Saturday, March 31, 2007

Pointless space

This is one of my favourite diagrams. Produced by the virtuoso Swedish cosmologist, Max Tegmark, it displays part of the space of all mathematical structures. In particular, it shows which parts of that space are used by general relativity and quantum field theory. To unify relativity and quantum theory it will be necessary, amongst other things, to find a mathematical structure which generalises both of these structures. The obvious candidate already exists: non-commutative geometry. Quantum theory employs non-commutative algebras, relativity employs differential geometry, and non-commutative geometry employs non-commutative differential algebras.

One consequence of this approach is that one obtains an algebraic representation of space, rather than a manifold of spatial points. The conventional manifolds and geometries of relativity can be characterised in terms of the commutative algebra of functions defined upon them. In particular, each point of the underlying manifold corresponds to a special subalgebra called a maximal ideal. In non-commutative geometry, one introduces a non-commutative algebra of functions instead, and then one defines generalisations of the conventional geometrical objects in terms of this non-commutative algebra. There is no underlying manifold of points corresponding to a non-commutative algebra because a non-commutative algebra typically has no maximal ideals.

Whilst the French mathematician Alain Connes has attempted to introduce non-commutative geometry into the standard model of particle physics, Connes's basic construction seems rather ad-hoc to me. I am, however, a big fan of non-commutative geometry as an approach to quantum gravity. Parfionov and Zapatrin give a nice introduction to the idea, and the approach has been pursued in recent years by Michael Heller and his Polish colleagues. Oh, and modesty forbids...

Friday, March 30, 2007

Fluorescent lights

There's a nice article in this week's New Scientist on the imminent replacement of incandescent light bulbs by compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). Whilst the incandescent bulb only converts 5% of its electrical energy to light, the CFL converts 15%. CFLs are currently about 5 times more expensive than bulbs, but last 10 times as long, so already constitute both a cost and an environmental saving. What the article doesn't mention is that CFLs emit quite significant electromagnetic radiation in the radio frequency range. Those people I know who have tried CFLs in their own home, say that they interfere with other electrical devices such as the radio, and even have a tendency to spontaneously change television channel for you!

Doctor Who returns!

My fellow time-lord returns to BBC1 tomorrow evening, although sadly, Billie Piper will no longer be his assistant. In fact, I thought the combination of Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper just about perfect. The Doctor should be slightly disturbing himself, not a pin-up like David Tennant.

Catherine Tate was very, VERY irritating on the Doctor Who Christmas special, so I'm hoping for a return to form with the new series.


The first man-made nuclear reaction was produced by Cockroft and Walton in 1929, when the stable isotope, Lithium-7, was bombarded by accelerated protons, forming Beryllium-8, which underwent spontaneous fission to form two alpha particles.

However, the major geopolitical significance of lithium at present, pertains to its widespread use in batteries. Consumption of lithium increased by 4–5% per year between 2002 and 2005. The Wikipedia entry suggests that "Continued expansion in the portable electronic products market and commercialisation of hybrid electric vehicles using lithium batteries suggest growth of up to 10% per year in lithium carbonate consumption in this market through 2010...China may emerge as a significant producer of brine-based lithium carbonate towards the end of this decade. Potential capacity of up to 45,000 tonnes per year could come on-stream if projects in Qinghai province and Tibet proceed." So, whilst China continues to burn hydrocarbons, it will also be able to sell lithium to the environmentally-penitent, hybrid-vehicled West.

None of which was in Amy Lee's mind when she wrote 'Lithium':

The first Evanescence album, 'Fallen' (2003), was a brilliant gothic, post Nu-metal, post-Radiohead record. The band, however, were basically built around Amy Lee and Ben Moody, and Ben left the band "due to creative differences". Their second album, 'The Open Door' (2006) was a huge disappointment, and I'd be surprised if Evanescence do anything but fulfill their name, and fade away. Amy Lee, however, has a superb voice, and 'Lithium' is a great song, so perhaps Amy has a future.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

An open letter to Oliver Letwin

Just before I hit my 18th birthday, I received a letter from John Redwood, my then-local MP, inviting me to join the Young Conservatives for one evening, where I could celebrate my coming-of-age with a complimentary bottle of champagne. It seems that the local Conservative party had access to the birth-dates and addresses of people in the area. On this occasion, I declined John's kind invitation.

John, however, was nothing if not persistent, and he arrived at our door during canvassing for the 1992 election. On this occasion, we pretended there was no-one in, and peered through the spy-hole at his local party assistants. As they moved off, my Dad heard John say, "Oh well, I don't blame them."

Some years have passed, and I now lie within Oliver Letwin's constituency. Not only that, but I think I might actually be on the electoral roll. There's the local elections coming up this May, and, Oliver, I know it's not a General Election, so you won't be standing yourself, but my birthday is the same day Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, and I wouldn't mind a free bottle of champagne to celebrate...

A thought experiment concerning money

Although money cannot be identified with any of its physical tokens, the curiosity is that money can be created and destroyed via the creation and destruction of its physical tokens. For example, a central bank can print more money to increase the money supply. And consider the following thought experiment: suppose that everyone in the world withdraws all the money they hold in bank accounts and investment accounts, and everyone with shares, or futures, or other financial options, also cashes them in. (Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are sufficient bank notes to allow this). Then suppose that everyone builds a huge bonfire, and burns all their money. There would then be no money left in the world, and our economies would be crippled. The knowledge, skills and experience possessed by people would not have changed, and the value of the goods and services produced by people would not have changed, but every economy in the world would collapse.


As the Astronomer Patrick Moore once said, "If you were to stand on the surface of Venus, you would be simultaneously fried, poisoned, squashed and corroded."

The surface temperature on Venus is about 462 degrees Celsius (hot enough to melt lead), the atmosphere is composed of 97% carbon dioxide, the pressure is about 100 times the atmospheric pressure on Earth, and the clouds are composed of corrosive sulphuric acid.

Venus is a particularly interesting case study because planetary scientists believe that it originally possessed water, much like the Earth, but then underwent a runaway greenhouse effect, and all the water boiled away. The initial cause of this may simply have been Venus's closer proximity to the Sun. The higher temperatures increased the water vapour content in the atmosphere, and because water vapour is a greenhouse gas, this, in turn, increased the temperature further. As temperatures increased, greater and greater quantities of carbon dioxide would have been liberated into the atmosphere, which, of course, would also have amplified the temperature increase. As a consequence of the higher temperatures, the hydrogen atoms in water molecules were separated from the oxygen atoms, and the hydrogen atoms then escaped into space.

Whilst CO2 levels on Earth have never reached the current levels on Venus, the presence of life on Earth has acted to regulate the atmospheric content of CO2 on the Earth, as explained in this nice passage by James Lovelock:

Living organisms act like a giant pump. They continuously remove carbon dioxide from the air and conduct it deep into the soil where it can react with the rock particles and be removed. Conside a tree. In its lifetime it deposits tons of carbon gathered from the air into its roots, some carbon dioxide escapes by root respiration during its lifetime, and when the tree dies the carbon of the roots is oxidized by consumers, releasing carbon dioxide deep into the soil...There it comes into contact with, and reacts with, the calcium silicate of the rocks to form calcium carbonate and silicic acid. These move with the groundwater until it enters the streams and rivers, on their way to the sea. In the sea, the marine organisms continue the burial process by sequestering the silicic acid and calcium bicarbonate to form their shells. In the continuous rain of microscopic sea shells, the products of rock weathering - sedimented limestone and silica - and buried on the sea floor and eventually subducted by the movements of plate tectonics. (The Ages of Gaia, p127).

Whilst the atmosphere of Venus contains 300,000 as much carbon dioxide as the current atmosphere of the Earth, the Earth's crust contains almost as much CO2 chemically bound in the form of such limestone.

Gordon's fashion tips - Day 1

As demonstrated here by 1996 Formula One World Champion, Damon Hill, if you've got lots of grey hairs, it's a good idea to keep them cut short. Unless, of course, you're a wizard.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The gloaming

The weather here has been gorgeous the past couple of days, warm and sunny, with just a hint of cool. The sort of cool you get when a mouse opens its fridge to put some ice-cubes into its glass of lemonade.

Best of all, though, is the gloaming, around 9pm, when the hubbub of the day has subsided, and the trees, grasses and flowers exhale in unison, suffusing the air with vernal fragrance.

Skiing down the escalator

A Norwegian extreme-sports 'dude', called Arild, skis down the 100 metre escalator at The Angel underground station in North London:

Monday, March 26, 2007

Can anything move faster than the speed of light?

The answer is no, but there are some subtle concepts here. Relativity says that, in a vacuum, nothing can locally move faster than the speed at which zero-mass particles move. Light is composed of zero-mass particles called photons, hence this limit on the local speed of motion is typically expressed in terms of the speed of light. However, any particle of zero-mass should move at the same speed in a vacuum: if neutrinos are of zero mass, then they move at the same speed as the speed of light.

If there isn't a vacuum, then things can move faster than the speed of light, even on a local basis. For example, Cerenkov radiation, the blue-tinged light emitted by the water in nuclear reactors, is the shock-wave of radiation produced by a charged particle moving through an insulator at a speed greater than the speed of light in that insulator.

On a non-local basis, the time taken to travel between two spatial locations is dependent upon the geometry of the path taken between those two locations. If one creates or chooses the appropriate path, one can complete the journey before photons of light taking a different path. This is demonstrated by Miguel Alcubierre's model for a warp-drive. The basic idea of the warp drive is that it creates a bubble of compressed space which the space-ship travels within. The space-ship reaches its destination very rapidly because it travels a very short distance, not because it locally violates the speed of light.

Things can also change faster than the speed of light. For example, a pair of galaxies can recede from each other faster than the speed of light, under the expansion of the universe. The recession velocity v of a pair of galaxies separated by a distance d is given by

v = H d,

where H is the Hubble constant. Hence, any galaxies separated by a distance greater than c/H (where c is the speed of light), will recede at a rate greater than the speed of light. The recession velocity of the galaxies is due to the expansion of space between the galaxies, not due to the motion of the galaxies through space. There is no limit at all on the rate of change of spatial distance.

Bear Grylls

Recently, I've been watching 'Born Survivor' on Channel 4 (a renamed version of 'Man vs Wild' from the Discovery Channel), featuring the superb Bear Grylls. This Saturday he was dropped onto a Polynesian island, where he demonstrated, with aplomb, the techniques for surviving in such an environment, and then constructed a raft from bamboo stalks and banana-twine, with which to make his escape.

There was one thing in particular which fascinated me: trying to retrieve a plastic bottle from the white-water amongst the shoulders of the island, Grylls claimed that waves come in sets of seven, with each wave in a set slightly stronger than its predecessor. Grylls used this rule to count the waves, and then time his excursion to retrieve the bottle. Is this true? I've never heard this before, but it's the type of thing I'd have thought that kids would be told for matters of safety, if nothing else. And if it is true, why is it true?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Melting ice sheets and glaciers

A number of apocalyptic news stories recently might have led the uninitiated to believe that the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are melting, and that this melting is wholly responsible for rising sea levels. Well, in fact, the size of the Antarctic ice sheet is currently increasing, and the climate models currently suggest that snowfall over both the ice caps will increase in the 21st century.

Moreover, an interesting news article in this week's New Scientist reveals that "Ice shed from the giant sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland is responsible for only 12 per cent of the rise in global sea levels...melting ice contributes 0.35 millimetres to the annual 3 mm rise in sea levels. The remaining 88 per cent is due to water expanding as it warms, and the melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps outside Greenland and Antarctica...measurements since 1993 show that the thermal expansion of water is responsible for 1.6 mm of the annual rise and other melting glaciers and ice caps for 0.77 mm." Duncan Wingham reports that "It has become very clear over the past five years that these sheets are not losing most of their mass through melting. They are losing it because the ice is flowing into the ocean faster than the snow is replacing it."

The melting of glaciers and ice sheets is therefore, at present, 'poorly understood'. The wiser members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognise this, and restrict their comments to those aspects of global warming which are more certain.

Curiously, I don't recall having seen this latest research reported on the BBC last week. Must have been an oversight, because the BBC are a paragon of impartiality, and seek only to keep the viewer fully informed.

Gordon's guide to cloudspotting - Day 3

This is cuneiform writing, the wedge-shaped writing style used by the ancient Sumerians.

Not to be confused with this, which is cumuliform cloud. Better known as cumulus, this is heap-like, flocculent cloud, with vertical and horizontal structure.

Today, however, it's just grey, really grey.

Quantum theory of idleness

I have three preferred states: dozing on my sofa, dozing in the bath, and dozing in bed. However, these are merely classical states, and I would like to reside, if possible, in a quantum superposition of these states. My quantum idleness state space will be the Hilbert space constructed from the span of these three states. Each idle quantum state will be a complex linear combination:

Ψ = c1|Sofa> + c2|Bath> + c3|Bed>,

where |c1|2 + |c2|2 + |c3|2 = 1.

To prepare myself into such a superposed state, I merely need to behave according to the decay of radioactive atoms. For example, I could divide the energy range of the decay products into three intervals. If the energy of the decay product from a particular atom is in the lowest range, then I doze on my sofa; if it lies in the middle range, then I doze in bath; and if the energy is in the highest range, then I doze in bed. Because the decay product will be in a superposition of the possible energies, and because of the linearity of quantum evolution, this ensures that my state will become a superposition of the three idleness states.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Culture Show returns!

After a brief hiatus, 'The Culture Show' returns this evening, and, predictably, it is Victoria Segal's 'Pick of the day' in the Sunday Times TV guide. According to Victoria, the show is "Presented with charm and wit by Lauren Laverne." And I wouldn't disagree; Lauren is a sparkling host. However, it is precisely this charm and wit which guarantees that Lauren is destined for BBC1 on a Saturday night, rather than an arts programme on BBC2. Lauren appears to have little more than a superficial interest in anything beyond popular culture, which detracts somewhat from her authority as a presenter of an arts programme, but I guess this is merely par for the course in modern TV.

Interestingly, Victoria Segal is an erstwhile music journalist, and a contemporary of Lauren's when her band, Kenickie, were knocking about in the late 1990s. In 1998 Victoria reviewed Kenickie's second, and last album, 'Get In', for the NME, and gave it 7/10. According to the Wikipedia entry on Kenickie, this album was "generally poorly received (although the Melody Maker rated it 8/10), and sold badly." Kenickie split up shortly afterward.

Movable floors

The first Grand Prix of the season took place in Melbourne last week, and, as winter testing suggested, the three fastest teams were Ferrari, McLaren, and BMW-Sauber. Intriguingly, it's been revealed that two of those teams, Ferrari and BMW, are using movable floors. Both of these teams mount the front section of the floor, the so-called 'chin-stay' beneath the raised nose, with a sprung device. It's thought that Ferrari and BMW are using this to reduce the drag of the car in a straightline, and possibly to balance the car in higher-speed corners.

The underbody of a Formula 1 car, and the upswept 'diffuser' at the rear, both generate downforce, but also generate drag as a by-product. Downforce is only required for cornering, so if one can induce an aerodynamic device to 'stall' at straightline speeds, or simply to perform less work, say by reducing the airflow it receives, or by impairing its angle of incidence, then drag is also reduced, and straightline speed is enhanced.

BMW-Sauber, in particular, seem to have made a significant leap forward, and given their aerodynamic resources, perhaps this is of no surprise. They currently have both the most sophisticated wind-tunnel in Formula 1, and the most-powerful supercomputer on which to perform computational fluid dynamics research and development. Built by DALCO, the Albert 2 supercomputer is reputed to be the most powerful industrial-use supercomputer in Europe.

"In Formula 1 we use computers for almost everything," said the team's head of aerodynamics Willem Toet. "The whole world is changing over to mathematical simulation. F1 is no exception and we use it in every area we can think of. I don't expect we can ever give up wind tunnel testing but then unlike some other teams we don't expect we'd need to build another windtunnel. We do additional testing using mathematical simulations. This is one of the very best windtunnels on the planet. We are able to use a full scale car, we can move the model up and down, pitch it, roll it yaw it, move the wheels, simulate crosswinds but there is still a huge amount we cannot do. We cannot simulate true cornering, sliding dynamically the angle of the air is different at different points on the car. We cannot simulate true distortion of tyres in a corner. With computational fluid dynamics we can do these things."

Last season, BMW-Sauber developed flexible rear wings, which developed reduced drag at high speed. The rear wing of a Formula 1 car consists of the main plane, and at least one additional flap above it, separated by a so-called 'slot gap', and both mounted between the rear wing endplates. Ferrari developed flexible rear wings which closed the slot gap at high speed, thereby causing the wing to stall, and to generate reduced drag by this means. BMW-Sauber, in contrast, developed a rear wing in which the trailing edge of the main plane deformed downwards at high speed, opening up the slot gap, and reducing the work-load of the wing more progressively. A sprung device was incorporated into the rear-wing endplates to control the deformation. When this wing was introduced, the performace of the BMW-Saubers took a sudden leap, and they were swiftly prevailed upon to discard the design. (Autosport 14/21 December 2006, p82-83).

This year, however, it appears that the spring-mounted chin-stay is very much within the regulations, and both BMW and Ferrari are likely to reap the rewards of developing this device before the other teams.

Gordon's cloudspotting guide - Day 2

This is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. It can be found in the constellation Canis Major.

Not to be confused with this, which is cirrus cloud. Cirrus cloud is high-altitude cloud, formed of ice crystals.

Today, however, it's just grey, really grey.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Joining inner space to outer space

It is generally accepted that our observational knowledge in cosmology is severely restricted, not only as a practical, contingent state of affairs, but in principle as well. We can only see a small fraction of the universe, so to verify our cosmological models we have to assume that our perspective upon the universe is highly typical.

I've just written a new paper which seeks to demonstrate that, on the contrary, it is possible, in principle, to obtain knowledge of the entire universe at the present time, even if the radius of the universe is much larger than the radius of the observable universe. I achieve this by proposing that outer space is joined to inner space, in the sense that each elementary particle contains the universe to which the elementary particle itself belongs.

In such a space-time, each elementary particle is simply an embedding of the universe within itself. If one tries to probe the inside of an elementary particle, then one is probing inside the entire universe, for the boundary of the elementary particle is also the outer-most boundary of large-scale space-time. In such a universe, one really can see the universe in a grain of sand.

Gordon's cloudspotting guide - Day 1

(With apologies to Gavin Pretor-Pinney).

This is the Lancia Stratos, rallysport icon of the 1970s.

Not to be confused with this, which is stratus cloud.

Today it's grey, really grey. There's grey cloud spanning the vault of the heavens. It's a flat, featureless, low-altitude cloud, with a uniform base, so it's stratus.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dark Matter vs. MOND

There's a brilliant article by Govert Schilling in April's 'Sky and Telescope' magazine on the prospects for MOND, a modified theory of gravity. MOND rejects the now commonly accepted postulate that most of the matter in the universe is composed of dark matter.

The orbital velocity of the stars in a spiral galaxy, expressed as a function of the radial distance from the centre of the galaxy, cannot be explained using the standard inverse-square law of gravity if one assumes that the distribution of matter coincides with the distribution of luminous matter. Dark matter accepts the inverse-square law, but proposes that there is extra non-luminous matter, of an as-yet unspecified constitution. Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) proposes that the inverse square law of gravity becomes an inverse linear law over larger length scales. MOND has been very successful at explaining the rotation curves of spiral galaxies, but a cosmological version has yet to be developed. In contrast, dark matter provides a successful cosmological model as well as a galactic model.

An advocate of MOND, Stacy McGaugh makes the excellent point, "Suppose Newton, upon studying the solar system, would have formulated an inverse-cube law, claiming that the observed inverse-square law is the result of some mysterious, undetected dark matter. That would clearly be less satisfying than simply adopting the observed force law."

Amongst the advocates of dark matter quoted in the article is Joel Primack, who calls MOND "an irrelevant theory," and asserts that "If other cosmologists want to waste time on it, that's great - it means less competition for me." With respect to dark matter (and dark energy) cosmology, Primack claims that "We now have what appears to be a totally reliable theory. As far as I know, there is no single piece of contradicting evidence. It's a continuous success story."

I'm rather dubious about the claims made in the article by Primack, and also by David Spergel, that dark matter explains the large-scale distribution and clustering of galaxies. It seems to me that the dark matter (and dark energy) models simply have adjustable parameters built into them, which are tuned until agreement is obtained with observation. For example, consider this from an article on galaxy formation in the 10th March 2007 New Scientist:

[David Hogg's team] maintain that the cold dark matter model explains the Sloan [galaxy distribution and clustering] data quite accurately. For that to be true, however, Hogg's team have to put a number called a bias parameter into their equations. It reflects the difference between the distribution of matter in computer simulations of the cold dark matter model and the observed distribution of luminous matter…In the case of the Sloan survey, the bias is 2: the visible galaxies are clumped twice as densely as the predicted total distribution of matter in the universe. (p32-33)

Does money exist?

On rising from my slumbers this morning, I discovered, with gratification, that the day was much warmer than those experienced at the beginning of the week. Apparently, the jet stream is at its weakest in the Spring, meandering back and forth, and duly switching the prevailing wind direction from a Northerly to a Southerly at the slightest provocation.

Anyway, I bade good morning to the maid, strode down the wide marble staircase, and trotted out a light waltz upon the grand piano in the foyer, before I took some repast. As I ate, my thoughts turned to yesterday's Budget, and what it all means. There's something slightly elusive about economics, and I think it's rooted in the notion of money itself. Does money exist independently of the mind? Certainly, money shouldn't be identified with any of its physical tokens, such as treasury notes and coins. Money is a means of expressing the relative value of different goods and services, facilitating trade and investment without the direct exchange of goods and services. Eventually, we will move to an economy in which there will be no physical tokens of money at all. Financial 'accounts', containing specified quantities of 'money', and owned by specified agents, exist in the memories of computers; like a credit-card purchase today, the purchase of some product will merely require the identification of the purchaser (authentication), then authorisation that the purchaser has the right to make the purchase, and then for a transfer of money to take place between accounts, as a transaction between computers. Information flows between computers, and alters the information stored in their respective memories.

So, given that money once existed only as coins and notes, but will soon exist only in the memories of computers, does money exist independently of human minds? My initial thought is that it does, but only as an abstract structure. Money exists in the same sense that the state space of the electron exists. It has no substance, but things can exist independently of the mind without having substance; structures can exist objectively, independently of the mind.

Time for another waltz.

Top Gear Train Crash

A salutary lesson to us all: Always wear a high-visibility jacket.

A Terrible Beauty

I've just started reading Peter Watson's voluminous history of 20th century thought, 'A Terrible Beauty', and already, in the introduction, Watson has said something which made me pause for thought:

The arts and humanities, it seems to me, have been to an extent overwhelmed and overtaken by the sciences in the twentieth century, in a way quite unlike anything that happened in the nineteenth century or before…The arts and humanities have always reflected the society they are part of, but over the last one hundred years, they have spoken with less and less confidence…Put simply, artists have avoided engagement with most…sciences. One of the consequences of this…is the rise of what John Brockman calls 'the third culture'…For Brockman the third culture consists of a new kind of philosophy, a natural philosophy of man's place in the world, in the universe, written predominantly by physicists and biologists, people best placed now to make such assessments.

I think this is spot-on. For the majority of the population in a Western country today, culture means popular culture, which means a source of entertainment. If you're interested in ultimate questions, then you consult what scientists have to say.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


What I'm generally looking for in a film is something which is the exact opposite of 'Pride and Prejudice'. I reckon that '300', the film adaptation of Frank Miller's eponymous graphic novel, satisfies that criterion:

The measurement problem in quantum mechanics

The measurement problem in quantum mechanics is fundamentally mis-understood, and, as a consequence, the most popular solutions to it are mis-conceived. The measurement problem is as follows: whilst an isolated microscopic system evolves continuously and deterministically, in accordance with the Schrodinger equation, when that system is subjected to a measurement-like interaction, the state of the system collapses discontinuously and non-deterministically into an 'eigenstate' of the quantity being measured, a state in which that quantity has a definite value. The state of a system in quantum mechanics is often called the wave-function, hence this is referred to as the collapse of the wave-function. 'Schrodinger's cat' was ostensibly devised as a reductio ad absurdum, to demonstrate that the consequences of not accepting the collapse of the wave-function are inconsistent with empirical experience: we do not observe macroscopic superpositions, such as that between a dead-cat state and a live-cat state, hence a measurement-like interaction must collapse the state of the system being measured, rather than entangle the macroscopic, measurement system in the superposed state of the microscopic system. The measurement problem, then, is often posed in the following terms: are there really two distinct types of evolution process in quantum mechanics, or is the collapse of the wave-function just an apparent collapse?

The measurement problem, however, is really just one facet of a more general question: given that a macroscopic system is composed of nothing else but microscopic systems satisfying the principles of quantum theory, how does the classical, macroscopic world emerge from the quantum microscopic world? At this juncture, it is crucial to appreciate the distinction between the kinematics and the dynamics of a theory. The kinematics provide a characterisation of a system at a moment in time, whilst the dynamics specify how the state of a system evolves in time. Now, the kinematics of classical physics are fundamentally inconsistent with the kinematics of quantum physics. In classical physics, every state specifies a simultaneous, precise value for every quantity of a system, and when we observe a macroscopic system, we observe it to have simultaneous definite values for all its quantities. In contrast, in quantum physics there is no state which specifies a simultaneous precise value for all the quantities of a system; the values of some quantities are specified, others receive only a probability distribution over their possible values.

Now, the measurement problem is really just a manifestation of this fundamental inconsistency between the kinematics of classical and quantum physics. Contrary to the popular belief, even amongst physicists and philosophers of science, the measurement problem is not a problem for the dynamics of quantum theory. The point about a measurement-like interaction is that to measure the value of a quantity on a microscopic system, the outcome of a microscopic event must be amplified onto macroscopic length-scales. The existence of such amplificatory processes demonstrates that the classical, macroscopic world cannot be insulated from the kinematics of the quantum world. The amplificatory process demonstrates the inconsistency between quantum and classical kinematics, but the amplificatory process itself is not the issue.

Physicists generally believe these days that something called 'decoherence' resolves the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. This is an attempt to solve the measurement problem by tinkering with evolution processes, and it is therefore doomed to fail:

Given a collection of quantum states, one can either form another state which is a superposition of those states, or one can form another state which is a 'mixture' of those states. The probability distributions of a superposed state are different from those of a mixture because of 'interference terms'. Whilst the probabilities in a mixture can be interpreted as expressions of ignorance, the probabilities in a superposition are interpreted as expressions of objective indeterminacy. For a system in a mixed state, one can say that the system actually resides in one of the states, but one is simply ignorant as to which one; for a system in a superposition, one cannot say that the system actually resides in one of the superposed states. The aim of decoherence is to show that under a measurement-like interaction, the interference terms tend to zero, hence the microscopic superposition evolves into a macroscopic mixture. This approach is doomed to failure because, even if one could manipulate the final state of the measurement apparatus (or cat) into one of the quantum states from the original superposition, the kinematics of quantum theory would still apply: that final quantum state would not specify simultaneous, definite values for all the quantities of the measurement apparatus, yet simultaneous definite values are exactly what one observes the measurement apparatus to possess. In quantum theory, every quantity has a 'conjugate' quantity, such that if the current state makes one quantity definite, the conjugate quantity will be indefinite. Position and momentum, for example, are conjugate quantities. So even if one could manipulate the final state of the measurement apparatus into a state which assigns a definite value to the quantity which indicates the result of the measurement, that indicator variable must have a conjugate variable which will be indefinite in that state. Tinkering with the dynamics of measurement processes will not solve the fundamental problem, which is the inconsistency between the kinematics of quantum theory and the kinematics of classical theory.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A self-creating universe?

Princeton cosmologists J.Richard Gott III and Li-Xin Li suggested in 1997 that the universe could be self-creating. They suggested that if one traces the history of the universe back, one might eventually reach not the beginning, but a loop containing 'closed timelike curves' (CTCs). (Massive systems follow timelike curves in space-time, hence the presence of closed timelike curves in a region of space-time entails the presence of loops in time.) Such a universe is neither past-infinite, nor does it have a beginning. Each 3-dimensional spatial slice of the universe in the region with CTCs lies both to the past and the future of itself; it is both the cause and the effect of itself. Such a universe is its own parent. Gott explains his proposal as follows:

"We believe today that the Universe started after a state of very rapid expansion called inflation, back at the Big Bang. The Universe inflated very rapidly during this phase. This has been confirmed by recent observations of the cosmic microwave background, as the theory of inflation is made definite predictions of what we should have seen and they have been confirmed quite nicely. Professor Linde at Stanford has shown that if you have an inflating Universe like this that the quantum fluctuations cause it to create baby universes, like branches growing out of a tree. Each branch grows up to be as big as the trunk and it sprouts branches of its own. Thus, you have an infinite...tree of branching universes in this theory of inflation. You still might ask yourself the question, though, where did the trunk come from. Li-Xin Li and I proposed that simply one of the branches circles back around and grows up to become the trunk. This is a model where the Universe is its own mother. It is a model with a little time loop at the very beginning."

Gott and Li consider the 'universe creation in a laboratory' scenarios, and suggest that one of the baby universes created by an intelligent civilization could be the 'original' universe, from which the universe containing that same civilization ultimately sprang. They consider the possibility that the evolution of intelligent species is therefore a necessary self-consistency requirement of a self-creating universe. If, however, it is possible to create a universe by artificial means, it is likely that baby universes could also be created by natural processes.

Moreover, the notion of a self-creating universe does not explain the existence of the universe. One can ask 'Why does a 4-dimensional space-time containing an initial time loop exist, rather than no 4-dimensional space-time at all?' and one can ask 'Why does a 4-dimensional space-time containing an initial time loop exist, rather than one of the infinite variety of other 4-dimensional space-times?'

A self-creating universe provides no explanatory loss or gain over a past-infinite 4-dimensional space-time. For the latter, one can similarly ask 'Why does a past-infinite 4-dimensional space-time exist, rather than no space-time at all?' and one can ask 'Why does a past-infinite 4-dimensional space-time exist, rather than one of the infinite variety of other 4-dimensional space-times?'

In addition, there is no explanatory problem with the 'Big-Bang' (Friedmann-Robertson-Walker (FRW)) cosmological models, which is solved by the postulate of an initial time loop. Contrary to popular belief, the FRW models do not have an uncaused beginning. The time axis of a FRW model is an open interval (0,t) of the real number line, which is bounded by, but does not contain time zero. (0,t) is topologically identical to (-∞,t). Hence, each moment of time in a FRW model has prior moments of time; each 3-dimensional spatial slice in a FRW model is caused by preceding 3-dimensional spatial slices. There is no initial instant in a FRW model. A FRW model is past-finite in the sense that all past-directed timelike curves are of finite length, but this is because of the limiting behaviour of the spatial geometry as the time tends to zero, not because those past-directed curves have a starting point.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Soapsuds, Space, and Sociability

It's often difficult to understand why other people do the things they do. For example, late at night in the town where I live, short-wheelbase cars with aluminium alloy wheel-arches, and loud, flatulent exhaust notes, which burble in a skin-crawling manner when the car is at rest, are driven up and down, round and round, up and down, round and round, etc, etc. That's difficult to explain, unless you postulate that they're driven by young males with the brains of blue-bottles. Similarly, there are people who spend their lives, or a significant proportion thereof, thinking about money, and doing things with money. How do they stay awake during the daylight hours?

Finally, however, I have found the ultimate inexplicable interest. Dr Regina Kenen wrote a paper for the prestigious 'Journal of Contemporary Ethnography', entitled 'Soapsuds, Space, and Sociability: A Participant Observation of the Laundromat'. The punctuation-free abstract reads:

Sociability among strangers is investigated in urban laundromats located in middle-class areas and escussed in terms of the pattern of relationships between observed properties of physical settings and observed reactions of individuals in these settings Laundromat behavior identified includes a form of display of the general properties of a subculture Specific rituals act as a form of implicit grammar governing interaction

What exactly is escussion? Is 'discussion' considered to be a politically-incorrect term amongst the community of sociologists? Does it imply that one is dissing a cussion? Should we, instead, 'es-cuss' the issues?

You can download the article for $25, but that only gives you a license to access the article for 1 day! And this is another thing which baffles me: why can you download a song for about a pound, but an academic paper costs as much as a DVD to download? What are the economics here? No sane individual would ever pay $25 to download a single academic paper, so why do the publishers put the price so high? Is it designed purely to force all academic institutions into taking out institutional subscriptions?

Muse - Invincible

A fabulous song, and a video which contains a unique visual precis of the entire sweep of human history:

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Against specialisation

The dominant philosophy in modern physics is instrumentalism. Physical theories are considered to be instruments for organising, explaining, and predicting empirical phenomena. This philosophy is adopted almost unconsciously by most working physicists. Doing so enables them to neglect metaphysical questions about the ontology of their fundamental physical theories, and to concentrate, instead, upon developing their mathematical formalisms for purposes of practical applicability. String theory, of course, is the ultimate upshot of this philosophy. The growth of such instrumentalism can be traced back to the popularity of positivistic ideas at the conception of quantum theory, and to the full-blown incorporation of modern academic science into the post-World War II capitalist economic system. The capitalist economic system requires the division of labour (the principle of specialisation) for the maximisation of the productivity of the entire system, hence academic science itself has become intensely specialised. There are, of course, some scientists who fight against this trend, one of whom was the late Eduard Prugovecki. Chapter 12 of Prugovecki's ambitious 1992 monograph 'Quantum Geometry', from which the following passage is taken, constitutes a sustained polemic against such instrumentalistic philosophies in modern physics:

While advocating, as the undisputed leader of the Copenhagen school, his peculiar mixture of positivism, realism, and existentialism, Bohr unfortunately did not anticipate the long-range effects of his teachings on all those in the future generations of physicists who lacked the philosophical training or the sophistication required to distinguish between subtle philosophical nuances...and their gross over-simplifications. Such physicists condensed Bohr's entire philosophy into simplified enunciations of the principles of complementarity, wave-particle duality and the purportedly “classical nature” of the “apparatus”, and simply ignored the rest. Indeed, what Karl Popper calls the “third group of physicists”, who emerged right after World War II, and soon became the overwhelming majority, is described by him as follows: “It consists of those who have turned away from discussions [concerning the confrontation between positivism and realism in quantum physics] because they regard them, rightly, as philosophical, and because they believe, wrongly, that philosophical discussions are unimportant for physics. To this group belong many younger physicists who have grown up in a period of over-specialization, and in the newly developing cult of narrowness, and the contempt for the non-specialist older generation: a tradition which may easily lead to the end of science and its replacement by technology.” (Popper, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, p. 100). Upon labeling the attitude of this “third group of physicists” a form of instrumentalism, Popper goes on to say: “But this instrumentalism, this fashionable attitude of being tough and not standing for any nonsense – is itself an old philosophical theory, however modern it may seem to us. For a long time the Church used the instrumentalist view of science as a weapon against a rising science ... [as can be seen in the] argument with which Cardinal Bellarmino opposed Galileo's teachings of the Copernican system, and with which Bishop Berkeley opposed Newton. ... Thus instrumentalism only revives a philosophy of considerable antiquity. But modern instrumentalists are, of course, unaware that they are philosophizing. Accordingly, they are unaware of even the possibility that their fashionable philosophy may in fact be uncritical, irrational, and objectionable – as I am convinced that it is.”

What Popper doesn't add is that modern philosophers have also, for the most-part, adopted an instrumenalistic interpretation of modern science and physics. This conveniently enables them to believe that they can investigate metaphysical and ontological questions independently of science and physics. The effect of 20th century philosophy was to professionalise the discipline, and to transform it into an academic career. 20th century philosophers, in general, failed to grapple with the serious questions raised by 20th century science, and instead attempted to rope-off a piece of academic territory which they could call their own, which didn't require them to learn the mathematical techniques of modern science, and which was relatively safe from invasion by other academics.

In an age of excessive academic specialisation, philosophers should be the people taking a general overview of things, the people capable of unifying the disparate disciplines, the people capable of speaking, with authority, on both the science, the economics, and the social issues associated with, for example, the global warming debate. Instead, most philosophers are diligently pursuing their careers, seeking to publish only in their own house journals, seeking only to impress their peers, seeking only to address questions considered to lie within their accepted territory.

Top Gear of the Pops

Jeremy Clarkson gives 'Lethal Bizzle' what he, and all rap music, deserves:

Careers, mortgages and pensions

I currently have no career, no mortgage, and no pension. Hence, my attention was drawn somewhat to the following passages from Tom Hodgkinson's book, 'How to be Free':

Belief in the abstract invention 'career' is a middle-class affliction. The lower orders, wisely, don't quite have the same faith in progress and self-betterment as the bourgeois classes and neither do members of the aristocracy. The aristos are at the top, so they've got nowhere to go. Paradoxically, this gives them a humility that is lacking in the successful meritocrats of the middle classes. If you are to the manor born, then you do not have the self-satisfaction and pride of the self-made man. And at the bottom, the people don't see the point in striving for mortgages and security. But the middle classes as we know them today, the heirs of the Puritan tradition of money-making and self-denial, have elevated 'career' into the epicentre of their daily struggle. And now more than ever before, the middle classes attempt to impose their career ethic on everyone else. This is called 'government'. (p38-39).

People cite their mortgages as the prime reason for doing work they don't want to do...Clearly the mortgage has become a symbol of repression. 'I just need to pay off the mortgage, then I'll be free,' they say. There it is, the monstrous elephant of a mortgage, sitting in our way, holding us back. Property, promiser of liberty and deliverer of slavery!...The very thing that we take on board in order to provide us with security - a home - seems to offer instead only anxiety and a feeling of being trapped. (p212-214).

Just compare the house or houses of your average pension-fund manager with your own humble dwelling. Well, that's your money he has bought his champagne with...The rise of the pension as a sort of earthly reward for having suffered for forty years or more in a job you didn't is an expression of reward by the authorities for good work, the 'secular afterlife'...Suffer now; enter paradise later...Funnily enough, the people who encourage others to worry about the future are those who want your money now. They themselves are not worrying about the future; they are maximizing their profits today. (p243-247).

Dido Exclusive!

Due to Gotterdammerung, there's no Culture Show tonight. However, as some recompense, I've procured this footage of Dido, on tour in the USA:

Greenwich foot tunnel

Dave Gorman recommends a visit to the Greenwich foot tunnel this Easter. I couldn't agree more. I remember going to Greenwich as a kid to see The Cutty Sark, and then being completely bowled over to find that there was also a tunnel which actually went under the river!! Not only that, but the tunnel was so long and straight, that from one end you could see the upward curvature at the other end, foreshortened so that it appeared to be a steep incline. It was like the curvature inside the orbiting space station with Leonard Rossiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I remember walking through the tunnel with my Dad, wondering if the water was going to drip through from The Thames, and whether the incline at the far end would be too steep to climb.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The shape of space

Michael Proudfoot has a lot to answer for. Some years ago, during an undergraduate philosophy seminar, Michael introduced the seminar attendees to Anthony Quinton's dreaming argument. To counter Kant's claim for the necessary unity of space, Quinton suggested the following scenario:

Suppose that on going to bed at home and falling asleep you found yourself to all appearances waking up in a hut raised on poles at the edge of lake. A dusky woman, whom you realise to be your wife, tells you to go out and catch some fish. The dream continues with the apparent length of an ordinary human day, replete with an appropriate and causally coherent variety of tropical incident. At last you climb up the rope ladder to your hut and fall asleep. At once you find yourself awakening at home, to the world of normal responsibilities and expectations. The next night life by the side of the tropical lake continues in a coherent and natural way form the point at which it left off. Your wife says, “You were very restless last night. What were you dreaming about?” and you find yourself giving her a condensed account of your English day. And so it goes on. ('Spaces and Times', Philosophy 37 (1962), pp. 130–47).

Quinton suggested that one world could be spatially disconnected from the other, without breaking the unity of the individual's consciousness. Intriguingly, though, Mr Proudfoot also proposed that the individual's experience of time across the two worlds was 'topologically, but not metrically connected'. I didn't understand what this meant, because I didn't know what topology was, but my curiosity was definitely piqued, and I set about finding out exactly what it was.

Combined with an interest in cosmology, this brought me, some years later, to a fascination with the topology of space. And here, I'd like to recommend a couple of introductory articles to the subject. First, Jeffrey Weeks's article, 'The Poincare Dodecahedral Space and the Mystery of the Missing Fluctuations', which won the American Mathematical Society's 2007 Conant prize for expository articles. Secondly, the article which Weeks co-wrote with Neil Cornish in 1998, 'Measuring the Shape of the Universe'. Both articles explain the possibilities available for the shape of space, and the proposals for inferring the shape from the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Thoggers

I've been nominated by Bryan Appleyard for a Thogger, a 'Thinking Blogger Award'! This requires me to:

i) Write a post which nominates, and links to, 5 other thought-inspiring blogs, and
ii) Link to the post which nominated me.

My nominations are:

1) The diary of mathematician John C.Baez. A blog in all but name.

2) Think of England. The stiffest upper lip on the net.

3) Not Even Wrong. Peter Woit's physics blog.

4) Motorsports Ramblings. An outlet for the frustrated motorsports journalist.

5) The n-category cafe. A group blog on maths, physics and philosophy.


There's nothing quite like the rush of air through your loins. Whenever I feel the need to clear my mind, I pack my paragliding kit, head for some ridge in the landscape, and launch myself beyond the realm of human anxieties. As I catch a thermal, my mind is swept clean of everything but the flutter of wing fabric, and the occasional crack of the harness, as I gyrate gracefully down to the ancient flood-plain below.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Charlier Universe

The universe may be spatially infinite, and contain an infinite amount of mass-energy, but the average density of mass-energy may be zero. This is the little-known conclusion of the Swedish astronomer, Carl Vilhelm Ludwig Charlier, who developed a 'hierarchical' cosmological model between 1908 and 1924. In such a model, there is no length-scale above which the distribution of mass-energy becomes homogeneous. There are galaxies, then clusters of galaxies, then superclusters, then super-superclusters, and so on, ad infinitum, with the density of mass-energy decreasing the further one goes up the hierarchy. As the level of the hierarchy tends to infinity, the density of mass-energy in that hierarchical level tends to zero.

The Charlier universe is inconsistent with the 'Big-Bang' cosmological models (i.e., the Friedmann-Robertson-Walker models), but is the Charlier universe nevertheless consistent with the observed astronomical distribution of mass-energy? Well, on length scales up to 100 mega-parsecs(Mpc), the universe exhibits large inhomogeneities and anisotropies. The distribution of matter is characterised by walls and filaments of galaxies, surrounding huge voids, and these clusters and superclusters of galaxies exhibit large 'peculiar' velocities relative to the cosmic microwave background radiation. Whilst most astronomers claim that the matter distribution becomes homogeneous above 100Mpc, this is a belief independent of observation because the distribution could clearly undergo another step-change on a length-scale above that to which the current generation of telescope is capable of reaching.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Martin Heidegger claimed that this is the most important question in philosophy. Here I wish to focus on a special case of this question, namely: 'Why is there something physical rather than nothing physical?' The implicit assumption which underlies this question is that the existence of the physical universe is contingent. If one rejects this assumption, then one possible answer to the question is that the physical universe exists necessarily. Mathematical structures exist necessarily because mathematical existence is merely absence from contradiction, and modern theoretical physics represents the physical universe as a mathematical structure, hence the physical universe exists necessarily as a special case of mathematical existence.

Another implicit assumption which underlies the question is that something physical does indeed exist! This assumption was questioned some time ago by David Z. Albert, a one-time advocate of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. Albert's argument pertains to the Fock space formalism of relativistic quantum field theory, which represents the vacuum state of a system as a non-zero vector in a subspace called the vacuum sector. This is crucial, because in non-relativistic quantum mechanics, the vacuum vector of a system is represented by the zero vector. The vacuum vector in Fock space can be expressed as a non-zero linear combination of orthogonal vectors belonging to subspaces outside the vacuum sector. (Intuitively, orthogonal vectors are at right-angles to each other). In contrast, the zero vector in non-relativistic quantum mechanics cannot be expressed as a non-zero linear combination of orthogonal vectors. An advocate of the many-worlds interpretation holds that each vector in an orthogonal linear combination represents a different branch of the universe. Hence Albert claims that whilst the global state of the universe can be the vacuum, something can physically exist in the different local branches of the universe:

"Observers such as ourselves cannot establish, by any practical means, that our experience is not merely a constituent, merely a branch, of that vacuum...What if the Creator, the Selector of Initial Conditions, had decided not to create; to create nothing, to create the vacuum? That vacuum would already have contained us and what we see around us. The option not to create some world like ours, given the physics [of] relativistic quantum field theory, not a logical possibility." (PSA 1988, Volume 2, p129).

It's an ingenious argument, although one which founders upon the assumption that the vacuum vector in quantum field theory represents a state of physical nothingness. For a start, quantum field theory pre-supposes the existence of a background space-time, and a space-time is something physically. Moreover, the vacuum of Fock space quantum field theory is the idealised vacuum of a free field, a field free from interactions with other systems. Notoriously, the vacuum of interacting quantum field theory is considered to be a seething torrent of evanescent particles, popping in and out of existence. Whilst there is, as yet, no well-defined theoretical structure to represent this interacting vacuum, the general belief in the existence of such an interacting vacuum poses a considerable problem for Albert's idea.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Adam Curtis

The first part of Adam Curtis's latest documentary, 'The Trap', was broadcast on BBC2 last night. Like Curtis's previous documentaries, the programme propagates a liberalistic conspiracy theory. This time, the emergence of 'personal choice' as a political credo is the phenomenon for which Curtis seeks to provide an explanation.

In a distant sense, Curtis reminds me, actually, of Jonathan Meades, who used to stomp about the town and countryside, making dogmatic and unjustified pronouncements, presumably in the hope that most viewers would care not to analyse the logic of his arguments too closely. Curtis doesn't do any stomping, but instead splices various archive clips and interviews into a film, and explains with hypnotherapic calm how modern social, political and economic trends are really the result of secret cadres of right-wing thinkers and capitalists, acting omnisciently and omnipotently behind the scenes, controlling, shaping and manipulating the course of events.

In Curtis's delusional world-view, none of the trends in society seem to be the collective, net result of millions of individuals expressing their wants and desires; there doesn't appear to be any room for random processes in society, or unpredictability in human affairs; there is no sense of politicians extemporising, or making opportunistic decisions which have unexpected consequences; there is no sense of uncontrollable complexity. In particular, the strongest Curtis delusion is his belief that societal trends can always be traced back to the ideas of intellectuals. Politicians are always 'turning to' the ideas of various devilish intellectuals in the Curtis world-view. The ideas of individual academics are injected into society like a poison or drug, tipped into the water-supply. In 'The Century of the Self', it seemed that Freud's ideas were behind the rise of consumerism. Now, it seems, game theory and systems analysis are to blame for the popularity of 'personal choice' politics.

In last night's documentary, Curtis seemed to attribute game theory to the mathematician John Nash. This surprised me, because I thought game theory was invented by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. But then I guess they haven't featured in a Hollywood film. Moreover, game-theoretic concepts have been expounded in a less rigorous manner for many centuries by various military, political and economic thinkers; Hobbes's Leviathan, for example, contains game-theoretic reasoning. It's therefore surprising that Curtis should trace the cultivation of self-interest in politics to the development of game theory by Nash and the Rand corporation during the Cold War. Complexity, however, has always been the enemy of any conspiracy theorist.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The world at night

The thing which strikes me most about this photo is the lack of light from Africa. In 2000, I flew back from South Africa overnight in a British Airways 747. The skies were clear for most of the journey, and I had a window-seat. I was able to track the progress of the flight, and correlate it with what I saw out the window, on the small screen set into the back of the chair in front. Thus engaged, (and with various films to watch as well), I was completely absorbed for almost the entire journey, and slept for only an hour or so. Flying North over central Africa, all you saw below were the scattered, isolated lights of small villages and homesteads; coasting over Southern France, I saw Alpine villages adhering to valley-sides like phosphorescent lichen; and finally, passing over Kent and South-East England in the dark, breakfast hours of a Monday morning in early Autumn, I saw sad snakes of cars, filling A-roads which shone with ethereal light in the foggy atmosphere. What could be so important to these people, I wondered, that they were willing, before sunrise, and on a daily basis, to subject themselves to this repetitious frustration? It was the futility and the stupidity of it that I saw when I looked down.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Kate Winslet and Reading

Kate Winslet is a proper Reading girl: unpretentious, zero bullshit, down-to-Earth, funny and friendly.

And this set me thinking about Reading. It seems to me that Reading is the new, er, Seattle. In the 1970s, Reading was known only for the three Bs: Beer (Simonds' Brewery), Bulbs (Suttons Seeds) and Biscuits (Huntley and Palmers). Suttons left Reading in 1976; biscuit-making ceased at the fabulous Huntley and Palmers building (below) in the same year; and Simonds' Brewery left their central Reading site in 1978. Like the Huntley and Palmers building, the brewery site remained derelict for some years, close to the Eastern end of the Inner Distribution Road (IDR). The IDR was a dual carriageway in the centre of town, which had only been half completed. It ended like a ski-jump in mid-air, the road blocked off, motorists forced to peel off down a slip-road to a roundabout. In the centre of town was the dreary Butts centre, the stairs and lifts girdling an artifical fountain, set against a plastic orange-tiled backdrop.

No-one on TV ever seemed to come from Reading, and it was rarely mentioned. Swap-Shop's Keith Chegwin went everywhere around the country for his Swaporama, but he never came to Reading.

And then something odd happened. First, a hideous, sprawling, anonymous timber-frame housing estate called Lower Earley was built. Then, from the late 1980s onwards, service-sector and IT companies started re-locating to Reading. Modern offices were built on the site of the old Huntley and Palmers factory. By the late 1990s, even Microsoft and Oracle had established sites in Reading. A new shopping centre called The Oracle was built on the site of the old Simonds' Brewery. John Madejski invested in the football team and built a new stadium. Even the IDR was completed, and a new link, the A33, was built between it and the M4. Reading was at the epicentre of England's silicon valley.

Suddenly, there were people in the news from Reading. Kate Winslet was from Reading. Then the late Richard Burns, who became the first ever Englishman to win the World Rally Championship, was from Reading. Then Ricky Gervais was from Reading. And now, the football team has scaled vertiginous heights in the Premiership at its first attempt.

So, whither Reading now? Should Reading University, perhaps, set their sights on destroying Oxford's intellectual hegemony in the Thames Valley? Hmmmmm, perhaps that one will take a bit longer.

Chris Martin Exclusive!

Due to Crufts, there's no Culture Show tonight. However, as some recompense, I've procured this footage of Coldplay's Chris Martin, in the Mojave Desert:

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Great Global Warming Swindle

Here's a clip from last night's superb Channel 4 documentary:

Thursday, March 08, 2007

London at night

Here's an amazing photo. NASA claim that it's a digital camera photo of London at night, taken from the International Space Station in February 2003. North is to the top, and slightly to the left, so rotate the image clockwise slightly to get the familiar orientation. The lights to the South are Gatwick airport, Heathrow can be spotted just inside the M25 to the West, and Hyde Park and Regent's Park are the two dark 'nebulae' to the West of the city 'core'. The M4 junction with the M25 is just above Heathrow, and if you trace the M4 Westwards, it passes below Slough, then dips South-Westerly to Reading. The M3 is even less discernible than the M4, but Basingstoke is the diamond of light to the South of Reading, and you can pick up the M3 from there.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

London Underground

I've always been fascinated by the London Underground. I enjoy the descent into a stygian realm of eerie Victorian tunnels and artificial lighting. A thousand dead souls scream in agony as each tube train brakes to a halt in each claustrophic station, punching a pillar of air up the escalators and stairs. The cooling fans kick-in underneath the passengers' feet, lonely moments pass, then the doors close again, sealing the victims inside. And then that fabulous Mephistic acceleration out of the station. From inside the trains, blue bolts of ectoplasmic power momentarily illuminate the crepuscular darkness outside, the carriages swaying and rocking and clattering as the speed and engine note grow with manic intensity.

Never before, however, have I seen things from a driver's perspective. A quick search on Youtube indicates that tube (and train) drivers are now videoing their journeys, and posting them on the web.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Lonely Shepherd

Quentin Tarantino has a well-noted talent for taking forgotten or unfashionable actors and pieces of music, and making them cool again. He does this mainly by associating them with violence. Anyway, here's one of the best examples, 'The Lonely Shepherd' from Kill Bill, part 1:

Montoya takes out team-mate - again!

Words fail me. My favourite driver, and well-known McDonald's devotee, Juan Pablo Montoya has won his first NASCAR race at Mexico City's Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. However, in doing so, he contrived to remove his team-mate Scott Pruett from the lead of the race! Juan Pablo's final Grand Prix, at Indianapolis last year, ended at the first corner when he took out his then team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen.

"Of all the people to take out, your teammate," said 'Juicy Fruit' driver Pruett. "That was just no good, low, nasty, dirty driving. I can't put it into words. It's just so disappointing."

"I'm very sorry about what happened with Scott. We're both teammates here, we raced together in the 24-hours, you know," said Montoya. "I braked a little bit later than him, went for the inside, I was there and I thought he saw me because he was coming quite wide, and when he came across I thought 'Oh my god'. I had just no room to go. I tried to back off, but it was too late."

This really was an appalling error, and further proof, if proof were needed, post-Morgan Spurlock, that McDonald's impairs your judgement.

Monday, March 05, 2007


Now, I'm a busy fellow, but I recently found time to give a presentation on the uses and benefits of Durafoam, otherwise known as foam bitumen macadam. Bitumen is composed of highly concentrated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (which, coincidentally, were recently claimed to have been detected by astronomers in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet). Anyway, my M77 Glasgow Southern Orbital (GSO) presentation seemed to go down well. If we do well with the M77 project, hopefully we'll get the go-ahead to re-tarmac the M25 London Orbital with Durafoam as well.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

When Gordon met RoRo

On July 26th Jeremy took Gordon in to meet RoRo on his own. We had come to a stand off between the females so we thought that if RoRo could make friends with Gordon, Amy might then become more accepting. This plan worked much better. Gordon clung tightly to Jeremy and slowly became more relaxed as RoRo moved around the room. RoRo was also more relaxed as Amy was shut in the other room and could not threaten her. We carried on with this plan for a couple of days until we decided to give Amy another chance. Amy had not changed her mind however, and decided to carry on with her same intimidation tactics.

The big change occurred on the 1st of August when Jeremy took Gordon in on his own once again. RoRo confronted Gordon at first with snapping teeth and started grabbing at his hands. Gordon grabbed RoRo back and both of them suddenly realised that the other could be quite good company. We were all quite nervous that RoRo would be too rough with Gordon but he could not get enough of the new female. The two orangutans spent the next three hours wrestling wildly. Gordon found a comfortable spot, hanging upside down and RoRo lay beneath him pulling on his arms and slapping at his head. After three hours Gordon started looking tired and the floor was covered in his long orange hair. We called it a day, pleased that Gordon had finally made contact with RoRo, even if his beautiful coat was a bit worse for wear.

The next day we let both Amy and Gordon in and just like the day before, Gordon sprinted to RoRo to begin the wrestling games. Amy was stunned and watched in disgust as her son played with the new female. She soon tired of the show and returned to her room to consider what had just happened. Over the next few days Amy stopped threat-ening RoRo and appeared to accept that the new female was here to stay. By August 5th all three spent the night together and while Amy and RoRo are not the best of friends, they seem to be accept each other’s presence now.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Culture Show

Writing in the Critics' Choice section of the Sunday Times 'Culture' magazine, Victoria Segal/Sarah Dempster comment as follows:

Suffering from low viewing figures and accusations of 'dumbing down' from the kind of people who cannot help finding the presenter Lauren Laverne a bit too young and female to be taken seriously as an arts commentator, The Culture Show bravely forges on and plays to its considerable strengths. This week's edition includes...An appealing line-up for viewers who are not sniffy about anything created after 1897.

Ooh, looks like someone's touched a raw nerve there! Perhaps, just perhaps, people criticise Lauren Laverne because she's shallow, not because of her age or sex. And low viewing figures for a television arts show - surely not! Those interested in the arts should count themselves lucky that they get a weekly programme at teatime on a Saturday; a similar minority interest, such as astronomy, receives a monthly programme, 'The Sky at Night', which is broadcast at around 1am on a Sunday night/Monday morning. It is only because the BBC is largely populated by arts graduates, rather then science graduates, that arts programming has received such disproportionate and undeserved patronage over the years.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Supersymmetric Higgs?

There's a fascinating article in this week's New Scientist, which suggests that evidence for the existence of supersymmetric Higgs bosons may be emerging.

Particle physicists have been searching unsuccessfully for the Higgs boson for some years. The Higgs boson is postulated in the standard model as part of the unification of the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. The Higgs boson is also held to be responsible for the masses of the quarks, the leptons, and the interaction carriers of the weak force. Using the Tevatron proton-antiproton collider at Fermilab, John Conway's team have found at blip in the energy distribution of tau lepton pairs emerging from the reactions. This blip is at 160 GeV. A Higgs boson, if it exists, could decay into a pair of tau leptons, hence the interest.

Supersymmetry proposes, amongst other things, that there are multiple Higgs bosons, of various masses. At a mass of 160 GeV, some theorists are already claiming this to be evidence of a supersymmetric Higgs boson. A physicist called Jack Gunion claims this evidence accords with a version of supersymmetry called 'next-to-minimal supersymmetry'. In a sentence which almost epitomises the methodology of modern particle theorists, the New Scientist article states that "When Gunion saw Conway's graph showing a possible Higgs with a mass of 160 GeV, he realised he only had to tune the parameters of his theory by about 1 part in 10 to explain it - an amount most physicists are willing to accept," (p10, 3 March 2007). It's a bit like a golfer who goes for the pin, puts it into a green-side bunker, but then points out, with satisfaction, 'if only my swing parameters had been altered by 1 part in 10, then the ball would be next to the hole!'

If we are indeed on the cusp of going beyond the non-supersymmetric standard model, then what we need is a book which can act as a guide for us in these confusing times. We need a text which can help to explain both the mathematical structure of the standard model, and the interpretational difficulties. If only there were such a book out there...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Dawkins v Appleyard

In this week's New Scientist, Bryan Appleyard reviews Alister McGrath's book 'The Dawkins Delusion' (3 March 2007, p47). McGrath is a professor of 'historical theology' at Oxford, and his book is a response to Richard Dawkins's atheistic best-seller, 'The God Delusion'.

Appleyard's review raises a number of points worth considering. Firstly, he raises the charge that Dawkins is ignorant of theology. Dawkins's attack, however, is essentially upon religion and religious belief, not theology. The majority of people who hold religious beliefs are ignorant of theology, so an attack upon religion and religious belief can be made, quite legitimately, without engaging in theological debate.

Appleyard then asserts that "the idea that science necessarily entails an assault on religion has long been rejected by theologians and scientists." Certainly, there are numerous people, particularly in the US, who seek to partition science and religion into separate consistent domains. There are two primary reasons for this:

(i) Such is the power of religion in the US, that many atheistic scientists and politicians decide, as an act of strategic pragmatism, that a partition of science and religion is the only realistic policy that will enable them to perform their work unhindered.

(ii) Many people in the US are religiously indoctrinated from an early age, hence many American scientists are Christian, and find the need, within their own minds, to reconcile their religious and scientific beliefs.

Make no mistake, though, science and religion are not consistent. In particular, science cannot be consistent with Christianity because of the numerous, quite specific, historical claims it makes, in tandem with the proposed occurrence of various 'miracles' such as the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension of Jesus and Mary, not to mention the Garden of Eden and the Fall. All of these historical claims are inconsistent with the laws of physics, or refutable with empirical evidence.

Nevertheless, Appleyard attempts to find a variety of reasons to justify religious belief. He cites Swinburne's question, 'why is the world explicable at all?', and asserts that "As the Catholic church in particular makes clear, any investigation of the material world is, to evoke Stephen Hawking's famous pay-off to A Brief History of Time, an investigation of 'the mind of God'."

This is what theologians call the notion of God's 'immanence' in the world. It is also sometimes called the Pantheistic notion of God. The idea is that God is present throughout the natural world. Dawkins, however, does address this point:

"A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation...He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them)...Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, of for the lawfulness that governs its workings...

"Einstein was using 'God' in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. So is Stephen Hawking...The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light-years away from the interventionistic, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language." (
The God Delusion, p18-19).

The explicability and intelligibility of the world isn't a mystery, merely a consequence of evolution by natural selection producing animals with brains capable of representing the world around them; an obvious survival trait.

Appleyard also turns to anthropic principle arguments, which show that the parameters of physics are very finely-tuned to values which permit the existence of life: "as Dawkins acknowledges and physicists have shown, the existence of conscious, rational beings is a wildly improbable outcome". Appleyard argues that "to insist that we are simply the products of the workings of, ultimately, physical laws is to avoid the question of the nature and origin of those laws."

This, of course, is quite true, but still doesn't provide a reason for believing in the existence of a supernatural creator. And, in terms of the anthropic principle, the multiverse-hypothesis explains the fine-tuning of the parameter values without the need to invoke a supernatural deity. This hypothesis proposes that there is a large collection of universes, realising all possible laws and parameter values, but only in those universes which permit the existence of life, is it possible for intelligent life to observe those self-same laws and parameters.

In the final paragraph, Appleyard points out that "Any view that religion is the source of all evil and atheism is the origin of none is plainly absurd when confronted with the largely atheist bloodletting of the 20th century." This is to ignore the point which Dawkins makes frequently, that people often kill because of their religious beliefs (e.g. Islamic suicide-bombers, who believe they are killing infidels under divine sanction, and that they will be rewarded for this with a luxurious afterlife), whilst atheists who kill, kill for reasons other than their atheism. Moreover, as Dawkins states in the preface to his book "In January 2006 I presented a two-part television documentary... called Root of All Evil? From the start, I didn't like the title. Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of all anything."