Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Submaries, charm, faith and deterrance

HMS Resolution (courtesy Wikipedia)
Very much enjoying The Silent Deep an excellent book by Peter Hennessy and his former student James Jinks about the RN Submarine Service since 1945.

There is a nice incident when the highly irascible but utterly pivotal Admiral Rickover visited the UK in 1957 to inspect the British nuclear design team at Rolls he was “at his obnoxious worst”. After one particularly difficult morning Rickover was introduced to the Chairman Lord Hives.
‘A lord eh? Chairman eh? And what are you then, a banker or a lawyer or what?’ said Rickover. ‘What me? No, no, no, no, no! Me, I’m just a mechanic, just a bloody plumber.’ said Hives, with a big board smile on his face. Rickover was thrown, he had not expected that kind of answer. When Hives explained that he had known Henry Royce himself, had worked for him, and had absorbed from him his passion for engineering excellence Rickover’s mood an attitude started to improve. Hives spent much of the lunch telling a captivated Rickover about Royce’s obsession with achieving perfection.

He then took Rickover on a personal tour of the word, not in a Rolls-Royce or Bentley but in a very modest Hillman. …when Hives returned after showing Rickover around… the Admiral was a changed man, subdued, pleasant, cooperative, uncritical, and no further put-downs or denigrations of British engineering escaped his lips...

That hour of dialogue… changed everything in the British nuclear submarine programme. 
 I'm also very struck by the way in which Captain Michael Henry, one of the first commanders of a UK SSBN, composed a 'Prayer for Polaris'
Lord thou command us saying 'thou shalt not kill'. Thou knowest that we prepare ourselves constantly tio kill, not one but thousands, and hat by this preparation we believe we help to preserve peace among nations. Do thou, who gave man the knowledge to fashion this terrible weapon, give him also the sense of responsibility to control its use; so that fear for the consequences may indeed maintain peace until that day when love, not fear, shall control all men's actions. Give us the will, but never the wish, to obey the order to fire. O God, if it is thy will, grant that that order may never need to be given. Amen.'

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dawkins misrepresents Darwin and Evolution

Title Page of 2nd Edition of Origin
Merry Christmas!
One of my presents was A Devil's Chaplain - a book of selected essays by Richard Dawkins. I have very little time for the man, and finding holes in his "arguments" is like shooting fish in a barrel.  The title essay (presumably written in 2002, it hadn't been previously published and the book is 2003) demonstrates his characteristic inability to understand Evolution: he sees it as 100% competition whereas it's clearly a mixture of competition and cooperation with sexual selection being very important in the higher animals - and somewhere in the middle.

However in addition to his almost laughable scientific and philosophical confusion, what's really striking is his final quote from Origin.

This contains the celebrated sentence: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed* into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Dawkins adds, as a footnote:
* In the Second Edition, and all subsequent edition of the Origin the three words 'by the Creator' were interpolated at this point, presumably as a sop to religious sensibilities.

This is hilarious. Note that Dawkins can't bring himself to say "added by Darwin" leaving open the idea that they may have been "interpolated" by someone else. Darwin made many many improvements between the first and sixth edition and was a very careful writer.   Interestingly the second of the three facing title quotations was also added for the 2nd Edition. These are:
  • "But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this-- we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws."--Whewell: "Bridgewater Treatise". 
  • "The only distinct meaning of the word 'natural' is stated, fixed or settled since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so, i.e., to effect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to effect it for once."--Butler: "Analogy of Revealed Religion". 
  • "To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both."--Bacon: "Advancement of Learning".
I've tried to find out what we know about the circumstances of Darwin adding "by the Creator". The Darwin Correspondence Project has only 8 uses of the term Creator in Darwin's letters. These are:
  1. An 1843 letter to Waterhouse "Most authors say it is an endeavour to discover the laws according to which the Creator has willed to produce organized beings— But what empty high-sounding sentences these are— it does not mean order in time of creation, nor propinquity to any one type, as man.— in fact it means just nothing"
  2. An 1849 letter ordering a book by H Miller called "Footprints of a Creator"
  3. An 1857? letter to Huxley about the purpose of classification: "I knew, of course, of the Cuvierian view of Classification, but I think that most naturalists look for something further, and search for “the natural system”,—“for the plan on which the Creator has worked” etc etc."
  4.  A Feb 1860 letter to Asa Gray thanking him for his review of the Origin which Darwin thinks "is by far the most able which has appeared".  Darwin says "I have been interested by your theological remarks in the Review, but I must reconsider them. It has always seemed to me that for an Omnipotent and omniscient Creator to foresee is the same as to preordain; but then when I come to think over this I get into an uncomfortable puzzle something analogous with "necessity and Free-will'' or the "Origin of evil'', or other such subject quite beyond the scope of the human intellect. I was interested the other day in reading the Life of Newton by Brewster to find that Leibnitz actually attacked the Law of Gravity as ``subversive of all Natural Religion'!!"
  5.  A May 1860 letter to Asa Gray concluding: "I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope and believe what he can.—
    Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; and that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event and consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter."
  6.  A June 1860 letter to Lyell on the "Deification" of Natural Selection. "No astronomer in showing how movements of Planets are due to gravity, thinks it necessary to say that the law of gravity was designed that the planets shd. pursue the courses which they pursue.— I cannot believe that there is a bit more interference by the Creator in the construction of each species, than in the course of the planets.— It is only owing to Paley and Co, as I believe, that this more special interference is thought necessary with living bodies.— But we shall never agree, so do not trouble yourself to answer.
  7.  A Mar 1867 letter to William Darwin about the Duke of Argyll's book Reign of Law. "I have not yet read the Duke and Heaven knows when I shall get the time, but I am inclined to agree with you from all that I have heard.Mamma has several times declared that the Duke did not understand the Origin, but I pooh-poohed her, and as it seems very unjustly. We have been amused at how a Duke, as you say, looks at the Creator. I must try and read the book before long."
  8.  An Oct 1880 letter to GE Mengozzi.  Mengozzi specifically asked Darwin whether he thinks his theories imply Atheism or Materialism, and Darwin replied "even if no organism can exhibit design, this does not in any way exclude the belief in a divine Creator of all things."
It is perfectly clear from this correspondence alone that Darwin did not consider that his views implied Atheism. Far from "a sop to religious sensibilities" these are issues Darwin grappled with all his life. And he emphatically rejected the simplistic inferences that Dawkins peddles.

PS Warm thanks to Rosemary Clarkson for providing the link to the letter which is not yet online in the Darwin Correspondence Project.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas!

12 Images from Spitzer
Merry Christmas everybody!

We went to Midnight Mass at Holy Trinity Brompton last night: a delightful service made more so for me by the presence of a choir that sang the Sparrow Mass liturgically - highly unusual for a Charismatic Evangelical service. People from all over the world were there and it was a really joyful occasion.

On the way in we saw hundreds of people queuing for the Midnight Mass at the Brompton Oratory next door. Amazing what powerhouses these two adjacent Churches have become.

Here is my translation of the traditional Christmas Psalm, Psalm 19.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day tells its tale to another day,
    and night imparts knowledge unto night.
There is neither speech nor language;
    and their voices among them are not heard;
yet their sound has gone out unto all lands,
    and their words unto to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tabernacle for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his chamber,
    and rejoices like a champion to run.
It rises from the far end of the heavens,
    and runs its circuit to the end again;
    and nothing’s hidden from the heat thereof.
The LORD’s law: perfect, it revives the soul;
The LORD’s testimonies: sure, make wise the simple;
The LORD statutes: right, and rejoice the heart;
The LORD’s commandment: pure, gives light to eyes;
The LORD’s fear: clean, and it endures forever;
The LORD’s judgements are true and all are right
More desirable than gold,  yea much fine gold;
Sweeter than honey,  dripping from the comb.
Moreover by them is your servant taught;
    In keeping of them there is great reward.
O who can understand how oft they err?
    O purify me from my hidden faults.
And keep your servant from intentional sins ;
    let them not rule in me. Then I’ll be sound,
    and be acquitted from transgressions great.
Let my mouth’s words and my heart’s thoughts find favour
With you, O LORD, my fortress and my saviour.
Have a wonderful and blessed Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Testability of String and Multiverse theories

Illustration by Vasava from Ellis and Silk 2014
V interesting report in Nature of a conference between physicists and philosophers to explore some of the philosophical issues behind String Theory and Multiverse theories.

This was provoked to a significant extent by George Ellis' and Joe Silk's Comment article in Nature a year ago called "Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics" in which they remarked that "debates in physics circles took a worrying turn. Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe, some researchers called for a change in how theoretical physics is done. They began to argue - explicitly - that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally, breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical. We disagree. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper argued: a theory must be falsifiable to be scientific."

They singled out String/M- theory and Multiverse theory as two prime examples. They were very explicit that:
The multiverse is motivated by a puzzle: why fundamental constants of nature, such as the fine-structure constant that characterizes the strength of electromagnetic interactions between particles and the cosmological constant associated with the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe, have values that lie in the small range that allows life to exist. Multiverse theory claims that there are billions of unobservable sister universes out there in which all possible values of these constants can occur. So somewhere there will be a bio-friendly universe like ours, however improbable that is. Some physicists consider that the multiverse has no challenger as an explanation of many otherwise bizarre coincidences. The low value of the cosmological constant — known to be 120 factors of 10 smaller than the value predicted by quantum field theory — is difficult to explain, for instance.
Now of course as readers of this Blog will know there is at least one testable-in-principle alternative  to the Multiverse that would "explain" the fine tuning: the MaxHELP hypothesis. I don't know, of course, whether this hypothesis is correct but it is certainly an alternative.

Ellis and Silk called for a conference on this and it was duly held.

David Gross drew a distinction between the two theories. He classified string theory as testable “in principle” and thus perfectly scientific, because the strings are potentially detectable. Much more troubling, he said, are concepts such as the multiverse because the other universes that it postulates probably cannot be observed from our own, even in principle.

Richard Dawid proposed an extension of the concept of theory confirmation (to be called “non-empirical confirmation”) that allows for confirmation by observations that are not predicted by the theory in question.

Carlo Rovelli rightly stressed the need for a clear distinction between scientific theories that are well established by experiments and those that are speculative. “It’s very bad when people stop you in the street and say, ‘Did you know that the world is made of strings and that there are parallel worlds?’.”

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Early Fresco of Elizabeth and Mary
courtesy Wikipedia
 Said Mary: "My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit's joyful in my saviour God
He's seen my lowly state, but now I'm Blessed
(By each new generation thus expressed).
The holy mighty one has done great things.
In every age, his fear his mercy brings.
The mighty he's dethroned, he's raised the weak
The rich he's emptied, and he's filled the meek!
To Israel he has given help untold
As promised to the patriarchs of old."
 from my condensed Luke

The last Sunday in Advent focuses on Mary and we had a very good sermon by Helen Parry on her. But as so often the NIV translation gets something fundamentally wrong. Mary begins:
 "My soul magnifies the LORD"
The word Megalunei is a little unusual - it literally means "makes greater" and although it can of course imply "extol" or even "glorify" it isn't the same. Interestingly it's also used in Luke 1:58 of Elizabeth. The usual translation is "she gave birth to a son. And her neighbours kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy on her" but the Greek is literally "that magnified (emegalunen) the Lord the mercy of him with her."  When Mary in v 49 says "for he that is mighty has done great things (megala) for me" the KJV says "he that is mighty has magnified me" to make the Megalunei/megala resonance clearer.

It is also used in 2 Cor 10:15 " our hope is that, as your faith increases, to be magnified (megalunthEnai) among you according to our rule in abundance".

The NIV has "My soul glorifies the Lord" which I fear may be motivated by a desire to avoid the "Magnificat". A pity!

We should celebrate Mary and learn from her. This is not made easier by hiding her astonishing and searing words.

I hope all readers have a wonderful Christmas season. If I don't post before then, MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Global Landscape of Cognition - brilliant neuroscience paper from Hava Siegelmann and colleagues

Fig 6 of Taylor et al. ranking Paradigm Classes of
mental activity according to how connected they are
to primary sensory inputs
Hava Siegelmann sends me a link to the brilliant new paper "The global landscape of cognition: hierarchical aggregation as an organizational principle of human cortical networks and functions" she and her colleagues have produced, which is in Nature Scientific Reports.

Fig 7 of Taylor et al ranking paradigm classes from survey of
c. 500 participants. Comparisons with fMRI orders had +ve
linear relationships with low p values 
This provides a direct demonstration that human brain functions organize in global gradients of abstraction starting from sensory cortical inputs. The analysed fMRI databases (~17,000 experiments; ~1/4 of fMRI literature) and tested whether network depth predicted localization of abstract versus concrete behaviours over the whole set of studied brain regions. They developed a new cortical graph metric, termed network-depth, and objectively sorted stratified landscapes of cognition, starting from grouped sensory inputs in parallel, progressing deeper into cortex. Thus they "defined a hierarchically ordered connectome, revealing a related continuum of cognitive function".

They validated their results by surveying 500 people and asking them to rank these tasks on an abstract/concrete spectrum. This produced generally significant agreement with the computer generated levels. The p values were encouragingly low (4E-4 to 9E-9) though so alas were the r values (0.2 to 0.5). It would also have been interesting to compare these responses across different cultures. But this is the least important aspect of the study.

Certainly these results must be interpreted with due caution: the techniques they use are powerful and very interesting but (as is clear from Fig 6) the correlations on which they are based are not by any means perfect and as they note the linear regression they use for Fig 6 merely approximated the actual distributions - which are all shown as small subsets next to each word. But clearly this is a major step forward, and the kind of great, deep intellectual achievement that one would expect from Hava.

Very interesting that Naming (covert) has the highest level of abstraction. Not least because the one intellectual job God gives to Adam in Genesis is ... naming!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Be careful of simplistic interpretations in neuroscience

Fig from Südhof 2015.
A fascinating paper in Nature by Otchy et al called "Acute off-target effects of neural circuit manipulations"questions some of the simplistic assumptions behind many of the recent experiments in neuroscience.  As the authors summarise it: "Rapid and reversible manipulations of neural activity in behaving animals are transforming our understanding of brain function. An important assumption underlying much of this work is that evoked behavioural changes reflect the function of the manipulated circuits. We show that this assumption is problematic because it disregards indirect effects on the independent functions of downstream circuits. Transient inactivations of motor cortex in rats and nucleus interface (Nif) in songbirds severely degraded task-specific movement patterns and courtship songs, respectively, which are learned skills that recover spontaneously after permanent lesions of the same areas. We resolve this discrepancy in songbirds, showing that Nif silencing acutely affects the function of HVC, a downstream song control nucleus. Paralleling song recovery, the off-target effects resolved within days of Nif lesions, a recovery consistent with homeostatic regulation of neural activity in HVC. These results have implications for interpreting transient circuit manipulations and for understanding recovery after brain lesions."

Fig 3f from Otchy et al showing how the song-
related dynamics of an example bird recover.
Basically they show that whereas transient lesions in critical areas can mess up complex behaviour, if the lesion is permanent then after a few days the behaviour recovers in the cases studied after a few days.

As they rightly say "Although efforts to understand the brain must necessarily rely on reductionist approaches, the simplifications and assumptions made in this pursuit must be scrutinized to prevent misleading conclusions... That the function of a circuit can be sensitive to sudden perturbations in chronically non-essential inputs is not surprising. The brain—a finely tuned, complex, and heavily interconnected dynamical system—operates in a fairly limited dynamic regime, making it plausible that local circuit perturbations could interfere with the dynamics and independent functions of remote circuits... The intricacies of dissecting interconnected biological networks and assigning functions to discrete nodes in those networks have been recognized in other contexts, including genetic and molecular networks. In such studies, the distinction between permissive and instructive functions is routinely made. Our results suggest that a similar distinction should be considered when interrogating the role of neural circuits in behaviour."

Otchy is a philosopher and coder turned neuroscientist and a PhD student of Bence Ölveczky at Harvard. Very interesting.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

O Generation of Vipers!

John the Baptist Preaching by Breughel the Elder
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Luke 3: 7-18

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.  John answered, “Anyone who has two tunics should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”  “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

We have to be careful what we say in Church. MPs have to be careful what they say in Parliament, otherwise they can be rebuked by the Speaker for un-parliamentarily language. Disraeli was reputedly once rebuked for saying that “half the Cabinet are asses”. “Mr Speaker” he replied, “I withdraw that remark. Half the Cabinet are not asses.”

So I’m pretty sure that most bible schools would not encourage their students to begin a sermon by calling their congregation “you bunch of snakes!”  What is John talking about?

Isaiah 60 begins with the wonderful phrase
Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people:
but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
 Well just before this Isaiah 59 is a Penitential Psalm, and here we have this (Is 59:2-6):
…your iniquities have separated you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.
For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt.
Your lips have spoken falsely, and your tongue mutters wicked things.
No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity.
They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies;
they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.
They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web.
Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched.
First Century Israel was a powder keg: a divided land under Roman occupation with corrupt puppet rulers. Plots and rebellion were all around. People were expecting a Messiah, a divinely-backed leader who would sweep the Romans into the sea despite their overwhelming military superiority. It’s interesting to compare the views of Daesh here: following a Hadith  they expect the Last Hour after “the Romans” gather in the Syrian province of Dabiq, be conquered by 1/3rd of the Muslim army: they then expect a final battle in Syria which Jesus would win for them with his lance.

So in this ferment of expectation for divine intervention, John arises: “A prophet and more than a prophet” and people flock out to see him in the wilderness.  Could this be the Messiah?  He’s doing radical things: baptizing people who are already Jewish – that’s what converts have to undergo. And he’s preaching an urgent call to justice as prophets have throughout the ages.  But he doesn’t conform to the zealots’ idea of a Messiah at all. Soldiers and Tax collectors come to him and ask what must we do. To a political activist the answer is obvious: stop collaborating with the hated Roman Occupiers – quit your vile professions. But John tells them to do their job properly and only refrain from false witness and extortion: be content with your pay.

John tells anyone with two tunics to share with someone who has none. The tunic (chitwn) was made of linen or wool and was the standard undergarment worn by rich and poor alike, although if you were really rich you might have a linen shirt underneath. Over the tunic you wear a cloak (himation) – so when Jesus says (Matt 5:40 // Luke 6:29) that if someone takes your cloak you should let them have your tunic as well he’s making the point quite graphically.  Anyone who was not extremely poor would have at least two tunics – Jesus tells the twelve when he sends them out not to take two tunics (and this detail is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke).

There are lots of other similarities between John’s language and Jesus, some of which are brought out in this passage. For example Jesus talks about cutting down unfruitful vines, about sorting the wheat from the chaff (which is what a winnowing fork is for) and he calls the Pharisees “brood of vipers” twice in Matthew (12:34 23:33).  And of course they both resonate with the messages of the prophets. This is hardly surprising: John, like all the prophets, is declaring the Word of the LORD: Jesus is the Word of the LORD.

So what are we to do?  How can we use this time of Advent to prepare the way of the Lord?

Well firstly we do need to ensure that “we bring fruit worthy of repentance”. Without inner transformation, especially rooted in prayer and in Jesus, we can do nothing. I am the vine, you are the branches, says Jesus. And he plainly expects us to pray daily at the very least.  Things can get very busy indeed in the run up to Christmas. But as a wise man said “If you think you are too busy to pray, you’re right – you are too busy ”. I’ve recently started doing some additional praying while I’m running, having read an interview with Justin Welby where he said he did this.  It does slow me down a bit, but that’s not so important – though to my shame when I do finishing sprints I stop the prayers and concentrate entirely on the running.  Maybe there’s something else you do daily to which you can add some additional prayer?

And the other wonderful thing about Advent is that this is a great time to talk about Jesus. We live in a society where there is staggering ignorance about the basic facts of Christianity. A recent poll  suggested that 22% of English Adults (and 25 of those under 35) think Jesus is a mythical or fictional character -  and another 18% aren’t sure if he actually lived.  The poll suggested that only 9% of English adults were practicing Christians, a total of 57% said they were Christian (so 48% are non-practicing). Of the remaining 43%, two thirds said they knew a practicing Christian.   So we have a great opportunity to speak to friends and neighbours and invite them to find out more, whether they are non-practicing or non-Christian (and BTW only 10% of English adults are committed to another religion, though of course the proportion is higher in London).

The Internet is a distorting mirror, but nevertheless tells us something. Atheism gets 22M GHits. Christianity gets 107M, Jesus 558M but Christmas gets 1,590M. Even in China, where Google is blocked, everyone in the major cities knows it’s Christmas (In Chinese it’s Shèng Dàn which means Saint Birth – it should be Shén Dàn which would mean God Birth but there were are). So it’s a great opportunity for conversations, invitations, encouragement. Help bring back the 48% who are non-practicing. In the spiritual desert that is much of London life, let’s follow, in a small way, John’s footsteps, and prepare the way of The Lord.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Fascinating work on Galactic Habitability

Evolution of NSurvive in Milky Way
Fig 6 of Forgan et al Evaluating...
A short piece in Science draws my attention to the fascinating work of Duncan Forgan at the University of St Andrews and his colleagues. The paper discussed, "Evaluating Galactic Habitability Using High ResolutionCosmological Simulations of Galaxy Formation" estimates galactic habitability in 3D by analysing high resolution numerical simulations of the formation of the Local Group. Thanks to mergers and the accretion of satellite galaxies, they find that if the GHZ exists, it must be fundamentally asymmetric. They also find that "the probability that an individual planetary system contains habitable worlds increases with distance from the galactic centre, with its peak near the edges of galactic discs. Regions above the midplane are also favoured locations, but the density of stars in these areas reduces the total number of habitable planets."

 They apply their simulations to the Milky Way and also to the M33 Galaxy (which is about 3M Light Years away).  This is potentially another step towards being able to test the MaxHELP hypothesis (which I first proposed in 2011) but I suspect we are at least a decade away - there need to be further major advances in computer power and mathematical/physical understanding.

There is another intriguing paper by Adam Stevens, Duncan Forgan and colleagues called "Observational Signatures of Self-destructive Civilisations" which explores the extent that we could see evidence of various forms of civilizational destruction. This is motivated by the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox which at least suggests that one reason why we have so far not seen any communications from other civilisations (as far as we know!) is that L the mean lifetime of civilisations capable of communicating might be very short.

The classic problem is that the level of technological development required to send high-powered signals into interstellar space is pretty much the same as that required to make nuclear weapons. The world came perilously near nuclear destruction at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis which was only a couple of decades or so after Nuclear Weapons had been discovered, and people now think there was a 20-30% chance of a massive nuclear exchange then. There was also a close call in 1983 when Stanisalv Petrov decided that satellite detection of a first strike attack by the US on Russia was a false alarm. This suggests that the half-life of a civilisation in possession of nuclear weapons may be only a few decades. In addition it is a sobering thought that, if Hitler had not expelled so many of his Jewish scientists, he might have developed nuclear weapons at much the same time as the allies.

They explore 4 scenarios and ask how one might detect evidence of each after the event:
  1. Complete Nuclear Destruction
  2. A chemical or biological agent
  3. A technological disaster such as the grey goo scenario
  4. Excessive pollution of the star, planet or interplanetary environment.
They argue convincingly that each of these would leave some evidence that could in principle be detected by observation over inter-stellar distances, although is some cases such as nuclear exchange the main remote "signatures" would be pretty short-lived. They conclude that: "It is clear that some observational signatures of self destructive civilisations are currently amenable to astrophysical observations, but these will be challenging, and in some cases will require a degree of luck in observing at the correct time. However, these detection techniques are relatively cheap, as they dovetail neatly with current astronomical surveys. In time, the first evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence may come to us from the remains of less prudent civilisations. In doing so, such information will bring us not only knowledge, but wisdom."

Saturday, December 05, 2015

WIth Ruth Palmer and David Suchet at the Kids for Kids Concert

With Ruth Palmer, Julie Etchingham (red dress) and David Suchet
To the Kids for To the Kids for Kids Christmas Concert on Thurs where I was enormously honoured to have been asked to accompany Ruth Palmer in the slow movement of Beethoven's 6th Violin Sonata.

Julie Etchingham acted as compère and David Suchet and Richard Wilson were the celebrity readers. Suchet read from Sons and Lovers and Wilson a poem by Benjamin Zepahniah:"Be kind to your turkey at Christmas".

Patricia Parker the dynamic founder of Kids for Kids spoke very eloquently of the terrible conditions in Darfur, which are not reported because it is too dangerous for reporters to go there. But in the Kids for Kids villages there is, apparently, no infant malnutrition at all.

Really inspiring to be part of this.And the delightful Susan Parkes - a professional Soprano - made my evening by asking when my next gig was and being convinced that I was a professional pianist - the more delightful since her husband really is a highly accomplished pianist.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Janie Dee in Kings of Broadway

Curtain call at end of Kings of Broadway
On Sunday went to the delightful Kings of Broadway show on Sunday where our friend Janie Dee was singing alongside many other colleagues to bring us songs from Sondheim, Strine and Herman. This was organised by Alex Parker the highly energetic and talented Music Director.

Janie opened the show and was as usual totally wonderful. There was not a single weak link in the cast, and the juveniles were delightfully glamorous and talented. But I must single out Anne Reid and James Bolam whose delightful duet Almost Young (from Mrs Santa Claus) was just superb - their combined age is over 160!

Couldn't stay because had an early start on Mon and been very busy (hence not blogged until today) but it was a wonderful evening -  do catch the next one!