that Dawkins was, and is, so blinkered by his "Selfish Gene" nonsense that he restricts the notion of Extended Phenotype to exclude most of the interesting interactions.

The Niche Construction Theory people explicitly focus on the complex network of co-evolution between organisms and niches and this means that causality is far from straightforward.  It will be very interesting to see whether and how people like Nowak and Tarnita take up these ideas.

It's also pretty notable that none of the Dawkins Defenders have really responded directly to Denis's points - even from the Music of Life let alone his latest work. I've glanced at the list of 417 citations of Music and I can't see anything - more to the point nor is Denis aware. I am however rather pleased to see a paper in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences entitled "Philosophical basis and some historical aspects of systems biology: From Hegel to Noble - Applications for bioenergetic research."

It will be interesting to see whether any of them rise to the challenge of his "Rocking the Foundations" paper when it becomes the basis for his IUPS Presidential Address next month. At present it hasn't really penetrated popular consciousness.  We shall see...

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Justin and Francis Meet

Justin meeting Francis - Credit: Reuters
Enormously encouraged by reports of the meeting between Justin Welby and Pope Francis. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall!

The texts of their remarks were very encouraging and there is evident personal warmth between them. Sadly there is harumphing from some bigoted lay Catholic bloggers but they are in an odd position because they can hardly be ultra-loyal catholics and hold that the Pope has done wrong!

Note that the Vatican unashamedly describes Justin as Archbishop Justin (ultra-catholics would deny that he was a bishop at all).  Justin was wearing the the episcopal ring famously given to Archbishop Michael Ramsey by Pope Paul VI in 1966.  I reproduce part of Justin's remarks but they all really strike home:
"we are called by the Holy Spirit of God, through our fraternal love, to continue the work that has been the precious gift to popes and archbishops of Canterbury for these past fifty years, and of which this famous ring is the enduring token. I pray that the nearness of our two inaugurations may serve the reconciliation of the world and the Church. 
As you have stressed, we must promote the fruits of our dialogue; and, with our fellow bishops, we must give expression to our unity in faith through prayer and evangelisation. It is only as the world sees Christians growing visibly in unity that it will accept through us the divine message of peace and reconciliation. However, the journey is testing and we cannot be unaware that differences exist about how we bring the Christian faith to bear on the challenges thrown up by modern society. But our ‘goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey’ (Benedict XVI, Spe salvi 1), and we can trust in the prayer of Christ, ‘ut omnes unum sint’ (Jn 17.21). A firm foundation of friendship will enable us to be hopeful in speaking to one another about those differences, to bear one another’s burdens, and to be open to sharing the discernment of a way forward that is faithful to the mind of Christ pressed upon us as disciples.
PS I've found this interesting comment from Pope Francis' friend Bishop Gregory Venables:
"...Jorge Bergoglio is ... much more of a Christian, Christ centered and Spirit filled, than a mere churchman. He believes the Bible as it is written... He is consistently humble and wise, outstandingly gifted yet a common man...He called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the Ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the church needs us as Anglicans."
(Hat tip Cranmer who got it from here - I think my link is to the original). Ultra-Catholics - listen to the Holy Father!

PPS: there are also some interesting remarks he apparently made to a Latin American delegation:
"...I would rather have a Church that makes mistakes for doing something than one that gets sick for being closed up...I share with you two concerns. One is the Pelagian current that there is in the Church at this moment. There are some restorationist groups. I know some, it fell upon me to receive them in Buenos Aires. And one feels as if one goes back 60 years!..."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Responses from Denis Noble

Denis Noble at the BNF
Denis Noble has sent me a link to a pdf on his website in the form of questions and answers about his seminal paper Physiology is Rocking the Foundations of Evolutionary Biology.

He makes it very clear (of course) that he is not criticising the idea of Evolution, or indeed anything that could properly be called Darwinsim - since Darwin was extremely clear that his theory of Natural Selection was not the whole story.  However he is very critical of so-called "neo-Darwinism" or as he prefers to call it the "Modern Synthesis" because it is far too simplistic and dogmatic.
As Denis says:
The dogmatic claims (a) that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is impossible, (b) that all evolutionary change is incremental accumulation of ‘random’ mutations, (c) that the tree of life does not include lateral transfer to form a network of life, have quite clearly been dis-proven by experimental work. I can’t understand why neo-darwinists cannot accept this. But we must al so avoid the reverse dogma: the neo-darwinist view of evolutionary mechanisms has not been dis-proven. It has simply become one of several mechanisms of evolutionary change. 
He points out that:
Despite the great influence of Popper, single contrary observations rarely destroy a strongly established theory. The tendency is to fix theories, extend them, even to redefine their entities, in ways that allow the contrary observations to be absorbed. This is what happened to Waddington’s work. If they can’t be absorbed in this way, they are sidelined as anomalies. This nearly happened to McClintock until she was awarded the Nobel Prize.
He also explains in some detail what is wrong with The Selfish Gene. He says it is:
colourful, convincing and unforgettable – until one tries to analyse it by the standard philosophical and scientific criteria. Then it unravels.
He points out that: "[Evolution] can’t be reduced to a simple formula with one paradigmatic mechanism." and gives a telling vingnette of a 2009 debate involving Margulis and Dawkins where:
Dawkins challenges Margulis with the simplicity of a single neo-darwinist mechanism: “It's highly plausible, it's economical, it's parsimonious, why on earth would you want to drag in symbiogenesis when it's such an unparsimonious, uneconomical [theory] ? ” Margulis replied: “Because it 's there.” That’s it in a nutshell. What is there, what exists, which is the starting point of all science. 
(video here - commentary here)

{BTW I didn't realise that Caroline Humphrey was Waddington's daughter!}

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Affordable excellence

The excellent Gillian Tett has an article in the FT plugging William Haseltine's book about the Singapore Healthcare system Affordable Excellence. This seems to be the first book that has been written (at least in the West) on the topic and it's really important.

As I said at the Global Investment Conference:
 for much of the G7, if you take a 10-30 year view, the rocketing entitlement spending is going to swamp anything that's done in the shorter term... there needs to be a long term programme to raise the retirement age, and a long term programme to move to something like a Singaporean model which gets better health outcomes for about half the EU's health expenditure and about a quarter of the US's,
There was general agreement on this from the panel, and indeed the Chancellor said he would (coincidentally) be meeting the Health Minister from Singapore the following day.

Here is one interesting quote which somewhat sums it up:
By the early 1990s, it became clear that healthcare costs were growing at an alarming rate that would soon put an unacceptable strain on the nation's as well as family finances. It was also recognized that increasing life expectancy was creating another challenge: how to care for the growing elderly population in Singapore. A Ministerial Committee was set up to review the role the government could play in containing costs, controlling subsidies, and ensuring the continued quality of care. In 1993, the committee issued its report in a White Paper...[which]...set forth five fundamental objectives:
  1. Become a healthy nation by promoting good health;
  2. Promote individual responsibility for one's own health and avoid overreliance on state welfare or third-party medical insurance;
  3. Ensure good and affordable basic medical services for all Singaporeans;
  4. Engage competition and market forces to improve service and raise efficiency; and
  5. Intervene directly in the healthcare sector when necessary, where the market fails to keep healthcare costs down.
Well worth studying. How we move from where we are now to where we need to be is another question...

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Justin Welby and Matt Ridley - two steps forward

Back from an idyllic few days in Cornwall with grandchildren - sunny days and some amazing sunsets.

The celebration of 60th Anniversary of the Queen's coronation seems to have gone very well.  We managed to catch Archbishop Justin's sermon and it is brilliant - though it will have raised some hackles by stating very strongly that true freedom can only be found under God (whole event video is here).  I also hear that he was a great success with the students at Trinity College on Sunday.

An interesting perspective by Simon E Fisher and Matt Ridley in Science argues that some of the genetic changes associated with modern humans may have been driven by the evolution of culture rather than causing it.  This is particularly interesting to me because Ridley has been one of the big Dawkins-ites and this point is one of the nails in the coffin of the ridiculous "lumbering robots" trope.

So I guess these are two steps forward. (Interestingly there are as many ghits for "justin welby" as for "richard dawkins" in the last week.)

It was very good catching up with our friend Frieda Hughes in London on Monday evening. She was giving a reading of some poems at The Troubador. A remarkable talent fusing poetry and art.  She's exhibiting at the Henley Festival in July - catch her if you can!

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Small changes in distances from a star

From Elkins-Tranton's Nature commentary
Fascinating article in Nature (see commentary here) suggesting that there is a further constraint in terms of habitability since even watery planets which are too near to their sun will find that the water evaporates to Venusian conditions.  As readers of this blog will know I'm inclined to the MaxHELP hypothesis (that the fundamental constants of the universe may be such as to maximise the expected number of Habitable Earthlike Planets) but I also think that the constraints on Habitability are stronger than people suppose.  It seems that you need long term stable orbits for at least 3bn years and it now looks as if these orbits have to be outside a critical distance.

Reading a biography of John le Mesurer. He was at Sherborne with Alan Turing (though there is no evidence of any interaction) but more to the point he did his acting training at the Fay Compton studio where there were only 2 other men in his year, one of whom was Alec Guinness. Fay Compton was a reasonably successful actress and she got friends including John Gielgud, Alfred Hitchcock and Ivor Novello to be the judges for the final year performance. Of course Alec G won the top prize but John le Mesurer (then known as John Halliley - le Mesurer was his mother's maiden name) also did OK. Another situation where relatively small changes in distances from a star can make a difference!